Originally appeared in Dōgen zenji kenkyū ronshū 道元禅師研究論集,
edited by Daihonzan Eiheiji Daionki Kyoku, pp. 1018-1046 (Fukui-ken: Eiheiji, 2002).
Disarming the Superpowers:
The abhijñā in Eisai and Dōgen
In his Kuden shō 口傳抄, the fourteenth-century Tendai author Tōkai 等海 tells the story of an encounter between Chih-i and 1Bodhidharma. In this story, the Chinese T’ien-t’ai scholar
appears in the air over the Indian patriarch to challenge Bodhidharma’s claim that he has “a special transmission outside
the teachings” (kyōge betsuden 教外別傳). At issue here , of
course, is the notorious Ch’an conceit that its form of Buddhism represents an esoteric tradition handed down from the Buddha himself, beyond what is recorded in scripture. Taken seriously, this claim seems to put Ch’an beyond the authority of scripture and the norms of orthodox Buddhist tradition based on scripture. By Tōkai’s day, the claim had long been familiar in China and was not taken too seriously there; but in Tōkai’s Japanese world,
it was still problematic. His story of Chih-i’s challenge of
Bodhidharma well symbolizes the reaction of the Tendai Buddhist establishment to the claim when Ch’an was introduced to medieval Japan.
For my purposes here, what is most interesting about Tōkai’s story is the fact that Chih-i defends the normative
tradition while hovering in the air above his earth-bound opponent. Chih-i, of course, is known more for his systematic thought than for his magical powers; Bodhidharma was not much of a thinker, but he rose from the grave after death. Yet here, the images of the two men seem reversed: the mysterious Indian patriarch is grounded; the orthodox scholar displays his ṛddhi-
pāda (jinsoku 神足). The story reminds us that good Buddhists can fly. Chih-i was not only a scholar but a master of dhyāna;
and, according to the scriptural tradition that Chih-i is defending, masters of dhyāna could acquire the psychic powers of the “higher knowledges” (abhijñā, jintsū 神通). Though he spent
nine years sitting in front of a wall and founded the dhyāna
school, Bodhidharma here seems to lack the signs of a master.
Good Buddhist masters of meditation, of course, could do much more than fly. According to scripture, they could appear and disappear at will, divide their bodies into multiple manifestations, pass through walls, sink into the earth, and
Disarming the Superpowers, page 2 walk on water. They could touch the sun and moon, or visit the heavens, or make the earth shake. They could, if they wanted to for some reason, emit water and fire from their bodies. They could see and hear everything going on everywhere; they could read minds, remember their past lives, and know the past and future of all beings. Such powers might be optional for most Buddhists, but for really good Buddhists — those who would claim
the supreme, perfect enlightenment of a buddha — they were
obligatory. In the course of his training, the bodhisattva was expected by scripture to acquire the six abhijñā, the “three
knowledges” (sanmyō 三明; tri-vidyā), “three conjurings” (san
jigen 三示現, or san jidō 三示導; triṇi-prātihāryāṇi), “five eyes”
(gogen 五眼; pañca-cakṣus), “ten powers” (jūriki 十力; daśa-
balāni), and so forth. And, of course, he was supposed to develop a glorified body, graced with the thirty-two marks and eighty auspicious signs of a buddha.
The question of how Bodhidharma’s Ch’an tradition dealt with the issue of these powers and attributes of the buddha has not attracted much attention in Zen studies. It has, however, received interesting treatment in two chapters of my colleague Bernard Faure’s work, The Rhetoric of Immediacy, in which Prof.
Faure proposes an historical development of the image of the Ch’an master in China from wonder-working “thaumaturge” to 2“trickster” figure (and later to “bodhisattva”). From a
sociological angle, such development appears to be a process of “taming,” or “domestication,” through which the potentially disruptive powers of the Ch’an master are neutralized, and —
rather like the local gods and spirits — he is “converted” and
“civilized” into a harmless, if still somewhat eccentric, member of the saṅgha. Yet, as our story of Bodhidharma and Chih-i suggests, the situation is complicated by the fact that the saṅgha expected its exemplars to have supernormal powers. Hence, from what we might call a theological angle, the domestication of the Ch’an master introduces a heterodox type into the
community — a new, powerless type of buddha that, in its own way, may be just a threatening to the normative Buddhist tradition as the untamed thaumaturge.
In what follows, I would like to explore this theological angle, by considering how two early Japanese authors, Eisai and Dōgen, dealt with the expectations of the normative tradition in their attempts to explain the new image of the Ch’an master to their Buddhist contemporaries. In the course of this consideration, I want to make three points: (1) that, although my two authors had recourse to earlier treatments of the issue of the powers in China, their own arguments are rather different from what we usually find in the Chinese Ch’an sources; (2) that,
Disarming the Superpowers, page 3 while they differ from the more popular Chinese approaches, they also differ sharply from each other, Eisai taking a relatively cautious position, while Dōgen offering a much bolder treatment; and (3) that, although one is cautious and the other bold, both authors seem to be trying to neutralize the “trickster” image of the Chinese Ch’an master, to interpret him in terms more familiar to the Japanese Buddhist establishment, and thus to overcome his alien, potentially disruptive character.
* * * * *
As Prof. Faure has shown, the theological issue of the supernormal powers has a long history in the Ch’an literature. The issue derives primarily from the Ch’an masters’ characteristic rhetoric of “sudden awakening” (tun-wu 頓語) to
buddhahood, or the claim that one could simply “see one’s nature and become a buddha” (chien hsing ch’eng fo 見性成佛). Since the
depictions of a buddha in scripture regularly include descriptions of his supernormal attributes and powers, the question naturally arises whether the awakened Ch’an master also has such attributes and powers. In Sung China, where the lineage of the masters had become an established institution and their claims to sudden awakening a familiar feature of the Buddhist rhetorical landscape, the question was no longer of much moment; but in Kamakura Japan, where the new Zen movement was still seen in some quarters of the Buddhist establishment as a foreign and potentially dangerous development, the claim to a powerless buddhahood could still the raise the eyebrows of those familiar with scriptural tradition. Thus, we see the question put quite clearly in an early Japanese Zen text like the Zazen
ron 坐禪論, attributed to the thirteenth-century figure Enni 圓爾
Why is it that, although one who sees his nature and
awakens to the way is immediately a buddha, he does not
have the psychic powers and radiance (kōmyō 光明) or, unlike
ordinary people, show the marvelous functions (myōyū 妙用) 3[of a buddha]?
Enni responds to the question with what appear to be three different sorts of answers. First, he claims that the buddha’s supernormal attributes are not visible on the ordinary human body produced by past karma. Next, he dismisses interest in the psychic powers as the “way of Māra and the pagan paths” (tenma
gedō 天魔外道) and points out that foxes may have magical powers but are hardly revered for that. Finally, he offers a “higher,” metaphorical reading of the buddha’s attributes and powers: his six psychic powers, are really just the six senses of the
enlightened person; his marvelous functions are but the sudden
Disarming the Superpowers, page 4 awakening to the buddha nature; his glorious halo is simply a 4symbol of the radiant light of wisdom.
These three answers provide a fairly good summary of the varied strategies already worked out in the Chinese Ch’an sources for dealing with the issue of the powers. Put crudely, they may be summarized as (1) we do not display our powers; (2) we dismiss the powers as trivial; and (3) we have a higher, esoteric understanding of the powers. In these answers, in fact, Enni is likely drawing on one of his favorite Chinese sources, the Tsung-ching lu 宗鏡録, by the tenth-century figure Yung-ming Yen-shou 永明延壽 (904-975). This book contains a lengthy
discussion of the supernormal powers, probably the most explicit in the Chinese Ch’an corpus. The discussion opens with the same sort of question that Enni poses: if the Ch’an masters are equivalent to the buddhas, “why are they not equipped with the psychic powers and functions (shen-t’ung tso-yung 神通作用) of the 5buddhas?”
Yen-shou begins his answer by saying, “It is not that they are not equipped; it is simply that beings do not know it.” He then goes on in his characteristic scholarly fashion to lay out a schema of five types of supernormal powers (wu-chung t’ung 五種
通) that need to be taken into account when considering the issue. The five range from (1) the uncanny transformations of animal and nature spirits (yao-t’ung 妖通), through (2) the
preternatural acts of gods, demons, dragons, and such (pao-t’ung
報通), and (3) the workings of talismans and magic potions (i-
t’ung 依通), to (4) the traditional “higher knowledges” (abhijñā)
of the contemplative adept (shen-t’ung 神通), and finally (5)
what he calls tao-t’ung 道通, the enlightened state in which one with “no mind” (wu hsin 無心) accords with all things, existing without subject (wu-chu 無主) like the moon in the water or the 6flower in the sky.
For all his scholarly analysis of the various levels of the powers, Yen-shou opts in the end to dismiss the cultivation of the traditional abhijñā as irrelevant to those concerned with the ultimate wisdom. In one sense, this position was nothing peculiar to Yen-shou or Ch’an: Buddhist tradition had long held that acquisition of the abhijñā was not intended for one’s own
understanding but for the sake of sentient beings, in order the better to attract them to and teach them the dharma. When Yen-shou is asked about this ethical obligation to cultivate the powers, he redefines the “true spiritual transformations” (chen-
shih shen-pien 眞實神變) as the teaching devoted solely to the one vehicle (i-sheng 一乘) and the principle of non-arising (wu-sheng 7無生), such that every word accords with the way.
Disarming the Superpowers, page 5
In effect, then, Yen-shou is reducing the salvific techniques of a buddha to his revelation of the ultimate truth and the content of his powers to his philosophy. Indeed, when Yen-shou gives his own definition of the term shen-t’ung, it
turns out to be pure philosophy: “shen 神 (“spirit”) means that
the substance of wisdom (chih-t’i 智體) is without shape or form,
not constructing or producing, yet responding to the various things; t’ung 通 (“penetration”) means that this wisdom extends throughout the ten directions, with neither object nor its 8cognition, neither sense organ nor its consciousness.”
Since the display of the powers is the teaching of the ultimate truth, in effect, the Ch’an masters, by the very act of teaching the higher meaning of the powers, are already displaying their powers. Thus, they have no need to fly about like mere magicians. Yen-shou makes this clear in a story he tells about the early Ch’an master Niu-t’ou Fa-jung 牛頭法融.
This monk, held to have been a disciple of the Fourth Patriarch, Tao-hsin 道信, was well known as an ascetic contemplative with supernatural powers. The later masters used to say that, during his early years of training alone in the mountains, he became so saintly that the wild birds and beasts would bring him offerings, but that after his enlightenment under the Fourth Patriarch, 9they stopped coming.
According to Yen-shou, a certain King Peng Cheng 彭城王 once
challenged Fa-jung with the following proposition:
If you’ve verified the fruit (cheng k’o 證果) and become a
holy man (sheng 聖), would you please emit water from your
left side and fire from your right side, fly up into the
sky, send out a ray of light, and move the earth. Then,
I’ll bow to you and make you my teacher.
To this, Fa-jung responded that for Peng Cheng to judge buddhahood the way he does would mean that “even magicians (huan-shih 幻師) could be buddhas.” The Tsung-ching lu text
then goes on to point out that even the Buddha appeared as an ordinary monk, even the great bodhisattva Vimalakīrti seemed an ordinary layman, even the great Mahāyāna teacher Śrīmaladevī retained her female form. In short, Yen-shou concludes, we should understand that “verification” (cheng 證) has to do with
the mind (hsin 心), not with alterations of form (hsing-ch’ien 形
遷); awakening is a transformation of wisdom (chih-pien 智變) and
has nothing to do with extraordinariness of appearance (hsiang-i 10相異).
Yen-shou here echoes a theme that we find in one of our very first sources for the “sudden awakening” doctrine, the text,
Disarming the Superpowers, page 6 preserved at Tun-huang, supposed to record the debate between Shen-hui 神會 and the Northern school dharma master Yüan 縁法師.
When Shen-hui claims that, in his practice of the “sudden” teaching, he has fulfilled the ten bhūmis of the bodhisattva
path, his opponent quickly reminds him that a bodhisattva even on the first bhūmi should be able to divide his body into one hundred buddha lands and asks him if he would therefore please display a few of his spiritual transformations.
Shen-hui replies by quoting a line from the
Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra, in which the Buddha praises his lay disciple Cunda by saying, “Though you have the body of a human, your mind is like the mind of the buddha.” From this, Shen-hui
seems able to conclude that it is possible to be a buddha in the 11mind while remaining a pṛthagjana (fan-fu 凡夫) in the body.
This claim, that one could be a buddha merely in the mind, through a purely epistemological transformation, became, in one version or another, a standard means by which the later Ch’an authors justified their doctrine of sudden awakening to buddhahood and fended off the traditional definitions of the buddha’s powers. They could claim, in effect, to be a “buddha mind” school, as opposed to a “buddha body” school.
We find, for example, this kind of claim in a sermon by the famous T’ang-period master Lin-chi I-hsüan 臨濟義玄 (d. 867). It
opens with a quotation from a commentary on the Diamond Sūtra,
which describes the thirty-two marks and eighty signs of the buddha’s perfected body as mere “empty talk” (k’ung-sheng 空聲),
intended to encourage the worldly, and then redefines the true feature of the buddha’s “enlightened body” (chüeh-t’i 覺體) as
“no marks” (wu-hsiang 無相). Lin-chi proceeds to dismiss the traditional list of the six abhijñā and distinguish them from
t’ung the “buddha’s six knowledges” (fo liu-佛六通). The latter
are defined as the understanding that the six sense realms are all marked by emptiness (k’ung-hsiang 空相), such that one can
enter into these realms without being deluded by them. Such powers, he emphasizes, occur in the sāsrava state of the five
skandhas (wu-yün lou-chih 五蘊漏質), what he calls the “psychic 12powers of the grounded” (ti-hsing shen-t’ung 地行神通).
Similarly, Pai-chang Huai-hai 百丈懷海 (749-814) identifies
the six abhijñā with the liberation of sensory experience — what
he describes as “the six sense fields without traces” (liu-ju
wu-chi 六入無迹), defined as non-obstruction by any dharma and non-reliance on any understanding. These are the powers of what he calls the “bodhisattva of no psychic powers” (wu shen-t’ung
p’u-sa 無神通菩薩), one who does not bother to maintain (shou 守)
the powers. Pai-chang describes such a being as a “person
Disarming the Superpowers, page 7 beyond the buddha” (fo hsiang-shang jen 佛向上人), “the most
inconceivable person” (tsui pu-k’e-ssu-i jen 最不可思議人), who may 13not fly but who leaves no footprints (tsung-chi 蹤跡) on earth.
In this way, the Ch’an masters could celebrate their inability to fly as a sign that they had flown beyond the buddha — i.e., had transcended the traditional definitions of buddhahood. Indeed, it was precisely their ordinary — if often
highly eccentric — behavior that was the true sign of their powers. As the famous line by the Layman P’ang put it, “The psychic powers and the marvelous functions: bearing water and 14carrying firewood.” Thus, in the hagiographic accounts of the masters, Tung-shan could demonstrate his “psychic powers and marvelous functions” by paying respects to his teacher and leaving the room; and Kuei-shan’s students show powers exceeding those of Maudgalyāyana when they bring the master a wash bowl 15and tea bowl. In such stories, the buddha’s powers, like the traditional understanding of buddhahood itself, have become a kind of in-house joke for the trickster Ch’an master.
* * * * *
Such, in brief, was the sort of treatment of the supernormal powers that Eisai and Dōgen could read in the Chinese Ch’an
sources. Now, let us see how our two Japanese authors chose to deal with this topic. Eisai takes up the issue in the third section of his Kōzen gokoku ron 興禪護國論, devoted to “settling
the doubts of the world” (sejin ketsugi 世人決疑) about the Zen
teachings and their place in the Buddhist order of things. One of these doubts concerns the question of how Eisai himself, who seems to have no “extraordinary attributes” (itoku 異徳), could
hope to represent the tradition of the ancient patriarchs, those legendary figures who were all supposed to be “great incarnate 16bodhisattvas” (daigon satta 大權薩埵).
In his somewhat rambling answer, Eisai employs two of the apologetic strategies we have already seen: (1) I cannot be expected to display any extraordinary attributes, and (2) I do not really care about such matters. Yet, if these general lines of argument are familiar from the Chinese texts, Eisai’s way of filling them in is novel and takes him in a rather different direction from the Ch’an masters. In explaining, for example, why he does not manifest any special attributes, rather than invoke a Ch’an redefinition of the powers as purely internal states invisible to the observer, he turns to the monastic code and cites two well-known cautionary tales about disciples of the Buddha who were tempted to demonstrate their psychic powers.
Disarming the Superpowers, page 8
The first concerns Maudgalyāyana (mokuren 目連), known,
along with the nun Utpalavarṇa (uhatsurashiki 優鉢羅色) as the
disciple pre-eminent in abhijñā. In this story, Maudgalyāyana
kindly offers to fly over Mt. Sumeru to the northern continent of Uttarakuru (hokkuru shū 北倶廬州) and bring back rice for the
buddha’s hungry monks. The Buddha, however, refuses to permit it, saying that the community should not rely on such unpredictable supernormal aid. In the second story, Maudgalyāyana’s friend Piṇḍola is chastised by the Buddha for using his power of flight to retrieve a begging bowl placed by a lay donor atop a pole. Eisai does not actually retell this famous tale but only quotes Śākyamuni’s caustic admonishment upon learning of the feat: “To show one’s psychic powers to a donor for a meal,” he said, “is like a prostitute showing her 17privates to a customer for cash.”
Notice here that Eisai seems content to leave the standard definitions of the psychic powers in place — and to leave the
questioner wondering whether, were it not for the prohibition against it, Eisai himself might take flight. Indeed, he teases the questioner with the remark that it is, after all, not so easy to tell who does and does not have what he calls the “signs 18of sacrality” (reiken 靈驗).
Yet, in a second line of argument, Eisai makes it clear that he has no need for the powers. He reminds the questioner, through a series of metaphors, that the issue here is not the messenger but the message. The message of the Zen school is the Buddha’s prime message of liberation (do 度) from samsara. Here,
given what we have seen in Yen-shou, Eisai seems on the verge of redefining the true display of powers as the act of teaching the saving truth. But instead, he takes a different turn. In the “Buddhism of the last age” (matsudai buppō 末代佛法), he says,
many teachers have recognized that they must focus only on the primary issue of inner liberation — what he calls the “esoteric
benefit” (mitsuyaku 密益) — without pursuing the supernormal
transformations (hentsū 變通). Hence, he argues, he is hardly 19the only one in this age who lacks extraordinary attributes.
One rarely encounters this argument from history in the Chinese Ch’an sources, but it was of course a popular one among the Pure Land movements of Eisai’s Japanese contemporaries,
which likewise emphasized the doctrine of the last age, as justification for their own revisions of Buddhist soteriology. Like the Pure Land teachings, such an argument is a nice mix of spiritual humility and arrogance: as a Buddhist of the last age, Eisai cannot claim any special powers; but as a representative
Disarming the Superpowers, page 9 of the Zen school, he need not worry about such worldly matters because he has the key to liberation from the world.
Like the Pure Land teachings, the position is also a somewhat dangerous one: if Buddhists of the last age are to focus solely on liberation from the world and no longer follow the traditional practices of the bodhisattva path, why is this not a justification for ignoring the norms of the path that provide the basis for Buddhist ethics? This was in fact one of the charges being brought against the Pure Land teachings in Eisai’s day. Hence, whatever it may have done to handle his immediate problem of the supernormal powers, as a defense of Zen, Eisai’s reliance on the historical argument here seems an odd resort — one that might seem to undercut his first argument, from the precepts.
In fact, however, like some of his contemporaries in the vinaya movement, Eisai saw the spiritual difficulties of the last age as justification, not for abandoning the Buddhist precepts, but precisely for reemphasizing their strict observance. Indeed, his Kōzen gokoku ron was written in part to
cast the Zen teachings in terms of the vinaya and distance them
from their antinomian implications Thus he uses the precepts as a weapon against both radical factions (like the so-called Daruma school) within the Zen movement and opponents of Zen within the Buddhist establishment. An interesting example of this use occurs in our section of the text.
When criticized for presuming the spiritual qualifications to establish a new school of Zen in Japan, Eisai responds by invoking the rule against criticism of a fellow monk. He goes on to quote at length the story of the monk Upagupta, fourth patriarch in the Zen (and Tendai) lineage, who lived some one hundred years after the death of Śākyamuni. Longing to hear a
description of the Tathāgata’s own physical presence, the monk once visited an aged nun of one hundred twenty who had actually seen the Buddha in her youth. Upagupta was particularly eager to hear about the nimbus (kōmyō 光明) said to surround the
Tathāgata’s body, one of the thirty-two physical “marks” (sō 相;
lakṣana) of his perfected spiritual state. The nun, however, took the opportunity to test the monk’s own spiritual state, by secretly placing a bowl full of oil just inside the door through which Upagupta would enter. Sure enough, when he opened the door, he spilled the oil. Then the nun chastised him, saying, “You may be an arhat, endowed with the six abhijñā (roku jinzū
arakan 六神通阿羅漢), but you are not the equal of the monks of the gang of six (rokugun biku 六群比丘).” Those six monks in the
congregation of the Buddha, she explained, might be notorious for their evil ways, but “in walking, standing, sitting, and
Disarming the Superpowers, page 10 reclining, they never broke the rule; they could have opened the door without spilling the oil,” Eisai then adds his own comment that, if even an arhat like Upagupta could be thus humbled, how much more should we in the final age (matsudai 末代) respect 20every precept.
The Upagupta story here is clearly doing double duty, protecting Eisai from criticism and contrasting his own concern for the precepts with his questioner’s interest in the supernormal powers and attributes. Yet here again, Eisai seems on dangerous ground. Though the passage is not quoted from Ch’an sources, in a structural sense, it is just the sort of story that appealed to the Ch’an masters. Like the tale of the illiterate wood cutter Hui-neng 慧能 besting the esteemed monk
Shen-hsiu in competition to become the sixth patriarch, or the account of the learned scholar of the Diamond Sūtra Te-shan 徳山
being stumped by the questions of an old woman selling rice cakes, the defeat of the arhat by an old nun dramatizes the overturning of the Buddhist spiritual hierarchies implied by the sudden teaching.
In the usual Ch’an story, the competition has to do with the higher wisdom, and the winner is the one who demonstrates the greater freedom from the doctrinal categories and ethical assumptions of the tradition. In contrast, the Upagupta story focuses on practice, and the victor is the one with the greater fidelity to the rule. Because of this victory, Eisai may not have noticed that the story is a rather precarious perch for his conservative position. Not only does its plot suggest precisely the sort of questioning of religious authority that he wants to avoid, but its attitude toward the precepts is at best highly ambiguous: just as the nun’s rebuke of the arhat breaks the
very injunction against criticism that Eisai invokes, so her humiliating test of the arhat breaks the rule that even the most senior nuns are to show respect for even the most junior monks. It does not much help that the nun holds up the notorious “gang
of six” as her exemplars of deportment.
In the end, it seems clear that Eisai finds the issue of the supernormal powers quite awkward. He wants somehow to justify the Chinese claim that the Ch’an master does not need the powers, without invoking the disturbing Chinese rhetoric of the trickster gone “beyond the buddha.” Hence, throughout his treatment of the issue, he studiously avoids quotation from the sort of Ch’an literature we have seen above that mocks the doctrine of the buddha’s abhijñā, preferring to cite canonical
texts accepted by the Japanese Buddhist community and to emphasize fidelity to the monastic rule governing the entire 21saṅgha.