Linji

From the Ashoka course The Story of Zen


As the founder of the Linji school (in Japanese, Rinzai), Linji plays a key role in the history of Zen.

After his enlightenment, Linji had many exchanges with Huangbo in which he came off ahead as often as not. It is also interesting that many of the interactions involved the manual labor of the monastery, an indication of the significance of work in Chan life. One famous joust between Linji and Huangbo went as follows:

One day Master Linji went with Huangbo to do some work in which all the monks participated. Linji followed his master who, turning his head, noticed that Linji was carrying nothing in his hand.

"Where is your hoe?"

Linji: "Somebody took it away."

Huangbo: "Come here: let us discuss something," As Linji drew nearer, he thrust his hoe into the ground: "There is no one in the world who can pick up my hoe."

Linji, seizing the tool and lifting it up: "How then could it be in my hands?"

"Today we have another hand with us; it is not necessary for me to join in."

And Huangbo returned to the temple.

On meeting the Buddha, slay the Buddha

Like a true reformer, Linji railed most against his own recent practices. He proceeded to denounce all the trappings of Buddhism, even the Chan Ancestors themselves, as he shattered the chains of his former beliefs:

Followers of the Way, if you want insight into Dharma as is, just don't be taken in by the deluded views of others. Whatever you encounter, either within or without, slay it at once: on meeting a buddha slay the buddha, on meeting a patriarch slay the patriarch, on meeting an arhat slay the arhat, on meeting your parents slay your parents, on meeting your kinsman slay your kinsman, and you attain emancipation. By not cleaving to things, you freely pass through.

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!
If you meet the patriarchs or the arhats on your way, kill them too...
Bodhidharma was an old bearded barbarian...
Nirvana and Bodhi are dead stumps to tie your donkey to.
The sacred teachings are only lists of ghosts, sheets of paper fit for wiping the pus from your boils.

The shout

Linji is best known for his use of the shout. He shared the concern of Huangbo and Mazu with the problem of wordless transmission and to their repertory of beatings and silences he added the yell, another way to affirm insights that cannot be reasoned. We may speculate that the shout was rather like a watered-down version of the beating, requiring less effort but still able to startle at a critical instant.

The Master to a monk: "Sometimes a shout is like the jeweled sword of a spirit King [i.e., extremely hard and durable]; sometimes a shout is like the golden-haired lion crouching on the ground [i.e., strong, taut, and powerful]; sometimes a shout is like a weed-tipped fishing pole [i.e., probing and attracting the unwary]; and sometimes a Shout doesn't function as a shout. How do you understand this?"

As the monk fumbled for an answer, Linji gave a shout.

Doing ordinary things without effort

Linji's major concern seems to have been that his students resist intellection. Linji himself was able to speculate philosophically while still a natural man, using conceptual thought only when it served his purpose. But perhaps his students could not, for he constantly had to remind them that striving and learning were counterproductive.

The problem, he believed, was that too many teachers had started "teaching" and explaining rather than forcing students to experience truth for themselves. And finally, in his old age, Linji became something of a monument himself, a testing point for enlightenment in a world where true teachers were rare. He even complained about it.

Linji's contribution

Linji also brought to Chan was a analytical inquiry into the relationship between master and pupil, together with a similar analysis of the mind states that lead to enlightenment. He seems remarkably sophisticated for the ninth century, and indeed we would be hard pressed to find this kind of psychological analysis anywhere in the West that early.

Linji has been called the most powerful master in the entire history of Chan, and not without reason. His mind was capable of operating at several levels simultaneously, enabling him to overlay very practical instruction with a comprehensive dialectic. He believed in complete spontaneity, total freedom of thought and deed, and a teaching approach that has been called the "lightning" method because it was swift and unpredictable. He was uncompromising in his approach.

Linji's school prospered, becoming the leading expression of Chan in China as well as a vital force in the Zen that later arose among Japan's samurai. And his dialectical teachings became the philosophical basis for later Zen, something he himself probably would have deplored. (Later teachers seem to have given Linji's categories more importance than he actually intended, for he professed to loathe systems and was in fact much more concerned with enlightenment as pure experience.)


From the Ashoka online course The Story of Zen