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Sengcan to Hongren:  creating a Chinese Buddhism

The masters Sengcan, Daoxin and Hongren are honored today as the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Ancestors, respectively, and revered as the torchbearers of Chan's formative years.

When we look for information about the lives of these teachers, we find the sources thin and diffuse. One reason probably is that before the 8th century nobody realized that these men would one day be elevated to founding fathers, and consequently no one bothered recording details of their lives. The fact that the dhyana practitioners eventually became a movement in need of a history is itself proof that these men and their stories were not complete inventions. In any case, they were remembered, honored, and quoted in later years as the legendary founders of Chan.

During the seventh century, the scattered teachers of dhyana seem to have gradually coalesced into a sort of ad hoc movement—with sizable followings growing up around the better-known figures. It would seem that the dhyana or Chan movement became a more or less coherent, sect, a recognizable if loosely defined school of Buddhism.

However, what the movement apparently was striving to become was not so much a branch of Buddhism in China as a Chinese version of Buddhism. The men later remembered as the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Ancestors have in common a struggle to bend Buddhist thought to Chinese intellectual requirements, to sinicize Buddhism. Whereas they succeeded only in setting the stage for this transformation (whose realization would await other hands), they did establish a personality pattern that would set apart all later masters: a blithe irreverence that owed as much to Zhuangzi as to Bodhidharma.

Of these four masters, we present here only one, revered today for his poem of enlightenment, the Hsin Shin Ming.