Zen's Roots

10 of 10


Kumarajiva "invented" this combination of Chinese characters to express paradise.

It was Kumarajiva, an Indian missionary, who would begin planting sophisticated Mahayana Buddhist ideas in Chinese soil. Arriving in the year 401, he began a project crucial to the future of Chinese Buddhism: translating sacred texts. Employing hundreds of editors, sub-editors, and copyists. the ideas of Mahayana Buddhism were presented in Chinese with far greater clarity and precision than ever before. If he did not find suitable terms, he began to make up words using combinations of Chinese characters to fit his image. He discussed with more than hundred Chinese students until they found a suitable solution to a concept.

Sunyata, Nagarjuna's concept of the Void, began to be disentangled from the Taoist terminology that had obscured and distorted it, and this and other key doctrines of Buddhism were made comprehensible enough to lay the intellectual foundations of the great age of independent Chinese Buddhism that was to follow.

Translating a Buddhist text is like chewing a meal first and then spitting it out. The reader will only have your chow and if you are not careful, the best meal will turn into poison in his culture.


In the translations by Kumarajiva's Chinese disciples we see Chinese Taoists taking up the challenge of rendering Indian language and philosophy and world views in written Chinese language, which was ideographic rather than alphabetic and full of ambiguity and multiple interpretive possibilities. And in this atmosphere of rendering Indian Buddhist ideas into Taoist Chinese thought we see the germination of what would become Chan.


Sengchao, appointed Kumarajiva's special assistant, composed a series of treatises on concepts and topics fundamental to Madhyamika thought. As a Taoist, Sengchao viewed Nagarjuna's thought as a direct extension of the writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Here is his interpretation of the Buddhist concept of prajna (wisdom) seen through the Taoist lens of unknowing:

A thing called up by a name may not appear as what it is expected to appear; a name calling up a thing may not lead to the real thing. Therefore the realm of Truth is beyond the noise of verbal teaching. How can it then be made the subject of discussion? Still I cannot remain silent.

We also see in Sengchao a Zen-like distrust of words:

. . . an unmistakable preference for immediate, intuitive knowledge, both of which were to be hallmarks of Buddho-Taoism as it emerged in subsequent centuries, and as it had been developing embryonically in centuries prior to Sengchao. He was at ease with the paradoxes created by wordplay that leaves the meaning ambiguous but points to the truth that lies behind words. This truth had to be experienced, not reasoned out. 

Although accounts tend to begin Chan history with Bodhidharma's arrival, Sengchao presages Zen:

. . .  in his orientation toward the immediate and experiential perception of  absolute truth, and reveals itself in his preference for the paradox as the means of expressing the inexpressible. 


Daosheng, another student of Kumarajiva, is best known for his propagation of the teachings of the Mahayana and particularly the doctrine of the universality of Buddha-nature. He is, as well, credited with teaching the idea of "sudden enlightenment" that became a hallmark of later Chan:

The symbol is to express an idea and is to be discarded when the idea is understood. Words are to explain thoughts and ought to be silenced when the thoughts are already absorbed. . . . It is only those who can grasp the fish and discard the fishing net that are qualified to seek the truth.

In saying this Daosheng identified the Taoist idea of wu-wei or non-action with the intuitive, spontaneous apprehension of truth without logic, opening the door for the Chan mainstay of "no-mind"as a way to the ultimate truth.

For Buddhism's first few hundred years in China, much of the emphasis among the intellectual and political elite was on translation of the texts and a scholarly approach to the new teachings, while Buddhism was presented to the masses in an overly simple form, dwelling on magic and ritual. It is in this soil that the first roots of Zen were planted by, as the legend tells it, by a monk from India, Bodhidharma.