Patterns of Chinese Assimilation of Buddhist Thought: A Comparative Study of No-Thought        (Wu-Nien) in Indian and Chinese Texts

by Yün-Hua jan

Journal of Oriental Studies

v.24 n.1 (1986)


Copyright 1986 by Centre of Asian Studies, Hong Kong University


The term and the concept of no-thought (wu-nien 無念) has not been unknown to scholars of Buddhism since D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966) published his work, the Zen Doctrine of No-Mind in 1949. Long before that, Hu Shih (1895-1962) already had publications on the subject in the 1930s.1 If that is the case, why should one write on the topic again. The reason is very simple. The aforementioned works, though helpful in understanding the Buddhist doctrine, could create some erroneous impressions at the same time. Hu studied the concept as a pan of his research on the thought and life of Shen-hui (684-758), because he regarded the thought of Shen-hui as a revolution of the Chinese Mind against what he called Indian Buddhist scholasticism. This could give readers the impression that no-thought is a Chinese idea. Suzuki was preoccupied by his thesis that the doctrine of no-mind was the central idea-in the Southern School of Ch'an Buddhism. This could give readers the impression that the doctrine was universally important to all the thinkers of the Ch'an school. The lack of a comparative enquiry into the Indian background of the Buddhist concept, as well as the development of the doctrine of the Ch'an schools, is obvious in these early works.

With this in mind, this paper will focus on three points. (1) The usage of the term wu-nien in the pre-Ch'an Buddhist texts, especially Chinese translations of Indian works. This will demonstrate that the concept is not a Chinese idea against Indian Buddhism, but rather a Buddhist concept that had been introduced to the Chinese from India. (2) The development of the concept in the Ch'an school, the continuity and the differences among the four leading Ch'an masters during the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. This will illustrate that the concept reaches its most significant state through the efforts of those four thinkers. It will show also that the doctrine is not uniform as far as its place in the thought of those masters is concerned. (3) A comparison of the concept as found in the Indian and Chinese texts. Here the paper will go further in taking up this study as a case, thus showing the pattern of Chinese assimilation of foreign ideas, as well as the advantages and limits of comparative enquiry.

Yün-hua Jan is Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, at McMaster University, Ontario, Canada.



Contrary to most of the standard references on the subject, wu-nien is not an exclusive term of Ch'an Buddhism. It appeared in the Chinese translations of Indian Buddhist texts centuries before the formation of Ch'an schools, and was also used in other Chinese Buddhist works. As far as the Chinese translation of the Indian Buddhist texts are concerned, the concept is found in the translations by the Indo-scythian monk, Chih-ch'ien 支謙 (fl. 222-229 A.D.)2 This term has occurred in the translation of Fo-shuo hui-yin san-mei ching 佛說慧印三昧經 (Tathāgatajñānamudrāsamādhi) as well as in his rendering of the Vimalakirtinirdeśa. The former text is concerned with samadhi or concentration; and the latter is usually considered as a work related to the Perfection of Wisdom literature, hence with a philosophical inclination.

Of the two texts mentioned above, the title related to samādhi has a description of the process leading to the sameness (samatā), which may be regarded as the representative of the Indian usage in meditation. Considering the significance of the work and its early date, it is worthwhile quoting the passage in full:

What is the characteristic of no-work? The characteristic is unobtainability. What is the characteristic of unobtainability?   The characteristic is innumerability. What is the characteristic of innumerability? The characteristic is nothing to arise.  What is the characteristic of nothing to arise?  The characteristic is nothing to extinct.  What is the characteristic of nothing to extinct? The characteristic is nothing to gain. What is the characteristic of nothing to gain? The characteristic is nothing to depend on.  What is the characteristic of nothing to depend on? The characteristic is nowhere to slay. What is the characteristic of nowhere to stay? The characteristic is nowhere to go away from. What is the characteristic of nowhere to go away from? The characteristic of immovability.  What is the characteristic of immovability? The characteristic is the freedom from movability. What is the characteristic of freedom from movability?   The characteristic is no-mind.   What is the characteristic of no-mind? The characteristic is no-thought (wu-nien). What is the characteristic of no-thought? The characteristic is non-duality. What is the characteristic of non-duality? The characteristic is the sameness of things.3

The statement contains a number of technical terms of Indian Buddhism which are clearly not of Chinese origin. Although the original Indian text of this work is no longer extant, some of these technical terms are identifiable from other works. The term "no work" seems rendered from its Sanskrit equivalent, akarmaka, unobtainable from anupalabdhi, innumerable from akaya, nowhere to stay from asthāna, immovable from acala, no-mind from acitta, non-duality from advayā, and sameness from samatā

The text begins with the statement on "no-work" or wu-tsuo 無作 which is rather ambiguous in the Chinese context, as the word tsuo means "to rise" or "to create", "to make", hence "to work" in ancient Chinese language.4 If it is put into the Indian context, the term would link up with karma or "action". And, in that case, the "work" negated in the statement would mean all that which would lead to the formation of karma. Thereafter, the passage seems clear as the practitioner, step by step, enters into deeper stages of concentration. In the final four states of



the practice, when one is no mind, there will be no thought; and consequently one attains the non-duality and sameness. The process from no-work to the sameness is very systematic, comparable to the Abhidharma doctrines. It is also clear from the passage that the no-mind and no-thought are two different states in the process. They are not identical as it has been argued by Suzuki. The text explicitly states that no-mind is the characteristic of freedom from movability; and no-thought is the characteristic of no-mind. The attainment of non-duality is possible only through the state of no-thought, but not from no-mind directly.

The no-thought link with concentration is also found in other Chinese translations of Indian Buddhist scriptures. In the Ch'ih-hsin-fan-t'ien so-wen ching持心梵天所問經or Visesacintibrahmapariprcchā5 there is a statement, which says:

No-consciousness and no-thought...when the four consciousnesses are stopped, one will then not abide to anything nor stay in thoughts. Those who are not abiding in thoughts will abide in the absolute (chen-chi). When abiding in the absolute, one abides not in anything, the consciousness docs not stay anywhere. If consciousness abides in anywhere, it is not real and it should be called false (mra/hsü).6

The stopping of the four consciousnesses mentioned here is a translation of "the four Foundations of Mindfulness" or Smtyupasthāna, which is one of the oldest Buddhist teachings in meditation. The most significant point of the passage is the relation between absolute and thought. It states that "not abiding in thoughts" is the abidance of the absolute. In other words, no-thought is the way and the state of the absolute, abidance to any thought is the falsehood.

The relation between thoughts and falsehood, the no-thought and absolute are both confirmed in the Ch'ih-shih ching 持世經 translated by Kumarajiva (344-409). In the chapter on the Eightfold Noble Path, when the "good knowledge and correct thought" for Bodhisattva and Mahāsattvas was discussed, it states that "all thoughts from knowing and seeing are heterodox. Whatever thoughts abide are all heterodox. No recollection and no thought are named the correct thought (samyaksmti)."7 Once a Bodhisattva attains the path of correct thought, he "will not follow nor be conditioned by thought or no-thought. This is because when one attains to the unconditioned, he would realise that all thoughts are really not thoughts, he will no longer be bothered either by thought or no-thought. Thus he peacefully abides to the correct thought."8

There are a few interesting points in the identification of no-thought with the mindfulness. In the first place, no-thought is a technical term in Indian Buddhism. The thought that is to be negated does not have broader senses. Second, the thought referred to in the context precisely denotes contemplative thought on four items, namely, body, feeling, mind and mind-objects. Third, that one will get rid of the worldly greed and grief through the contemplation on these four items and thus ardently and consciously remain in the Buddhist path. Because of the negation of the worldly greed and grief as well as remaining in the



path, an early and authentic Buddhist scripture, Satipatthāna-sutta concludes the effectiveness of the mindfulness in these words.

This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely the four Foundations of Mindfulness.9

As far as regarding the mindfulness as the most effective means to achieving the religious goal is concerned, the Chinese translation concurs with the Pali source as mentioned above; as far as identifying the no-thought with the correct thought or mindfulness is concerned, only the Chinese source made it. And, as the Chinese source made the statement in the context of Bodhisattva, it seems very likely that the identification of no-thought with the correct thought is a Mahāyāna idea in Indian Buddhism.

The reference to no-thought in the scriptures, which has a philosophical inclination, is found in a number of texts. However, this paper will not deal with these texts that are not directly related to Ch'an Buddhism. Only one Buddhist scripture is chosen as an example of the usage, namely the Vimalakirti Nirdesa. It is selected as an example as it is regarded by scholars as an authentic and authoritative work of Indian Mahāyāna tradition, and it is fundamental to the development of Ch'an thought in China.

In the earliest Chinese translation of the text, Wei-mo-chieh chin 維摩詰經 or Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa by Chih-ch'ien of the 3rd century A.D., there is a passage which refers to the term no-thought. It states that "the Dharma itself has neither seeing nor hearing, neither thought nor knowledge. Those who possess the knowledge from seeing, hearing and thinking of dharmas, the knowledge is discriminative."10 This means thought is empirical, the object of thought is dharma, and the nature of thought is discriminative. From the Buddhist point of view, discriminative thought inevitably relates to subjective judgement and value, which would create the situations that condition and trap man in bondage. The text, therefore, advises that "the religious seeker is the one who seeks nothing from the seeing and hearing."11

The term no-thought occurred more frequently in the later translation of the same scripture by Kumarajiva. As this translation is more authoritative and influential in China, it is worthwhile examining some passages from the text. In one place, it has been stated that "Bodhi can be won by neither body nor mind. For Bodhi is the state of calmness and extinction of passion (i.e., nirvāna), because it wipes out all forms. Bodhi is unseeing, for it keeps from all '"causes."12 The statement contrasts the world phenomena with the wisdom or bodhi. The former consists of body, mind, seeing, thought and forms; while the latter wipes out passions and forms. Religious goal cannot be achieved if all forms including thought are not negated. For this reason, the text states,



(External) disturbance and (inner) thinking are a duality; when disturbance subsides, thinking comes to an end and the absence of thought leads to non-discriminating; reaching this stale is initiation into the non-duality.13

No-thought or the absence of thought, referred to in the passage indicates the procedure and the reason of the Buddhist soteriology. As far as the procedure is concerned, the psychology begins from external disturbance to thought, from thought to no-thought, from no-thought to non-discrimination, thus achieving the non-duality or the absolute religious experience. As for the reason of no-thought, it is the path leading to the religious goal - the non-duality. When the wisdom of non-duality is entirely free from all forms, thought of external or inner forms have to be negated. Therefore, the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa urges that Bodhisattvas must "unceasingly search for thought-free (wu-nien) wisdom of reality."14

Another usage of no-thought in the Chinese translation of Indian Buddhist texts is found in Fa-chi ching 集法經 or Dharmasamgīti-sūtra by Bodhiruci (fl. 508-537).15 When the six kinds of empirical consciousness were discussed, the text classified these consciousnesses into three kinds of thought, of which the first one is the "upside down" thoughts (yiparyaya). These thoughts are related to the triple spheres of existence: the sensuous world, the fine-material world and the immaterial world. The second refers to the thought that is not "upside down", which means the thought of nirvāṇa, as understood by the Hīnayāna Buddhist, The third is the "no-thought". The text explains the third kind of thought as follows,

What is no-thought? That which separates from the first two kinds of thought is named no-thought. What means, separated from the two kinds of thought? It means the thought of the supreme Buddhas.16

In some ways this usage is very useful for clarifying what thoughts are meant in the context. As the whole discussion begins from the six kinds of consciousness, it is clear that the first kind of thought relates to empirical experiences. The second kind of thought refers to Hīnayāna doctrines. In the view of those who belonged to the Great Vehicle of Buddhism, the thought for personal liberation is far from perfect, as it lacks compassion towards fellow beings, though it has a correct outlook on the world. The third is a negation of the first two kinds of thought, which means that this usage is Mahayanistic. The proclaiming of no-thought as the thought of Supreme Buddhas, is similar to this position with some other passages referred to previously.


The earliest known usage of no-thought in Ch'an Buddhism is found in the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, and the usage is presented in a very dramatic fashion. The sutras state that the ch'an school has set up "no-thought as the main doctrine, non-form as the substance, and non-abiding as the basis".17 The Terms of "main doctrine" (tsung), "substance" (t'i) and "basis" (pen)18 were, originally metaphysical terms for absolute in Neo-Taoism. The Ch'an thinker



now borrowed these metaphysical terms and applied them to his own system, thus making the concept of no-thought an essential component in Ch'an Buddhism. This is the first time that a Buddhist has picked up the three from many concepts, and regarded them as the basic teaching. The selection and emphasis of the terms, marked a new development in the history of Buddhist thought in general, and Chinese Buddhism in particular.

What did "thought" mean? The Platform Sutra considers that thought passes through a stream of moments, "successive thoughts follow one after the other without cessation." It further explains,

"No" is the "no" of what? "Thought" means thinking of what? "No" is the separation from the dualism that produces the passions.  "Thought" means thinking of the original nature of true reality. True reality is the substance of thought; thoughts are the function of true reality.19

This explicitly states that the thoughts referred to in the term "no-thought" mean the dualist thoughts that are capable of producing passion. These passions are the conditioning factors responsible for the trapping of man in bondage. If one wishes to stop and remove the passion, it has to be wiped out from its source -the thoughts that produce the passion.

As the thoughts are the source and are responsible for human sufferings, the negation of thoughts becomes an urgent problem in man's quest for liberation. This point is clear when the text states that "if one instant of thought clings, then successive thoughts cling; this is known as being fettered."20

Contrary to the situation, "If in all things successive thoughts do not cling, then you are unfettered." Why? Because "if one instant of thought is cutoff, the Dharma body separates from the physical body, and in the midst of successive thoughts there will be no place for attachment to anything."21 It seems clear from this that no-thought does not mean simply the negation of thoughts; it also means that thoughts are neither attached to anything nor attached to feelings of things. If a person attains to this state, he will be able to remain unstained although he still remains in the world. "In regard to things, thoughts are not produced. If you stop thinking of the myriad things, and cast aside all thoughts, as soon as one instant of thought is cut off, you will be reborn in another realm." From this, one could see why and how the idea of no-thought is so crucial in the religious philosophy of Ch'an.

The concept of no-thought continuously occupied an important place and was further developed in the thought of Shen-hui. To a large extent, this monk was instrumental in making the concept the core of Ch'an Buddhism. The monk defines the concept of no-thought in these words, "Just do not have any intention, and no arising of the mind, it is the true [state of] no-thought".22 In the view of Shen-hui, mind arises when it is provoked by intention or purpose. No-thought is not a complicated concept in philosophy, but a practical recipe. It is simply to drop out any intention or purpose, and let the mind remain in an unprovoked


state. When the mind is freed from conditioning factors, it will spontaneously reveal its own potentiality.

Shen-hui also gave concrete content to the concept. In contrast to previous definitions, this thinker now described the concept of no-thought in a number of items. In one of the documents attributed to Shen-hui, it is said:

What is called "No-thought'?  It means not to think of existence or non-existence, not to think of good and evil.  Not to think of absolute or non-absolute. Not to think of limited or unlimited. Not to think of bodhi and not taking bodhi as the object of thought. Not to think of nirvāṇa and not taking nirvāṇa as the object of thought, This is no-thought.23

It should be noted that the items of no-thought mentioned in the quoted passage may be divided into two groups: the thought of existence and non-existence and so forth is connected with secular life; while the thought of bodhi and nirvāṇa is the goal for sacred cultivation. Both are negated in the thought of Shen-hui.

The place of no-thought in Shen-hui's system is very fundamental. This importance is clearly seen when the thinker identifies no-thought with the Buddhist concept of absolute. He says, "Those who have attained the state of no-thought will be free from contamination in their six sense-organs, will obtain the wisdom that proceeds to the Buddha."24 He goes on to declare the attainment of no-thought means the attainment of reality (shih-hsiang), the first principle of the Middle Path, the achievement of innumerable merits, the mastery of all things and the all-embracing doctrine. How could the negation of thought possess such a power? Shen-hui says that once thought is free from any purpose, "there will be the destiny of wisdom (chih-ming) within no-thought. This destiny of wisdom itself is the reality. All Bodhisattvas use no-thought as the Dharma body of liberation."25

In another place of Shen-hui's documents, he was asked by a disciple whether the doctrine of no-thought is a teaching for laymen or for holy men. The answer is, that the teaching is exclusively for holy men. He explains subsequently that the word "no" means nothing exists; the word "thought" means the thought is exclusively concentrated on the suchness (chen-ju). He goes on further and identifies the no-thought with the suchness. Shen-hui not only offered a definition of the term, but also offered practical advice on the concept. He says,

Good friends, those who are still remaining in the state of learning, should illuminate the arising of the mind, when you are aware of the arising. When the arising mind has perished, the illumination would be eliminated by itself, and this is no-thought. This no-thought is identical with the negation of all realms. It will not be no-thought even if there is a single realm that still remains.26

Although Shen-hui has advanced the concept of no-thought in his teachings, the concept only remains as one of the principal doctrines. There are still a number of other ideas that are equally important in his thought.27 It was in the two schools of Ch'an Buddhism, developed in Shu state (presently Ssuchwan)



that have given further attention to the concept. In fact these two schools made no-thought as the exclusive doctrine of their teachings. The one who initiated the development was Wu-hsiang (684-762), originally a native of the Silla kingdom in the Korean peninsula and more well-known in China as Monk Kim.28In the early part of the document related to his teaching, the monk taught three concepts, namely, "no-recollection is the discipline, no-thought is the meditation, and no-forgetfulness is the wisdom",29 However, in the later part of his teaching, the monk declares,

No arising of thought is the entrance of discipline, no arising of thought is the entrance of meditation, and no arising of thought is the entrance of wisdom. No-thought itself is the complete attainment of discipline, meditation and wisdom. The innumerable Buddhas of past and future as well as me present, all entered into the Buddhahood through this gate. If there is another gale, it is certainly non-existent.30

Monk Kim claims that this triple entrance is the all-embracing gate. In other words, this is the only entrance into the reality. Apart from this gate there is no other gate, whatsoever. The monk followed the theoretical framework of the Awakening of Faith, and divided the principle of one mind into the two aspects: "One is the aspect of mind in terms of the absolute (tathatā/Suchness), and the other is the aspect of mind in terms of phenomena (samsāra; birth and death)."31 The monk now states that "No-thought is the aspect of absolute, and thoughts are the aspect of phenomena".32

As far as Ch'an Buddhism is concerned, for the first time in its history, this concept of no-thought has been declared as the exclusive doctrine. And the doctrine is systematically identified with the absolute aspect of Mind as mentioned in an influential scripture. This significant contribution to the concept, as well as the monk who created the doctrine, are both missed by Suzuki, when he wrote The Zen Doctrine of No-mind.

The concept of no-thought has been further developed after Monk Kim. If one reads the sermons given by Wu-chu (714-774), a disciple of Monk Kim, one would find that no-thought is the most important doctrine of the Ch'an monk.33 Wu-chu is known through his threefold or fourfold teaching, viz., no-thought as the discipline, no-action as the concentration, non-duality as the wisdom, and no-elaborated arrangement in religious places as the practices;34 yet the concept of no-thought is the only theme that is repeatedly found in his sermons. It is clear from these sermons that the concept of no-thought referred to by this monk means different levels of thought.

In the first level, the thoughts that have to be negated mean discriminative thought. This refers to the experiences and views that men encounter in daily life, As it has been pointed out previously, the Buddhist regards these views as "upside down" and responsible for trapping men in bondage. Liberation means to liberate man from bondage. A correct understanding of the reasons responsible for man being caught in this situation begins from man's view. Wu-chu states,



If no thought then no production, if no thought then no annihilation. If no thought then no grasping, if no thought then no abandonment. If no thought then no high, if no thought then no low. If no thought then no [distinction of] man, if no thought then no [distinction of] women. If no thought then no [claim of] right, if no thought then no [claim of| wrong. At the moment when there is no thought, no thought is not self-existent.35

Although many schools of Buddhist philosophy consider discriminative thought as one of the hindrances to man's quest for liberation, it is Wu-chu who has made the concept of no-thought as the focal point of his philosophy. In doing so he has made two contributions to the development of no-thought in Ch'an Buddhism. First no-thought became the most important idea in religious philosophy, which connects with all kinds of discriminative views and values. Second, more common sense terms are incorporated into his statement on the concept apart from traditional Buddhist technical terms. Therefore his teachings are more easily understood by average believers.

Apart from the connection with discriminative views, Wu-chu's idea of no-thought still has a higher level of content, namely, the attainment of no-thought itself is the accomplishment of the wisdom of Buddhas. This point is clear when he states,

If no thought, then no form, to have thought then becomes empty and false. No thought, then gone beyond the Triple-realms, to have thought then caught within the triple-realms. If no thought, then no [claim of] right, if no thought then no [claim of| wrong. If no thought then no self, if no thought then no others. To be free from [the distinction of] self and others, one accomplishes the wisdom of Buddhas.36

Here in this passage, conventional values and views are contrasted with religious wisdom, thus indicating the direction at which the religious philosophy is aimed, namely the accomplishment of wisdom, thus becoming a Buddha.

Wu-chu also established a third level of no-thought, which goes further. In this level, not only are the thoughts of discrimination and the contrast of false and real abandoned, but also the discrimination between the sacred and profane is negated. In one of the sermons, he first contrasts bondage and liberation, nirvāṇa and sarnsāra, wisdom and ignorance, self and others; he then states.

If no thought, then no Buddhas, if no thought then no sentient beings, In the great wisdom of prajnā, there is no Buddha nor sentient beings. No Buddha that attained nirvāṇa, nor nirvāṇa for Buddhas. Those who understood this clearly are the ones who truly understand.37

If a practitioner of Ch'an is able to transcend discriminative views through no-thought, to contrast the worldly view with religious wisdom through no-thought, and finally to abandon any discriminative thought including the distinction between sacred and profane through no-thought, only then may he be regarded as the one who really understood the truth of Ch'an Buddhism. Wu-chu explains,



The venerable one of Great Enlightenment, created and discoursed the doctrine of no-thought, no-thought leads to no arising of the mind, the mind is producing constantly and inextinguishable, it remains independent through all periods of time, neither following nor turning, neither floating nor drowning, neither flowing nor stagnant, neither moving nor shaking, neither coming nor going, remaining lively is the silting of meditation whether one is walking or sitting.38



The studies presented in section I of this paper indicate that the concept of no-thought is not exclusive to Ch'an Buddhism. It has a long tradition of usage in India and often occurred in the Chinese translation of Indian Buddhist texts from the third century A.D. until the formation of Ch'an schools in China. There were at least three usages of the term in those translated texts, namely, meditative, reflective and doctrinal. Whatever differences these usages might have, their goals are common: the concept is effective in overcoming discriminative thought, thus achieving non-duality.

Though no-thought occupies an important place in the texts referred to, at the same time, it has to be pointed out that the concept is one of many items or methods in the Indian context. As it has been shown above, in the context of meditation, there are fifteen states beginning from no-work, and ending with . sameness. The state of no-thought is the thirteen on the list. In the reflective context, the usage of the term in Vimalakīrtinirdeśa indicates the same tendency. In the chapter on "Initiation Into the Non-dual Dharma", there were more than thirty Bodhisattvas who responded to the question: how do they understand the non-dual Dharma? Out of the various answers only one of them was no-thought.39 More significantly, when the questions and the answers were completed, Mañjuśrī, the leading Bodhisattva of the assembly requested Vimalakīrti: "Please tell us what is the Bodhisattva's initiation into the non-dual Dharma?" The learned lay wiseman, however, "kept silent without saying a word." Mañjuśrī then realized and exclaimed that until words and speech are no longer used, it would be impossible for a Bodhisattva to be initiated into the non-dual Dharma.40 In other words, all the understandings of the Bodhisattvas including the concept of no-thought, cannot lead the practitioners into non-duality, not until the words or differentiated forms are all ended in silence.

In the doctrinal usage of no-thought, the concept refers to negating common experiences of the six consciousness and the freedom from them. Although discriminative views are also rejected by Hīnayāna teachings, at the same time, the distinction between average persons and holy arhats still remains. It is on this point that the Chinese translations seem more Mahayanistic and closer to the concept of no-thought in Ch'an Buddhism, in which both secular and religious


views are rejected finally; and, at the same time, the negation of these views is identified with the supreme wisdom of Buddhas.

When the Indian usages of the concept are reviewed as a whole, it is clear that the idea is one of many means in religious cultivation, as far as meditation and wisdom are concerned. Even in the context of doctrinal usage, the subject still remains in the domain of wisdom. The Indian Mahāyāna Buddhists usually regarded the six perfections (paramitas) or the ten stages (bhumis) as the standard programme for Bodhisattvas' cultivation. Wisdom and meditation are only two items of this complex. If the concept of no-thought is related to meditation and wisdom only, it is clear that the two are not the exclusive means either in religious understanding or practice. It is only one of the components of the complicated system.


Although the term wu-nien or no-thought is not a Chinese invention, its place in Ch'an Buddhism is quite different from the Indian context. Section II of this study indicates that the concept was, for the first time in history, upgraded by the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch as one of the three key teachings in Ch'an Buddhism. Monk Shen-hui was responsible for the concretization of the concept with a number of items. He also regarded no-thought as the only way for the attainment of reality; and stated clearly that this was the way exclusively for holy men only. However, there are other important teachings besides the concept of no-thought, both in the Platform sutra as well as the records of shen-hui's sermons. The ideas of original purity of Buddha-nature in all the sentient beings, the sudden enlightenment, the non-duality of meditation and wisdom, the precepts of formlessness and so forth, are good examples.41

It was during the 8th century A.D. that the concept of no-thought reached its climax, in the history of Buddhist thought, when this was proclaimed by Monk Kim as the whole of Buddhist teachings. For Kim, the doctrine of no-thought covers all the practices and wisdoms of Buddhism. The concept now became the "all-embracing dharma" (tsung-ch'ih-fa) of the Ch'an school under his leadership.

Although his disciple Wu-chu was taught other doctrines, when the record of his sermons is examined, the concept of no-thought is actually the core of his teachings. Wu-chu followed his teacher. Monk Kim, in regard to no-thought as the "all embracing dharma" of Buddhism; he also followed Shen-hui for the content of the concept. With his efforts no-thought became a concentrated and intensified way to achieve the religious goal of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the attainment of Buddha-hood. This way starts from the negation of discriminative and common thoughts, contrasts the thoughts with religious ones, and finally negates the discrimination between common and religious thoughts altogether.



When the structure and contents of the concept as found in the Ch'an documents are compared with those found in the translations of Indian Buddhist texts, two contradictory tendencies emerge. On the one hand, the Ch'an thinkers followed a reductionistic pattern by brushing aside a number of ideas that were associated with the concept of no-thought in the Indian texts; yet, at the same time, they have developed the concept by making it the core of Buddhism with a new and concrete content. It is true that some technical terms from Indian Buddhism still remain as the important ideas in the Ch'an doctrine, yet the rest of the terms are more Chinese in flavour. This makes no-thought no longer a foreign, abstractive and remote concept that is beyond the grasp of the average Chinese. Both the structure and the contents have now been developed into a form that is more suitable and effective in the Chinese context.


This comparative study of the no-thought as found in the translated Indian texts and the Chinese documents could be seen as a case study of the Chinese assimilation of foreign ideas. The pattern of this assimilation confirms some other studies on the subject. It has been noted that both the Pure Land and Tien-t'ai Buddhism in China were developed through a selective, concentrative and intensified process.42 The Chinese often selected one or a few foreign ideas or practices out of many, kept the rest aside, and devoted themselves to the selected few that suited their needs, and proved to be effective in solving their problems. This selective pattern is clearly reflected in the present case study. Out of the many ideas in Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism, the Ch'an thinkers have only selected a few, made them the main doctrine, practised it, verified it by their experiences, retained the ones that proved to be effective, enriched it and thus made it the exclusive teaching for themselves.

This pattern of the assimilation begins with the selection and reduction: choosing a few from many foreign ideas and then end with one. Once this is achieved, the Chinese thinkers concentrated on the selected one, such as no-thought, made the concept the exclusive doctrine, taught it to their followers and requested them to practice it intensely. This process from many to one, concentrating on the one and practicing it with high intensity, seemed to be the pattern of Ch'an assimilation of Indian Buddhism. This process is reductionistic. This is necessary as no individual could do everything in a given moment, especially the serious matters, such as salvation. It is therefore, necessary for one to select a method that suits one's own situation, concentrate on and deepen it in one's experiences, thus achieving freedom. This pattern is clearly reflected in Pure Land Buddhism as well as in the schools of Ch'an Buddhism.

At the same time, this should not be regarded as the sole pattern of the Chinese absorption of foreign ideas. There are other patterns too. In the case of the philosophical schools of Chinese Buddhism, like T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen, the developments were through another pattern. Both these schools took a number of concepts and practical ideas from various texts that originated from different



schools of Indian Buddhism, and re-organized them into a comprehensive system of their own. The contrast of the two patterns of Chinese absorption of foreign concepts illustrates an interesting point, namely that the school of Buddhism which concentrates on religious cultivations usually follows the reductionistic pattern, whereas the schools with philosophical inclination often follow an expansionistic pattern.   The development of Chinese Buddhism was accomplished largely through these two different patterns.


The approach of this paper is comparative. Comparisons between some Chinese translations of Indian texts were made in section I of this paper. A comparison of four Ch'an masters' concepts of no-thought took place in the next section. Outlines of the characteristics of the Indian usage of the term and those found in the Ch'an documents were made in sub-sections A and B of this paper. The study illustrates the importance of comparative study in the understanding of the concept. Without the comparative approach it would be impossible to find out either the contents or the context of the doctrine of no-thought in its development.

This confirms the point made by a Chinese Buddhist thinker, Tsung-mi (780-841), who pointed out long ago that a comparative investigation is essential for broadening the vision of a student.43 The student sees that outside his own field there is still a large world with many possibilities with which he is not familiar. These possibilities might not be useful and effective to one student's problems, yet they might suit and be effective for others. This broad vision is helpful in remedying dogmatic outlooks and assertiveness. This will help one to know the available options for his need, as well as to help him advise others to find a proper remedy for a certain problem. A wrong prescription not only fails to cure the disease, but is even capable of killing the patient that is supposed to be cured.

While the merits and effectiveness of comparative studies are confirmed, there still remains a sticky point that should not be dismissed quickly. As has been pointed out, the development of no-thought in the Ch'an school has followed the pattern of selection, concentration and intensification. This pattern contradicts the broad vision and extensive knowledge that are prerequisites in comparative studies. Does this mean that a comparative approach is useless in terms of practicality of religious life? What this study has found is otherwise. The comparative approach is essential and irreplaceable as far as the clarification of the concept is concerned. However, most of the Buddhist thinkers consider that understanding is capable of solving only certain kinds of problems. Knowledge without practice is an empty theory and meaningless for religious life. Tsung-mi, the Chinese Buddhist thinker calls such an intellectual, the "wild wiseman" (k'uang-hui). He also calls, in the same tone, those who merely practice but do not know what they are doing as the "dull practitioners" (Ch'ih-ch'an).44 The Chinese thinker urges that once a broad vision and knowledge has been gained through comparative study, one must go further beyond the


comparison. He should not be afraid of choosing one of the paths or concepts that suits his personality and problems, and practice it exclusively and intensively. The Chinese thinker advises that one "Must not worry that he might be limited by the particularity, and thus loose himself in the vastness and have nothing to rely on".45 The "vastness" mentioned here refers to the broad range of knowledge; "something to rely on" means the exclusive practice that is needed by an individual in a given situation. Only when a broad understanding and an exclusive practice are achieved simultaneously, can the liberation from the conditioned be expected.


1.     Suzuki, The Zen Doctrine of No-mind (London: Rider. 1949) has been translated into French by H. Benoit, Le non-mental selen la pensee Zen (Paris: Le Cercle du Livre, 1952). and into German by Emma von Pelet, Die Zen-lehre vom nichi-bewusstsein (Munchen: Otto Wilhelmbarth-verlag, 1957).

Hu Shih. Shen-hui ho-shang i-chi 胡適: 神會和尚遺集   (Shanghai, 1930); especially his "Ho-tse ta shih shen-hui chuan 荷澤大師慧傳 published in the same year. The latter is collected in Hu Shih wen-ts'un 胡適文存 IV. 245-288. See also J. Gernet, transl. Entretien du Maitre de Dhyana Chen'houei du Ho-tso (Hanoi: Publications de t'École Francaise d'Extrême Orient. 1949) and the "Complement aux Entretiens du Maitre de Dhyana Chen-houei (668-760)," BEFEO XLIV (1954), 453-66.

The date of Shen-hui of Ho-tse mentioned in this paper differs from the dates given by Hu and Gernet. This new date is based on a newly unearthed inscription of the monk. See Wen Yü-ch'eng 溫玉成. "Chi hsin-ch'u-t'u ti Ho-tse ta-shih shen-hui t'a-ming 記新出土的荷澤大師神慧塔銘 Shih'chieh tsung-chiao yen-chiu  世界宗教研究1984/2, pp. 78-79.

2.     For Chih-ch'ien's career, see E. Zurchcr, The Buddhist Conquest of China (Leiden:  E.J. Brill. 1959). 48-51.

3.    Translated from Taishō shinshū daizōkyō   大正新修大藏經 Vol. 15, 466 c.  Unless it is noted otherwise, all quotations from the Chinese collection of the Buddhist scriptures are from the Taisho edition of Ta-tsang-ching. Hereafter, it is referred to as T.

4.    Cf. Ku-han-yü Ch'ang-yung-tzu tzu-tien 古漢語常用字字典 (Peking: Shang-wu yin-shu-kuan, 1979), 342.

5.    This work was translated into Chinese by Chu Fa-hu 竺法護 or Dharmaraksa, whose career as a translator is discussed by Zurcher, Buddhist Conquest, 65-70.

6.     Translated from T. Vol. 15, 7 a.

7.    Translated from T. Vol. 14, 661 c.

8.    Ibid.

9.    From "The Foundations of Mindfulness", translated by Nyanasatta Thera, (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1968), p. 27,

10.    Translated from T. Vol. 14. 527 a.

11.    Ibid.

12.    From the translation of Charles Luk, The Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra (Berkeley, Shambala, 1972), 37.

13.    Ibid., 93.

14.    Ibid., 116.


15.    For the career of this translator, see P,C. Bagchi, Le canon bouddhique en Chine, Vol. 1 (Calcutta:I'Universite de Calcutta, 1927), 252 ff.

16.    Transl. from the Chinese text in T. 17, p. 614 c.

17.    From the translation by P.B. Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (New York:Columbia University Press, 1967), 137-38.

18.    Ch'an has discussed these Neo-Taoist terminologies in the "Introduction" of Commentary on the Lao Tzu by Wag Pi, transl. by A. Rump with collaboration of W.T. Chan (Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1979). esp. xiii-ff.

19.    Yampolsky, 139.

20.    Ibid., 138.

21.    Ibid,

22.    Translated from Hu Shih, Shen-hui ho-shan i-chi, p. 246. This sermon has been translated by W. Liebenthal, "The Sermon of Shen-hui", Asia Major, n.s. III/2 (1953), 132-155. The quoted passage occurs in p. 151 which he has rendered loosely as "A consciousness in which no thoughts arise which are reactions."

23.    Transl. from ibid., p. 308.

24.    Transl. from ibid.. p. 123. Comp. J. Gernet (1949). p. 43.

25.    Transl. from ibid., p. 101; Gernet, ibid., p.13.

26.    Transl. from ibid.. p. 308-9.

27.    Ibid., pp. 49-51, 321-328.

28.    About the life of this monk, see Jan, "Mu-sang and his philosophy of No Thought", in the Proceedings of the Vth International Symposium, National Academy of Sciences, Republic of Korea (Seoul: National Academy of Sciences, 1977), 55-86; and Jan, "Tung-hai la-shih Wu-hsiang Chuan yen-chiu" (A Biographical Study of Mu-sang (694-762), the Great Master of Ch'an Buddhism from Silla Kingdom). Studies on Tun-huang IV (1979), 47-60.

29.    Transl. from Li-tai fa-pao chi 歷代法寶記 in the edition of Yanagida Seizan 柳田聖山, Shoki no Zenshi II 初期の禪史 (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 1976), p. 143. See also Yanagida, "The Li-tai fa-pao chi and the Ch'an Doctrine of Sudden Enlightenment", transl. into English by Carl Beilefeldt. in L. Lancaster et al., ed., Early Ch'an in China and Tibet, (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1983), pp. 13-49.

30.    Transl. from Li-tai fa-pao chi, p. 143.

31.    From the translation of Y.S, Hakeda, The Awakening of Faith (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967), p. 31.

32.    Transl. from Li-tai fa-pao chi, p. 143.

33.   See Jan, "Tsung-mi and his analysis of Ch'an Buddhism", TP LVIII (1972), 43-45.

34.    Li-tai fa-pao chi, p. 200,

35.   Transl. from ibid., p. 213.

36.   Transl, from ibid., p. 239.

37.   Transl. from ibid., p. 248.

38.    Transl. from ibid., p. 245.

39.    Charles Luk, pp. 92 ff.