Bassui, Huang Po and Foyan: 3 Ancient Zen Masters

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Ancient Zen Masters

Bassui, Huang Po and Foyan are three ancient Zen masters worthy of your acquaintance.

ancient zen mastersBassui (1327-1387) is a Japanese Zen Master I first encountered in Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen. While Kapleau’s book was meant to feature his teacher, Yasutani-roshi, Bassui stands out as truly “a man come back from the dead.” The advice he returns to again and again in his teaching is shown in the following quote:

What is the master [within you] who at this very moment is seeing and hearing? If you reply, as most do, that it is Mind or Nature or Buddha or one’s Face before birth or one’s Original Home or Koan or Being or Nothingness or Emptiness or Form-and-Color or the Known or the Unknown or Truth or Delusion, or say something or remain silent, or regard it as Enlightenment or Ignorance, you fall into error at once. What is more, if you are so foolhardy as to doubt the reality of this master, you bind yourself though you use no rope. However much you try to know it through logical reasoning or to name or call it, you are doomed to failure. And even though all of you becomes one mass of questioning as you turn inward and intently search the very core of your being, you will find nothing that can be termed Mind or Essence. Yet should someone call your name, something from within will hear and respond. Find out this instant who it is!

If you push forward with your last ounce of strength at the very point where the path of your thinking has been blocked, and then, completely stymied, leap with hands high in the air into the tremendous abyss of fire confronting you — into the ever-burning flame of your own primordial nature — all ego-consciousness, all delusive feelings and thoughts and perceptions will perish with your ego-root and the true source of your Self-nature will appear. You will feel resurrected, all sickness having completely vanished, and will experience genuine peace and joy.

Besides the sermon and letters in The Three Pillars of Zen, there is a collection of dialogues called Mud and Water translated by Arthur Braverman. Mud and Water is not as interesting as many of the questions deal with clarifying instructions found in Buddhist Sutras. Still, there are some good passages and it’s worth a look.

Huang Po

“Men are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the Void with nothing to stay their fall. They do not know that the Void is not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma.”

Sometimes it is useful to read a book that leaves you realizing you don’t know anything. The Zen Teaching of Huang Po translated by John Blofeld left me in that state many a night. Huang Po’s (d. 850) constant attack on conceptual thought left me face to face with my doubts, but I was too afraid to admit the Truth of his words.

all phenomena are basically without existence, though you cannot now say that they are non-existent.
The substance of the Absolute is inwardly like wood or stone, in that it is motionless, and outwardly like the void, in that it is without bounds or obstructions. It is neither subjective nor objective, has no specific location, is formless, and cannot vanish.
The fundamental nature of all phenomena is close beside you, but you do not see even that; yet you still go on talking of your inability to see what is far away. What meaning can this sort of talk possibly have?

Anything you can think of is not the answer, so you must strive to put an end to conceptual thought. Such is the essence of Huang Po, one of the premier ancient Zen masters.


“Strike the evening chime at noon.”

A website visitor introduced me to the writings Foyan (1067-1120), another of the ancient Zen masters,  via Thomas Cleary’s Instant Zen: Waking Up in the Present.

People who study the path clearly know there is such a thing; why do they fail to get the message, and go on doubting? It is because their faith is not complete enough and their doubt is not deep enough. Only with depth and completeness, be it faith or doubt, is it really Zen; if you are incapable of introspection like this, you will eventually get lost in confusion and lose the thread, wearing out and stumbling halfway along the road. But if you can look into yourself, there is no one else.

Of course, deluded students are a constant fuel for commentary. I think this quote is particularly applicable to today:

People nowadays take the immediate mirroring awareness to be the ultimate principle. This is why Xuansha said to people, ‘Tell me, does it still exist in remote uninhabited places deep in the mountains?’

My only criticism is that almost half of the book consists of Foyan reciting koan-like anecdotes of meetings between teachers and students of old. Zen literature is filled to the brim with that sort of material. What is needed is more of ancient Zen masters like Foyan speaking their mind — honest and to the point:

This is a matter for strong people. People who do not discern what is being asked give replies depending on what comes up. They do not know it is something you ask yourself — to whom would you answer? When people do not understand an answer, they produce views based on words. They do not know it is something you answer for yourself — what truth have you found, and where does it lead? Therefore it is said, ‘It’s all you.’ Look! Look!

I hoped you enjoyed these three ancient Zen masters.  You may also find the little known iconoclast Alfred Pulyan of interest.

One thought on “Bassui, Huang Po and Foyan: 3 Ancient Zen Masters”

  1. Shawn, thank you for taking the time to share the material and also your own point of view. ?

    Is there any real zen left in the world? I would love to meet people that are aligned with these teachings, not the robes, and have been able to “leap with hands high in the air into the tremendous abyss of fire”.

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