The ancient Chinese Zen master Baizhang established “pure rules” for the regulation of his monastery on Great Hero Mountain in China. The rules have served as the basis for monastic organization and practice for centuries, and their influence has extended to Zen monasteries throughout China and beyond.

The Chinese Zen tradition acknowledges that The Pure Rules is a reconstruction written about 400 years after Baizhang lived. The original text of Baizhang’s regulations was lost in the chaos of war as Chinese dynasties rose and fell in the centuries following his death. Many take on faith that the current version of Baizhang’s rules was reconstructed to accurately reflect the original text based on available evidence. But this view may be entirely mistaken.

As I argued in my book Tracking Bodhidharma, evidence shows that the primary lineage of China’s early Zen movement attempted to remain independent of the imperial court’s influence. Bodhidharma’s irreconcilable differences with Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty were only the start of Zen’s rebellion against the religious establishment. The trend continued, with different players, through the early Zen ancestors of the traditional lineage, extending through the eight generations of Zen masters between Bodhidharma and Baizhang.

Baizhang himself appears to have had this same aversion to direct imperial influence. The evidence for his attitude is suggested by his teachings in the Zen Lamp Records, the vast collection of old Zen writings that served as the basis for later books like The Blue Cliff Record. The text indicates that Baizhang rejected the bodhisattva ideal, a doctrine associated with the imperial court. It may come as a surprise to many Zen practitioners today that Baizhang, a famous Zen teacher, expressly counseled against embracing an ideal so central to later Zen. Baizhang may have been aware that emperors exploited the bodhisattva ideal to grant themselves exalted spiritual status.

What is particularly suspicious about The Pure Rules composed 400 years after Baizhang’s time is the great concern they show for the emperor. The text emphasizes, in its first chapters, the manner in which the monastery should celebrate the emperor’s birthday, how to receive high officials that come to visit, and other activities that display an extreme deference to officialdom. Such kowtowing to high officials is entirely lacking in early Zen texts. On the contrary, the early Lamp Records reveals a strong aversion, if not contempt, for imperial status. The current version of The Pure Rules, written under the direction of the imperial court centuries after Baizhang lived, is then likely a belated attempt to bring Baizhang and his rebellious Zen contemporaries into the imperial corral.

—Andy Ferguson


This post is part of author and scholar Andy Ferguson’s new “Consider the Source” series. As an old Chinese saying goes, “When drinking water, consider the source.” In the coming weeks, Ferguson will ask and answer seemingly simple (but in the end, profound) questions about the “source” of East Asian Buddhism, weaving a tale of both spiritual inspiration and political intrigue.

This fall, Tricycle will be traveling to the source itself, China, in a special pilgrimage led by Ferguson and abbot of the Village Zendo Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Want to come with us? Click here for more information.

Ferguson is the author of Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and their Teachings, which is used widely by Western Zen teachers, and Tracking Bodhidharma, which offers a wealth of new information about the founder of Chinese Zen Buddhism.

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