Línjì Yìxuán (b. ? – d . 866, also romanized as Lin-chi) was a Tang dynasty Mahayana Buddhist who founded the Linji (Rinzai) school of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. His teachings are preserved in the Línjì yǔlù (record of Linji). In this excerpt, famed translator Burton Watson (1925 – 2017) provides a basic explanation of the Mahayana Buddhist notion of karma and a classic example of Linji’s apparent rejection of such ideas.

–Frederick M. Ranallo-Higgins

Although Chan often characterizes itself as a teaching that is not dependent on the written word but represents a separate transmission outside the scriptures, it is clear that the early Chan masters were well-versed in the sutras and other texts of Mahayana Buddhism and refer to them frequently in their teachings, no doubt expecting their students to have a similar familiarity with such texts.

The doctrine of karma, which Buddhism took over from earlier Indian thought, is fundamental to its system of beliefs. According to this doctrine, all the moral acts of an individual, whether good or evil, have an inevitable effect on the individual’s life and well-being, though it may require more than a single lifetime or existence for the effects to become fully apparent. Buddhism teaches that all beings are destined to undergo an endless cycle of births and deaths in six realms of existence, which are arranged in ascending order in terms of their desirability. Lowest of the six is hell, or the realm of hell-dwellers, where beings undergo painful tortures until they have expiated the guilt acquired through evil actions in the past. Above that is the realm of hungry ghosts, beings who are tormented by unending hunger and craving, and above that the realm of animals or beings of bestial nature. These three constitute the so-called three evil paths of existence. 

Next is the level of the asuras, demons portrayed in Indian mythology as engaged in constant angry warfare, often with the god Indra. Above that is the world of human beings. Sixth and highest of all is the realm of the gods, or heavenly beings, who live longer and happier lives than beings on the other levels, but, like them, are destined in time to die and undergo transmigration. One may move up or down in these various levels, depending on the good or bad acts one performs in previous existences. But without the salvation of the Dharma, or Law—the enlightening truth of Buddhism—one can never escape from the cycle.

Above these six realms, or paths, of unenlightened beings, often referred to as the threefold world, is the region of those who have gained emancipation through the power of religious understanding. In Mahayana Buddhism, this is made up of four levels, or “holy states.” Lowest is that of the arhat, or saint, of Hinayana [Theravada] Buddhism, who has achieved a certain understanding of the Dharma but has stopped short of full enlightenment. Above the arhats are the pratyekabuddhas, or solitary sages, persons who have achieved a degree of understanding through their own efforts but make no attempt to teach it to others. Next are the bodhisattvas, beings who are assured of attaining full enlightenment but who, out of their great compassion, remain in the world in order to assist others. On the tenth and highest level are the buddhas, beings of perfect wisdom and enlightenment.

Lin-chi, as we will see when we come to read his sermons, often seems to be rejecting these conventional beliefs of Buddhism, or at least urging his students not to be unduly concerned with them. But one must have some knowledge of the conventional beliefs, if only to understand what is involved in their rejection.


“You go all over the place, saying, ‘There’s religious practice, there’s enlightenment.’ Make no mistake! If there were such a thing as religious practice, it would all be just karma keeping you in the realm of birth and death. You say, ‘I observe all the six rules and the ten thousand practices.’ In my view all that sort of thing is just creating karma. Seeking Buddha, seeking the Dharma—that’s just creating karma that leads to hell. Seeking the bodhisattvas—that too is creating karma. Studying sutras, studying doctrine—that too is creating karma. The buddhas and patriarchs are people who don’t have anything to do. Hence, whether they have defilements and doings or are without defilements and doings, their karma is clean and pure.

“There are a bunch of blind baldheads who, having stuffed themselves with rice, sit doing Chan-style meditation practice, trying to arrest the flow of thoughts and stop them from arising, hating clamor, demanding silence—but these aren’t Buddhist ways! The Patriarch Shen-hui said: ‘If you try to arrest the mind and stare at silence, summon the mind and focus it on externals, control the mind and make it clear within, concentrate the mind and enter into meditation, all practices of this sort create karma.’ You, this person who is right now listening to the Dharma here—how would you have him practice, how enlighten him, how adorn him? He’s not the sort of fellow who can be expected to carry out practices, not the sort who can be adorned. If you wanted to adorn him, you’d have to adorn him with everything that exists. Make no mistake about this!

“Followers of the Way, you take the words that come out of the mouths of a bunch of old teachers to be a description of the true Way. You think, ‘This is a most wonderful teacher and friend. I have only the mind of a common mortal, I would never dare try to fathom such venerableness.’ Blind idiots! You go through life with this kind of understanding, betraying your own two eyes, cringing and faltering like a donkey on an icy road, saying, ‘I would never dare speak ill of such a good friend, I’d be afraid of making mouth karma!’

“Followers of the Way, the really good friend is someone who dares to speak ill of the Buddha, speak ill of the patriarchs, pass judgment on anyone in the world, throw away the Tripitaka [Buddhist canon], revile those little children, and in the midst of opposition and assent search out the real person. So for the past twelve years, though I’ve looked for this thing called karma, I’ve never found so much as a particle of it the size of a mustard seed.

“Those Chan masters who are as timid as a new bride are afraid they might be expelled from the monastery or deprived of their meal of rice, worrying and fretting. But from times past the real teachers, wherever they went, were never listened to and were always driven out—that’s how you know they were men of worth. If everybody approves of you wherever you go, what use can you be?”

From The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi: A Translation of the Lin-chi lu by Burton Watson copyright © 1993 Burton Watson, reprinted with permission of Columbia University Press.

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