In the long transmission history of Chan Buddhism from the legendary days of Bodhidharma, few figures shimmer as luminously as the Southern school Chan master Shenhui (684–758). Born during the dynamic days of the Tang dynasty (618–907), considered by many a golden age of Chinese cosmopolitanism, Shenhui lived during a time of intense cultural production, political intrigue, and military activity. As Buddhism’s influence wove itself into the fabric of culture and daily life, Shenhui emerged as a central figure in the philosophical and historical development of the Chan Buddhist identity. Infusing the tradition with a spirit of revolutionary vigor, he dispelled any notion of Buddhist quiet wisdom with his piercing insight and vociferous wit.

Emphasizing the doctrine of “sudden enlightenment,” Shenhui’s teachings and the controversy surrounding him propelled the Southern school to dominance. Criticizing the teaching of “gradual enlightenment” promoted by the so-called “Northern school,” Shenhui argued that enlightenment is instantaneous, a realization that lies dormant awaiting insight. His radical views not only set his contemporary Buddhist world on fire but also set the trajectory for Chan, ushering it toward a distinct identity. 

Yet what makes him truly captivating is his larger-than-life personality and his reemergence as a central Chan player over a thousand years after his time. An adroit orator, deft debater, and learned master of the dharma, his sermons are said to have drawn huge crowds, and he wielded sharp criticism and penetrating wisdom, making his dharma talks both impactful and enlightening. But within a few generations, his lineage died out. As a student of the famed Sixth Patriarch Huineng, his contribution to the history of Chan was eclipsed and mostly overlooked until the discovery in 1900 of manuscripts in the Library Cave at Dunhuang. This discovery changed the course of how we understand Chan history.

In the posthumously published Zen Evangelist: Shenhui, Sudden Enlightenment, and the Southern School of Chan Buddhism, preeminent Chan expert John R. McRae’s (1947–2011) lifetime of work on Shenhui challenges our understanding of the Sixth Patriarch’s central place in the Chan narrative and presents, for the first time, Shenhui’s surviving body of work in English translation. While much of this rich tome is for those acquainted with Chan history, the translation of Shenhui’s recorded teachings will ring a familiar tone with seasoned practitioners, reminding us to remain vigilant when observing our dualistic thinking.

These adapted excerpts from McRae’s book reveal Shenhui’s polemical attacks on the Northern school teachers and his unyielding adherence to the Middle Way. Most likely compiled at the end of Shenhui’s life or just after his death, these excerpts offer a taste of this towering figure who shook the foundations of Chan and often left those who encountered him without words.

The Teachings of Shenhui from Zen Evangelist:

I have witnessed Reverend Shenhui preach from the lion’s seat: “There is no one else in China who understands the teaching of Bodhidharma’s Southern school. If there were someone who knew, I would never preach about it. I preach today in order to discriminate the true and the false for Chinese students of the path and to define the teachings for Chinese students of the path.” To witness such inconceivable events made me gaze upon Shenhui with awe.

At the time there was present in the dharma assembly a dharma master named Chongyuan from that monastery whose fame had already spread to the two capitals and beyond the seas. His words were like a bubbling spring, and his questions truly exhausted the origin of things… 

On this day Dharma Master Chongyuan entered the assembly, raised his eyebrows, and lifted his voice in total dedication to victory in battle over Shenhui. Then the attendants rolled up the screen, calling to the officials present that they would serve them. 

His Reverence Shenhui said, “This screen is not the usual sort used at the gates of people’s homes. Why is this place of enlightenment being destroyed only to allow officials in?” Dharma Master Chongyuan then pointed at the screen and rebuked His Reverence by saying, “Do you call this an ornament or not?” His Reverence replied, “It is.” Dharma Master Chongyuan said, “The Tathagata has preached that ornaments are not ornaments.”

His Reverence said, “What the sutra preaches is, ‘Do not exhaust the conditioned and do not abide in the unconditioned.’” 

The dharma master asked once again, “What does it mean to ‘not exhaust the conditioned and not abide in the unconditioned’?”

His Reverence replied, “To ‘not exhaust the conditioned’ means that from the first generation of bodhicitta up to achieving perfect enlightenment seated under the bodhi tree and entering nirvana between the two sala trees, one never discards any dharma. This is to ‘not exhaust the conditioned.’ To ‘not abide in the unconditioned’ is to study emptiness without taking emptiness as one’s realization, to study non-action without taking non-action as one’s realization. This is to ‘not abide in the unconditioned.’”

The dharma master was silent then, waiting for a while before speaking. He said, “Lust and anger are the path, which is not in ornamentation.” His Reverence said, “Then ordinary people must have attained the path.” Dharma Master Chongyuan said, “Why do you suggest that ordinary people have attained the path?” His Reverence said, “You have said that lust and anger are the path, and since ordinary people are those who practice lust and anger, why would they not have attained the path?”

Dharma Master Chongyuan asked, “Do you understand or not?” His Reverence answered, “I understand.” The dharma master said, “Understanding is non-understanding.” His Reverence said, “The Lotus Sutra says, ‘From the time of my attainment of buddhahood, I have passed through immeasurable and unlimited eons.’ Indeed, the Buddha did not attain buddhahood. And indeed, he did not pass through immeasurable and unlimited eons.”

Dharma Master Chongyuan said, “This is the preaching of Mara.” His Reverence said, “Monks and laypeople, listen all! This is Dharma Master Chongyuan, who is recognized by everyone from Chang’an and Luoyang to the farthest corners of the ocean for his brilliance in doctrinal exposition. He is one who has lectured on the sutras and treatises of the Mahayana without error. On this day he is saying that the Lotus Sutra is the preaching of Mara! What, I wonder, is the preaching of the Buddha?”

At this point, the dharma master realized that his error was egregious, and he appeared dazed before the assembly. After a little while he tried to speak again, but His Reverence said, “You’ve been pinned to the ground. Why do you need to get up again?”

His Reverence said to the dharma master, “My holding this unrestricted great assembly and ornamenting this place of enlightenment today has not been for the accumulation of merit, but in order to define the principle of Chan for the students of the path in China and to distinguish the true and the false for the students of the path in China.”…

His Reverence said, “If I were studying under the dharma master, I would recognize his teachings as the dharma master’s as soon as I examined the case. If the dharma master studied under me, he would pass through three great incalculable eons without being able to achieve buddhahood.”

When His Reverence said this, the dharma master became thoroughly ashamed and afraid, looking at Shenhui with his face pale. Although the two bodhisattvas were questioning each other, they were both standing up and had not yet sat down on the lecture seat and chair, respectively. What was said was subtle and had not yet exhausted the feelings between the two men. At this point, as soon as Dharma Master Qianguang, one of the elder monks there, saw that Dharma Master Chongyuan was defeated in this opening debate but was going to continue to resist, he had someone set out chairs. He then requested that they reopen the discussion and explicate their doctrines again, and at last, he got His Reverence and Dharma Master Chongyuan to sit down… 


Dharma Master Jian of Mount Lu asked, “What is the meaning of the Middle Path?”

Shenhui answered, “It is the extremes.”

“I just asked you about the meaning of the Middle Path. Why do you answer that it is the extremes?”

“The Middle Path you just mentioned is necessarily dependent on the meaning of the extremes. Without depending on the meaning of the extremes, one cannot posit the Middle Path.”


Duke Zhang of Yan asked, “You always preach the dharma of non-thought and exhort people to spiritual cultivation, yet I wonder whether the dharma of non-thought is existent or nonexistent.”

Shenhui answered, “Non-thought cannot be said to be existent and cannot be said to be nonexistent. To call it existent would be to have it identical to worldly existence, and to call it nonexistent would be to have it identical to worldly nonexistence. Thus, non-thought is not identical to existence or nonexistence.”

“What does one call it?”

“It’s not called anything.”

“What is it like?”

“It’s also not like anything. Hence, non-thought cannot be explained. Just now, my saying ‘explained’ has to do with responses to questions. Unless given in response to a question, there would never be an oral explanation. It is like a bright mirror: unless presented with an object, the mirror never manifests an image. My saying ‘manifests an image’ just now means that the image is only manifested as the response to an object.”

“Does it not illuminate when not responding to an image?”

“Saying ‘illuminate’ has little to do with responding or not responding to objects; in both cases the mirror always illuminates.”

Duke Zhang asked, “You have said that there is no object or image and also no oral explanation, and that all of existence and nonexistence is entirely beyond being posited. Now you refer to illumination, but what kind of illumination is it?”

Shenhui responded, “My reference to ‘illumination’ means that all of this exists because of the brightness of the mirror. Because of the purity of mind of sentient beings, there naturally exists a refulgence of great wisdom, which illuminates the world without exception.”

“How does one get to see a non-thing, and seeing a non-thing, then call it a thing?”

“One does not call it a thing.”

“Then if you do not call it a thing, what is the buddhanature?”

Shenhui replied, “To see and not see without any thing is true seeing, constant seeing.”

Adapted from: John R. McRae, Zen Evangelist: Shenhui, Sudden Enlightenment, and the Southern School of Chan Buddhism, edited by James Robson and Robert H. Sharf, with Fedde de Vries, p. 81–84, 152, 155–157. © 2023 Kuroda Institute (University of Hawaii Press).