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Shenxiu(606? - 706) 

Shenxiu. (J. Jinshū; K. Sinsu 神秀) (606?–706). Chinese Chan master of the Tang dynasty and putative founder of the "Northern school" (Bei zong ) of early Chan Buddhism. Shenxiu was a native of Kaifeng in present-day Henan province. As an extraordinarily tall man with well-defined features, Shenxiu is said to have had a commanding presence. In 625, Shenxiu was ordained at the monastery of Tiangongsi in Luoyang, but little is known of his activities in the first two decades following his ordination. In 651, Shenxiu became a disciple of Hongren (601-674), cofounder of the East Mountain Teachings (Dongshan famen) and the monk later recognized as the fifth patriarch of the Chan school; indeed, by many early accounts, such as the Chuan fabao ji and Lengqie shizi ji, Shenxiu became Hongren's legitimate successor. According to the famous story in the Liuzu tanjing ("Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch"), however, Shenxiu lost a verse-writing contest to the unlettered Huineng (638-713), whom Hongren then in secret sanctioned as the sixth patriarch. However, it is unclear how long Shenxiu studied with Hongren. One source states that it was for a period of six years, in which case he would have left Hongren's monastery long before Huineng's arrival, making the famous poetry contest impossible. Regardless of the date of his departure, Shenxiu eventually left Hongren's monastery for Mt. Dangyang in Jingzhou (present-day Hubei province), where he remained for over twenty years and attracted many disciples. Shenxiu and his disciples were the subjects of a polemical attack by Heze Shenhui (684-758), who disparaged Shenxiu as representing a mere collateral branch of Bodhidharma's lineage and for promoting what Shenhui called a "gradual" (jian) approach to enlightenment. Shenhui instead promoted a "sudden teaching" (dunjiao), which he claimed derived from a so-called "Southern school" (Nan zong) founded by Huineng, another (and relatively obscure) disciple of Hongren, whom Shenhui claimed was Hongren's authentic successor and the true sixth patriarch (liuzu). Later Chan historians such as Guifeng Zongmi (780–841) began to use the designation "Northern school" (Bei zong) to describe the lineage of Shenxiu and his disciples Yifu (661-736), Puji (651-739), and Xiangmo Zang (d.u.). While Shenhui's characterization of Shenxiu and his supposed "gradualism" is now known to be misleading, subsequent histories of the Chan tradition (see Chuandeng lu) more or less adopted Shenhui's vision of early Chan; thus Huineng, rather than Shenxiu, comes to be considered the bearer of the orthodox Chan transmission. As one mark of Shenxiu's high standing within the Chan tradition of his time, in 700, Shenxiu was invited to the imperial palace by Empress Wu Zetian, where the empress prostrated herself before the nonagenarian monk. She was so impressed with the aged Chan master that she decided to build him a new monastery on Mt. Dangyang named Dumensi. She also gave him the title of state preceptor (guoshi). Upon his death, he was given a state funeral. He is one of only three Buddhist monks whose biography is included in the Tang shi ("Tang Annals"). This is clearly not the profile of an imposter within the Chan lineage. Shenxiu's teachings are known to have focused on the transcendence of thoughts (linian) and the five expedient means (fangbian; S. upāya); these teachings appear in "Northern school" treatises discovered at Dunhuang, such as the Yuanming lun, Guanxin lun, and Dasheng wusheng fangbian men. Shenxiu was an expert on the Laṅkāvatārasūtra, a text favored by Hongren and the early Chan tradition, and is also thought to have written a substantial commentary on the Avataṃsakasūtra. Despite the uncomplimentary portrayal of the "Northern school" in mainstream Chan materials, it is now recognized that Shenxiu and his disciples actually played a much more important role in the early growth and development of the Chan school than the mature tradition acknowledged. (Source: "Shenxiu." In The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, 800–801. Princeton University Press, 2014.

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Affiliations & relations

  • Chan · religious affiliation
  • Hongren · teacher
  • Yifu · student
  • Puji · student
  • Xiangmo Zang · student