Thursday, January 16, 2014

Tibetan biographies of Zen Buddhist masters

The Tibetan version of The Masters and Disciples of the Laṅka School, a series of biographies of early Zen teachers is only found in a single Tibetan manuscript, IOL Tib J 710. The first biography is of Gunabhadra, the translator of the Laṅkāvatāra sūtra into Chinese. After him comes Bodhidharma, who brought the practice of Zen to China. This text is unique in not placing Bodhidharma at the head of the Zen lineage, as all later traditions did. After Bodhidharma, the text follows the lineage in China, through Huike, Sengcan and Daoxin. The last of these masters gives an instruction on how to do the “single practice concentration” which is quite different from later forms of Zen practice:

Virtuous men and women! If you want to enter the single practice concentration, reside in solitude, and abandon intellectual disturbances. Letting go of forms and features, think only of the features of a single buddha. Facing the buddha, sit up straight in the way that he does. If you graft together your mind with the characteristic of the single buddha in front of you, then within your mind you will be able to see all the buddhas of the past and future.
This Tibetan manuscript was probably written in the early ninth century. There are also manuscripts of the original Chinese from the Dunhuang cave, such as Pelliot chinois 3436. The Tibetan Zen Project, which was funded by the British Academy between 2010 and 2013 has now come to an end. One of the results of the project is the transliteration of all of the Tibetan Zen texts, which was done with the help of the Songtsen Library. These are now available on the IDP website.


  1. Any translations? Sounds fascinating!

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