Ma-tsu Tao-i (Baso Doitsu) 709-788

Ma-tsu is one of the most famous Zen Masters of all time. He and students are the subject of more koans than any other teacher in Zen history. The most famous story about him regards him sitting in Zazen at Mount Heng and his Master Nan-yueh Haui-jang comes by and asks him what he hopes to obtain by sitting. Ma-tsu said he was trying to obtain Buddhahood. Hau-jang picked up a piece of tile and begins rubbing it on a stone. When Ma-tsu asks why he was doing that, Hau-jang replies "Polishing the tile into a mirror." Ma-tsu questioned the wisdom of this and his master replied, "How can one become a Buddha sitting in meditation?" This story is often misunderstood to mean sitting meditation is useless. This is a misunderstanding of the story

Haui-jang was one of the great teachers of his time, and to fully understand the importance of this story we should realize several aspects were taking place here--this was not just a simple point he was making. First he never said one couldn't become a Buddha by sitting, he said "How can one become a Buddha by sitting?" A question like this at just the right time can have a profound effect on a student. Although formal Koans (cases) were not being used at this time, these masters were using a method of "direct pointing" that is the essence of every koan, and I'm sure Ma-tsu reflected greatly on these words as he continued his practice of Zazen.

Perhaps we should compare Ma-tsu's story with that of Buddha himself. For years he sat in the quietist form of meditation which was the practice of his day, Then one day, he sits under the Bodhi Tree and within the calming practice we now call "shamatha" he adds a new dynamic, (vipashyana) and the reflection of conditioned arising, and impermance, and the "nature" of man and Buddha. He put it this way:

I thought: "While my Sakyan father was busy and I (as a child) was sitting in the shade of the a rose apple tree, then quite secluded from sensual desires, secluded from unprofitable ideas, I had direct acquaintance of entering upon and abiding in the first jhana- meditation, which is accompanied by thinking and exploring, with happiness and pleasure born of seclusion. Might that be the way to enlightenment?" And following that memory came the recognition: "That is the only way to enlightenment." -- MN 36

Haui-jang could just have easily said "Who is Buddha?" What he must have seen was two things 1. Ma-tsu had cultivated shamatha to the point he was ready to add the "reflective element" and, 2. He was stuck there! He needed something to shake him out of simple quietism.

Ma Tsu went on to enlighten many others, and his students are among the most renowned in Zen Buddhism. His most famous dharma heir (hassu) may have been Pai-chang Huai-hai (Hyakujo)


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