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The "first Sixth Ancestor"

Shenxiu, you will remember, is the famous loser of the poetry contest in which Hongren challenged his disciples to compose a verse that would express their realization. After a long career as an acclaimed master, Datong Shenxiu (Shen-hsiu) (605-706) went on to lose an even greater contest, as his Northern school of gradual enlightenment was overshadowed by Huineng's Southern school.

For entirely political reasons, the infamous Empress Wu of the northern regions of China chose to lend support to a new Buddhist lineage and chose as court Buddhist a Chan monk named Shenxiu, follower of the Lankavatara school of Bodhidharma. Already over ninety at the time, he amassed a lifelong reputation for his rigorous practice of dhyana. He was among the eleven most prominent individuals remembered from the monastery of the Fifth Ancestor and eventually becoming the titular head of the Lankavatara faction, also to be known as the Northern school (possibly because Shenxiu brought it to the urbanized, sophisticated capitals of North China).

This was Chan's most imperial moment, and no less than a state minister composed the memorial epitaph for Shenxiu 's gravestone. Although his specific teachings are not well known, a verse survives from one of his sermons that seems to suggest that the teachings of Chan were really teachings of the mind and owed little to traditional Buddhism.

The teaching of all the Buddhas
In one's own Mind originally exists:
To seek the Mind without one's Self,
Is like running away from the father.

All Buddhadharmas come forth fundamentally from mind.
If you waste effort seeking it outside,
It's like rejecting your father and running away from home.

This was the high point of official Chan, signifying the moment of the Lankavatara school's greatest prestige. Perhaps most important, the success of Shenxiu was also the success of Chan, or what appeared to be success. The sect had risen from being the passion of homeless teachers of dhyana to the object of imperial honors in the midst of China's finest moment, the Tang Dynasty. The Tang was an era to be remembered forever for its poetry, its art, its architecture, its cultural brilliance.

Shenxiu’s seemingly permanent place in history, however, was to be overshadowed by an obscure Chan master from the rural south, Shenhui.