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Baizhang Huaihai (Po-chang Huai-hai), a disciple of Mazu, has been somewhat unjustifiably neglected by the modern Zen movement, perhaps because his expository style did not lend itself to memorable anecdotes or koan cases.

Baizhang's stay as a disciple of Mazu is, however, the source of several legendary stories, including that of their auspicious first encounter.

When Baizhang arrived, the old master immediately asked what previous temple he had traveled from, followed by: "What do you come here to find?"

Baizhang: "I have come to discover the truth of Buddha."

Mazu: "What can you expect to learn from me? Why do you ignore the treasure in your own house and wander so far abroad?"

Baizhang (puzzled): "What is this treasure that I have been ignoring?"

Mazu's celebrated reply: "The one who questions me at this moment is your treasure. Everything is complete in it. It is lacking in nothing, and furthermore the things it possesses are inexhaustible. Considering that you can use this treasure freely, why then do you persist in wandering abroad?"

It is said that with these words Baizhang suddenly had an intuitive, non-rational acquaintance with his own mind.

Among the other classic tales of Huaihai's apprenticeship under Mazu is the often repeated account of the day the two of them were walking together along a path when suddenly a flock of migratory geese was heard passing overhead.

Mazu, turning to his pupil: "What was that sound?"

Baizhang (innocently): "It was the cry of wild geese."

Mazu, after pausing: "Where have they gone?"

Baizhang: "They have flown away."

This was an unacceptably drab, straightforward answer for a Zen man, and in disgust Mazu whirled, grabbed Huaihai's nose, and twisted it until his disciple cried out in panic.

Mazu: "So you thought they had flown away. Yet they were here all the time.''

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The legends say that this exchange, in the typical harsh style of Mazu, caused Baizhang to confront his original nature. What Mazu had done was to give his pupil a vivid lesson in the concept of an indivisible unity which pervades the world; things do not come and go — they are there always, part of a permanent fabric. Baizhang was being invited to stop viewing the world as a fragmented collection of elements and see it rather as a unified whole.

In another story of the dynamic interactions of master and novice:

Mazu asked Baizhang how he would teach Chan.

Baizhang responded by holding up a dust whisk vertically.

Mazu continued by asking him, "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?"

Huaihai replied by throwing down the whisk.

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One interpreter has said that raising the dust whisk revealed the mind's function, whereas throwing it down returned function to the mind's substance. According to some versions of this episode, Mazu responded by shouting at the top of his lungs, rendering Huaihai deaf for three days. This shout is said to have been the occasion of Baizhang's final enlightenment.

Baizhang seems to have been a kindly man, warm and personable, not given to the roughhouse methods of some of his contemporaries, a friendly type who concentrated on guiding a community of disciples. Nevertheless, Baizhang made significant contributions to the growth of Chan, two of which we look briefly at here:

  • He founded the first wholly Chan monastery and for it formulated a set of monastic rules that are today still respected in Zen monasteries.
  • He was one of the first Southern Chan masters to explore the psychology of "sudden enlightenment" and to write a lucid analysis of the mental preparation it required.