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The Fifth Ancestor

The other well-known disciple of the Fourth Ancestor, Daoxin, was the man history has given the title of Fifth Ancestor, Daman Hongren (Hung-jen) (601-74). Legends offer a personal history for Hongren similar to the previous ancestors, leaving home early to become a monk, sitting for long periods of time in meditation, abandoning the sutras, realizing enlightenment, and transmitting his teachings to a single successor. The chronicles say that he came from Daoxin's own province and impressed the master deeply when, at age fourteen, he held his own with the Fourth Ancestor in an introductory interview, in this case on a road:

Daoxin asked the young would-be disciple his family name.

Since the word for "family name" is pronounced the same as that for "nature," Hongren answered the question as though it had been, "What is your nature?" — deliberately misinterpreting it in order to say:
"My 'nature' is not ordinary; it is the Buddha-nature."

Daoxin: "But don't you have a 'family name'?"

Hongren: "No, for the teachings say that our 'nature' is empty.''

Hongren marks the beginning of a new period of Chan, one characterized by strong master-disciple relationships and the expanding of spiritual practice beyond the Indian dhyana meditations. Hongren's spiritual practice was based on the "gradual enlightenment" teachings of his predecessor, Daoxin. In a work believed to be written by Hongren, he gives instruction to his students:

Look to where the horizon disappears beyond the sky and behold the figure one. This is a great help. It is good for those beginners to sit in meditation, when they find their mind distracted, to focus their mind on the figure one.

The poetry "contest"

Hongren's place in history is secured by his accidental appearance at the great crossroads of Zen. Hongren and his monastery became the symbol of a great philosophical debate that occupied the first half of the eighth century, immortalized in the poetry contest Hongren initiated and its two main participants Shenxiu and Huineng.

This contest eventually came to symbolize the conflict between the teachings of gradual enlightenment and sudden enlightenment, which we will briefly explore in the next lesson.