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Mazu Daoyi (709–788) (Chinese: 馬祖道一; pinyin: Mǎzŭ Dàoyī; Wade–Giles: Ma-tsu Tao-yi) was a Zen Master from the 'middle period' of Chan. From the ninth century onward, all of the Zen masters of subsequent generations - such as Baizhang, Huangbo, Linji, Nanquan, Zhaozhou, etc. - claimed lineage from Mazu and his contemporary Shitou. Together, they were known as the 'Two Doors of Immortality'.

Life and Teaching

After Huineng died at Caoxi in 713, tradition holds that he left behind more than forty Dharma successors. Many of them seem to have withdrawn into the mountains, forsaking life and teaching careers in the established Chan monasteries, which would not have been numerous in those early times. In truth, we have no way of knowing how many successors the historical Huineng had, given that the information in his epitaphs and in the available documents from the period bear little resemblance to the account given in the Platform Sutra.

Traditionally, two of Huineng's disciples handed down mind-to-mind Dharma transmission from the Sixth Patriarch to the two leading ancestors of all the surviving Chan schools in China: the first, Nanyue Huairang (677-744) became the teacher of Mazu, while Qingyuan Qingsi (660-740), who taught at Qingyuan Mountain (monastery) in Jiangxi, appointed Shitou Xiqian his Dharma successor in 740.

Historically, Mazu received the bhiksu precepts from Vinaya Master Yuan of Yuchou province in 738, and soon after that he left Szechwan for central China. The next available information after his ordination is that during the K'ai-yuan period (713-742) he stayed at Ch'uan-fa Monastery in Heng-yueh, in present-day Hunan, engaged in the practice of meditation. This implies that he moved to Heng-yueh sometime between 738 and 742.

Mazu enthusiastically dedicated himself to the practice of sitting meditation, which seems to have been neglected by his teachers in Szechwan, and he later referred to the Lankavatara Sutra as a scriptural support of his teaching and as the sutra that was transmitted by Bodhidharma. This may be taken to indicate that during that period Mazu was influenced by the East Mountain School (known traditionally as the "Northern School"), which at that time was flourishing. The practice of sitting in meditation and the connection with the Lankavatara Sutra are traditionally considered to be the two main characteristics of the "Northern School"; this is often held up in sharp contrast to the rejection of sitting meditation and a reliance on the Diamond Sutra by the Southern school. However, it is likely that Huineng's emphasis on The Diamond Sutra was a later interpolation included in the Platform Sutra by the Oxhead School, and many historians of Chan take this as merely an allegory for the declining importance of the Lankavatara in the face of the Diamond Sutra's ascendance. Furthermore, the view of Huineng as anti-meditation is not borne out by the historical record or the Platform Sutra itself, in which Huineng's final words to his congregation include an admonition to his followers to continue sitting in meditation as they did when he was alive. More likely, we can extrapolate from the available facts that there was a zeitgeist occurring in Chan at the time that was self-critical of attachment to meditative practice or the view that meditation leads to enlightenment. In any case, Mazu is ultimately claimed to be a disciple of Huineng and a Dharma-heir of Huineng's student Huairang, despite his affinity for meditation and the Lankavatara. This may indicate that the "Northern" vs. "Southern" school division was more of a polemical tool than historical reality.

During his stay in Heng-yueh, Mazu met Huairang. However, while the Record states that Huairang encountered Mazu while the latter was practicing meditation at Ch'uan-fa Monastery, according to Zongmi it was Mazu who paid a visit to Huairang while on a pilgrimage. According to Zongmi's version, the two had a discussion about the teaching, and after Mazu realized that Huairang's understanding was superior to his own, he decided to become his disciple.

Encounter with Huairang (Traditional Account)

When [Mazu] started to practice Zen Buddhism, he usually sat in meditation all day long. One day Nanyue Huairang came to see him. When he saw Daoyi meditating he asked, “Why are you sitting in meditation?”

Daoyi said, “To become a Buddha.”

Master Huairang took hold of a piece of tile and began rubbing it. Daoyi asked Huairang “What are you rubbing the tile for, master?”

“I want to polish it into a mirror.” Huairang answered.

Daoyi felt puzzled. He asked, “How can you hope to polish a piece of tile into a mirror?”

Huairang replied, “Since a piece of tile can’t be polished into a mirror, how can simply practicing sitting meditation make you become a Buddha?”

“What must I do then to attain Buddhahood?” Daoyi asked.

Huairang said, “Take the case of an ox-cart. If the cart doesn’t move, do you whip the cart or do you whip the ox?”

Daoyi didn’t know how to answer. Huairang continued, “In learning sitting meditation, do you aspire to learn sitting Zen, or do you aspire to imitate the sitting Buddha? If the former, Zen doesn’t consist in sitting or lying down. If the latter you must know the Buddha has no fixed postures. The dharma goes on forever and never abides in anything. You most not therefore be attached to or abandon any particular phase of it. To sit with the purpose of becoming a Buddha is to kill the Buddha. To be attached to the sitting posture is to fail to comprehend the essential principle.”

After listened to Huairang, Daoyi had a realization. Mazu Daoyi served Huairang for ten years and eventually became awakened.

Relationship to Shitou

Though there is no evidence that the two masters ever met, it is obvious that they held each other in high esteem. Many of the important Ch'an monks studied with both masters. Very often one of the masters will advise a particular disciple to go to the other master and study with him. As the saying from that period goes, "Ta-chi was the master in Kiangsi; Shitou was the master in Hunan. Those who were wavering and didn't go to see these two great teachers were considered completely ignorant." As they represented the start of a new era in Chan (through which Mazu and Shitou were the 'bottleneck'), from the beginning of the ninth century on, all Ch'an masters were considered spiritual descendants of Mazu and Shitou.

Co-Founder of 'Middle Chan'

After the completion of Huineng's teaching and the dismantling of his school, Zen quietly and informally penetrated the ancient Buddhist establishments, then burst into bloom under the guidance of two extraordinary Zen masters of the eighth century, Shitou and Mazu. These two teachers were known as "the two doors of immortality," and almost all of the known Zen masters of the following generation were taught by both of them. (Cleary)

With Shitou and Mazu, Ch'an entered a new phase of development. The meditation instructions of Daoxin and Hongren, and Huineng's simultaneous cultivation of samadhi and prajna gave way to a new teaching style that was refreshingly open and direct. Many of the teaching devices that later on came to be identified with the Ch'an school-such as shouts, blows, enigmatic questions were first used by Mazu. This change in teaching style initiated by Mazu and his followers, coupled with the change in the literary format used to record their teachings, have even led some to perceive discontinuity between the Ch'an of Huineng and Mazu.

Significant Teachings

Mind and Buddha

僧問、和尚為什麼說、即心即佛。師云、為止小兒啼。僧云、啼 止時如何。師云、非心非佛。僧云、除此二種人來、如何指示。 師云、向伊道不是物。僧云、忽遇其中人來時如何。師云、且教 伊體會大道。

A monk asked (Mazu), “Reverend, why do you say that mind is Buddha?”

Mazu said, “To stop the crying of small children.”

The monk asked, “What are you going to say when they have stopped crying?”

Mazu said, “It is neither mind nor Buddha.”

The monk asked, “If there is someone who does not belong to either of these two categories of persons, how are you going to instruct him?”

Mazu said, “I will tell him that it is not a thing.”

The monk asked, “How about when you suddenly meet someone who is in the middle of it?”

Mazu said, “I will teach him to personally realize the great Way.”

The Silent Sermon


Mazu ascended the (Dharma) hall (to preach). After (Mazu remained silent for) a good while, Baizhang collected the sitting mat in front of him. Mazu then left the hall.

Essential Teaching of Buddha


Someone asked, “What is the essential purport of the Buddha’s teaching?”

Mazu said, “It is precisely the point at which you let go of your life.”

Bodhidharma and the Lankavatara

洪州馬祖大師云、達磨大師從南天竺國來、唯傳大乘一心之法。 以楞伽經印眾生心、恐不信此一心之法。楞伽經云、佛語心為宗、 無門為法門。何故佛語心為宗。佛語心者、即心即佛。今語即是心 語。故云、佛語心為宗。

The great master Mazu, (who was) from Hongzhou, said, “When the great master Bodhidharma came from South India (to China), he only transmitted the One Mind teaching of the Great Vehicle. He used the Laṅkāvatāra Scripture to authenticate the minds of living beings, fearing that others will not believe in this teaching about the One Mind. It is stated in the Laṅkāvatāra Scripture that, according to the Buddha’s teaching, mind is the essential principle, and that the lack of a particular point of entry is (the essence of) the teaching. Why did the Buddha state that mind is the essential principle? When the Buddha spoke about the mind, (he postulated) the identity of mind and Buddha. What I am talking about now is exactly that mind. Therefore (in the scripture) it is said that, according to the Buddha’s teaching, mind is the essential principle

Normal Mind is the Way

The Way does not require cultivation - just don't pollute it. What is pollution? As long as you have a fluctuating mind fabricating artificialities and contrivances, all of this is pollution. If you want to understand the Way directly, the normal mind is the Way. What I mean by the normal mind is the mind without artificiality, without subjective judgments, without grasping or rejection.