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The Four Statements

A special transmission outside the teachings

Not dependent on words or letters

Pointing directly at the human mind

Seeing your nature and becoming a buddha





The Four Statements represent the most widely accepted attempt a coherent, straightforward definition of Zen.

While the Four Statements are useful as a definitive guideline for understanding Zen practice, they are not without controversy. According to the early Sung Buddhist historian, Tsan-ning (919-1001), the statements originated in part with Bodhidharma, claiming that he was the first to say, "Directly point to the human mind; see one's nature and become a Buddha; do not establish words and letters." Even assuming that a historical Bodhidharma existed, and arrived in China as early as the 5th century, the statements already existed by that time, in the writings of other Mahayana Buddhists.

"Seeing one's nature" was an old idea in China that was promoted by Tao-sheng (355-434), a disciple of Kumarajiva. Drawing from Mahayana doctrine, Tao-sheng advocated the notion of an inherent Buddha-nature in everyone. The full phrase chien-hsing ch’eng-fo (“see one’s nature and become a Buddha”) first appeared in a commentary to the Nirvâna sûtra, in a statement attributed to Seng-lang prior to the T’ang dynasty. The slogans ‘do not establish words and letters’ and ‘directly point to the human mind’ became common parlance in Ch’an circles by the end of the T'ang period. (1)

It is noteworthy that Tao-sheng was a disciple of Kumarajiva, and promoted Nagarjuna’s Mādhyamaka doctrine. Nagarjuna is one of the Patriarchs in the lineage that Bodhidharma inherited and brought to China. Thus, the inclusion of Nagarjuna on the lineage of Indian Patriarchs of Zen was likely a retroactive acknowledgment of the influence of Mādhyamaka on the formation of Zen.

Statements matching one or two lines of The Four Statements can be found throughout the Chinese canon, though all four are not found together as a single expression until 1108. However, as we have mentioned, Tsan-ning included three of them together in the 10th century.

A special transmission outside the teachings

The first of the statements has historically been the most controversial (and not just because it is spurious).

The Wu-yüeh view of Ch’an was officially represented at the Sung court by Tsan-ning, a scholar-monk who served as a leading official in Wu-yüeh, and in turn, at the Sung court. Rather than ‘a special transmission outside the scriptures,’ Tsan-ning considered Bodhidharma's teaching as a branch of the larger tradition of Buddhism stemming from Shakyamuni [Buddha]. According to Tsan-ning, those who conceive of a Ch’an identity independent of Buddhist teaching do not understand that “the scriptures (ching) are the words of the Buddha, and meditation (ch’an) is the thought of the Buddha; there is no discrepancy whatsoever between what the Buddha conceives in his mind and what he utters with his mouth.”

In opposition to this view, the description of Zen as ‘outside’ the scriptures ultimately prevailed. This interpretation is arguably more cohesive with the second statement, which defined Zen as not dependent on words or letters. Kuei-sheng seems to be the earliest promoter of this view, though he uses the first statement as an interpretation of the life of Bodhidharma:

When Bodhidharma came from the west and transmitted the Dharma in the lands of the east (China), he directly pointed to the human mind, to see one's nature and become a Buddha…. What is the meaning of his coming from the west? A special transmission outside the scriptures.

Accordingly, Bodhidharma is connected with the patristic lineage that reaches back to Mahakasyapa, who famously received enlightenment from the Buddha with a wordless teaching. This story, which is generally considered to be apocryphal (as it did not appear until 1031, in China), its importance to the Zen lineage cannot be understated. It appears in several collections of koans, such as the much-celebrated Wumenguan (Gateless Barrier). It is said that the Buddha twirled a flower before an assembly, and only Mahakasyapa smiled. Seeing this, the Buddha announced that he was entrusting the ‘Dharma eye’ to him as his heir. This action is asserted to be a record of the Buddha wordlessly transmitting the teaching of Zen. As such, Zen Patriarchs and later Zen Masters were said to have enlightened students independently of rational or doctrinal understanding. The Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, is held to have been an illiterate wood-cutter, who achieved enlightenment simply by hearing to a recitation of The Diamond Sutra. Zen koans relate accounts of students gaining an understanding as a result of shouts, slaps and seemingly irrational dialogues.

The terminology used for a teacher of Zen enlightening a student, independent of words or doctrine, is 'transmission': dharma transmission, transmitting the teaching, direct transmission of mind, etc. This type of language suggests a mystical attribute to transmission, which is beyond the realm of falsifiability. Understanding the significance of the dharma being transmitted in this manner is key to understanding the first statement. Enlightenment dialogues assert: that there is a state of being called ‘enlightenment’, that this state of being can be brought forward by any individual, and finally that an enlightened teacher can demonstrate or communicate this process to a student in a fashion that is completely independent of discursive, conceptual or linguistic modes of communication.

This aspect of Zen seems to have been opposed by other Buddhist sects. In one incident, Deshan is said to have traveled the countryside, seeking to debate Zen monks in order to ‘stamp out the doctrine of special transmission outside the sutras’. Of course, given that this is recorded in a Zen koan, the tale ends with Deshan converting to Zen and burning his extensive commentaries on The Diamond Sutra.

Not dependent on words or letters

Early Chan was sometimes referred to as the Lankavatara School, a name that indicated that Bodhidharma and his lineage held the Lankavatara Sutra to be of particular significance. After passing the teaching on to Hui-ke, Bodhidharma gave him the Lankavatara Sutra, and told him that everything he needed to know was contained within. This indicates a link between Chan in its formative years with the Yogacara school.

Over the centuries, The Diamond Sutra, The Vimalakirti Sutra, The Flower Ornament Sutra, and several others supplanted the Lankavatara Sutra in terms of importance. This is not particularly surprising, as it is a text which is notoriously difficult and that has never been popular. Nevertheless, the Lankavatara Sutra is remarkable in that it is a document originating from India that contains many of the doctrines that would later be put forward in Zen. During the coalescence of Zen, the Lankavatara was the underlying metaphysics that rejected words as the basis of enlightenment.

In this sutra, the Buddha is asked if words reflect ultimate truth:

The Buddha replied, “Mahamati, words are not ultimate truth, nor is what they express ultimate truth. And how so? Ultimate truth is what buddhas delight in. And what words lead to is ultimate truth. But words are not ultimate truth. Ultimate truth is what is attained by the personal realization of Buddha knowledge. It is not a realm known by means of the projection of words. Therefore, the projection of words does not express ultimate truth.

“Words arise and cease and shift, with their occurrence depending on changing causes and conditions. Mahamati, what depends on changing causes and conditions for its occurrence does not express ultimate truth. Mahamati, because of the nonexistence of their own characteristics or of those of something else, words do not express ultimate truth. Moreover, Mahamati, because any characteristic of an external existence does not exist except as a perception of one’s own mind, the projection of words does not express ultimate truth. Hence, Mahamati, you should avoid the projection of words.” (2)

‘Projection’ in this context refers to the mind’s perception of a phenomena as having some sort of inherent reality. Thus, Buddha cautions in this sutra against reifying words and concepts. He distinguishes the truth from the words, while still careful to note that the words point to the truth. The method of knowing is explicitly stated to be personal realization. Arguably, the entirety of Zen’s attitude toward language is expressed in this passage alone. It is important to note that teachings concerned with the emptiness of language persisted well beyond the Lankavatara. Almost the entirety of The Diamond Sutra involves the Buddha clarifying that when he speaks of any phenomena, what he means when he speaks of it is actually the negation of that phenomena. However, the Buddha always returns to the conclusion that it is precisely because he denies the existence of what he speaks about that he is able to speak about it at all.

The Buddha said, “Subhuti, if someone should claim, ‘the Tathagata teaches a dharma’, such a claim would be untrue. Such a view of me, Subhuti, would be a misconception. And how so? In the teaching of a dharma, Subhuti, in the ‘teaching of a dharma’ there is no such dharma to be found as the ‘teaching of a dharma.’” (3)

The teaching itself is said to be no teaching, and therefore the reality of the teaching is affirmed by its emptiness – since, in the Buddhist view, emptiness is the ultimate reality. Thus, if a thing was to be not-empty, it would also be unreal, or imagined. Accordingly, Nagarjuna said that the emptiness of things did not mean that nothing exists, but rather that we know a thing exists because it is empty. Nearly every section of The Diamond Sutra elucidates this same dialetheism. By the end of the sutra, the most important terms and concepts in Buddhism have been asserted by the sutra by first negating them.

There is an ever-present conscientiousness in the Zen canon of the relative dependence of affirmations upon negations, and vice versa. Zen masters sometimes seem to delight in finding ways of overturning the metaphysical and moral assumptions of their disciples, often by means of showing them the truth of the negation of their positions. While Zen is not therefore dependent on the written word, the Zen master’s uses of words becomes, ironically, unparalleled. One is free to use them skillfully to remove the delusions of others, without any attachment to a particular written creed. Yuanwu affirms the Zen sect’s use of words in its single-minded focus on enlightenment:

“The intention of all Zen devices, states, sayings, and expressions is in their ability to hook the seeker. The only important thing is liberation – people should not be attached to the means.”

This doctrine had real consequences for the place of the Zen sect within the larger Buddhist society that was flourishing in China. Zen was sometimes iconoclastic – with recorded instances of masters burning sutras and Buddhist icons – but not aggressively so, as Zen did not pursue its iconoclasm by force against other schools, and also counter-balanced this tendency with a rigorous monastic discipline and notorious piety. Furthermore, while Zen always consisted of many schools and lineages, it acquired a syncretic tendency that always allowed for communication and shared identity. Opposition to sectarian attitudes are consequently common among Zen masters:

“Zen is not founded or sustained on the premise that there is a doctrine to be transmitted. It is just a matter of direct guidance to the human mind, perception of its essence, and achievement of awakening. How could there be any sectarian styles to be valued?” (4)

Pointing directly at the human mind

One of the most famous encounters of the Zen canon is Bodhidharma’s transmission of the teaching to Hui-ke. Bodhidharma was currently engaged in his wall meditation, meaning that Hui-ke would have had to seek him out in seclusion. Still, he would only acknowledge Hui-ke after he cut off his left arm as an offering. The man who would become the Second Patriarch asked Bodhidharma to give him the teaching of all the Buddhas, as he was suffering greatly. Bodhidharma told him that the teaching was not a thing that could not be given to him from outside. This did not deter Hui-ke, who sharpened his expression of the problem, as recorded in the Wumenguan:

“I have no peace of mind. Will you pacify my mind?” Hui-ke asked.

“Bring your mind before me and I will pacify it for you,” Bodhidharma said.

“When I look for my mind, I can’t find it,” Hui-ke said.

“Now your mind is pacified,” said Bodhidharma.

What this dialogue is supposed to have recorded is just such a transmission as is described in The Four Statements. As Zen Master Yuanwu wrote in a letter, “When Bodhidharma came from the West bringing the Zen transmission to China, he didn't set up written or spoken formulations - he only pointed directly to the human mind.” The apparent irony is that Bodhidharma’s act of pointing at the mind was in causing Hui-ke’s failure to discover anything that corresponded to what he thought of as, ‘mind’. There was nothing there for him to discover – or, at least we can say that there was nothing separate and distinct, with an apparent boundary to set it apart from the world of ‘matter’. Thus, Bodhidharma pointed directly at the mind by pointing at no mind. That is, no mind separate from impermanent, ever arising and ceasing thoughts, states, feelings, etc. In the encounter that eventually resulted in Deshan burning his extensive commentaries on The Diamond Sutra, and old woman tested him with a passage from that very sutra: “The past mind cannot be grasped, the present mind cannot be grasped, the future mind cannot be grasped.”

Influence of the Lankavatara

The Lankavatara Sutra makes the radical claim that any given phenomena is nothing other than Mind. What is meant by 'Mind' may require some elaboration in this context. The Lankavatara lays out a philosophy of the psyche that identifies eight consciousnesses – the first five consisting of the sensory organs, the sixth being identified with the intellectualized, subjective experience, the seventh as the consciousness that aggregates phenomena into categories that it classifies as objects, and the eighth as the ‘repository’ consciousness, that stores the karma of past actions and gives rise to phenomena as a result.

Perception therefore originates with the eighth form of consciousness and subsequently gives rise to the other forms, in reverse order. To put this into more straightforward terminology, one’s value judgments are what causes one to create categories, thus making it possible to conceive of individual objects. This, in turn, gives rise to the intellect and the sense perceptions. Then, the experience of the intellect and the sense perceptions gives rise to more karma, which formulates the arising of phenomena into a cycle. This is effectively a microcosm of the concept of samsara, reduced to the level of the individual human mind.

To elucidate these claims outside of a mystical context, one interpretation is that the Lankavatara is assessing a view of perception as emergent only with the convergence of subject and object, then raising the problem that the boundaries of the object are defined by the subject. The ‘frame problem’ of modern times hearkens back to the assertions in the Lankavatara – itself not without precedent in Buddhism – that the objects of sense perception are merely aggregates (skandhas in Sanskrit) of sub-phenomena, and these sub-phenomena are themselves also aggregates.

The idea that perception is the result of the sensory organs interacting with the object collapses, since it seems that the object as defined (as separate from its surroundings and own constituent parts) is itself a creation of the subject. The origins of subject-object dualism are the subject’s own motivations or desires. What one values or shuns, prefers or avoids, finds pleasure or displeasure in, etc., is asserted to be the true cause of the perception of phenomena. It bears mentioning that advances in modern psychology and neuroscience have largely affirmed this view. The claims made by the Lankavatara Sutra and the Yogacara School in general must also be understood as first and foremost epistemological positions, rather than ontological. In other words, these claims about consciousness constitute a definition as to what we know about consciousness and how we perceive reality through consciousness, rather than claims about the nature of noumenal reality.

In short, the only world that one experiences is a happening of the mind; and yet, it is commonly expressed in Zen that the world is simply as it is and that to attach concepts or discriminating views to it merely distorts one’s perception. Any duality between matter and mind (or spirit, for that matter) is absent in Zen. When Huangbo was asked by a student whether the term Mind referred to the ordinary mind or the enlightened mind, he answered, “How many minds have you got?”


‘Pointing at the mind’ in the context of Zen entails pointing at something that cannot be thought of in terms of the discrimination between subject and object, or self and other. The inadequacy of language to express such a paradoxical concept calls to mind the very old (and too-often-quoted) Chinese adage that one should not confuse the moon with the finger pointing to the moon. While we can attempt to describe what Mind is not by stating it to be nondualistic, the actual knowledge of such a thing can only be obtained non-conceptually, by experience. This view of the mind is found in the heart of Buddhist teachings, in that it is, at its core, the teaching of selflessness (anatman). The ‘directness’ of the Zen, then, is in elucidating the truth of selflessness immediately, with as few words as possible. In their brief exchange, Bodhidharma showed Hui-ke that there is nothing that can be called mind that belongs to him, or to which he can cling to as himself.

To express this idea with as little mysticism as possible - if one can hold to a state of equanimity, remaining impartial to every happening around himself and to himself, Zen masters assert that duality will be overturned. This idea matches well with even the oldest ideas of enlightened states in Buddhism.

From the Kayagatasati Sutta:

Again, a monk who attains the Fourth Jhāna [dhyāna] has no suffering or happiness because happiness and suffering are eliminated and his former sorrow is eliminated. There is only equanimity which purifies mindfulness. The pure mind suffuses every part of his whole body, like a man whose head is covered by a white cloth. There is no part of his body untouched by the white cloth. (5)

From the Lankavatara Sutra:

"What does non-dual mean? This refers to everything being cloudy or sunny, long or short, bright or dark. Mahamati, everything is non-dual. Samsara isn't present in nirvana, and nirvana isn't present in samsara. This is because their existence is due to their different characteristics. This is what is meant by non-dual. And as with nirvana and samsara, this is true of everything else."

Red Pine's Comment: Most Chinese commentators take these three as examples of how we discriminate the day. Like samsara and nirvana, they are neither inside nor outside of each other, nor are they identical to each other. They are mutually exclusive and merely erroneous projections.

Seeing your nature and becoming a buddha

In literal meaning, a buddha is a person who is ‘awake’, or ‘awakened’, although this state of being is typically referred to as enlightenment in English. Note that the characters 見性 ("seeing your nature") are pronounced kensho in Japanese. Zen masters often spoke of emancipation, liberation, and freedom from any kind of mental bonds. We cannot ignore the foundation of Buddhism in understanding Zen, as the lineage of Patriarchs in the Transmission of the Lamp stretches back to Shakyamuni. Buddha's teachings as recorded in the sutta were given with the intention of putting an end to suffering. In the most popular formulation of the core teaching of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, it is said that the cause of suffering is desire, and the cure for suffering is the removal of ignorance through the practice of virtue. Buddhism therefore asserts that ending delusion is the cessation of suffering, and the end of delusion is known as enlightenment.

The teachings concerning ‘buddha-nature’ represent the attempt to reconcile the contradiction between phenomenon and noumenon discussed above. Nirvana, the state of liberation, is asserted to be beyond concepts, and absent of any perceptions, forms, or a self that attains it. It is a state of existence that is coterminous with reality as it truly is, which in the Buddhist determination is completely empty. In the Pali Canon, the Anguttura-Nikaya provides support for the conception of the mind as somehow ‘originally’ pure, in and of itself:

Oh! 'Bhiksus'. The mind is pure! It is defiled by the adventitious defilement. Oh! 'Bhiksus'. The mind is pure! it obtains liberation through the adventitious defilement.

Problematic to the assertion of Nirvana as beyond any dualism is the necessary collapse of any distinction between Nirvana and samsara, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth that entails the suffering of sentient beings. If a Buddha does not fall victim to delusions, such as the distinctions between subject and object or between himself and other beings, then how can he perceive beings to liberate? If all that is mind is the Buddha already, then what path is there to set out upon, and what enlightenment is there to attain? These sentiments are expressed often in the recorded sayings of Zen masters.


The most basic outline of the teaching of ‘buddha-nature’ is merely that every sentient being necessarily possesses the potential to become enlightened. Enlightenment is understood in this context as the result of removing defilements and/or delusion, not by spiritual attainments that accrue to anything. The process of enlightenment is thus one that works in negative, or in reverse; it is said that the bodhisattva travels backwards and arrives in beginninglessness.

However, this leaves open the question of the relationship of Mind – or, the Noumenon, the Buddha, etc. – to the individual sentient being who is liberated. Meanwhile, in the final analysis, it is still asserted that there is really no individual, separate sentient being to liberate. Thus, one is left with both the question of what there really is that causes Mind to perceive itself as something other than Mind, and the question as to the substance, or nature of noumenal reality. The similarity to the monism of the Upanishads has not been lost on some scholars, and the criticism has been raised even by some Buddhists that idea of an inherent buddha-nature implies an eternal, unchanging nature to the universe - which is merely renamed Buddha instead of Atman. This is problematic, since anatta (anatman, or 'not self') is one of the three marks of existence that are key to Buddhism.

Despite this criticism, it is important to note that the fundamental substance of the buddha-nature in the sutras that put the concept forward is one of emptiness (sunyata).

Delusion refers to the two erroneous views of the substantial existence of both person ('atman') and things (dharma). Ignorant actions arise from these two attachments to the self and external things, which prevent human beings from perceiving the truth. To the author of the Buddha Nature Treatise, the truth is nothing but the Buddha nature, for “Buddha nature is the Thusness revealed by the twin emptiness of person and things.” Thus it is said that “if one does not speak of Buddha nature, then one does not understand emptiness and consequently will cling to reality and slander Thusness.” Since the Buddha nature is the implementation of emptiness, it can be any thing but an entity. (6)

In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha is asked specifically as to why he teaches the doctrine of ‘buddha-nature’, and how it is that this teaching does not assert any view containing an ego or unchanging nature to reality. The Buddha’s answer reveals that the buddha-nature is a skillful means of teaching those who cling to their egos:

The reason why the 'Tathagatas' who are Arhats and fully enlightened Ones teach the doctrine pointing to the buddha-nature which is a state of non-discrimination and imageless, is to make the ignorant cast aside their fear when they listen to teaching of egolessness. It is like a potter who manufactures various vessels out of a mass of clay of one sort by his own manual skill and labor … that the 'Tathagatas' preach the egolessness of things which removes all the traces of discrimination by various skillful means issuing from their trancend-ental wisdom, that is, sometimes by the doctrine of the 'buddha-nature’, sometimes by that of egolessness … Thus, 'Mahamati', the doctrine of the 'buddha-nature’ is disclosed in order to awaken the philosophers from their clinging to the idea of the ego. Accordingly, 'Mahamati', the 'Tathagatas' disclose the doctrine of the 'buddha-nature' which is thus not to be known as identical with the philosopher's notion of an egosubstance. Therefore, 'Mahamati', in order to abandon the misconception cherished by the philosophers, you must depend on the 'anatman-buddha-nature' [no-self buddha-nature]. (7)

Rather than pointing to any inherent essence to a monistic substance of reality, buddha-nature points to the pure emptiness of reality that every being has the capacity to realize, since those beings are themselves pure and empty. Buddha-nature is therefore a soteriological term that is taught to imbue adherents with faith in themselves by phrasing the inherent emptiness of all phenomena as a ‘nature’ that is, in some sense, said to be ‘theirs’. In the same way that one gives up even the thought of enlightenment in order to proceed on the path to enlightenment, awakening to one’s buddha-nature would similarly involve getting rid of any concept of ‘buddha-nature’.

To best understand how a buddha-nature does not constitute something like an eternal self or immortal soul, we might regard it in the same way that Buddhists regard ‘the self’ in the normal sense. One feels the aggregates of the senses, the consciousness, and one’s body to constitute something called a ‘self’; however, even of these breaks down into smaller sets of aggregates. While ultimately, we can say that there is no one thing to call ‘your self’, separate from all of its innumerable constituent parts, we still speak provisionally of a self to refer to a set of phenomena that has not yet realized that it is only empty. Whatever one believes about buddha-nature, it is a phenomenon that must be viewed in much the same way – as a provisional description of the potential for buddhahood in all beings.

In the consciousness model put forward by the Lankavatara Sutra, it is claimed that the ‘womb’ for one’s buddha-nature exists in the eighth consciousness (the ‘storehouse consciousness’). The eighth consciousness is originally still, calm and all-encompassing, like a vast, undisturbed ocean. However, when one is deluded, by projecting some inherent reality onto the myriad of phenomena they experience, the eighth consciousness is like a churning sea. All of the experiences which one is affected by throughout one’s life are like waves, that do not have any separate reality from the ocean. Putting an end to such karmic waves can only occur when one no longer gives rise to projections, by no longer engaging in the karmic game. This means detachment from the fruits of one’s actions - engagement with the world in such a way that one expects nothing, attaches to nothing, and rejects nothing. One must live and act separate from any thought or intention. This is perhaps the closest we can come in philosophical language to describing the state of ‘Zen’, or ‘dhyana’, the state of liberation that Zen masters point the way toward.


The Four Statements were not expressed by a single master as one cohesive idea; rather, they were four separate, but related ideas in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. The teachers and disciples who eventually coalesced into the Zen tradition retrospectively attributed the statements to significant figures from the formation of school. In reality, the ideas represented by The Four Statements originated in the sutras and treatises that were important to early Chan, which happen to also be the sutras most important to Chan's direct influences - namely, Mādhyamaka and Yogacara.

Above all, the Four Statements reveal what was going on in Chan during the Sung dynasty era when they began to appear as a single description of the school's teaching. The Four Statements are a summary of core ideas gathered from currents pre-existent in Buddhism at the time. Thus, the Four Statements when used as a definition of Zen, but be seen as a definition that is arrived at by selecting certain elements of the Buddhist canon for emphasis. The Four Statements set Zen apart from other Buddhist schools, but this distinction is only intelligible within the context of Buddhism.

The Four Statements describe the process of enlightenment. Since enlightenment is beyond any concept, Zen's relationship with words can be understood as the attempt to convey the non-conceptual via concepts. Taken together, and in the context of these ideas as expanded upon in the sutras, the Four Statements describe what it means to call Zen "the Sudden School".


(2) Lankavatara Sutra,

(3) Diamond Sutra, trans. Red Pine

(4) Zen Master Fayan, trans. Cleary, Zen Essence

(5) M. iii. 94

(6) Heng-Ching Shi; The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' - A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata’

(7) Lankavatara Sutra,




essentialsalts' translation:

The mysterious transmission of that which can't be taught,
without depending on linguistic communication,
that directs your focus completely towards the mind -
you see the buddha and inherit your original nature.


A teaching outside, a separate teaching:
Not standing on writing.
A direct pointing to man's mind:
See the Nature, become a Buddha.