Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn (Chinese: 趙州從諗; Wade-Giles: Chao-chou Ts'ung-shen; Japanese: Jōshū Jūshin) (778–897) is one of the most famous Tang-dynasty era masters, known for his paradoxical, comedic and sometimes raunchy dialogues. The first koan of the Wumenguan, which concludes with his utterance, "Wu" (Mu in Japanese, No in English) eventually became one of the most famous and central koans to Zen study.
The master who would eventually be known as Zhaozhou was born with the name Congshen to a family in Shandong. He was ordained at an early age and served as a novice in a monastery, before traveling to the master Nanquan at around the age of 18. He eventually joined his congregation. Zhaozhou practiced with Master Nanquan until the latter's death, whereupon Zhaozhou left to travel the countryside.
While Zhaozhou visited many other teachers and Chan monasteries after receiving the transmission from Nanquan, he refused to settle anywhere or establish a fixed location for a school of his own for many years, which was the source of some teasing from his contemporaries. Once, as he was visiting Chu-yu, the latter said, “A man of your age should try to find a place to settle down and teach.” Zhaozhou replied, “Where is my abiding place?” His host was taken aback, saying, “What? With so many years on your head, you have not even come to know where your permanent home is!” Zhaozhou replied, “For thirty years I have roamed freely on horseback. Today, for the first time I am kicked by an ass!”
When he was on the point of starting for the Chengguan Temple on Five-Story Mountain, a learned monk wrote a gatha to tease Zhaozhou:
What green mountain is not a center of Tao? Must you, cane in hand, make a pilgrimage to Chengguan?
Even if the golden-haired lion should appear in the clouds,
It would not be an auspicious sight to the Dharma-Eye!
(Note: The temple on Five-Story Mountain was built in honor of National Teacher Chengguan, the Fourth Patriarch of the Huayan sect. It is said that when he preached on the mountain, a golden-haired lion appeared in the clouds).
Zhaozhou was not to be dissuaded from the journey, however, and answered the gatha by asking back, “What is the Dharma-Eye?” The monk could find no answer.
Tradition holds that it was not until he was around eighty that Zhaozhou found a permanent place of residence. Eventually, he settled at the then abandoned Kuan Yin monastery to teach. Since the master served as the abbot of Kuan Yin in Zhaozhou prefecture, he is commonly known as “The Ancient Buddha of Zhaozhou”, or simply "Zhaozhou" rather than his birthname Congshan. It is said that he had a small group of students that he taught for the next forty years. He was extremely ascetic in his habits. During the forty years of his abbotship, he did not install a single piece of new furniture, nor did he write a single letter to any patron to ask for alms. (He would be considered a very inefficient abbot according to the standards of the modern West).
While the traditional account (derived from the Transmission of the Lamp) holds that he lived to be 120, another source has him dying at 91 in 869. In either case such an advanced age would be unusual for the time period, though the latter date of his death is more likely.
Zhaozhou's lineage seems to have died out within a hundred years or so of his death - there were no teachers with lineage from Zhaozhou by the year 1000. There could be many reasons for this, some of which might have been, multiple persecutions of Buddhism that occurred and Zhaozhou's small and somewhat remote congregation. All the same, Master Zhaozhou appears in 18 of 100 cases in the Blue Cliff Record, and 5 of the 48 cases in the Wumenguan, making his one of the more popular teachers to appear in the koan collections.