Awareness – The One Word Gateway to All the Mysteries

The Teaching Which Directly Reveals That the True Mind is the Nature

“The one word ‘Awareness’ is the gateway to all mysteries.”

“This teaching propounds that all sentient beings without exception have the empty, tranquil True Mind. From time without beginning it is the intrinsically pure, effulgent, unobscured, clear and bright ever-present Awareness. It will abide forever and never perish on into the infinite future. It is named Buddhanature; it is also named Tathagatagarbha and Mind-Ground.”

Awareness (Chih), for Zen Master Tsung-mi (Zongmi), refers to the everpresent ground of awareness that underlies all sentient experience, whether deluded or enlightened.

It is thus a far more comprehensive term than prajna, which would be subsumed within it, as would also Hu’s intellectual knowledge. As we shall see, Tsungmi is explicit in insisting that chih means neither wisdom (chih, fourth tone, Mathews #933, a word which sometimes translates as the Sanskrit prajna) nor discrimination (fen-pieh). I will, accordingly, translate it as “Awareness” throughout this article.

What Shen-hui or Tsungmi meant by chih can only be answered after we have first examined how the term is actually used by them, and this can only he done by looking at the available texts.

By bringing into focus what Tsung-mi meant by “chih” and thereby illuminating the importance of a teaching central to Ch’an in the eighth and early ninth centuries.

This teaching is that of Buddha-nature or, as it is known in its more technical expression, the Tathagatagarbha.

“Chih” is one of a series of synonyms that Tsung-mi uses for the key term within his system of thought.

Sometimes he uses it singly, and at other times it is in collocation with other words, such as:

  • “numinous Awareness” (ling-chih),
  • “numinous Awareness unobscured” (ling-chih pu-mei),
  • “ever-present Awareness” (ch’ang-chih),
  • and “empty tranquil Awareness” (k’ung-chi[chih] chih).

It is at once the ultimate source (yuan) of both phenomenal reality and enlightenment and therefore also the fundamental basis and “object” of Ch’an.

Tsung-mi identifies it with True Nature (chen-hsing), Mind Ground (hsin-ti), and Tathagatagarbha (ju-lai-tsang).

It is the axial principle of the highest level of Buddhist teaching, that which he refers to as the Teaching which Directly Reveals that the True Mind is the Nature (hsien-shih chen-hsin chi hsing chiao) within the doctrinal framework that he articulates in the Ch’an Preface, and, in his analysis of the various Ch’an teachings within that work, it corresponds to that of Ho-tse Shen-hui, the champion of the cause of Hui-neng as the true Sixth Patriarch against the claims of the Northern Ch’an master Shen-hsiu.

As he writes in the Ch’an Chart:

All dharmas are like a dream, as the various sages alike have explained. Thus deluded thoughts are intrinsically tranquil (chi) and sense objects are intrinsically empty (k’ung).

The Mind which is empty and tranquil is numinously aware (lingchih) and unobscured (pu-mei).

This very Awareness which is empty and tranquil is the empty tranquil Mind transmitted previously by Bodhidharma.

Whether deluded or enlightened, the Mind is intrinsically aware in and of itself.

It does not come into existence dependent upon conditions nor does it arise because of sense objects. When it is deluded, it is subject to defilements, but Awareness is not [these] defilements. When it is enlightened, it displays supernormal powers, but Awareness is not [these] supernormal powers. The single word “Awareness” is the source (yuan) of all mysteries.

Tsung-mi’s claim that the single word “chih” embodied the essence of Shen-hui’s teaching meant, for him, that it represented the animating insight of Buddhism itself, since, according to Ch’an myth, the teaching to which Shen-hui was heir stretched all the way back through an unbroken line of succession to the historical Buddha himself.

As both a Ch’an Master committed to transmitting that tradition and a historian engaged in documenting its claims, Tsung-mi thus had to provide a historically plausible explanation for why the word “chih” had not been so used before Shen-hui.

Such an explanation was essential precisely because Ch’an claimed to be a teaching whose authority lay outside the scriptures; consequently, its only recourse for asserting its legitimacy was historical. Thus, before examining what Tsung-mi meant by chih, we must first discuss its position within his vision of Ch’an history.

Tsung-mi himself noted that many Ch’an students of his day questioned the authenticity of Shen-hui’s teaching that the single word “chih” is the gate of all mysteries by pointing out that the term “chih” was never used by Bodhidharma, who, instead, used the term “Mind” (hsin) to designate the cardinal principle of Buddhism (T 48.406c22-23; K 170).

That Bodhidharma did not use the word chih, and that Shen-hui did, was due, Tsung-mi argues, not to any difference in their message, but to their insightful ability to employ the means of teaching appropriate to the different historical situations in which they taught. As he writes in the Ch’an Preface:

It was only because [people] in China, being deluded about the Mind and attached to the written word, mistook the name for the essence that Bodhidharma skillfully distinguished between the written word and the transmission of Mind and, in making the name known (Mind is the name), silently pointed to the essence (Awareness is the essence).

He illustrated it by using wall-gazing to have [his disciple Hui-k’o] cut off all conditioning (yuan).

When he had cut off all conditioning, [Bodhidharma] asked, “Have you gotten rid of it or not?”

He answered, “Even though I have cut off all thought, I have still not gotten rid of it.”

[Bodhidharma then] asked, ”What proof do you have to say that you haven’t gotten rid of it?”

[Hui-K’o] answered, “It is utterly self-evident (liao-liao tzuchih) ; words could never get at it.”

The Master thereupon sanctioned (yin) him, saying, “Just this is the intrinsically pure Mind. Have no further doubts.”

Had his response not been fitting, he then would have pointed out his error and had him meditate further.

He never spoke the word “Awareness” before him, but simply waited for him to realize it for himself.

Only after he had truly experienced it and intimately realized its essence did he sanction (yin) him, causing his remaining doubts to be cut off.

He was thus said to transmit the Mind Seal (hsinyin) silently. The word “silently” merely means that he was silent about the word “Awareness,” it does not mean that he did not say anything at all.

Such was the transmission throughout the [first] six generations.

When it came to the time of Ho-tse [Shen-hui, however,] other lineages were spreading contention. Even though he wanted to reach a silent understanding the situation would not allow it.

Moreover, reflecting on Bodhidharma’s prediction of the dangling thread (Bodhidharma had said, “The fate of my teaching will, after the sixth generation, be like a dangling thread”) and fearing that the cardinal principle would perish, he thus said that the single word “Awareness” is the gate (men) of all mysteries.”

As this passage makes clear, Tsung-mi uses the common Buddhist hermeneutical rubric of expedient means (fang-pien, upaya) to account for the fact that the differences between the teachings of Bodhidharma and Shen-hui were merely apparent.

When Bodhidharma arrived in China he had the perspicacity to realize that his Chinese students, being attached to the written word, would only misunderstand him if he taught them the single word “Awareness” (chih), which directly revealed the Mind itself.

Recognizing the character of their attachments, he merely taught them its name, allowing them to realize its essence for themselves.

In the time of Shen-hui, however, Ch’an had reached a state of crisis of such proportions that there was a very real danger that the essence of its teaching would be lost.

Thus, in a desperate effort to put the tradition back on course, Shen-hui spoke, for the first time, the single word “Awareness.”

Such, at least, is the historical context that Tsung-mi introduces to account for the apparently novel character of Shen-hui’s teaching that the single word “Awareness” is the gate of all mysteries.

While Tsung-mi’s account, as history, is patently contrived, it is, nevertheless, typical of the kind of explanation found so frequently throughout the “Ch’an histories” of the eighth and ninth centuries. The very fact that Tsung-mi felt compelled, by the nature of Ch’an claims to legitimacy, to contrive such an explanation tells us something very important historically about the Ch’an of that period, even if its historical claims cannot be accepted at face value.

Moreover, Tsung-mi’s account takes on added significance when looked at within the context of his doctrinal agenda. Not only does it legitimate his particular interpretation of Ch’an, it also intimates how that interpretation is an integral facet of his understanding of Buddhism as a totality.

That this is the case can be seen by considering the crucial philosophical distinction that he introduce in the passage just quoted—that between name (ming) and essence(t’i).

The Analogy of Water

Tsung-mi emphasizes this distinction in another passage from the Ch’an Preface. He begins with an analogy, remarking that “water” is the name for that which has a certain set of properties:

“when it settles, it becomes clear;
when it is stirred up, it becomes turbid;
when it is dammed up, it becomes still;
when it is released, it flows;
it is able to inundate all things and wash away all dirt.”

The ignorant are satisfied with knowing its name,
but the wise want to know its essence,
which, is wetness (shih).

“Mind,” likewise, is merely the name for something with a certain set of properties:

“when it is deluded, it is defiled;
when it is enlightened, it is pure;
when it is neglected, it is ordinary (fan);
when it is cultivated, it is sagely (sheng);
it is able to produce all mundane and super-mundane dharmas.”

As in the analogy of water, the ignorant are satisfied with knowing its name, but the wise want to know its essence, and the essence of the Mind, of course, is Awareness (chih).

As Tsung-mi comments,

“[‘Awareness’] points to its essence. This word is right on the mark, no other would do.” Just as “‘water’ is [merely] a name, not water [itself], and wetness is water [itself], not a [mere] name,” so “‘Mind’ is [merely] a name, not the Mind [itself], and Awareness is the Mind [itself], not a [mere] name.” Moreover, just as one who understands the wet nature of water thereby also understands all of its various conditioned forms, so, too, one who understands Awareness thereby also understands all of the various conditioned forms that the Mind can assume (406c5-22; K 169-170).

The Word Awareness Directly Points to the Mind Itself

Tsung-mi’s distinction between name and essence emphasizes the fundamental qualitative difference between abstract and experiential understanding.

Chih directly points to the Mind itself, rather than being a mere name representing it.

The word that I have translated as “essence,” “t’i,” also has the sense of “the thing-in-itself” and, in the present case, connotes the direct experience of the Mind itself in contrast to the more abstract knowledge of its symbolic representation.

“Chih” is thus a very special kind of word, and this point calls for a discussion of Tsung-mi’s interpretation of the nature and function of religious language within the context of his systematic classification of Buddhist doctrine.

As has already been mentioned, Tsung-mi maintains that the single word “chih” not only embodies the essence of Shen-hui’s teaching, but also that of the highest level of Buddhist teaching.

The major characteristic of this teaching, as far as Tsung-mi is concerned, is that it is able to “manifest” (hsien), “reveal” (shih) , or “directly point to “(chih-chih) the essence. Tsung-mi accordingly refers to it in the Ch’an Preface as “the Teaching which Directly Reveals (hsien-shih) that the True Mind is the Nature,” and his gloss on why he does so is illuminating.

Because [this category of teaching] directly points (chih-chih) to the fact that one’s very own Mind is the True Nature, revealing (shih) it neither in terms of the appearances of phenomena (shih-hsiang) nor in terms of the negation of phenomenal appearances (p’o-hsiang), it has “the Nature” [in its name]. Because its intent is not hidden (yin-mi) by expedients, it is said to “reveal it directly” (404b26-27; K 131).

In order to appreciate the scope of Tsung-mi’s comment, we must cast it within the doctrinal context within which it is set.

Tsung-mi discusses three general types of Mahayana Buddhist teachings in the Ch’an Preface, each of which he also identifies with a particular brand of Ch’an teaching.

The First Type of Mahayana Buddhist Teachings

The first and least profound corresponds to the type of Yogacara represented by the Fa-hsiang tradition in China, that which, in Tsung-mi’s terminology, discusses phenomenal appearances (shuo-hsiang); Tsung-mi further identifies it as the teaching embodied in the Northern Ch’an Lineage.

The Second Type of Mahayana Buddhist Teachings

It is superseded by the that of Madhyamika, which uses emptiness to deny the reality of phenomenal appearances (p’o-hsiang); Tsung-mi sees this teaching as providing the doctrinal basis of the Ox-Head Lineage.

Both of these teachings are characterized as being of “hidden intent” (mi’i), because in neither is the Buddha’s ultimate intent revealed. This is one way for Tsung-mi to claim that the first two levels of teaching are neyartha (pu-liao), that is, not those of ultimate meaning.

The second, however, is the more profound of the two because it does “intimate” (mi-hsien) it.

According to the true ultimate meaning, since deluded thoughts are intrinsically empty, there is nothing that can be negated.

All things, being without defilement, are intrinsically the True Nature, and its Marvelous Functioning-in-accord-with-conditions is not only never interrupted, but also cannot be negated.

It is only because a class of sentient beings clings to unreal phenomenal appearances, obscures their True Nature, and has difficulty attaining profound enlightenment that the Buddha provisionally negated everything without distinguishing between good and bad, tainted and pure, or the Nature and its phenomenal appearances.

Although he regarded the True Nature and its Marvelous Functioning not to be nonexistent, because he provisionally said they were nonexistent, [these teachings] are designated as being of “hidden intent.”

Furthermore, though his intention lay in revealing the Nature, because his words thus negated phenomenal appearances and his intent was not expressed in words, they are referred to as “hidden.” (407a7–9; K 121)

The Third Type of Mahayana Buddhist Teachings

The third teaching is ultimate because, in contrast to the previous two, it does “directly reveal” (hsien-shih) the essence.

It is therefore also “sudden” (tun) because it reveals the essence in its immediate reality, whereas the other two are “gradual” (chien) because they only offer a mediated access to the essence through a variety of expedients (fang-pien, upaya).

It is also “sudden” in that it is the only teaching which makes it possible for one to realize the essence of the Mind directly, and such an experience by its very nature must be “sudden” because the Mind itself cannot be grasped through any symbolic mediation.(7)

Unlike those forms of Buddhism, particularly vocal within Ch’an, which held that only negative statements such as “there is nothing whatsoever to be attained” or “neither Mind nor Buddha” were ultimately true, Tsung-mi mounts a forceful argument for the ultimate value of positive religious assertions.

Indeed, his contention that the exclusive use of apophatic discourse (che-ch’uan) is not the final word in Ch’an is one of the major themes running through the Ch’an Preface.

“Negation (che),” he writes, “means denying what is not the case. Affirmation (piao) means revealing (hsien) what is the case…. Affirmation directly reveals (chih-shih) the very essence itself (tang-t’i) …. The terminology of the teaching tradition which [reveals] the Nature (hsing-tsung) makes use of both negation and affirmation. Exclusive negation is not yet complete (wei-liao), i.e., neyartha) and only hits the mark when it is combined with affirmation” (406b18-cl; K 167).(8)

The passage discussed earlier on the distinction between name and essence concludes on a similar note. Tsung-mi remarks that the first two types of teaching use negative modes of expression because they fear that words will only become a source of further attachment. As such, they are suited for beginners and those of shallow capacity.

The teaching which reveals the Nature, by contrast, is geared to advanced students and those of superior ability: “Because it causes them to forget words and apprehend the essence, a single word directly reveals [the essence].”

Tsung-mi then quotes, in his appended note, Bodhidharma as having said: “I directly reveal [the essence ] by pointing to a single word” (406c29-407a3; K 170).

The third teaching, in which the essence is directly revealed, thus supersedes the previous two.

On the one hand, the first two prepare the way for its apprehension. Since each teaching generically represents a certain level of understanding of the essence, Tsung-mi’s hierarchical arrangement of the teachings at the same time also describes the course of Buddhist practice by delineating the process of advancement through a graduated series of provisional levels of understanding until the ultimate one is finally reached. This is the gradual perspective.

On the other hand, the third teaching is also sudden, and by this Tsung-mi means that it makes it possible for those of superior spiritual capacity to realize the essence directly as it is without having to progress through a succession of provisional stages.

A person of superior spiritual capacity, moreover, is one who is able “to forget words and apprehend the essence,” and thus for such a person only a single word is necessary to reveal the essence in all of its immediacy.

Tsung-mi thus envisions a “two-track” path of spiritual progress: the first, the gradual, is suited for those of average or lesser capacity while the second, the sudden, is only for those of the highest.

The third teaching, as the culmination of the gradual path, thus also has a gradual component, although it is its “sudden” character that Tsung-mi emphasizes.

And it is its sudden character that enables the adept to circumvent the gradual path entirely and directly apprehend the Mind itself.

Language and its Limitations

Tsung-mi’s arrangement of the teachings, insofar as it recapitulates the course of spiritual progress, is predicated upon his understanding of the nature and function of religious language. While he does not explicitly articulate a theory of religious language as such, one can, nevertheless, be extrapolated into the following general form.

For the teachings which still only approximate the ultimate, the function of language is primarily to overcome the disastrous effects arising out of the confusion of names (ming) and essences (t’i), that is, language is turned against itself as the principal vehicle of reification.

Such a misconception of language is inextricably a part of the basic dichotomizing mode of awareness which divides beings from their True nature.

Apophatic language, by calling attention to the unconscious hold that the fundamental structures of language have in determining the forms of experience, thus plays a necessarily therapeutic role in dismantling the false premises upon which deluded thinking is based.

Tsung-mi’s ranking of the provisional levels of teaching is accordingly done on a scale of their increasing use of negative modes of discourse, culminating with the thoroughgoing apophasis of emptiness.

Only after one has recognized the emptiness of words, their provisional and arbitrary character as dependent upon convention, can religious language take on a new and potent function.

When names are no longer mistaken for essences, then they no longer provide a basis upon which an imaginary reality can be constructed and they are thus free to reveal the essence directly.

Such positive use of language could be called, playing on Tsung-mi’s own terminology, “revelatory” (hsien-shih)—not, of course, meaning by such a term a special kind of language that is sacred because revealed by a more exalted spiritual authority, but language which is able to reveal the essence directly (hsien-shih); in other words, language that is so efficacious that it is able, with only a single word, to bring about a direct insight into the very essence itself, at least in the case of persons of the highest spiritual caliber.

The primary distinguishing characteristic of the Teaching which Reveals the Nature is that it makes use of such revelatory language. And the paradigm of such language, for Tsung-mi, is the single word “chih.”

In the Ch’an Preface Tsung-mi gives the following characterization of the Teaching which Directly Reveals that the True Mind is the Nature:

“This teaching propounds that all sentient beings without exception have the empty, tranquil True Mind.

From time without beginning it is the intrinsically pure, effulgent, unobscured, clear and bright ever-present Awareness (ch’ang-chih).

It will abide forever and never perish on into the infinite future. It is named Buddhanature; it is also named Tathagatagarbha and Mind-Ground.”

Tsung-mi goes on to gloss what he means by “ever-present awareness” in a later part of this section (404c28-a12; K 131-132).

After stating that it is not the awareness of realization (cheng-chih), he says that the True Nature is nevertheless spoken of as aware to indicate that it is different from insentient nature. However,

Awareness is neither the mental activity of discrimination (fen-pieh chih shih) nor wisdom (chih, Mathews # 933). For canonical authority he then refers to the Wen-ming (“The Bodhisattvas Ask for Clarification”) chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra (see T 10.69a), (12) which he claims differentiates between Awareness (chih, Mathews #932) and wisdom (chih, Mathews #933), pointing out that “wisdom is not shared by the ordinary person” (fan), whereas “Awareness is possessed by both the sage (sheng) and the ordinary person” (13).

He first quotes Manjusri’s answer to the bodhisattvas’ question, “What is the Wisdom of the realm of Buddhas?”

“The Wisdom of all Buddhas freely [penetrates] the three times without obstruction.” (Since there is nothing within the past, present, and future that is not utterly penetrated, [it is said to be] free and unobstructed.)

He then quotes Manjusri’s answer to the question, “What is the Awareness of the realm of Buddhas?”

“It is not something that can be known by consciousness (fei shih so neng shih).
It cannot be known by consciousness.
Consciousness falls within the category of discrimination.
Were it discriminated, it would not be True Awareness.

True Awareness is only seen in no-thought.

Nor is it an object of the mind (i fei hsin ching chieh).
It cannot be known by wisdom.
That is to say, if one were to realize it by means of wisdom,
then it would fall within the category of an object which is realized,
but since True Awareness is not an object,
it cannot be realized by wisdom …. (14).

What Tsung-mi thus means by “Awareness” is not a specific cognitive faculty, but the underlying ground of sentience which is always present in all sentient life.

It is not some special kind of state of mind or spiritual insight, but the ground of both delusion and enlightenment, ignorance and wisdom, or, as he aptly terms it, the Mind Ground.

Tsung-mi’s use of “chih” to designate the Tathagatagarbha, and the specific meaning that it has for him in terms of “revelatory” language, gives a decided Ch’an twist to Tathagatagarbha doctrine.

At the same time, it also brings a scholastic dimension back into Ch’an, which the iconoclasm of Shen-hui’s attack on the Northern line of Ch’an had eclipsed.

The reconciliation of Ch’an and the more scholastic teachings (ch’an-chiao ichih) was, of course, one of the major objectives to which Tsung-mi devoted the Ch’an Preface.


Awareness, as the functioning of the self-Nature, thus represents the dynamic, creative aspect of the Nature. It is therefore important to note that the word “chih” is primarily verbal, meaning “to know.”

Even when it is used nominally, as it is by Tsung-mi, its verbal force is still retained. That which “chih” refers to, then, is an activity rather than a thing.

For this reason it is preferable to the word “Mind” (hsin), which, as a noun, is more apt to be reified.

The English word “knowing,” accordingly, might seem to be a better translation of’ “chih, ” as it more faithfully represents both the literal meaning and verbal character of the Chinese word.

The problem with “knowing,” as a translation, however, is that, in English, the verb “to know” is transitive and demands an object.

But Tsung-mi emphasizes the fact that ”chih” is intransitive and does not demand an object.

And “Awareness,” insofar as it is possible to be aware without necessarily being aware of anything, better expresses the intransitive character of “chih.”

Adapted and edited from the outstanding, Tsung-mi and the Single Word “Awareness” (chih) by Peter Gregory