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Heshang Moheyan (Chinese: 和尚摩訶衍; pinyin: Héshang Móhēyǎn) was a late 8th century Buddhist monk associated with the East Mountain Teaching. He became famous for representing Chan Buddhism in the so called "Council of Lhasa," a debate between adherents of the Indian teachings of "gradual enlightenment" and the Chinese teachings of "sudden enlightenment," which according to tradition was won by the "gradual teachings."
Whilst the East Mountain Teachings (pejoratively known as the "Northern School" Chan) were in decline, having been attacked by Shenhui (a student of Huineng) as a supposed "gradual enlightenment" teaching, Moheyan traveled to Dunhuang, which at the time belonged to the Tibetan Empire, in 781 or 787. For Moheyan, this was a new opportunity for the spread of (Northern) Chan.
After teaching in the area of Dunhuang, Moheyan was invited by Trisong Detsen of the Tibetan Empire to settle at Samye, then the center of emerging Tibetan Buddhism.[web 2] Moheyan promulgated a variety of Chan Buddhism and disseminated teachings from Samye where he attracted a considerable number of followers.
However, in 793 Trisong Detsen resolved that Moheyan did not hold the true Dharma. Following intense protests from Moheyan’s supporters, Trisong Detsen proposed to settle the matter by sponsoring a debate.[note 1] The most famous of these debates has become known as the "Council of Lhasa", although it may have taken place at Samye, a considerable distance from Lhasa. For the famed Council of Lhasa, an Indian monk named Kamalaśīla was invited to represent Indian Buddhism, while Moheyan represented East Mountain Teachings and Chinese Buddhism.
While Moheyan took a subitist approach to enlightenment, his position was weakened when conceding that practices such as the perfection of morality, studying the sutras and teachings of the masters, and cultivating meritorious actions were appropriate. These types of actions were seen as part of the "gradualist" school, and Moheyan held that these were only necessary for those of "dim" facility and "dull" propensity. Those of "sharp" and "keen" facility and propensity do not need these practices, as they have "direct" access to the truth through meditation. This concession to the "gradualists", that not everyone can achieve the highest state of meditation, left Moheyan open to the charge that he had a dualistic approach to practice. To overcome these inconsistencies in his thesis, Moheyan claimed that when one gave up all conceptions, an automatic, all-at-once attainment of virtue resulted. He taught that there was an "internal" practice to gain insight and liberate one-self, and an "external" practice to liberate others (upaya, or skillful means). These were seen as two independent practices, a concession to human psychology and scriptural tradition.
Most Tibetan sources state that the debate was decided in Kamalaśīla's favour (though many Chinese sources claim Moheyan won) and Moheyan was required to leave the country and that all sudden-enlightenment texts were gathered and destroyed by royal decree. This was a pivotal event in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, which would afterward continue to follow the late Indian model with only minor influence from China.
Nevertheless, Chan texts were produced until the 10th century in Tibet, which casts doubt on these Tibetan sources.[web 2]
Mo-ho-yen's teaching in Tibet as the famed proponent of the all-at-once gate can be summarized as "gazing-at-mind" (k'an-hsin... = sems la bltas[note 3] and "no examining" (pu-kuan... = myi rtog pa) or "no-thought no-examining" (pu-ssu pu-kuan... = myi bsam myi rtog). "Gazing-at-mind" is an original Northern (or East Mountain Dharma Gate) teaching. As will become clear, Poa-t'ang and the Northern Ch'an dovetail in the Tibetan sources. Mo-ho-yen's teaching seems typical of late Northern Ch'an. It should be noted that Mo-ho-yen arrived on the central Tibetan scene somewhat late in comparison to the Ch'an transmissions from Szechwan.
The dichotomy of the gradual north and sudden south is a historical construction, as both Northern and Southern Schools contained "gradualist teachings"[note 4] and "sudden teachings"[note 5] and practices.
Gōmez gives a detailed account of the doctrinary differences that were at stake at the "council of Lhasa", based on Buton Rinchen Drub's Chos-'yun, which in turn may have been based on Kamalaśīla's Third Bhāvanākrama. Buton Rinchen Drub had chosen two points to summarize the conflict, which entails complex doctrinal and historical issues.
Most of what is known of Moheyan’s teaching comes from fragments of writings in Chinese and Tibetan found in the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang (now in Gansu, China). The manuscript given the appellation IOL Tib J 709 is a collection of nine Chan texts, commencing with the teachings of Moheyan.[web 2]
According to Buton Rinchen Drub, the conflict centered around two theses set out by Moheyan:
yet, a principal point of Moheyan's teaching is that according to Moheyan, the root cause of samsara is the creation of false distinctions, vikalpa-citta. As long as these false distinctions are being created, one is bound to samsara.
According to Buton Rinchen Drub, Moheyan taught that carrying out good or evil acts binds one to transmigration. Moheyan's point is that the concept of good or false is itself still conceptual thinking, which obscures enlightenment. If all thought, good or bad, obscures enlightenment, then all actions must be based on the simplest principles of conduct. To achieve proper conduct, all conceptions, without exception should be seen as false:
Sam van Schaik notes that Moheyan "didn’t advocate the suppression of thoughts," but rather advised, in his own words:
[Y]ou should not suppress concepts. Whenever they arise, if you do not fabricate anything but instead let them go, then they will stay as they are and come to rest by themselves; thus you will not pursue them.[web 4]
By practicing dhyana, awareness should be reverted toward this awareness itself:
To turn the light [of the mind] towards the mind’s source, that is contemplating the mind [...] one does not reflect on or observe whether thoughts are in movement or not, whether they are pure or not, whether they are empty or not.
By turning the attention inward, one discovers that no "self-nature" can be found in the movements of the mind. Eventually, dhyana leads to the realisation that awareness is empty, and cannot be grasped by concepts:
When he enters a state of deep contemplation, he looks into his own mind. There being no-mind, he does not engage in thought. If thoughts of discrimination arise, he should become aware of them [...] Whatever thoughts arise, one does not examine [...] He does not examine any dharma whatsoever. If he becomes aware in this way of the arising (of thoughts, he perceives) the absence of self-existence [...] After sitting (in this manner) for a long time, the mind will become tame, and one will realize that his awareness is also discriminating mind [...] Awareness itself is without name or form [...] [T]he awareness and place where it occurs cannot be obtained by any search. There is no way of reflecting on the inconceivable. Not to cling even to this absence of thought is (the immediate access of) the Tathagatas.[note 6]
The teachings of Moheyan and other Chan masters were unified with the Kham Dzogchen ("Great Perfection") lineages[note 7] through the Kunkhyen (Tibetan for "omniscient"), Rongzom Chokyi Zangpo. The Dzogchen of the Nyingma was often identified with the subitist ("sudden enlightenment")[note 8] of Moheyan, and was called to defend itself against this charge by avowed members of the Sarma lineages that held to the staunch view of "gradual enlightenment"[note 9]
He is usually depicted as a rotund and jovial figure and holding a mala, or prayer beads in his left hand and a sankha, conch shell in his right. He is often considered a benefactor of children and is usually depicted with at least one or more playing children around him.[web 1]