The Six Zen Patriarchs are the first six masters of Zen Buddhism. Every Zen teacher alive today counts them as her or his dharma ancestors. Dayi Daoxin (or Tao-hsin; 580-651 CE) is recognized in all schools of Zen as the Fourth Patriarch.
Daoxin’s life as a master teacher of Zen came at the very beginning of the Tang Dynasty (618–907), a high point of Chinese civilization and a golden age for Zen. He established the first permanent monastery dedicated entirely to Zen. And he is credited with establishing the unique style of Zen monastic life, in which practice continues through everyday activities.
So, Daoxin is a very important person in Zen history. Even so, his life story comes with a big asterisk.
The wisdom of Zen is said to be directly transmitted face to face, from teacher to student. It is nothing like reading a book to get a conceptual understanding of something. Teacher and student achieve an intuitive bond, and in time the teacher recognizes that the student has realized the enlightenment of the dharma.
Zen history says the chain of teachers transmitting to the next generation of teachers has been unbroken since the time of the Buddha, and even to Buddhas before Buddha. In this way, it is said, the mind of the Buddha is kept alive through the generations.
But Daoxin’s time in Zen history was not well recorded. There is no contemporary record telling us how Daoxin received transmission from the Third Patriarch, Jianzhi Sengcan. Sengcan himself appears to have been inserted into the record as a kind of patch.
What we know about Daoxin appears to be part history and part myth, and it’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins. Here is the story from the classic Zen chronicles.
Daoxin was born in present day Anhui Province, China, and he began his Buddhist studies at the age of seven. According to Transmission of Light (Denkoroku; compiled in Japan by Keizan Jokin, 1300), Daoxin’s encounter with Sengcan went like this:
Daoxin: “I beg your compassion. Please give me a way of liberation.”
Sengcan: “Who is hindering you?”
Daoxin: “No one is hindering me.”
Sengcan: “Then why do you seek liberation?”
At these words, the Denkoruku says, Daoxin became greatly enlightened.
However he realized enlightenment, Daoxin had the good fortune to live at the dawn of the Tang Dynasty. The Emperor Taizong, who reigned from 626 to 649, was one of China’s greatest emperors. The political upheavals that had challenged Sengcan and the Second Patriarch, Huike, were coming to an end. Daoxin’s predecessors had spent much of their lives wandering or hiding in the mountains, but Daoxin was able to establish a permanent home for Zen.
He established East Mountain Temple / Monastery on Mount Shuangfeng, near modern-day Huangmei in Hubei Province, China. Certainly Zen teachers had taught in monasteries before; Bodhidharma, for example, established Zen in Shaolin Monastery, but even Bodhidharma was something of a visiting teacher at Shaolin. East Mountain was the first thoroughly Zen monastic community.
For thirty years, Daoxin presided over a community of 500 monks. Because alms alone could not support such a large group, East Mountain became a kind of commune, and the monks grew most of their own food. Zen practice was no longer something done in a meditation hall; gardening, cooking, administrating, cleaning, and other chores also were practice. East Mountain became a template that Zen communities have followed ever since.
Even so, for Daoxin, meditation was the most essential practice. “Sit earnestly in meditation!” he is said to have said. “The sitting in meditation is basic to all else.”
Of the many legends about Daoxin, the most famous begins with Daoxin refusing to comply with an imperial decree. The master teacher was summoned to the court of Emperor Taizong, but Daoxin would not go. After a second summons also was refused, the Emperor told his messenger to bring back either an unharmed Daoxin or his head.
But when the messenger read the decree regarding his head, Daoxin bent down and presented his neck. “Cut it off, then!” he told the messenger. The astonished messenger left with neither Daoxin nor his head. When the Emperor heard this story, he honored Daoxin as a great Buddhist teacher.
It is recorded that Daoxin taught the Prajnaparamita sutras as well as the Lankavatara, the primary sutra of early Zen. There is also a text attributed to him called the Five Gates of Daoxin:
Let it be known: Buddha is the mind. Outside of the mind there is no Buddha. In short, this includes the following five things:
First: The ground of the mind is essentially one with the Buddha.
Second: The movement of the mind brings forth the treasure of the Dharma. The mind moves yet is ever quiet; it becomes turbid and yet remains such as it is.
Third: The mind is awake and never ceasing; the awakened mind is always present; the Dharma of awakened mind is without specific form.
Fourth: The body is always empty and quiet; both within and without, it is one and the same; the body is located in the Dharma world, yet is unfettered.
Fifth: Maintaining unity without going astray — dwelling at once in movement and rest, one can see the Buddha nature clearly and enter the gate of samadhi.
[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]