Why did Dhyana Master Danxia burn a Buddha image for warmth?
Dhyana Master Danxia’s burning of a Buddha image to get warmth won the admiration of people in later generations. Such people think that to do away with worthies and sages, fathers and mothers, teachers and superiors, as well as all rules is to follow the way of spontaneity, to accord with Nature. Such unmitigated arrogance is truly pitiful.
When Chan Master Danxia knelt and bowed, it was to the Buddha, the self nature. When he burned the image, what he burned was wood, using the nature of fire. In saying that the mind has no discriminations, actually, there are distinctions made; it's just that mundane principles and the principles contained in the Teaching become perfectly fused when one's wisdom opens. Even if he burned all the Buddha images in all the temples and monasteries, he still could not change the fact that Shakyamuni Buddha was his Guiding Master.
By the same principle, if I attempt to destroy the faith which the Chan school proudly places in this story, then that would merely be for my own personal satisfaction. The Chan school is still the Chan school; a Buddha is still a Buddha; and I am still a common person. What if an image of a common person were be burned? At most, the person's family members would fight with you. But the story of Chan Master Danxia burning the wooden Buddha has been discussed for several hundred years. If there were nothing in it, why would people bother to keep talking about it? Only brilliant events warrant such a reaction; and even if one might wish to erase it from history, it cannot be done.
The magnificence of the Buddha is also shown in this: Even after he entered Nirvana, people could still get warmth from a wooden likeness of him.
[Editor's Note] Dhyana Master Tianran (Natural) of Tang Dynasty got the name because his nature was natural and unpretentious. Moreover, because he lived on Mount Danxia, he was reverently addressed as Dhyana Master Danxia. One day, he happened to go to Huilin Monastery in Loyang. The night became freezing, and so he took a carved wooden Buddha and burned it to get warmth. Everyone was astonished and scolded him. The Dhyana Master said, "I'm burning it to get sharira." The assembly asked, "How can you get sharira from burning wood?" The Dhyana Master said, "Since wooden Buddhas don't possess sharira, go and get another couple of images to burn!"
Buddhism came into China at the end of Han Dynasty and became popular after the Six Dynasties period. Down to Tang Dynasty, not only were there many talented sages, but enormous schools developed after the time of the Sixth Patriarch. At that time, those who followed the Teaching School attached to the attributes of teaching and failed to realize the mind is the Buddha. Therefore, the Chan School did not rely on language, but used real actions to break through people's attachments. This public record became so renowned in the Chan School that people of later generations cited it over and over, praising it as the ultimate state of no attributes and no attachments. The state was high all right, but such an act could only be done by a person like Dhyana Master Danxia, who was completely natural and sincere, perfect and without obstructions. No one could possibly imitate that example. At that time, people attached to "the existence of form" and failed to realize that the mind is the Buddha; students of later generations blindly admired and superficially imitated his behavior, attaching to "emptiness of non-obstruction" and turning it into intellectualizing about Chan. They fell into the two extremes and failed to realize the self nature, and so they still had obstructions.
As a matter of fact, if one says that what Dhyana Master Danxia did was deliberately designed to break through attachments, that's not completely true. Based on what he was, his action was more likely straightforward and natural, free of any consideration or attention. He was just doing what was necessary in that circumstance. That's why he was called Dhyana Master Tianran (Natural). He didn't get that name for no reason. As it's said in Upasika Yao's essay, " When Chan Master Danxia knelt and bowed, it was to the Buddha, the self nature. When he burned the image, what he burned was wood, using the nature of fire. Even if he burned all the Buddha images in all the temples and monasteries, he still could not change the fact that Shakyamuni Buddha was his Guiding Master." We could even say, "Even if he burned all the wooden Buddhas, he still could not change the fact that he was the master of his self nature. He was worshipping the Buddha of his self nature."
As for slander and praise of those in the world, it has nothing to do with him or with the Buddha. "The Chan school is still the Chan school, a Buddha is still a Buddha."