Regardless of whether they are applying Buddhist principles or displaying other kinds of knowledge, composing poetry or demonstrating well-timed wit, behaving outrageously or showing impressive integrity, it is the strengths and accomplishments of monks that are emphasized in Night Chats. We might assume from this that Huihong was intentionally trying to portray monks only in a positive light. Indeed, overall, monks are portrayed favorably, but there are accounts that highlight the character flaws, absurd behavior, and mistaken understanding of some monks.
Monks’ imperfections are revealed in a few different ways. Huihong avoids heavy moralistic statements, but he will occasionally explicitly point out shortcomings. More commonly, he cites others’ criticism of certain monks or records accounts in which their foibles are only hinted at through mockery or teasing. He seems to be most critical of scholarly monks and poet monks. A few accounts point out where the monk authors of monastic biographies lack critical evaluation or make mistakes. He criticizes Qisong Zhongling for failing to point out the inconsistent behavior of the Eastern Jin monk Huiyuan 慧遠. After noting that Qisong admonished previous scholars for undervaluing Huiyuan’s virtues, Huihong boldly states,
Is it really the case that [Qisong] Zhongling himself investigated [Huiyuan’s] affairs? When Xie Lingyun wanted to enter the [White Lotus] society, [Hui]yuan didn’t allow it, saying, “It is because your thinking is confused and you will come to a bad end.” But after Lu Xun rebelled, Yuan clasped his hand, chatting and laughing. If we say that [Hui]yuan was a good judge of people, then how could he have been in the dark with regard to Xun? If we say he wasn’t a good judge of people, then why was he clear when it came to Lingyun? 仲靈寧嘗自考其事乎？謝靈運欲入社，遠拒之曰：『是子思亂，將不令終。』盧循反，而遠與之執手言笑。謂遠知人，則何暗於循；謂不知人，則何獨明於靈運？
Huihong doesn’t think Huiyuan should be portrayed as unequivocally virtuous when he is inconsistent in his judgement of people, having enough discernment and integrity to reject Xie Lingyun but willing to stay friends with a rebel like Lu Xun. Qisong was highly respected both at court and in the monastery, but this does not stop Huihong from critiquing his scholarship.
In his assessment of the character of monk poets, Huihong’s criticisms are often part of nuanced descriptions that emphasizes contradictory traits. Introducing the poetry of Huiquan, Huihong writes, “He feigned madness and was filthy, but his poetic lines were the epitome of purity and grace” 佯狂垢汙，而詩句絕清婉. Or there is his description of Daoqian as a monk with a distinct style who became well known through his poetry, “but was volatile and had a shallow nature, looking down on ordinary people as if they were enemies” 然性褊尚氣，憎凡子如仇. In other entries, Huihong includes a mixture of his own assessment with the critical opinion of others. We can also find cases where teasing poems or rhetorical questions indicate an underlying critical view of the monk in question. The account of the poet monk Kezun (also referred to as “Zun”) includes several of the rhetorical devises used to suggest criticism seen in Night Chats.
“Kezun of Fuzhou liked to compose poetry. He would flaunt his talents to overshadow others. The monastic community made a pretense of being polite, but they didn’t really feel that way. Once he inscribed a poem on the wall of a hot springs [bath]. When Dongpo visited Mount Lu, he happened to see it and [wrote a] match.
Zun’s [poem] reads:
禪庭誰立石龍頭 Who has set up a stone dragon head in the Chan Hall?
龍口湯泉沸不休From the dragon’s mouth the hot springs gushes forth without cease.
直待眾生塵垢盡Waiting until the defilements of all living beings are purged,
我方清冷混常流for only then can I, clean and cool, mix with regular streams.”
Dongpo’s [matching poem] reads:
石龍有口口無根The Stone dragon has a mouth, but his mouth is without a root/stem (tongue?),
龍口湯泉自吐吞In the dragon’s mouth hot springs is spewed and swallowed on its own.
若信眾生本無垢 If it is true that living beings originally are without defilement,
此泉何處覓寒溫 Then why would this spring care whether it was hot or cold?”
Following this, Zun became even more arrogant. When he visited Jinling, Foyin Yuangong [Liaoyuan] was coming back from the capital and visited there. Zun wrote a poem to present to him:
“Coming back from the capital, the road is several thousand miles,
It is exactly as if he were bringing the incense smoke from the imperial censor.
At the foot of Phoenix Mountain you knock on the thatched hut,
Startling awake the old mountain man from his morning slumber.”
Yuan responded in jest:
“Sleeping meditating monks: thousands upon thousands,
in their dreams pursuing profit they run off like [incense] smoke.
I urge you sir to perk up and cultivate Chan samadhi,
In your old age, like a silk worm in its cocoon you have already gone back to sleep.”
Although Yuan’s [Foyin] poem lacks cultured restraint, he did it quickly for the occasion. 福州僧可遵好作詩，暴所長以蓋人，叢林貌禮之而心不然。嘗題詩湯泉壁間，東坡遊廬山，偶見，為和之。遵曰：〔禪庭誰立石龍頭？龍口湯泉沸不休。直待眾生塵垢盡，我方清冷混常流。〕東坡曰：〔石龍有口口無根，龍口湯泉自吐吞。若信眾生本無垢，此泉何處覓寒溫？ 〕遵自是愈自矜伐。客金陵，佛印元公自京師還，過焉。遵作詩贈之曰：〔上國歸來路幾千，渾然猶帶御爐煙。鳳凰山下敲蓬咏戶，驚起山翁白晝眠。〕元戲答曰：〔打睡禪和萬萬千，夢中趨利走如煙。勸君抖擻修禪定，老境如蠶已再眠。〕元詩雖少蘊藉，然一時快之。
We have seen that Huihong liked accounts of strong willed, confident monks who stood up for themselves, but he was quick to point out when they became too full of themselves. After mentioning Kezun’s tendency to be arrogant, he includes two of his poems and Su Shi and Foyin’s matching poems. Both the matching poems are meant to poke fun of Kezun. Foyin’s poem makes a direct mockery of Kezun, painting him as a lazy monk who is sleeping and daydreaming instead of meditating. Su Shi’s poem is not a personal attack, but it eclipses Kezun’s poem by suggesting the Chan understanding expressed in it does not go deep enough, a point seemingly lost on Kezun who is simply excited that his poem was matched by the great Su Shi.
Kieschnick argues that monastic biographies represent the monk as he was seen in the “monastic imagination,” as an ideal, rather than a reflection of factual reality. The depiction of monks in Night Chats are undoubtedly shaped to a certain degree by Huihong’s imagination, but the result is rarely an idealized monk.
 LZYH 9.76 (WSB p. 84).
 LZYH 6.59. (This version of the lines is from WSB p. 57) (6 no. 8)
 LZYH 6.60. (WSB p. 58). (6 no. 11)
 LZYH 6.60-61. (WSB p. 61).
 Kieschnick, The Eminent Monk, pp. 3-4. Kieshnick’s study is primarily based on three famous collections of monastic biographies: the Gaoseng zhuan (6th century), the Xu gaoseng zhuan (7th century) and the Song gaoseng zhuan (10th century).
(Note: This is a rough draft. Not for reference or citation without author’s permission.)