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Hui-neng and the Platform Sutra



Hui-neng (638-713) is the founder of what became the dominant Zen School of China. He was born in the southwest Kwangtung Province of China, and died in Kwangtung too.

The Platform Sutra

"Platform sutra" has been equated by some with the Sanskrit dana, gift, donation. It has also been linked to a practice of deliver sermons from a platform place. Strictly speaking, what follows is not an Indian Sutra, but the record of the career and sermons of a master. [See Tun 125n]

Hui Neng stories

A Story of Hui-neng and a Boy

ONE DAY a small boy came to Hui-neng's temple and asked for instruction.

Hui-neng said, "Did you bring the origin of learning here? If so, what is your master?"

The boy said, "Essential perception is my master. When you sit Zen, do you perceive or not perceive your master?"

Now Hui-neng hit him and asked, "Do you feel pain or not?"

The boy said, "Sometimes."

"That's how it is."

"Why sometimes?" added the boy.

The Zen master said, "Thinking is for common people."

The boy then asked, "Teach me."

Hui-neng said, "Sail away from thinking of good and of bad."

The boy said, "Into OK don't know, I figure."

The Zen master said, "Keep this 'don't know' mind at all times, and you will understand better."

After the passing of a few years, they boy, Sin Hae, said, "The 'don't know' mind is origin of Buddha and of my buddha-nature."

Hui-neng said, "'Don't know' mind [blank mind] is of no name and no form [a matrix of seeing so]. Why do you say [add to it] 'the origin of Buddha and of my buddha-nature'?"

The boy understood and became a Zen master in the South.

Some Chinese Zen patriarchs

  • First Patriarch, Bodhidharma (470 - 543)
  • Second Patriarch, Hui Ko (487 - 593)
  • Third Patriarch, Seng Tsan (? - 606)
  • Fourth Patriarch, Tao Hsin (580 - 651)
  • Fifth Patriarch, Hung Jen (601 - 674)
  • Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (638 - 713)

1 - Story of Hui-neng

ONCE, WHEN the patriarch had arrived at the Pao Lin Monastery, prefect Wei of Shao Chou and other officials went there to ask him to deliver public lectures on Buddhism in the hall of Ta Fan Temple in the City of Canton.

In due course there were assembled in the lecture hall prefect Wei, government officials and Confucian scholars, about thirty each, and bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, Taoists and laymen to the number of about one thousand. After the patriarch had taken his seat, the congregation in a body paid him homage and asked him to preach on the fundamental laws of Buddhism. Upon this he delivered the following address:

"Good friends [1], our essence of mind (literally, self-nature) which is the seed or kernel of enlightenment (bodhi) is pure by nature, and by making use of this mind alone we can reach buddhahood directly. Now let me tell you something about my own life and how I came into possession of the esoteric teaching of the dhyana (or the Zen) school.

[1] Shan-chich-shih. It is used here as a term of address.

My father, a native of Fan Yang, was dismissed from his official post and banished to be a commoner in Hsin Chou in Kwangtung. I was unlucky in that my father died when I was very young, leaving my mother poor and miserable. We moved to Canton and were then in very bad circumstances.

I was selling firewood in the market one day, when one of my customers ordered some to be brought to his shop. Upon delivery being made and payment received, I left the shop, outside of which I found a man reciting a sutra. As soon as I heard the text of this sutra my mind at once became enlightened. Next I asked the man the name of the book he was reciting and was told that it was the Diamond Sutra. I further enquired where he came from and why he recited this particular sutra. He replied that he came from the Tung Ch'an Monastery in the Huang Mei District of Ch'i Chou. The abbot in charge of that temple was Hung Yen, the fifth patriarch. There were about one thousand disciples under him. When the man I talked with went there to pay homage to the patriarch, he attended lectures on this sutra. He further told me that His Holiness used to encourage the laity as well as the monks to recite this scripture, as by doing so they might realise their own essence of mind, and by that reach buddhahood directly.

I was also given ten taels for the maintenance of my mother by a man who advised me to go to Huang Mei to interview the fifth patriarch. After arrangements had been made for her, I left for Huang Mei. [2]

[2] "Later works see to it that Hui-neng provides properly for his mother before taking leave of her." Tun 127n]

It took me less than thirty days to reach the place. I then went to pay homage to the patriarch, and was asked where I came from and what I expected to get from him. I replied,

"I am a commoner from Hsin Chou of Kwangtung. I have travelled far [800 km] to pay you respect and I ask for nothing but buddhahood."

"You are a native of Kwangtung, a barbarian? How can you expect to be a buddha?" asked the patriarch.

I replied,

"Although there are northern men and southern men, north and south make no difference to their buddha-nature. A barbarian is different from Your Holiness physically, but there is no difference in our buddha-nature."

He was going to speak further to me, but the presence of other disciples made him stop short. He then ordered me to join the crowd to work.

"May I tell Your Holiness," said I, "that prajna (transcendental wisdom) often rises in my mind. When one does not go astray from one's own essence of mind, one may be called the 'field of merits'. I do not know what work Your Holiness would ask me to do."

"This barbarian is too bright," he remarked. "Go to the stable and speak no more."

I then withdrew to the back yard and was told by a lay brother to split firewood and to pound rice.

More than eight months after the patriarch saw me one day and said,

"I know your knowledge of Buddhism is very sound, but I have to refrain from speaking to you lest evil-doers should do you harm. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Sir, I do," I replied. "To avoid people taking notice of me, I dare not go near your hall."

The patriarch one day assembled all his disciples and said to them,

"The question of incessant rebirth is a momentous one. Day after day, instead of trying to free yourselves from this bitter sea of life and death, you seem to go after tainted merits only (i.e. merits which will cause rebirth). Yet merits will be of no help if your essence of mind is obscured. Go and seek for prajna (wisdom) in your own mind and then write me a stanza (gatha) about it. He who understands what the essence of mind is will be given the robe (the insignia of the patriarchate) and the dharma (law, here: the esoteric teaching of the Zen school), and I shall make him the sixth patriarch. Go away quickly. Delay not in writing the stanza, as deliberation is quite unnecessary and of no use. The man who has realised the essence of mind can speak of it at once, as soon as he is spoken to about it; and he cannot lose sight of it, even when engaged in battle."

Having received this instruction, the disciples withdrew and said to one another,

"It is of no use for us to concentrate our mind to write the stanza and submit it to His Holiness, since the patriarchate is bound to be won by Shen Hsiu, our instructor. And if we write perfunctorily, it will only be a waste of energy."

Upon hearing this all of them made up their minds not to write and said,

"Why should we take the trouble? Hereafter, we will simply follow our instructor, Shen Hsiu, wherever he goes, and look to him for guidance."

Meanwhile, Shen Hsiu reasoned thus with himself.

"Considering that I am their teacher, none of them will take part in the competition. I wonder whether I should write a stanza and submit it to His Holiness. If I do not, how can the patriarch know how deep or superficial my knowledge is? If my object is to get the Dharma, my motive is a pure one. If I were after the patriarchate, then it would be bad. In that case, my mind would be that of a worldling and my action would amount to robbing the patriarch's holy seat. But if I do not submit the stanza, I shall never have a chance of getting the dharma. A very difficult point to decide, indeed!" [3]

[3] "If I don't offer my mind then I can't learn the dharma," is yet another version. [Cf Tun 129]

In front of the patriarch's hall there were three corridors, the walls of which were to be painted by a court artist, named Lu Chen, with pictures from the Lankavatara Sutra depicting the transfiguration of the assembly, and with scenes showing the genealogy of the five patriarchs for the information and veneration of the public.

When Shen Hsiu had composed his stanza he made several attempts to submit it to the patriarch, but as soon as he went near the hall his mind was so perturbed that he sweated all over. He could not screw up courage to submit it, although in the course of four days he made altogether thirteen attempts to do so.

Then he suggested to himself,

"It would be better for me to write it on the wall of the corridor and let the patriarch see it for himself. If he approves it, I shall come out to pay homage, and tell him that it is done by me; but if he disapproves it, then I shall have wasted several years in this mountain in receiving homage from others which I by no means deserve! In that case, what progress have I made in learning Buddhism?"

At twelve o'clock that night he went secretly with a lamp to write the stanza on the wall of the south corridor, so that the patriarch might know what spiritual insight he had attained. The stanza read:

Our body is the Bodhi-tree,
And our mind a mirror bright.

Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight.

Or, hopefully better: "The mind is the stand of a bright mirror. . . .
Do not allow it to become dusty."

As soon as he had written it he left for his room; so nobody knew what he had done. In his room he again pondered:

"When the patriarch sees my stanza tomorrow and is pleased with it, I shall be ready for the dharma; but if he says that it is badly done, it will mean that I am unfit for the dharma, owing to the misdeeds in previous lives which thickly becloud my mind. It is difficult to know what the patriarch will say about it!"

In this vein he kept on thinking until dawn, as he could neither sleep nor sit at ease.

But the patriarch knew already that Shen Hsiu had not entered the door of enlightenment, and that he had not known the essence of mind. In the morning, he sent for Mr. Lu, the court artist, and went with him to the south corridor to have the walls there painted with pictures. By chance, he saw the stanza.

"I am sorry to have troubled you to come so far," he said to the artist. "The walls need not be painted now, as the Sutra says, 'All forms or phenomena are transient and illusive.' It will be better to leave the stanza here, so that people may study it and recite it. If they put its teaching into actual practice, they will be saved from the misery of being born in these evil realms of existence. The merit gained by one who practices it will indeed be great!"

He then ordered incense to be burnt, and all his disciples to pay homage to it and to recite it, so that they might realise the essence of mind. After they had recited it, all of them exclaimed,

"Well done!"

At midnight, the patriarch sent for Shen Hsiu to come to the hall, and asked him whether the stanza was written by him or not.

"It was, Sir," replied Shen Hsiu. "I dare not be so vain as to expect to get the patriarchate, but I wish Your Holiness would kindly tell me whether my stanza shows the least grain of wisdom."

"Your stanza," replied the patriarch, "shows that you have not yet realised the essence of mind. So far you have reached the 'door of enlightenment', but you have not yet entered it. To seek for supreme enlightenment with such an understanding as yours can hardly be successful.

"To attain supreme enlightenment, one must be able to know spontaneously one's own nature or essence of mind, which is neither created nor can it be annihilated. From ksana to ksana (thought-moment to thought-moment), one should be able to realise the essence of mind all the time. All things will then be free from restraint (i.e., emancipated). Once the Tathata (suchness, another name for the essence of mind) is known, one will be free from delusion forever; and in all circumstances one's mind will be in a state of 'thusness'. Such a state of mind is absolute truth. If you can see things in such a frame of mind you will have known the essence of mind, which is supreme enlightenment.

"You had better go back to think it over again for couple of days, and then submit me another stanza. If your stanza shows that you have entered the 'door of enlightenment', I will transmit you the robe and the dharma."

Shen Hsiu made obeisance to the patriarch and left. For several days, he tried in vain to write another stanza. This upset his mind so much that he was as ill at ease as if he were in a nightmare, and he could find comfort neither in sitting nor in walking.

Two days after, it happened that a young boy who was passing by the room where I was pounding rice recited loudly the stanza written by Shen Hsiu. As soon as I heard it, I knew at once that the composer of it has not yet realised the essence of mind. For although I had not been taught about it at that time, I already had a general idea of it.

"What stanza is this?" I asked the boy.

"You barbarian," he replied, "don't you know about it? The patriarch told his disciples that the question of incessant rebirth was a momentous one, that those who wished to inherit his robe and dharma should write him a stanza, and that the one who had an understanding of the essence of mind would get them and be made the sixth patriarch. Elder Shen Hsiu wrote this 'Formless' stanza on the wall of the south corridor and the patriarch told us to recite it. He also said that those who put its teaching into actual practice would attain great merit, and be saved from the misery of being born in the evil realms of existence."

I told the boy that I wished to recite the stanza too, so that I might have an affinity with its teaching in future life. I also told him that although I had been pounding rice there for eight months I had never been to the hall, and that he would have to show me where the stanza was to enable me to make obeisance to it.

The boy took me there and I asked him to read it to me, as I am illiterate. A petty officer of the Chiang Chou District named Chang Tih-Yung, who happened to be there, read it out to me. When he had finished reading I told him that I also had composed a stanza and asked him to write it for me.

"Extraordinary indeed," he exclaimed, "that you also can compose a stanza!"

"Don't despise a beginner," said I, "if you are a seeker of supreme enlightenment. You should know that the lowest class may have the sharpest wit, while the highest may be in want of intelligence. If you slight others, you commit a very great sin."

"Dictate your stanza," said he. "I will take it down for you. But do not forget to deliver me, should you succeed in getting the Dharma!"

My stanza read:

"Buddha-nature is forever clear and pure,
Where is there any dust?"

The Platform Sutra was subjected to some editing, revision and emendations in the course of time. [Cf. Tun 94, 132] When he had written this, all disciples and others who were present were greatly surprised. Filled with admiration, they said to one another,

"How wonderful! No doubt we should not judge people by appearance. How can it be that for so long we have made a bodhisattva incarnate work for us?"

Seeing that the crowd was overwhelmed with amazement, the patriarch rubbed off the stanza with his shoe, lest jealous ones should do me injury. He expressed the opinion, which they took for granted, that the author of this stanza had also not yet realised the essence of mind.

Next day the patriarch came secretly to the room where the rice was pounded. Seeing that I was working there with a stone pestle, he said to me,

"A seeker of the Path risks his life for the dharma. Should he not do so?" Then he asked, "Is the rice ready?"

"Ready long ago," I replied, "only waiting for the sieve."

He knocked the mortar thrice with his stick and left.

Knowing what his message meant, in the third watch of the night I went to his room. Using the robe as a screen so that none could see us, he expounded the Diamond Sutra to me. When he came to the sentence, "One should use one's mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachment," I at once became thoroughly enlightened, and realised that all things in the universe are the essence of mind itself.

"Who would have thought," I said to the patriarch, "that the essence of mind is intrinsically pure! Who would have thought that the essence of mind is intrinsically free from becoming or annihilation! Who would have thought that the essence of mind is intrinsically self-sufficient! Who would have thought that the essence of mind is intrinsically free from change! Who would have thought that all things are the manifestation of the essence of mind!"

Knowing that I had realised the essence of mind, the patriarch said,

"For him who does not know his own mind there is no use learning Buddhism. On the other hand, if he knows his own mind and sees intuitively his own nature, he is a hero, a 'teacher of gods and men', 'Buddha'."

Thus, to the knowledge of no one, the dharma was transmitted to me at midnight, and consequently I became the inheritor of the teaching of the 'Sudden' School as well as of the robe and the begging bowl.

"You are now the sixth patriarch," said he. "Take good care of yourself, and deliver as many sentient beings as possible. Spread and preserve the teaching, and don't let it come to an end. Take note of my stanza:

Sentient beings who sow the seeds of enlightenment
In the field of causation will reap the fruit of buddhahood.
Inanimate objects void of Buddha-nature
Sow not and reap not.

He further said,

"When the patriarch Bodhidharma first came to China, most Chinese had no confidence in him, and so this robe was handed down as a testimony from one patriarch to another. As to the dharma, this is transmitted from heart to heart, and the recipient must realise it by his own efforts. From time immemorial it has been the practice for one buddha to pass to his successor the quintessence of the dharma, and for one patriarch to transmit to another the esoteric teaching from heart to heart. As the robe may give cause for dispute, you are the last one to inherit it. Should you hand it down to your successor, your life would be in imminent danger. Now leave this place as quickly as you can, lest someone should do you harm."

"Where should I go?" I asked.

"At Huai you stop and at Hui you seclude yourself," he replied.

  Upon receiving the robe and the begging bowl in the middle of the night, I told the patriarch that, being a southerner, I did not know the mountain tracks, and that it was impossible for me to get to the mouth of the river (to catch a boat).

  "You need not worry," said he. "I will go with you."

He then accompanied me to Kiukiang, and there ordered me into a boat. As he did the rowing himself, I asked him to sit down and let me handle the oar.

  "It is only right for me to carry you across," he said, alluding to the sea of birth and death which one has to go across before the shore of Nirvana can be reached. To this I replied,

"While I am under illusion, it is for you to get me across; but after enlightenment, I should cross it by myself. (Although the term 'to go across' is the same, it is used differently in each case). As I happen to be born on the frontier, even my speaking is incorrect in pronunciation, (but in spite of this) I have had the honour to inherit the dharma from you. Since I am now enlightened, it is only right for me to cross the sea of birth and death myself by realizing my own essence of mind."

  "Quite so, quite so," he agreed. "Beginning from you the dhyana school will become very popular. Three years after your departure from me I shall leave this world. You may start on your journey now. Go as fast as you can towards the south. Do not preach too soon, as Buddhism is not so easily spread."

After saying good-bye, I left him and walked towards the south. In about two months' time, I reached the Ta Yu Mountain. There I noticed that several hundred men were in pursuit of me with the intention of robbing me of my robe and begging bowl.

  Among them there was a monk named Hui Ming, whose lay surname was Ch'en. He was a general of the fourth rank in lay life. His manner was rough and his temper hot. Of all the pursuers, he was the most vigilant in search of me. When he was about to overtake me, I threw the robe and begging bowl on a rock, saying,

"This robe is nothing but a symbol. What is the use of taking it away by force?"

I then hid myself. When he got to the rock, he tried to pick them up, but found he could not. Then he shouted out,

"Lay brother, lay brother, (for the patriarch had not yet formally joined the order) I come for the dharma, not for the robe."

Whereupon I came out from my hiding place and squatted on the rock. He made obeisance and said,

"Lay brother, preach to me, please."

"Since the object of your coming is the dharma," said I, "refrain from thinking of anything and keep your mind blank. I will then teach you."

    When he had done this for a considerable time, I said,

  "When you are thinking of neither good nor evil, what is at that particular moment, Venerable Sir, your real nature (literally, original face)?" [5]

    [5] The original face means the mind's essence. Sitting in a good contemplation pose, gradually train yourself, and the original face will appear - nameless, but indicated by such terms as original face, the Buddha nature. "The seventeen hundred koans or themes to which Zen students devote themselves are all only for making them see their original face." True enlightenment is called seeing the original face. So ancients that had a great realization, or a major breakthrough, saw the original face.

  As soon as he heard this he at once became enlightened. But he further asked,

"Apart from those esoteric sayings and esoteric ideas handed down by the patriarch from generation to generation, are there any other esoteric teachings?"

  "What I can tell you is not esoteric," I replied. "If you turn your light inwardly, you will find what is esoteric within you."

  "In spite of my staying in Huang Mei," said he, "I did not realise my self-nature. Now thanks to your guidance, I know it as a water-drinker knows how hot or how cold the water is. Lay brother, you are now my teacher."

I replied,

"If that is so, then you and I are fellow disciples of the fifth patriarch. Take good care of yourself."

In answering his question where he should go after that, I told him to stop at Yuan and to take up his abode in Meng. He paid homage and departed.

Some time after I reached Ts'ao Ch'i. There the evildoers again persecuted me and I had to take refuge in Szu Hui, where I stayed with a party of hunters for a period as long as fifteen years.

Occasionally I preached to them in a way that befitted their understanding. They used to put me to watch their nets, but whenever I found living creatures in them I set them free. At meal times I put vegetables in the pan in which they cooked their meat. Some of them questioned me, and I explained to them that I would eat the vegetables only, after they had been cooked with the meat.

One day I bethought myself that I ought not to pass a secluded life all the time, and that it was high time for me to propagate the Law. Accordingly I left there and went to the Fa Hsin Temple in Canton.

At that time Bhikkhu Yin Tsung, master of the dharma, was lecturing on the Maha Parinirvana Sutra in the temple. It happened that one day, when a pennant was blown about by the wind, two Bhikkhus entered into a dispute as to what it was that was in motion, the wind or the pennant. As they could not settle their difference I submitted to them that it was neither, and that what actually moved was their own mind.

The whole assembly was startled by what I said, and bhikkhu Yin Tsang invited me to take a seat of honour and questioned me about various knotty points in the sutras.

    Seeing that my answers were precise and accurate, and that they showed something more than book-knowledge, he said to me,

"Lay brother, you must be an extraordinary man, I was told long ago that the inheritor of the fifth patriarch's robe and dharma had come to the south. Very likely you are the man."

To this I politely assented. At once he made obeisance and asked me to show the assembly the robe and the begging bowl which I had inherited. He further asked what instructions I had when the fifth patriarch transmitted me the dharma.

"Apart from a discussion on the realization of the essence of mind," I replied, "he gave me no other instruction, nor did he refer to dhyana and emancipation."

"Why not?" he asked.

"Because that would mean two ways," I replied. "And there cannot be two ways in Buddhism. There is one way only."

He asked what was the only way. I replied,

"The Maha Parinirvana Sutra which you expound explains that buddha-nature is the only way. For example, in that sutra King Kao Kuei-Teh, a Bodhisattva, asked Buddha whether or not those who commit the four acts of gross misconduct [killing, stealing, carnality and lying] or the five deadly sins [patricide, matricide, setting the Buddhist Order in discord, killing an Arhat, and causing blood to flow from the body of a buddha], and those who are icchantika (heretics) etc., would eradicate their 'element of goodness' and their Buddha-nature.

Buddha replied, 'There are two kinds of 'element of goodness', the eternal and the non-eternal. Since buddha-nature is neither eternal nor non-eternal, therefore their 'element of goodness' is not eradicated. Now Buddhism is known as having no two ways. There are good ways and evil ways, but since Buddha-nature is neither, therefore Buddhism is known as having no two ways. From the point of view of ordinary folks, the component parts of a personality (skandhas) and factors of consciousness (dhatus) are two separate things: but enlightened men understand that they are not dual in nature. Buddha-nature is non-duality."

Bhikkhu Yin Tsung was highly pleased with my answer. Putting his two palms together as a sign of respect, he said,

"My interpretation of the sutra is as worthless as a heap of debris, while your discourse is as valuable as genuine gold." Subsequently he conducted the ceremony of hair-cutting for me (i.e., the ceremony of initiation into the order) and asked me to accept him as my pupil.

From then on, under the bodhi-tree I preached the teaching of the Tung Shan school (the school of the fourth and the fifth patriarchs, who lived in Tung Shan).

Since the time when the dharma was transmitted to me in Tung Shan, I have gone through many hardships and my life often seemed to be hanging by a thread. Today I have had the honour of meeting you in this assembly, and I must ascribe this to our good connection in previous kalpas (cyclic periods), as well as to our common accumulated merits in making offerings to various buddhas in our past reincarnations; otherwise, we should have had no chance of hearing the above teaching of the 'sudden' school, and thereby laying the foundation of our future success in understanding the dharma.

This teaching was handed down from the past patriarchs, and it is not a system of my own invention. Those who wish to hear the teaching should first purify their own mind, and after hearing it they should each clear up their own doubts in the same way as the sages did in the past."

At the end of the address, the assembly felt rejoiced, made obeisance and departed.


2 - Wisdom

NEXT DAY prefect Wei asked the patriarch to give another address.

Thereupon, having taken his seat and asked the assembly to purify their mind collectively, and to recite the Maha Prajnaparamita Sutra, he gave the following address:

Good friends, the wisdom of enlightenment (bodhiprajna) is inherent in everyone of us. It is because of the delusion under which our mind works that we fail to realise it ourselves, and that we have to seek the advice and the guidance of enlightened ones before we can know our own essence of mind. You should know that so far as buddha-nature is concerned, there is no difference between an enlightened man and an ignorant one. What makes the difference is that one realises it, while the other is ignorant of it. Now, let me talk to you about Maha Prajnaparamita, so that each of you can attain wisdom.

Good friends, those who recite the word 'prajna' [wisdom] the whole day long do not seem to know that wisdom is inherent in their own nature. But mere talking on food will not appease hunger, and this is exactly the case with these people. We might talk on essensialism [blissful "void" some call it] for myriads of kalpas, but talking alone will not enable us to realise the essence of mind, and it serves no purpose in the end.

The word 'Mahaprajnaparamita' is Sanskrit, and means 'great wisdom to reach the opposite shore' (of the sea of existence). What we have to do is to put it into practice with our mind; whether we recite it or not does not matter. Mere reciting it without mental practice may be likened to a phantasm, a magical delusion, a flash of lightning or a dewdrop. On the other hand, if we do both, then our mind will be in accord with what we repeat orally.

Our very nature is Buddha, and apart from this nature there is no other buddha.

What is maha? It means 'great'. The capacity of the mind is as great as that of space. It is infinite, neither round nor square, neither great nor small, neither green nor yellow, neither red nor white, neither above nor below, neither long nor short, neither angry nor happy, neither right nor wrong, neither good nor evil, neither first nor last. All buddha ksetras (lands) are as void as space. Intrinsically our transcendental nature is void and not a single dharma (thing) can be attained. It is the same with the essence of mind, which is a state of 'absolute void' (i.e., the voidness of non-void).

  Good friends, when you hear me talk about essensialism, do not at once fall into the idea of vacuity, (because this involves the heresy of the doctrine of annihilation). It is of the utmost importance that we should not fall into this idea, because when a man sits quietly and keeps his mind blank he will abide in a state of 'voidness of indifference'.

Good friends, the illimitable [blissful] essence [sunyata] of the universe is capable of holding myriads of things of various shape and form, such as the sun, the moon, stars, mountains, rivers, men, dharmas pertaining to goodness or badness, deva planes, hells, great oceans, and all the mountains of the Mahameru.

Space takes in all of these, and so does the voidness of our nature. We say that the essence of mind is great because it embraces all things, since all things are within our nature. When we see the goodness or the badness of other people we are not attracted by it, nor repelled by it, nor attached to it; so that our attitude of mind is as void as space. In this way, we say our mind is great. Therefore we call it 'maha'.

  Good friends, what the ignorant merely talk about, wise men put into actual practice with their mind. There is also a class of foolish people who sit quietly and try to keep their mind blank.

They refrain from thinking of anything and call themselves 'great'.

  On account of their heretical view we can hardly talk to them.

  Good friends, you should know that the mind is very great in capacity, since it pervades the whole dharmadhatu (the sphere of the Law, i.e., the universe). When we use it, we can know something of everything, and when we use it to its full capacity we shall know all. All in one and one in all.

When our mind works without hindrance, and is at liberty to 'come' or to 'go', then it is in a state of 'prajna'.

Good friends, all wisdom comes from the essence of mind and not from an exterior source. Have no mistaken notion about that. This is called 'self-use of the true nature'. Once the tathata (suchness, the essence of mind) is known, one will be free from delusion forever.

Since the scope of the mind is for great objects, we should not practice such trivial acts (as sitting quietly with a blank mind).

Do not talk about the 'void' all day without practicing it in the mind. One who does this may be likened to a self-styled king who is really a commoner.

  Wisdom can never be attained in this way, and those who behave like this are not my disciples.

Good friends, what is wisdom [prajna]? If at all times and at all places we steadily keep our thought free from foolish desire, and act wisely on all occasions, then we are practicing wisdom. One foolish notion is enough to shut off wisdom, while one wise thought will bring it forth again.

People in ignorance or under delusion do not see it; they talk about it with their tongues, but in their mind they remain ignorant. They are always saying that they practice wisdom, and they talk incessantly on 'voidness'; but they do not know the 'absolute void'. 'The heart of wisdom' is wisdom which has neither form nor characteristic. If we interpret it in this way, then indeed it is the wisdom of wisdom.

What is paramita? It is a Sanskrit word, meaning 'to the opposite shore'.

    Figuratively, it means 'above existence and non-existence'. By clinging to sense objects, existence or not-yet-existence [most often called non-existence] arises like the up and down of the billowy sea, and such a state is called metaphorically 'this shore'; while by non-attachment a state above existence and non-existence, like smoothly running water is attained, and this is called 'the opposite shore'. This is why it is called 'paramita'.

Good friends, people under illusion recite the 'Mahaprajnaparamita' with their tongues, and while they are reciting it, erroneous and evil thoughts arise. But if they put it into practice unremittingly, they realise its 'true nature'. To know this dharma is to know the dharma of wisdom, and to practice this is to practice wisdom. He who does not practice it is an ordinary man. He who directs his mind to practice it even for one moment is the equal of Buddha.

For ordinary man is Buddha, and klesa (defilement) is bodhi (enlightenment). A foolish passing thought makes one an ordinary man, while an enlightened second thought makes one a Buddha. A passing thought that clings to sense-objects is klesa, while a second thought that frees one from attachment is bodhi.

Good friends, the Mahaprajnaparamita is the most exalted, the supreme, and the foremost. It neither stays, nor goes, nor comes.

By means of it Buddhas of the present, the past, and the future generations attain buddhahood. We should use this great wisdom to break up the five skandhas [material qualities - matter, sensation, perception, dispositions or tendencies, and consciousness], for to follow such practice ensures the attainment of buddhahood. The three poisonous elements (greed, hatred and illusion) will then be turned into sila (good conduct), union [highest consciousness] and wisdom.

Good friends, in this system of mine one wisdom produces eight-four thousand ways of wisdom, since there are that number of 'defilements' for us to cope with; but when one is free from defilements, wisdom reveals itself, and will not be separated from the essence of mind. Those who understand this dharma will be free from idle thoughts. To be free from being infatuated by one particular thought, from clinging to desire, and from falsehood; to put one's own essence of Tathata into operation; to use wisdom for contemplation, and to take an attitude of neither indifference nor attachment towards all things - this is what is meant by realizing one's own mindís essence for the attainment of buddhahood.

    Good friends, if you wish to penetrate the deepest mystery of the dharmadhatu and the union [highest consciousness] of wisdom, you should practice wisdom by reciting and studying the Diamond Sutra, which will enable you to realise the essence of mind. You should know that the merit for studying this Sutra, as distinctly set forth in the text, is immeasurable and illimitable, and canít be enumerated in details. This Sutra belongs to the highest school of Buddhism, and Buddha delivered it specially for the very wise and quick-witted. If the less wise and the slow-witted should hear about it they would doubt its credibility. Why? For example, if it rained in Jambudvipa (the Southern Continent), through the miracle of the celestial Naga, cities, towns, and villages would drift about in the flood as if they were only leaves of the date tree. But should it rain in the great ocean the level of the sea as a whole would not be affected by it. When Mahayanists hear about the Diamond Sutra their minds become enlightened; they know that wisdom is immanent in their mindís essence and that they need not rely on scriptural authority, since they can make use of their own wisdom by constant practice of contemplation.

The wisdom immanent in the essence of mind of everyone may be likened to the rain, the moisture of which refreshes every living thing, trees and plants as well as sentient beings. When rivers and streams reach the sea, the water carried by them merges into one body; this is another analogy.

Good friends, when rain comes in a deluge, plants which are not deep rooted are washed away, and eventually they succumb. This is the case with the slow-witted when they hear about the teaching of the 'Sudden' School.

The wisdom immanent in them is exactly the same as that in the very wise man, but they fail to enlighten themselves when the dharma is made known to them. Why? Because they are thickly veiled by erroneous views and deep rooted defilements, in the same way as the sun may be thickly veiled by a cloud and unable to show his light until the wind blows the cloud away.

Wisdom does not vary with different persons; what makes the difference is whether one's mind is enlightened or deluded. He who does not know his own mindís essence, and is under the delusion that buddhahood can be attained by outward religious rites is called the slow-witted. He who knows the teaching of the ĎSuddení School and attaches no importance to rituals, and whose mind functions always under right views, so that he is absolutely free from defilements or contaminations, is said to have known his mindís essence.

    Good friends, the mind should be framed in such a way that it will be independent of external or internal objects, at liberty to come or go, free from attachment and thoroughly enlightened without the least beclouding.

He who is able to do this is of the same standard required by the Sutras of the wisdom School.

Good friends, all sutras and scriptures of the Mahayana and Hinayana schools, as well as the twelve sections of the canonical writings, were provided to suit the different needs and temperaments of various people. It is upon the principle that wisdom is latent in every man that the doctrines expounded in these books are established. If there were no human beings, there would be no dharmas; hence we know that all dharmas are made for men, and that all Sutras owe their existence to the preachers. Since some men are wise, the so-called superior men, and some are ignorant, the socalled inferior men, the wise preach to the ignorant when the latter ask them to do so. Through this the ignorant may attain sudden enlightenment, and their mind thereby becomes illuminated.

Then they are no longer different from the wise men.

Good friends, without enlightenment there would be no difference between a Buddha and other living beings; while a gleam of enlightenment is enough to make any living being the equal of a Buddha. Since all dharmas are immanent in our mind there is no reason why we should not realise intuitively the real nature of Tathata (suchness).

  The Bodhisattva Sila Sutra says, "Our mindís essence is intrinsically pure, and if we knew our mind and realised what our nature is, all of us would attain buddhahood."

As the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra says, "At once they become enlightened and regain their own mind."

Good friends, when the fifth patriarch preached to me I became enlightened immediately after he had spoken, and spontaneously realised the real nature of Tathata. For this reason it is my particular object to propagate the teaching of this ĎSuddení School, so that learners may find bodhi at once and realise their true nature by introspection of mind.

Should they fail to enlighten themselves, they should ask the pious and learned Buddhists who understand the teaching of the highest school to show them the right way. It is an exalted position, the office of a pious and learned Buddhist who guides others to realise the essence of mind. Through his assistance one may be initiated into all meritorious dharmas. The wisdom of the past, the present and the future Buddhas as well as the teachings of the twelve sections of the canon are immanent in our mind; but in case we fail to enlighten ourselves, we have to seek the guidance of the pious and learned ones. On the other hand, those who enlighten themselves need no extraneous help. It is wrong to insist upon the idea that without the advice of the pious and learned we canít obtain liberation.

Why? Because it is by our innate wisdom that we enlighten ourselves, and even the extraneous help and instructions of a pious and learned friend would be of no use if we were deluded by false doctrines and erroneous views. Should we introspect our mind with real wisdom, all erroneous views would be vanquished in a moment, and as soon as we know the essence of mind we arrive immediately at the Buddha stage.

Good friends, when we use wisdom for introspection we are illumined within and without, and in a position to know our own mind. To know our mind is to obtain liberation. To gain liberation is to attain union [highest consciousness] of wisdom, which is 'thoughtlessness'. What is 'thoughtlessness'? 'Thoughtlessness' is to see and to know all dharmas (things) with a mind free from attachment. When in use it pervades everywhere, and yet it sticks nowhere. What we have to do is to purify our mind so that the six vijnanas (aspects of consciousness), in passing through the six gates (sense organs) will neither be defiled by nor attached to the six sense-objects. When our mind works freely without any hindrance, and is at liberty to 'come' or to 'go', we attain union [highest consciousness] of wisdom, or liberation. Such a state is called the function of 'thoughtlessness'. But to refrain from thinking of anything, so that all thoughts are suppressed, is to be dharma-ridden, and this is an erroneous view.

Good friends, those who understand the way of 'thoughtlessness' will know everything, will have the experience all Buddhas have had, and attain buddhahood. In the future, if an initiate of my school should make a vow in company with his fellow-disciples to devote his whole life without retrogression to the practice of the teachings of this 'Sudden' School, in the same spirit as that for serving Buddha, he would reach without failure the path of holiness. (To the right men) he should transmit from heart to heart the instructions handed down from one patriarch to another; and no attempt should be made to conceal the orthodox teaching. To those who belong to other schools, and whose views and objects are different from ours, the dharma should not be transmitted, since it will be anything but good for them. This step is taken lest ignorant persons who canít understand our system should make slanderous remarks about it and thereby annihilate their seed of Buddha-nature for hundreds of kalpas and thousands of incarnations.

  Good friends, I have a 'formless' stanza for you all to recite. Both laity and monks should put its teaching into practice, without which it would be useless to remember my words alone. Listen to this stanza:

A master of the Buddhist canon as well as of the teaching of the dhyana school may be likened to the blazing sun sitting high in his meridian tower.

Such a man would teach nothing but the dharma for realizing the essence of mind, and his object in coming to this world would be to vanquish the heretical sects.

    We can hardly classify the dharmas into 'Sudden' and 'Gradual', but some men will attain enlightenment much quicker than others.

For example, this system for realizing the essence of mind is above the comprehension of the ignorant.

We may explain it in ten thousand ways, but all those explanations may be traced back to one principle.

To illumine our gloomy tabernacle, which is stained by defilement, we should constantly set up the [inner] light of wisdom.

Erroneous views keep us in defilement, while right views remove us from it: But when we are in a position to discard both of them, we are then absolutely pure.

  Bodhi is immanent in our mindís essence, an attempt to look for it elsewhere is erroneous.

Within our impure mind the pure one is to be found, and once our mind is set right, we are free from the three kinds of beclouding (hatred, lust and illusion).

  If we are treading the path of enlightenment, we need not be worried by stumbling-blocks.

Provided we keep a constant eye on our own faults, we canít go astray from the right path.

Since every species of life has its own way of salvation, they will not interfere with or be antagonistic to one another.

But if we leave our own path and seek some other way of salvation, we shall not find it,

And though we plod on till death overtakes us, we shall find only penitence in the end.

If you wish to find the true way, right action will lead you to it directly;

But if you do not strive for buddhahood, you will grope in the dark and never find it.

He who treads the path in earnest, sees not the mistakes of the world;

    If we find fault with others, we ourselves are also in the wrong.

  When other people are in the wrong, we should ignore it, for it is wrong for us to find fault.

By getting rid of the habit of fault-finding we cut off a source of defilement.

When neither hatred nor love disturb our mind, serenely we sleep.

  Those who intend to be the teachers of others, should themselves be skilled in the various expedients which lead others to enlightenment.

When the disciple is free from all doubts, it indicates that his mindís essence has been found.

The Kingdom of Buddha is in this world, within which enlightenment is to be sought.

To seek enlightenment by separating from this world is as absurd as to search for a rabbit's horn.

Right views are called 'transcendental'; erroneous views are called 'worldly'.

When all views, right or erroneous, are discarded, then the essence of bodhi appears.

This stanza is for the 'Sudden' School. It is also called the 'Great Ship of Dharma' (for sailing across the ocean of existence). Kalpa after kalpa a man may be under delusion, but once enlightened it takes him only a moment to attain buddhahood.

Before conclusion, the patriarch added, "Now, in this Ta Fan Temple, I have addressed you on the teaching of the 'Sudden' School. May all sentient beings of the dharmadhatu instantly understand the Law and attain buddhahood."

After hearing what the patriarch said, the prefect Wei, government officials, Taoists and laymen were all enlightened. They made obeisance in a body and exclaimed unanimously, "Well done! Well done! Who would have expected that a Buddha was born in Kwangtung?"


3 - Questions and Answers

ONE DAY prefect Wei entertained the patriarch and asked him to preach to a big gathering. At the end of the feast, prefect Wei asked him to mount the pulpit (to which the patriarch consented). After bowing twice reverently, in company with other officials, scholars, and commoners, prefect Wei said,

"I have heard what Your Holiness preached. It is really so deep that it is beyond our mind and speech, and I have certain doubts which I hope you will clear up for me."

"If you have any doubts," replied the patriarch, "please ask, and I will explain."

"What you preach are the fundamental principles taught by Bodhidharma, are they not?"

"Yes," replied the patriarch.

"I was told," said prefect Wei, "that at Bodhidharma's first interview with emperor Wu of Liang he was asked what merits the emperor would get for the work of his life in building temples, allowing new monks to be ordained (royal consent was necessary at that time), giving alms and entertaining the order; and his reply was that these would bring no merits at all. Now, I canít understand why he gave such an answer. Will you please explain."

"These would bring no merits," replied the patriarch. "Don't doubt the words of the sage. Emperor Wu's mind was under an erroneous impression, and he did not know the orthodox teaching. Such deeds as building temples, allowing new monks to be ordained, giving alms and entertaining the Order will bring you only felicities, which should not be taken for merits. Merits are to be found within the dharmakaya, and they have nothing to do with practices for attaining felicities."

The patriarch went on, "Realization of the essence of mind is kung (good deserts), and equality is teh (good quality). When our mental activity works without any impediment, so that we are in a position to know constantly the true state and the mysterious functioning of our own mind, we are said to have acquired kung teh (merits).

    Within, to keep the mind in a humble mood is kung; and without, to behave oneself according to propriety is teh. That all things are the manifestation of the essence of mind is kung, and that the quintessence of mind is free from idle thoughts is teh. Not to go astray from the essence of mind is kung, and not to pollute the mind in using it is teh. If you seek for merits within the dharmakaya, and do what I have just said, what you acquire will be real merits.

He who works for merits does not slight others; and on all occasions he treats everybody with respect. He who is in the habit of looking down upon others has not got rid of the erroneous idea of a self, which indicates his lack of kung. Because of his egotism and his habitual contempt for all others, he knows not the real mindís essence; and this shows his lack of teh. Good friends, when our mental activity works without interruption, then it is kung; and when our mind functions in a straightforward manner, then it is teh. To train our own mind is kung, and to train our own body is teh.

Good friends, merits should be sought within the essence of mind and they canít be acquired by almsgiving, entertaining the monks, etc. We should therefore distinguish between felicities and merits. There is nothing wrong in what our patriarch said. It is emperor Wu himself who did not know the true way."

Prefect Wei then asked the next question. "I notice that it is a common practice for monks and laymen to recite the name of Amitabha with the hope of being born in the Pure Land of the West. To clear up my doubts, will you please tell me whether it is possible for them to be born there or not."

"Listen to me carefully, sir," replied the patriarch, "and I will explain.

    According to the Sutra spoken by the Bhagavat in Shravasti City for leading people to the Pure Land of the West, it is quite clear that the Pure Land is not far from here, for the distance in mileage is 108, 000, which really represents the 'ten evils' and 'eight errors' within us. To those of inferior mentality certainly it is far away, but to superior men we may say that it is quite near. Although the dharma is uniform, men vary in their mentality.

Because they differ from one another in their degree of enlightenment or ignorance, therefore some understand the Law quicker than others.

While ignorant men recite the name of Amitabha and pray to be born in the Pure Land, the enlightened purify their mind, for, as the Buddha said, 'When the mind is pure, the Buddha Land is simultaneously pure.' "Although you are a native of the East, if your mind is pure you are sinless.

One the other hand, even if you were a native of the West an impure mind could not free you from sin. When the people of the East commit a sin, they recite the name of Amitabha and pray to be born in the West; but in the case of sinners who are natives of the West, where should they pray to be born? Ordinary men and ignorant people understand neither the essence of mind nor the Pure Land within themselves, so they wish to be born in the East or the West. But to the enlightened everywhere is the same. As the Buddha said, 'No matter where they happen to be, they are always happy and comfortable.' Sir, if your mind is free from evil the West is not far from here; but difficult indeed it would be for one whose heart is impure to be born there by invoking Amitabha! Now, I advise you, good friends, first to do away with the 'ten evils'; then we shall have travelled one hundred thousand miles. For the next step, do away with the 'eight errors', and this will mean another eight thousand miles traversed. If we can realise the essence of mind at all times and behave in a straightforward manner on all occasions, in the twinkling of an eye we may reach the Pure Land and there see Amitabha.

"If you only put into practice the ten good deeds, there would be no necessity for you to be born there. On the other hand, if you do not do away with the 'ten evils' in your mind, which Buddha will take you there? If you understand the Birthless Doctrine (which puts an end to the cycle of birth and death) of the 'Sudden' School, it takes you only a moment to see the West. If you do not understand, how can you reach there by reciting the name of Amitabha, as the distance is so far? "Now, how would you like it if I were to shift the Pure Land to your presence this very moment, so that all of you might see it?"

  The congregation made obeisance and replied, "If we might see the Pure Land here there would be no necessity for us to desire to be born there. Will Your Holiness kindly let us see it by having it removed here."

The patriarch said, "Sirs, this physical body of ours is a city.

  Our eyes, ears, nose and tongue are the gates. There are five external gates, while the internal one is ideation. The mind is the ground. The essence of mind is the king who lives in the domain of the mind. While the essence of mind is in, the king is in, and our body and mind exist. When the essence of mind is out, there is no king and our body and mind decay.

We should work for buddhahood within the essence of mind, and we should not look for it apart from ourselves. He who is kept in ignorance of his mindís essence is an ordinary being. He who is enlightened in his mindís essence is a Buddha. To be merciful is Avalokitesvara (one of the two principal bodhisattvas of the Pure Land). To take pleasure in almsgiving is Mahasthama (the other bodhisattva). Competence for a pure life is Sakyamuni (one of the titles of Gautama Buddha). Equality and straightforwardness is Amitabha. The idea of a self or that of a being is Mount Meru. A depraved mind is the ocean. Klesa (defilement) is the billow. Wickedness is the evil dragon.

Falsehood is the devil. The wearisome sense objects are the aquatic animals.

Greed and hatred are the hells. Ignorance and infatuation are the brutes.

    "Good friends, if you constantly perform the ten good deeds, paradise will appear to you at once. When you get rid of the idea of a self and that of a being, Mount Meru will topple. When the mind is no longer depraved, the ocean (of existence) will be dried up. When you are free from klesa, billows and waves (of the ocean of existence) will calm down. When wickedness is alien to you, fish and evil dragons will die out.

  "Within the domain of our mind, there is a Tathagata of enlightenment who sends forth a powerful light which illumines externally the six gates (of sensation) and purifies them. This light is strong enough to pierce through the six kama heavens (heavens of desire); and when it is turned inwardly it eliminates at once the three poisonous elements, purges away our sins which might lead us to the hells or other evil realms, and enlightens us thoroughly within and without, so that we are no different from those born in the Pure Land of the West. Now, if we do not train ourselves up to this standard, how can we reach the Pure Land?"

Having heard what the patriarch said, the congregation knew their mindís essence very clearly. They made obeisance and exclaimed in one voice, "Well done!" They also chanted, "May all the sentient beings of this universe who have heard this sermon at once understand it intuitively."

The patriarch added, "Good friends, those who wish to train themselves (spiritually) may do so at home. It is quite unnecessary for them to stay in monasteries. Those who train themselves at home may be likened to a native of the East who is kind-hearted, while those who stay in monasteries but neglect their work differ not from a native of the West who is evil in heart. So far as the mind is pure, it is the 'Western Pure Land of one's own mindís essence'."

Prefect Wei asked, "How should we train ourselves at home? Will you please teach us."

The patriarch replied, "I will give you a 'formless' stanza. If you put its teaching into practice you will be in the same position as those who live with me permanently. On the other hand, if you do not practice it, what progress can you make in the spiritual path, even though you cut your hair and leave home for good (i.e., join the Order)? The stanza reads:

For a fair mind, observation of precepts (Sila) is unnecessary.

For straightforward behavior, practice in dhyana (contemplation) may be dispensed with.

On the principle of righteousness, the superior and the inferior stand for each other (in time of need).

On the principle of mutual desire to please, the senior and junior are on affectionate terms.

On the principle of forbearance, we do not quarrel even in the midst of a hostile crowd.

If we can persevere till fire can be obtained through rubbing a piece of wood, Then the red lotus (the Buddha-nature) will shoot out from the black mire (the unenlightened state).

That which is of bitter taste is bound to be good medicine.

  That which sounds unpleasant to the ear is certainly frank advice.

  By amending our mistakes, we get wisdom.

By defending our faults, we betray an unsound mind.

In our daily life we should always practice altruism, But buddhahood is not to be attained by giving away money as charity.

Bodhi is to be found within our own mind, And there is no necessity to look for mysticism from without.

Hearers of this stanza who put its teaching into actual practice Will find paradise in their very presence.

The patriarch added, "Good friends, all of you should put into practice what is taught in this stanza, so that you can realise the essence of mind and attain buddhahood directly. The dharma waits for no one. I am going back to Ts'ao Ch'i, so the assembly may now break up. If you have any questions, you may come there to put them."

  At this juncture prefect Wei, the government officials, pious men, and devout ladies who were present were all enlightened. Faithfully they accepted the teaching and put it into practice.

Hui Neng, Hui-neng, Zen, END MATTER

Hui Neng, Hui-neng, Zen, LITERATURE  

Prz: Chang, Garma C. The Practice of Zen. New York: Harper, 1970.

Tun: Yampolsky, Philip, tr. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. The Text of the Tun-Huang Manuscript. New York: Columbia University, 1967.


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