H.H. The Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng

(638 - 713)

His Holiness Hui Neng, who became the great Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an (Japanese Zen) was a poor illiterate peasant boy from Hsin Chou of Kwangtung. One day, after he had delivered firewood to a shop, he overheard a man reciting the following line from the "Diamond Sutra" - "Depending upon no-thing, you must find your own mind." Instantly, Hui Neng became Enlightened. The full verse said: "All Bodhisattvas (Compassionate Ones) should develop a pure mind which clings to no-thing whatsoever; and so he should establish it."

The man who recited this sutra encouraged Hui Neng to meet the Fifth Zen Patriarch, Hung Jen, at the Tung Chian Monastery in the Huang Mei District of Chi Chou. Hui Neng said to the Fifth Patriarch: "I am a commoner from Hsin Chou Kwangtung (today, near Canton in the south of China). I have traveled far 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. "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." Master Hung Jen immediately accepted Hui Neng as his disciple, but he had to hide this fact from the very educated northern monks at the monastery. At the time of the Fifth Patriarch, Ch'an was still influenced by Indian Buddhism, which did not emphasize direct awakening, but the importance of study and metaphysical debates. To protect Hui Neng, the Patriarch sent him to the kitchen to split firewood and pound rice for eight months.

One day the Fifth Patriarch told his monks to express their wisdom in a poem. Whoever had true realization of his original nature (Buddha Nature) would be ordained the Sixth Patriarch. The head monk, Shen Hsiu, was the most learned, and wrote the following:

The body is the wisdom-tree,
The mind is a bright mirror in a stand;
Take care to wipe it all the time,
And allow no dust to cling.
The poem was praised, but The Fifth Patriarch knew that Shen Hsiu had not yet found his original nature, on the other hand, Hui Neng couldn't even write, so someone had to write down his poem, which read:
Fundamentally no wisdom-tree exists,
Nor the stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is empty from the beginning,
Where can the dust alight
The Fifth Patriarch pretended that he wasn't impressed with this poem either, but in the middle of the night he summoned Hui Neng. The Fifth Patriarch gave him the insignia of his office, the Patriarch's robe and bowl (source). Hui Neng was told to leave for the South and to hide his enlightenment and understanding until the proper time arrives for him to propagate the Dharma.
NOTE: For more on Hui Neng and Shen Hsiu's two stanzas and the stanza competition please go to TRANSLATION NOTES
The monks were jealous and ignorant, believed that the transmission was material, and decided to get back the robe and the bowl. After pursuing Hui Neng for 2 months, they found him on top of a mountain and wanted to kill him. Their leader was Hui Ming, whose lay surname was Chen. Of all the monks who pursued Hui Neng, he was the most skillful. Hui Ming had been a general of the fourth rank, and was hot tempered and rough mannered. When Hui Neng was about to be overtaken, he threw the robe and the begging bowl on a rock, quickly hid, and then said, "This robe is nothing but a symbol. What is the use of taking it away by force?" When Hui Ming arrived at the rock, he tried to pick up the robe and bowl, but was unable to do so. He cried out, "Lay Brother, Lay Brother, " (for Hui Neng had not yet formally joined the monastic order), "I come for the Dharma, not for the robe. " Hui Neng emerged from his hiding place and sat down on the rock. Hui Ming made obeisance and begged him to teach. Hui Neng said, "Since the object of your coming is the Dharma, refrain from thinking of anything and keep your mind empty. I will then teach you." They meditated together for a considerable time, then Hui Neng asked Hui Ming, "When you are thinking of neither good nor evil, at this particular moment, what is your original nature (Buddha Nature)?" As soon as Hui Ming heard this, he instantly became enlightened. Hui Ming then further asked, "Apart from those esoteric sayings and esoteric ideas handed down by the Fifth Patriarch from generation to generation, are there any other esoteric teachings?" Hui Neng replied, "What I can tell you is not esoteric. If you turn your light inwardly you will find what is esoteric within you."
Hui Neng's statement was used as a Koan from then on - "what did your original face look like before you were born? " Koans represent truths that can't be understood by logic. Hui Neng's Koan cuts through concepts and speculations about one's nature. It is shocking to discover that there is no concept which can fit such a question. The shock shakes one's assumptions, and that begins the waking up process. As in his first poem, Hui Neng's original face is empty:
"When you hear me speak of emptiness, don't become attached to it, especially don't become attached to any idea of it. Merely 'sitting' still with your mind vacant, you fall into notional emptiness.
The boundless emptiness of the sky embraces the 'ten thousand things' of every shape and form - the sun, moon and stars; mountains and rivers; bushes and trees; bad people and good; good teachings and bad; heavens and hells. All these are included in emptiness.

The emptiness of your original nature (Buddha Nature) is just like that. It too embraces everything. To this aspect the word 'great ' applies. All and everything is included in your own original nature."
Hui Neng later became The Sixth Patriarch, the founder of the Dhyana (Ch'an) School of Sudden Awaking, which emphasized that sudden Enlightenment was possible, given the right teacher and method. The Sixth Patriarch's teaching emphasize non-duality and oneness of everything. Hui Neng became the most famous Ch'an (Zen) master in Chinese history. After his death, his works were collected and classified as the only Chinese Buddhist sutra, called The Sixth Patriarch's Platform Sutra. His new school of Sudden Awaking is the only major surviving Dhyana School of Chinese Buddhism. Later, Hui Neng's disciples spread the Dharma all over Asia. Hui Neng defined Sitting Ch'an as: "In the midst of all good and evil, not a thought is aroused in the mind - this is called Sitting. Seeing into one's original nature, not being moved at all - this is called Ch'an." He taught that Sitting Ch'an should be practiced at all times, not just during formal sitting. He stressed it is the attitude of mind that is important, and not the physical posture, because truth can be found standing, walking, or lying down. In Japanese Sitting Ch'an was called Zazen.

D.T. Suzuki writes in "An Introduction to Zen Buddhism":

Zen in not a system of Dhyana as practiced in India and by other Buddhist schools in China. Dhyana is generally understood to be a kind of meditation or contemplation directed toward some fixed thought; in Hinayana Buddhism it was a thought of transiency, while in the Mahayana it was more often the doctrine of emptiness. When the mind has been so trained as to be able to realize a state of perfect void in which there is not a trace of consciousness left, even the sense of being unconscious having departed; in other words, when all forms of mental activity are swept away clean from the field of consciousness, leaving the mind like the sky devoid of every speck of cloud, a mere broad expense of blue, Dhyana is said to have reached its perfection. This may be called ecstasy or trance, or the First Jhana, but it is not Zen. In Zen there must be not just Kensho, but Satori. There must be a general mental upheaval which destroys the old accumulations of intellection and lays down the foundation for new life; there must be the awakening of a new sense which will review the old things from a hitherto undreamed-of angle of observation. In Dhyana there are none of these things, for it is merely a quieting exercise of mind. As such Dhyana doubtless has its own merit, but Zen must be not identified with it. (source)

The most important point in the teaching of the Dhyana (Meditation, or Ch'an) School lies in Introspection, which means the turning of one's own 'light' to reflect inwardly. To illustrate, let us take the analogy of a lamp. We know that the light of a lamp, when surrounded by a shade, will reflect inwardly with its radiance centering on itself, whereas the rays of a naked flame with diffuse and shine outwardly. Now when we are engrossed with criticizing others, as is our wont, we hardly turn our thoughts on ourselves, and hence scarcely know anything about ourselves. Contrary to this, the followers of the Dhyana School turn their attention completely within and reflect exclusively on their own 'real nature,' known in Chinese as one's original face.'
Lest our readers should overlook this important passage, let it be noted that in China alone thousands of Buddhists have attained Enlightenment by acting on this wise saying of the Sixth Patriarch.
By Dih Ping Tsze. Edited by the Wanderling. Some information was drawn from The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui Neng, Translated by A.F. Price and Wong, Mou-Lam, Shambhala Publications, Inc.,1985. (see)


BODHIDHARMA: First Patriarch of Zen

BEFORE HUI-NENG: The Five Previous Chinese Patriarchs



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