Huineng Biography


Article abstract: Although Huineng was the sixth patriarch of Chinese Chan (Zen) Buddhism, most Buddhist practitioners and scholars believe that the true tradition of Chinese Chan began with him. His brand of Buddhism was the first to display distinctly Chinese characteristics.

Early Life

Few details of Huineng’s early life are known. The traditional account of Huineng’s life, which follows, appears in The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. His father, Luxing Tao, a native of the northern Chinese city of Fan Yang, was a government official. For unknown reasons, Huineng’s father was stripped of his position and banished to the southern Chinese city of Ling Nan, in the Xin Zhou district. At that time, northern China was the seat of culture, and those who lived in the south were considered barbarians.

Not long after his banishment, Luxing Tao, now a commoner rather than a respected official, died, leaving his wife and child destitute. Because his family was poor, Huineng was uneducated and lacked the means to make a good living. He became a woodcutter, scratching out a meager living and doing his best to support his mother.

Life’s Work

One day, while he was delivering a load of firewood, Huineng overheard a man reciting the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist text that holds an important place in the Chan (Zen) tradition. When he heard the instruction, “You should activate the mind without dwelling on anything,” he experienced a degree of enlightenment. When Huineng asked about the text, the man said that he had learned it from Hongran, the fifth Chan patriarch.

Shortly thereafter, by good fortune, Huineng met a man who gave him enough money to support his mother and urged him to visit Hongran. After he had arranged for his mother to be cared for, Huineng traveled to Dong Chan monastery to meet the fifth patriarch. When Huineng met Hongran, the patriarch asked him where he was from and what he wanted. Huineng said that he was from the south and that he wanted to become a Buddha. Hongran responded, “Southerners have no Buddha-nature. How can you attain Buddhahood?” Huineng answered, “As far as people are concerned, there are North and South, but how could that apply to the Buddha-nature?” Huineng’s question demonstrated to Hongran that his visitor had an unusual grasp of Chan, and Hongran told Huineng to remain at the monastery as a layperson, pounding rice in the mill and cutting firewood. Huineng did so, working at the monastery but not meditating with the monks.

After eight months had passed, Hongran decided that it was time to choose his successor. He told the monks that he wanted each of them to compose a verse that expressed their understanding of the Buddhist teachings. He intended to give the robe and bowl of the Chan patriarchs to the monk who wrote the best verse. The monks did not do what they were asked, however, since they believed that Shenxiu, who was foremost among them, would win the contest easily.

Shenxiu wrote a verse but was too anxious to give it to Hongran in person, so he wrote it on a wall. It read:

The body is the tree of enlightenment.
The mind is like a clear mirror on a stand.
Diligently wipe it off again and again,
Don’t let it gather dust.

Hongran praised the poem and required the monks to memorize it. When Huineng heard one of the monks reciting the verse, he found it wanting, and that night he took a boy who could write to the wall on which Shenxiu’s poem had been written. Huineng recited his own verse and had the boy write it next to Shenxiu’s:

Enlightenment basically has no tree,
And the clear mirror has no stand;
Originally there is not a single thing;
Where can dust gather?

The monks did not know who had written the new verse, but they all praised its author, saying that he must be a living Buddha. When Hongran read the verse, he knew that it had been written by Huineng. Fearing that the monks would be angry that a mere layperson had bested them in understanding, Hongran said that the verse was the work of one who had no true understanding.

The monks forgot about the verse and went about their business, but that night Hongran paid a secret visit to Huineng. Hongran asked, “Is the rice whitened yet?” Huineng said, “It’s whitened but has not had a sifting yet.” Hongran struck the mortar three times, whereupon Huineng sifted some rice three times. The words and actions of both men had a hidden meaning. Because the Chinese character that means “sifting” has the same pronunciation as the character that means “teacher,” Huineng was indicating that he was ready for complete enlightenment but needed the aid of a teacher. When Hongran struck the mortar three times, he was instructing Huineng to meet him in his room at the third watch that night. At the third watch that night, Huineng entered Hongran’s room.

Hongran expounded the Diamond Sutra to Huineng, who experienced complete enlightenment. In that way, the fifth patriarch transmitted the teaching, and with it the robe and bowl of the patriarchs, to Huineng, who had become the sixth patriarch. Hongran went on to say that the robe had become the cause of dissension and that Huineng should not transmit it to anyone. He advised Huineng to leave the monastery at once and go into hiding.

Huineng did as he was told, but the monks soon realized that Hongran had chosen his successor, and they guessed, because of a comment that Hongran made, that he had chosen Huineng. Huiming, a bad-tempered monk who had been a general before he entered the monastery, took...

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