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The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch is generally regarded as the basic classic of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. The work is reputed to be a record of the teachings of the great Chan master Huineng, as expressed in his remarks delivered in the Dafan Temple in Shaozhou in or about the year 677, and as recorded by his disciple Fahai. The most authentic version of the work is regarded by such scholars as Wing-tsit Chan and Philip B. Yampolsky, who translated the work in 1967, to be the Dunhuang manuscript, found in a cave in Dunhuang, northwest China, in 1900.
A Legendary Rise
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Huineng was born in 638 in southwest Guangdong, but few details of his life are known. The prevailing legends, embellished by commentators over the years, tend to agree on the following biographical items: Huineng was born in 638 into a humble family, the Lu family, and was a firewood peddler. In his early twenties, he was inspired by a reading of the Diamond Sutra, and he traveled to the north to visit the fifth patriarch, who was an exponent of the sutra.
Legend has it that Huineng was appointed sixth patriarch after having served a stint under the fifth patriarch as a pounder of rice and having subsequently impressed the patriarch with a poem requested of all his disciples by the fifth patriarch. Whether or not the story is true, it appears clear that Huineng did “receive the robe” as sixth patriarch in 661, just a few months after arriving in Huangmei to visit the fifth patriarch.
In 676, after several years of preaching in south China, Huineng moved to Guangzhou. He had become a Buddhist priest at the age of thirty-nine. The following year (so the story goes), he was invited to lecture in the Dafan Temple in Shaozhou. There his remarks were recorded by his disciple Fahai, and the resultant work is, or at least provided the foundation for, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch.
Huineng is honored as the Chan master who initiated the Southern School of Chan Buddhism in opposition to the Northern School led by Shenxiu, another student of the fifth patriarch. The Northern School maintained that enlightenment would come gradually as a result of practicing formalized procedures of meditation; the Southern School argued that meditation must be free, a matter of allowing the pure Buddha-nature to reveal itself, and that enlightenment would be sudden. According to Chan, although this difference of opinion about the speed of enlightenment was present as a matter of emphasis, the two schools differed more fundamentally in their concepts of mind, the Northern School maintaining that the mind or Buddha-nature, common to all persons, cannot be differentiated and that its activities are functions of the true reality, while the Southern School argued that the pure mind can function only in quietude or “calmness,” and only after having freed itself from the false or erroneous mind with its attachments to individual thoughts. In any case, according to Chan, the Southern School became the most influential force in the development of Zen Buddhism in China from the ninth century.
As translated by Wing-tsit Chan, the heading of The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch is as follows:The Platform Scripture Preached by the sixth patriarch, Hui-neng, in the Ta-fan Temple in Shao-chou, the Very Best Perfection of Great Wisdom Scripture on the Sudden Enlightenment Doctrine of the Southern School of Zen, one book, including the Giving of the Discipline that Frees One from the Attachment to Differentiated Characters for the Propagation of the Law. Gathered and recorded by disciple Fa-hai.
As translated by Yampolsky, the heading is:Southern School Sudden Doctrine, Supreme Mahyna Great Perfection of Wisdom: The Platform Sutra preached by the sixth patriarch Hui-neng at the Ta-fan Temple in Shao-chou, one roll, recorded by the spreader of the Dharma, the disciple Fa-hai, who at the same time received the Precepts of Formlessness.
Meditation and Wisdom
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The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch recounts that Huineng lectured to more than ten thousand monks, nuns, and followers, all gathered in the lecture hall of the Dafan Temple. His topic was the dharma (law) of the perfection of wisdom (of the original, pure wisdom of the Buddha-nature). Huineng begins with an autobiographical account. The material is interesting, but it has little philosophical or religious import. In section 12, Huineng declares that he was determined or predestined to preach to the officials and disciples gathered there in the temple, and he maintains that the teaching is not original with him but has been handed down by the Sage Kings. Sections 13 through 19 contain the fundamental teachings of Huineng. In 13, Huineng declares that calm meditation and wisdom are a unity, that such meditation is the substance of wisdom, and that wisdom is the function of meditation.
The Buddhist doctrine, here implicit, is that everyone shares the Buddha-nature (wisdom) and that if one can turn one’s mind inward and not be distracted, one can receive enlightenment. Wisdom and meditation are one in that meditation (of the kind advocated by Huineng) is regarded as the function or practice of the original nature. Hence, Huineng declares that meditation exists in wisdom, and wisdom is within meditation. Neither gives rise to the other, he insists. If the mind and words are both good and the internal and external are one, then wisdom and meditation are one.
The Importance of Practicing
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Huineng next stresses the critical importance of practicing—actively attaining—a straightforward or direct mind. A straightforward mind requires having no attachments and attending to no differentiating characters, thereby realizing that all is one; there is a unity of nature in everything. To achieve such realization in the practice of the straightforward mind is samadhi of oneness, a state of calmness in which one knows all dharmas to be the same. However, the calm realization of oneness is not, as some people think, a matter of simply sitting without moving and not allowing erroneous thoughts to rise in the mind. To act in this way is to make oneself insentient, and that is not in accordance with the Way, the dao, which can work freely only if the mind is free from things. If one attempts, as some people do, to view the mind and keep it inactive, they become radically disturbed and never achieve enlightenment.
Huineng indirectly criticizes the Northern School in his description of the meditation method that, in effect, renders people insensible and inactive; and he continues his criticism in section 16 when he states that the deluded teachers recommend a gradual course to enlightenment, while the enlightened teachers practice the method of sudden enlightenment. In this passage, Huineng clearly states that to know one’s own mind or to know one’s original nature is the same thing, and if people differ in coming to enlightenment it is because some people are stupid and deluded while others know the method of enlightenment.
Huineng then remarks that everyone has regarded “no-thought” as his main doctrine. His remark ties in with what he had just been saying about meditation method, for the doctrine to which he alludes is the meditation method he endorsed, a method that came to be identified with the Southern School. Put informally, the statement of method would be put injunctively, “Practice no-thought,” and sense would be made of the injunction by presuming the point to be that the mind will be open to its nature, will be able to “think” (intuit) the pure nature common to all within oneself, only if it is not distracted by thoughts about things, including the thought about achieving enlightenment by not thinking about anything else. The truth is, one cannot achieve awareness even of the Buddha-nature by thinking about it.
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Huineng speaks of no-thought as the main doctrine (of meditation), of “non-form as the substance” and of “non-abiding as the basis” (to follow Yampolsky’s translation). He then adds that “Non-form is to be separated from form even when associated with form. No-thought is not to think even when involved in thought. Non-abiding is the original nature of man.” Presumably, as the next passage (of section 17) implicitly indicates, the original Buddha-nature is absolute, in no way dependent on, related to, or attached to any particular being or characteristic of being; hence, “non-abiding” (nonattachment) is the original nature of humanity. When involved in the thought consisting of the awareness of original nature (or while succeeding in the practice of freeing the mind), one is not thinking this or that. In that sense, the thinking of the original nature is no-thought. As scholar Chan translates, “If one single instant of thought is attached to anything, then every thought will be attached. This is bondage. But if in regard to dharmas no thought is attached to anything, that is freedom.”
To be separated from forms is not to attend to the characters of things; it then happens, so Huineng preaches, that the substance of one’s nature is pure. One must not be affected by external objects and one must not turn one’s thought to them. However, one must, of course, think—that is, one must think the pure nature of true reality. No-thought is thought free from the error of attending to external things and characters and from all attachment. If one’s pure nature is allowed to function, as it will if there is no-thought, then true reality becomes the substance of thought.
Sitting in Meditation
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Huineng speaks of “sitting in meditation” (in section 18). He contends that this teaching does not call for looking at the mind or at the purity of one’s nature. The objects of such viewing are illusions, and to suppose that one is looking at objects or that there are such objects to look at is to be deluded. However, if delusions are avoided, then the original nature is revealed in its purity. Purity has no form, Huineng argues, and hence one cannot grasp the form of purity and then pass judgment on others. Deluded people are quick to find fault with others because they (the deluded) presume themselves to know the form of purity. By criticizing others, such persons violate the dao, the true Way.
Sitting in meditation, then, is not a matter of looking for forms or characters; sitting in meditation is, rather, to be free and not to allow thoughts to be activated. Hence (Huineng concludes in section 19), true meditation is the achievement of internal calmness and purity. To “see” the original nature and in purity and freedom to be the original nature—to meditate and to be wise—are one and the same. Meditation is the practice of original wisdom; wisdom is the internal subject of meditation.
The remaining sections of The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch are concerned with provoking ritualistic attention to the central features of Mahayana Buddhism or are taken up with miscellaneous material, most of it probably added by later writers.
Whether or not the ideas represented in The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch were actually enunciated by Huineng and recorded by Fahai, they represent the central doctrines of Chan Buddhism of the Southern School and are of philosophical and historical interest whatever their origin. In many ways, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch can be seen as an argument for intuition as the way of enlightenment, in opposition to those who argue for the way of intellect and its distinctive mode, analysis.
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Blyth, R. H. “The Platform Sutra.” In Zen and Zen Classics: Volume 1. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1960. Blyth, an early student and translator of Japanese Buddhist and literary texts, has some interesting things to say about Huineng and his followers. Blyth’s comments should, however, be read with care. He was extremely opinionated, and sometimes he draws the wrong conclusions. He is incorrect, for example, when he disagrees with Huineng and states, “If the body is different, the [Buddha-] nature is different. If the Buddha-nature is the same, the body is the same.”
Dumoulin, Heinrich. “The High Period of Chinese Zen.” In A History of Zen Buddhism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969. This chapter contains a brief section on Huineng and contains discussions of the sixth patriarch’s significance in the history of Zen.
Keizan. “Huineng.” Translated by Thomas Cleary. In The Transmission of Light: Zen in the Art of Enlightenment by Zen Master Keizan. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990. Cleary has done an excellent job of translating Keizan’s Denkroku, which is one of the most important works in the Japanese Zen tradition. Keizan’s work tells the enlightenment stories of fifty-three Buddhist patriarchs but it is intended as an instructional work for Zen practitioners. The chapter on Huineng is brief but extremely powerful.
Nan Huai-Chin. “The Sixth Patriarch of Zen.” In The Story of Chinese Zen. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, 1995. Many Buddhist scholars and translators have no true understanding of their subject, and much of their work is misleading or simply wrong. Nan Huai-Chin, however, is a contemporary Zen master, and his work is accurate and reliable. This chapter on Huineng corrects various errors that other scholars have made regarding the sixth patriarch. Highly recommended.
Suzuki, D. T. “From Zen to the Gandavyha.” In Essays in Zen Buddhism: Third Series. London: Luzac, 1934. This chapter includes discussions of Huineng’s contributions to Zen Buddhism. Suzuki contends that true Zen began with Huineng. His discussions of the differences between the thought of Bodhidharma, the first Chan patriarch, and that of Huineng are particularly interesting.
Suzuki, D. T. The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind: The Significance of the Såutra of Hui-neng. Edited by Christmas Humphreys. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1993. Devoted to the teaching of Huineng, this book includes the technique and purpose of Zen training.