What we do each day should benefit all others. — Hui-neng, Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an Buddhism
Every people in history has contributed something of value to human advancement, adding a distinctive quality to the sum of mankind. Ancient China's offering is a large one stressing character and the self-controlled man, but also covering many aspects of endeavor. One of these creations is Ch'an Buddhism, a system of enlightenment with nonintellectual or rather intuitive as well as intellectual facets. An Indian monk known as Bodhidharma brought it to China in the early part of the 6th century, and his successors were known as the Chinese patriarchs. He transmitted to them the "Dharma-knowledge" symbolized by his robe and bowl, but what was passed on was not really a tangible thing at all but something spiritual, beautiful and unnamable.
The sixth and last patriarch was Hui-neng, who gave Ch'an (A Chinese adaptation of the Sanskrit word dhyana, signifying concentration or meditation) a particularly Chinese cast without Indian coloration, and he is a luminous instance of the practical outlook of his people on daily problems and even metaphysical questions. His life and method of presenting ideas show a catalytic power still capable of affecting people in search of their 'real nature' or essence. There is no wonder that his work influenced not only Ch'an Buddhism ever after-ward, but also spread to Japan where his name became Eno and his insights transformed into Zen. He left behind him a single scripture of surpassing excellence and simplicity known either as The Platform Sutra or The Altar Sutra (according to which of the few surviving versions is taken up). It provides a brief autobiography as well as his instructions, and contrasts with the later flamboyant exaggerations and additions that encumber the original like a filigree, and today go by the Japanese name "Zen," but that also affected even the Chinese form "Ch'an" of centuries after his. Hui-neng was the religious or "Dharma" — name assumed in adult life by the only son of an official surnamed Lu who had been demoted and exiled. He was three years old when his father died, and his mother took him to a small town near Canton where they lived in great poverty. As a consequence, he received no education and was illiterate even in maturity. He carried a meager living selling firewood in the city.
On one occasion, he heard a man reciting a verse from the Buddhist classic known as the Diamond Cutter Sutra, and the line — "Thought should spring from a state of non-attachment" moved him deeply. Introduced into a new thought-world, he asked for the source of such ideas. (There are several variations, one giving the passage as "No mind, no abode, and here works the mind.) The man said he had received the text from its famous commentator Hung-jen, the Fifth Patriarch who was abbot of a monastery at Huang-mei, five hundred miles to the north. Not long afterward, Huineng received a sum of money from a benevolent acquaintance and he settled it upon his mother to assure her an income. He then traveled north and after varied experiences, such as expounding to a Buddhist nun a text she had chanted, he reached the monastery.
The abbot asked him who he was and what he wanted, and Huineng told him he wished to attain buddha-insight. Hung-jen replied, "How can you, a barbarian from the south, expect to receive enlightenment?" Hui-neng said that all human beings are intrinsically the same in their buddha-nature; the only difference is in their physical appearance. Hung-jen appears to have recognized his innate wisdom, but set him to work in the kitchen where he pounded rice for eight months.
One day, Hung-jen announced the time had come for him to pass on the "Dharma-inheritance" derived from Bodhidharma. He asked each monk to write a stanza upon the theme of his self-nature: Why does it obscure the gateway to understanding the world of birth and death? Whoever caught the basic idea would be designated his successor. The monks felt that Shen-hsiu, a disciple of Hung-jen's for thirty years and regarded as standing next to him, would certainly be chosen. He was a spiritual man, modest, and possessed considerable erudition and high intelligence. The others felt so convinced of the outcome they decided not to submit their own responses. Shen-hsiu himself, however, felt doubts of his worthiness, seesawing in his mind until late at night when he decided to write an unsigned verse upon a corridor wall being readied for a painting —
The body is the bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror.
At all times we must strive to polish it,
And must not let the dust collect.*
*There are several versions of both Shen-hsiu's stanza and Hui-neng's reply. One Chinese variation gives "bright mirror stand." H. P. Blavatsky gives the essence of the thought in The Voice of the Silence: "The mind is like a mirror. It gathers dust while it reflects."
He felt that although it did not carry his name, if it struck the right note the Patriarch would know its author. The next day the monks acclaimed it as a verse of great perception, and Hung-en then inspected it. He suggested the brethren should reflect deeply upon its meaning.
Later, Hui-neng heard of the abbot's announcement and the chatter about Shen-hsiu's stanza. He requested an acolyte to take him to the wall. Turning to a monk standing there, a former petty official, he explained that he could not read and asked him to chant the text. The monk was astounded, but complied. Then Hui-neng requested the monk to write under it his response, which read —
By no means is bodhi a kind of tree,
Nor is the bright reflecting mind a mirror.
Since mind is emptiness,*
Where can dust collect?
*The word in Sanskrit is sunyata, the void or voidness, the "non-substantial and non-self nature of beings, and a pointer indicating the state of absolute nonattachment and freedom." This definition is from the study of sunyata, by Sengchao, but the philosophy behind the term is better expounded by G. de Purucker in discussing the fullness of the seeming void (see Fountain-Source of Occultism).
Alternative readings in the Tun-huang and Hsi-hsia versions are —
Bodhi originally has no tree,
The mirror has no stand.
Buddha-nature is always clean and pure,
Where is there room for dust?
The Fifth Patriarch recognized that acceptance of Hui-neng would be unwelcome to the monks who not only were northerners but also looked down upon Hui-neng as a lay-brother. So he told them: "This is still not complete understanding" and rubbed out the writing from the wall. But that night he visited Hui-neng in the kitchen, later taking him into the hall where he expounded the Diamond Cutter Sutra. When he reached the sentence: "One should use one's mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachment," Hui-neng said: ". . . who would have thought that all things are the manifestation of the Essence of Mind?" The Fifth Patriarch then "handed the Dharma-knowledge" on to him "flashed direct from the Heart of Buddha."
After that he also warned him that he was in grave danger from the monks of the monastery and that he should leave immediately, in the darkness of the night. So Hui-neng departed, accompanied by Hung-jen who saw him safely to a boat and then returned to the monastery. After several days the monks asked Hung-jen about the Dharma-successorship only to learn that it had already passed to the south. They raised a hue and cry, but Hui-neng had safely escaped into wooded country where he lived for fifteen years. It was possibly this period of his life that inspired a Zen artist of Japan to depict him sweeping leaves from the path before his hut while he looked across his shoulder as though to the "Essence of Mind," which has also been symbolized in Buddhist art as the "other shore" or nirvana. (Hui-neng has provided the motif for Ch'an and Zen paintings. One depicts the six patriarchs, others various themes from his life-story and sutra. I-shan's study in calligraphy entitled Gatha of the Sixth Patriarch contains only the following eight-character passage from the Diamond Cutter Sutra — "The Enlightenment of the Dharma rests in no finite place, it is born in the heart.") After this period Hui-neng took up public teaching, his presentation being plain, understandable, outspoken, and matter-of-fact.
Were Shen-hsiu and Hui-neng bitter opponents, then? Not at all. Each established schools that became famous and endured for a considerable time. The former's was known as the "gradual school" leading toward enlightenment, and the latter's as the "sudden school." Hui-neng himself used warm terms of Shen-hsiu in his sutra, and when the Dowager Empress Wu Tse-t'ien invited Hui-neng to the court to instruct it, the move had been suggested by Shen-hsiu who referred to him as the Sixth Patriarch, the legitimate inheritor of the Dharma-knowledge and the one most able to impart it. The ill-feeling between the schools originated in later times with those followers who identified themselves with a school rather than its message. This development is not unique to Ch'an, but can be seen in the history of other movements that begin as bearers of a spiritual teaching then decline into personality or other cults.
Hui-neng embodied the meaning of his religious name, hui standing for "the bestowal of kindness and Dharma on living beings" and neng, "ability to do the Buddha-work." He made the vow to save all sentient beings, but then explained that each individual must save himself. What did he imply by this paradox?
Perhaps the answer is to be found in the bodhisattva vow ascribed to Kwan-yin —
Never will I seek or receive private, individual salvation. Never win I enter final peace alone, but forever and everywhere will I live and strive for the redemption of every creature throughout the world.
Be that as it may, from hulling grains of rice to sweeping leaves, the importance of practical living while reflecting upon the nature of being and the major issues of the human condition is exemplified by Hui-neng himself. He enjoined upon all to be compassionate . . . "What we do each day should benefit all others." In his Sutra he tells us in effect that "every human being is capable of the highest truth because the Buddha-nature is in everyone." Hui-ming asked him for additional "esoteric teachings" after Hui-neng had pointed him to look within to his "real nature," and in reply he was told: "If you turn your light inwardly you will find what is esoteric within you." On another occasion he told his listeners —
If one wishes to follow certain practices in order to
seek the Buddha [outside],
I do not know where he can expect to find the real Buddha.
If one can in his own mind see the real Buddha,
That will bring about his realization of Buddhahood. He who does not seek the real Buddha in himself but seeks Him outside,
Is surely a man of great delusion.
This was said to his disciples and lay followers just before he died. He directed again that they should spread the concept that all beings have buddha-essence in themselves and that only they can work out their liberation. The Dharma-inheritance devolved upon everyone, there would not be a seventh Patriarch.
Buddha-seeds latent in our mind,
Will sprout upon the Corning of the all-pervading rain.
The 'Flower' of the doctrine having been intuitively grasped, One is bound to reap the fruit of Enlightenment.
NOTE: Of the many versions of The Platform Sutra consulted, I am most indebted to the editions of Philip B. Yampolsky, which weighed many of the ancient texts, and Wing-tsit Chan; both have the Chinese characters as well as translations. Of considerable help were the translation and commentary of the Zen Roshi, Zenkei Shibayama in his work Zen Commentaries on the Mumonkan; Lu Ku'an Yu's excellent translation and exposition in his Ch'an and Zen Teaching, Third Series; Chang Chen-Chi's The Practice of Zen, and Wong Mou-lam's translation which gives the Cantonese rendering of some of the names.
For the background material, reference must be made to Professor Chou Hsiang Kuang's informative but quaintly Englished Dhyana Buddhism in China — Its History and Teaching; The Records of the Transmission of the Lamp (of the dharma); The Hekigan Roku, a Japanese text translated as The Blue Cliff Records, and finally, The Golden Age of Zen by Dr. John C. H. Wu, with some valuable quotations of texts. I have also consulted Zen: Painting and Calligraphy, and Chao Lun, The Treatises of Sen-chao, translated by Walter Liebenthal, Ph.D.
(From Sunrise magazine, October 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Theosophical University Press)