The master honored today as the father of modern Zen was an impoverished country lad from South China, whose attributed autobiography, The Platform Sutra of Hui-neng, is the only "sutra" of Buddhism written by a Chinese.1 In this work, Hui-neng (638-713) told the story of his rise from obscurity to fame. He described his father as a high Chinese official who, unjustly banished and reduced to a commoner, died of shame while Hui-neng was still a small child. To survive, the fatherless boy and his mother sold wood in the marketplace at Han-hai, near Canton in South China. Then one day he chanced to overhear a man reciting a passage from the Diamond Sutra. Hui-neng stopped to listen, and when he heard the phrase "Let your mind function freely, without abiding anywhere or in anything," he was suddenly awakened. Upon inquiry, he discovered that the reciter was a follower of the Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen. This teacher, the stranger said, taught that by reciting the Diamond Sutra it was possible to see into one's own nature and to directly experience enlightenment.
The Diamond Sutra (sometimes called the Vajracchedika Sutra) became the passion of Hui-neng as well as the touchstone for the new Chinese Ch'an. An unusually brief work, it has been called the ultimate distillation of the Buddhist Wisdom Literature. The following excerpt is representative of its teaching.
All the mind's arbitrary concepts of matter, phenomena, and of all conditioning factors and all conceptions and ideas relating thereto are like a dream, a phantasm, a bubble, a shadow, the evanescent dew, the lightning's flash. Every true disciple should thus look upon all phenomena and upon all the activities of the mind, and keep his mind empty and selfless and tranquil.2
The Diamond Sutra does not search the philosophic heights of the Lankavatara Sutra, the treatise revered by the early dhyana school of Bodhidharma, and precisely for this reason it appealed to the Southern school—whose goal was the simplification of Ch'an. Hui-neng could not resist the call and immediately set out for the East Mountain monastery of the Fifth Patriarch.
When he arrived, Hung-jen opened the interview by asking the newcomer his origin. Hearing that he was from the Canton region, the old priest sighed, "If you're from the south you must be a barbarian. How do you expect to become enlightened?" To this Hui-neng shot back, "The people in the north and south may be different, but enlightenment is the same in both regions." Although this impertinence caused the master to immediately recognize Hui-neng's mental gifts, he said nothing and simply put him to work threshing and pounding rice. (This exchange, incidentally, will be recognized as the memorable first encounter between two generations of masters, an obligatory element in all the legends of the early Patriarchs.)
For the next eight months, the young novice toiled in obscurity, never so much as seeing the Fifth Patriarch. Then one day the old priest called an assembly and announced that he was ready to pass on the robe of the patriarchy to the one who could compose a verse showing an intuitive understanding of his own inner nature. The disciples talked over this challenge among them¬selves and decided, "The robe is certain to be handed down to Shen-hsiu, who is head monk and the natural heir. He will be a worthy successor to the master, so we will not bother composing a verse."
Shen-hsiu, the same master later exalted by the Empress Wu in Loyang, knew what was expected of him and began struggling to compose the verse. After several days' effort, he found the courage to write an unsigned gatha on a corridor wall in the dark of night.
Our body is the Bodhi-tree
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight.3
When the Fifth Patriarch saw the verse, he convened an assembly in the corridor, burned incense, and declared that they all should recite the anonymous passage. Afterward, however, he summoned Shen-hsiu to his private quarters and inquired if he was author of the verse. Receiving an affirmative reply, the master said, "This verse does not demonstrate that you have yet achieved true understanding of your original nature. You have reached the front gate, but you have not yet entered into full understanding. Prepare your mind more fully and when you are ready, submit another gatha." It is a Ch'an commonplace that Shen-hsiu's verse stressed methodical practice and was perfectly logical—just the opposite of the sudden, anti-logical leap of intuition that is true enlightenment. Shen-hsiu departed, but try as he might he could not produce the second gatha.
In the meantime, Hui-neng overheard the monks reciting Shen-hsiu's lines. Although he recognized that its author had yet to grasp his own original nature, Hui-neng asked to be shown the verse and allowed to do homage to it. After he was led to the hall, the illiterate lad from the barbarian south asked to have a gatha of his own inscribed next to the one on the wall.
There is no Bodhi-tree
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?4
Although the assembly was electrified by the insight contained in this gatha, the diplomatic old Fifth Patriarch publicly declared that its author lacked full understanding. During the night, however, he summoned young Hui-neng to the darkened meditation hall, where he expounded the Diamond Sutra to him and then ceremonially passed to him the robe of Bodhidharma, symbol of the patriarchy. He also advised him to travel immediately to the south, to stay underground for a time in the interest of safety, and then to preach the Dharma to all who would listen. Hui-neng departed that very night, crossing the Yangtze and heading south—the anointed Sixth Patriarch at age twenty-four.
When the other monks realized what had happened, they hastily organized a party to retrieve Hui-neng and the Ch'an relics. Finally one of the pursuers, a burly former soldier, reached the new Sixth Patriarch in his hideaway. Suddenly overcome by the presence of Hui-neng, he found himself asking not for the return of the robe but rather for instruction. Hui-neng obliged him with, "Not thinking of good, not thinking of evil, tell me what was your original face before your mother and father were born." This celebrated question—which dramatizes the Zen concept of an original nature in every person that precedes and transcends artificial values such as good and evil—caused the pursuer to be enlightened on the spot.
For the next several years Hui-neng sought seclusion, living among hunters in the south and concealing his identity. The legends say his kindly nature caused him sometimes to secretly release animals from the hunters' traps and that he would accept only vegetables from their stewpots. But this life as an anonymous vagabond, a Patriarch while not even a priest, could not be his final calling. One day when the time felt right (in 676, as he neared forty), he renounced the life of a refugee and ventured into Canton to visit the Fa-hsing temple. One afternoon as he lingered in the guise of an anonymous guest, he overheard a group of monks arguing about a banner flapping in the breeze.
One monk declared, "The banner is moving."
Another insisted, "No, it is the wind that is moving."
Although he was only a lay observer, Hui-neng could not contain himself, and he interrupted them with his dramatic manifesto, "You are both wrong. It is your mind that moves."
The abbot of the temple, standing nearby, was dumbstruck by the profound insight of this stranger, and on the spot offered to become his pupil. Hui-neng declined the honor, however, requesting instead that his head be shaved and he be allowed to enter Buddhist orders, a priest at last. He was shortly acclaimed by one and all as the Sixth Patriarch, and after a few months in Canton he decided to move to a temple of his own at Ts'ao-ch'i, where he taught for the next four decades. From this monastery came the teachings that would define the faith.
The foregoing story, perhaps the most famous in the Zen canon, is drawn mainly from the aforementioned Platform Sutra of Hui-neng, purportedly an autobiography and sermon pre¬sented to an assembly in his later years.5 (The setting was a temple near his monastery, where he was invited to lecture one day by the local abbot. It was transcribed by one of his disciples, ince Hui-neng traditionally was said to have been illiterate.) The document has come down to us in three parts. The first part is the story just summarized: a poetry contest at the monastery of the Fifth Patriarch in which the man later to lead Northern Ch'an is humiliated by a bumpkin, who himself must then flee the wrath of the Ch'an establishment and wait for recognition in the south. The second part is a lecture that scholars believe probably represents the general outline of Hui-neng's views on man's original nature. The third part is a highly embellished account of his later years, usually dismissed as the pious invention of a more recent date.
The real life of Hui-neng is a historical puzzle that may well never be resolved. For example, it is common to note that the later Ch'an writers took great pains to render Hui-neng as illiterate and unlettered as possible, the more to emphasize his egalitarianism. (This in spite of the fact that the sermon attributed to him refers to at least seven different sutras.) The facts were adjusted to make a point: If a simple illiterate wood peddler could become Patriarch, what better proof that the faith is open to all people? Many of the traditional anecdotes surrounding his early years are similarly suspect, and in fact the most respected Hui-neng scholar has declared, "If we consider all the available material, and eliminate patiently all the inconsistencies by picking the most likely legends, we can arrive at a fairly credible biography of Hui-neng. If, on the other hand, we eliminate the legends and the undocumented references to the Sixth Patriarch, we may conclude that there is, in fact, almost nothing that we can really say about him."6 Yet does it really matter whether the legend is meticulously faithful to the facts? Hui-neng is as much a symbol as a historical individual, and it was essential that his life have legendary qualities. In his case, art may have helped life along a bit, but it was for a larger purpose.
The purpose was to formalize the new philosophical ideas of Southern Ch'an. The second part of the Platform Sutra, which details his philosophical position, has been characterized as a masterpiece of Chinese thought, the work not of a scholar but of a natural sage whose wisdom flowed spontaneously from deep within. Yet it is commonly conceded that the uniqueness of his message lies not so much in its being original (which most agree it is not) but in its rendering of the basic ideas of Buddhism into Chinese terms.7 Buddhism itself seems at times to be in question, as the Sixth Patriarch discounts traditional observances, even
suggesting that the Buddhist Western Paradise, known as the Pure Land, might be merely a state of mind.
The deluded person concentrates on Buddha and wishes to be born in the other land; the awakened person makes pure his own mind. . . . If only the mind has no impurity, the Western Land is not far. If the mind gives rise to impurities, even though you invoke the Buddha and seek to be reborn in the West, it will be difficult to reach . . . but if you practice straightforward mind, you will arrive there in an instant.8
Hui-neng also questioned the traditional Ch'an practice of sitting in meditation, declaring it to be more a mind-set than a physical act (if his Sutra is authentic, then he predates his pupil Shen-hui on this point). He also broke it apart into two different categories: the sitting and the meditation.
. . . what is this teaching that we call "sitting in medita¬tion"? In this teaching "sitting" means without any obstruction anywhere, outwardly and under all circum¬stances, not to activate thoughts. "Meditation" is internal¬ly to see the original nature and not become confused.9
Elsewhere he is quoted as declaring that protracted sitting only shackles the body without profiting the mind.10 Although Hui-neng severely took to task those who depended on medita¬tion, there is no evidence that he forbade it entirely. What he did reject was a fixation on meditation, a confusion—to use a later Zen expression—of the finger pointing at the moon with the moon itself. Even so, this was a radical move. Hui-neng presents us with the startling prospect of a dhyana teacher questioning the function of dhyana—until then the very basis of the school.
Yet the sutra is far from being all negative. It has a number of positive messages, including the following: All people are born in an enlightened state, a condition in which good and evil are not distinguished. Nor are there distracting discriminations, attachments, and perturbations of the spirit in this primal estate. (A very similar view is found throughout the poetry of William Wordsworth, to give only one example from Western thought.11) But if man's original nature is pure and unstained, how then does evil enter into a person's character? He faces this classic theological question head-on:
Good friends, although the nature of people in this world is from the outset pure in itself, the ten thousand things are all within their own natures. If people think of all the evil things, then they will practice evil; if they think of all the good things, then they will practice good. Thus it is clear that in this way all the dharmas (aspects of humanity) are within your own natures, yet your own natures are always pure. The sun and moon are always bright, yet if they are covered by clouds, although they are bright, below they are darkened, and the sun, moon, stars, and planets cannot be seen clearly. But if suddenly the wind of wisdom should blow and roll away the clouds and mists, all forms in the universe appear at once. . . . [I]f a single thought of good evolves, intuitive wisdom is born. As one lamp serves to dispel a thousand years of darkness, so one flash of wisdom destroys ten thousand years of ignorance.12
As Hui-neng viewed it, there is latent within us all the condition of enlightenment, the state that precedes our concern with good and evil. It can be reclaimed through an intuitive acquaintance with our own inner natures. This is well summarized by the Hui-neng scholar Philip Yampolsky: "The Platform Sutra maintains that the nature of man is from the outset pure, but that his purity has no form. But by self-practice, by endeavoring for himself, man can gain insight into this purity. Meditation, prajna, true reality, purity, the original nature, self-nature, the Buddha nature, all these terms, which are used constantly throughout the sermon, indicate the same undefined Absolute, which when seen and experienced by the individual himself, constitutes enlightenment."13
This condition of original innocence that is enlightenment can be reclaimed through "no-thought," a state in which the mind floats, unattached to what it encounters, moving freely through phenomena, unperturbed by the incursions and attrac¬tions of the world, liberated because it is its own master, tranquil because it is pure. This is the condition in which we were born and it is the condition to which we can return by practicing "no-thought." Although it happens to be similar to the condition that can be realized through arduous meditation, Hui-neng apparently did not believe that meditation was required. This primal condition of the mind, this glimpse into our original nature, could be realized instantaneously if our mind were receptive. But what is this state called "no-thought"? According to Hui-neng:
To be unstained in all environments is called no-thought. If on the basis of your own thoughts you separate from environment, then, in regard to things, thoughts are not produced. If you stop thinking of the myriad things, and cast aside all thoughts, as soon as one instant of thought is cut off, you will be reborn in another realm. . . . Because man in his delusion has thoughts in relation to his environment, heterodox ideas stemming from these thoughts arise, and passions and false views are produced from them.14
Yampolsky characterizes "no-thought" as follows: "Thoughts are conceived as advancing in progression from past to present to future, in an unending chain of successive thoughts. Attachment to one instant of thought leads to attachment to a succession of thoughts, and thus to bondage. By cutting off attachment to one instant of thought, one may, by a process unexplained, cut off attachment to a succession of thoughts and thus attain to no-thought, which is the state of enlightenment."15 Precisely how this condition of "no-thought" enlightenment is achieved is not explained in the Platform Sutra and in fact has been the major concern of Zen ever since. The one thing that all will agree is that the harder one tries to attain it, the more difficult it becomes. It is there inside, waiting to be released, but it can be reached only through the intuitive mind. And it happens suddenly, when we least expect.
The master Hui-neng stands at the watershed of Zen history. Indeed he may be the watershed, in the embodied form of a legend. There seems reason to suspect that he was canonized well after the fact, as was Bodhidharma. But whereas Bodhidharma provided an anchor for the original formation of a separate Dhyana sect in Chinese Buddhism, Hui-neng became the rallying symbol for a new type of Ch'an, one wholly Chinese, and one that seemed to discount Bodhidharma's old mainstay, meditation. He became the Chinese answer to the Indian Bodhidharma.
Hui-neng redefined the specific characteristics of the Ch'an goal and described in nontheological terms the mind state in which duality is banished. But he failed to go the next step and explain how to get there. All he did was point out (to use the terminology of logic) that meditation not only was not a sufficient condition for enlightenment, it might not even be a necessary condition. What then was required? The answer to this question was to be worked out during the next phase of Ch'an, the so-called Golden Age of Zen, when a new school of Southern Ch'an exploded (to use a common description) in the south and went on to take over all of Ch'an. These new teachers seem to have accepted Hui-neng as their patron, although the direct connection is not entirely clear. These masters learned how to impose a torture chamber on the logical mind, bringing to it such humiliations that it finally annihilated ego or self and surrendered to prajna, intuitive wisdom. They devised systematic ways to produce the state of "no-thought" that Hui-neng and Shen-hui apparently could only invoke.