Dajian Huineng

From New World Encyclopedia
Dajian Huineng
The Sixth Patriarch Cutting a Bamboo by Liáng Kǎi
The Sixth Patriarch Cutting a Bamboo by Liáng Kǎi
Born: 638
Place of birth: Canton, China
Died: 713
School(s): Chan
Title(s): Chan master
6th Chan Patriarch

Teacher(s): Daman Hongren
Predecessor(s): Daman Hongren
Successor(s): Official Patriarchy ends

Dajian Huineng (慧能 or 惠能; Pinyin: Huìnéng) (638 – 713) was one of the most important figures in the Chinese Chán monastic tradition. Huineng is the Sixth Patriarch of Chán Buddhism, as well as the last official patriarch; he did not pass on the Dharma and robe of succession to any of his disciples. All surviving schools of Ch’an regard Huineng as their ancestor. He is known as Daikan Enō in Japan and as Hyeneung in Korea. His foremost students were Nanyue Huairang, Qingyuan Xingsi, Nanyang Huizhong, Yongia Xuanjue, and Heze Shenhui.

Huineng is regarded as the founder of the "Sudden Enlightenment" (頓教) Southern Chan school of Buddhism, which advocated an immediate and direct approach to Buddhist practice and enlightenment. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (六祖壇經), attributed to Huineng, is one of the most influential texts in the East Asian meditative tradition. Ch’an grew to become the largest sect in Chinese Buddhism. The teachers claiming Huineng's posterity branched off into numerous different schools, each with its own special emphasis, but all of them kept the same basic focus on meditational practice, personal instruction and personal experience. The Ch’an school was transplanted to Korea as Seon, to Japan as Zen, and to Vietnam as Thiền.


Most of the details of Huinen’s life are known from autobiographical material in Chapter One of Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, attributed to his authorship.

Huineng was born into the Lu family in 638 C.E. in the town of Xing in Canton province. His father died when he was young and his family was poor, so he did not receive an education. He may have been a Hmong or a Miao.[1] One day, while he was delivering firewood to an inn, he heard a guest reciting the Diamond Sutra and experienced an awakening. He immediately decided to seek the Way of Buddhahood. The guest gave him ten taels of silver to provide for his mother, and Huineng embarked on his journey. After traveling for thirty days on foot, Huineng arrived at Huang Mei Mountain, where the Fifth Patriarch Hongren presided.

From Chapter I of the Platform Sutra:

I then went to pay homage to the Patriarch, and was asked where I came from and what I expected to get from him. I replied, "I am a commoner from Hsin Chou of Kwangtung. 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.

I replied, "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."

Hongren immediately asked him to do chores in the rice mill. Huineng stayed to chop wood and pound rice for eight months.

Becoming the Sixth Patriarch

One day, Hongren announced,

The question of incessant rebirth is a momentous one. Day after day, instead of trying to free yourselves from this bitter sea of life and death, you seem to go after tainted merits only (i.e. merits which will cause rebirth). Yet merits will be of no help if your Essence of Mind is obscured. Go and seek for Prajna (wisdom) in your own mind and then write me a stanza (gatha) about it. He who understands what the Essence of Mind is will be given the robe (the insignia of the Patriarchate) and the Dharma (the esoteric teaching of the Chán school), and I shall make him the Sixth Patriarch. Go away quickly.

Delay not in writing the stanza, as deliberation is quite unnecessary and of no use. The man who has realized the Essence of Mind can speak of it at once, as soon as he is spoken to about it; and he cannot lose sight of it, even when engaged in battle.

The disciples said to each other that they didn't need to write any gathas, and that surely their teacher and head monk, Venerable Shenxiu, would become the Sixth Patriarch. So only Shenxiu wrote a gatha for Hongren. As the head monk, Shenxiu was well-respected and under great pressure to produce a gatha that would qualify him as the next patriarch. However, he was uncertain as to his own understanding, and eventually decided to write a poem anonymously on the wall in the middle of the night, and announce his authorship only if Hongren approved.[2] It stated:

The body is a Bodhi tree,
the mind a standing mirror bright.
At all times polish it diligently,
and let no dust alight.

When the disciples saw this gatha on the wall, there was a great stir. When Hongren saw it, he told them, "Practice according to this gatha, you will not fall into the evil realms, and you will receive great benefits. Light incense and pay respect to this gatha, recite it and you will see your essential nature." All the disciples praised and memorized the gatha.

Privately, Hongren told Shenxiu, "You have arrived at the gate, but haven’t entered it. With this level of understanding, you still have no idea what the supreme Bodhi mind is. Upon hearing my words, you should immediately recognize the original mind, the essential nature, which is unborn and unceasing. At all times, see it clearly in every thought, with the mind free from all hindrances. In the One Reality, everything is real, and all phenomena are just as they are."

Hongren asked Shenxiu to compose another gatha that demonstrated true understanding. Shenxiu tried hard but couldn’t come up with another verse.

When Huineneg heard a young novice chanting Shenxiu's gatha as he passed the rice mill, Huineng immediately recognized that this verse lacked true insight. He went to the wall, and asked a district officer there to write a poem on the wall for him. The officer was surprised, "How extraordinary! You are illiterate, and you want to compose a poem?" Huineng replied, "If you seek supreme enlightenment, do not slight anyone. The lowest class may have great insights, and the highest class may commit foolish acts." In veneration, the officer wrote Huineng’s gatha on the wall for him, next to Shenxiu's:

Bodhi is no tree,
nor is the mind a standing mirror bright.
Since all is originally empty,
where does the dust alight?

Huineng then returned to pounding rice in the mill. This gatha created a bigger stir; everyone said, "Amazing! You can’t judge a person by his looks! Maybe he will become a living bodhisattva soon!" When Hongren, alarmed, came out and read the new gatha, he said casually, "This hasn’t seen the essential nature either," and wiped the gatha off the wall with his shoe.

One night, Hongren received Huineng in his abode, and expounded the Diamond Sutra to him. When he came to the passage, "to use the mind yet be free from any attachment," Huineng came to great enlightenment and understood that all dharmas are inseparable from the self-nature. He exclaimed, "How amazing that the self-nature is originally pure! How amazing that the self-nature is unborn and undying! How amazing that the self-nature is inherently complete! How amazing that the self-nature neither moves nor stays! How amazing that all dharmas come from this self-nature!"

Hongren told Huineng, "If one recognizes the original mind and the original nature, he is called a great man, teacher of gods and humans, and a Buddha." He passed the robe and begging bowl as a symbol of the Dharma Seal of Sudden Enlightenment to Huineng.

After being chosen by Hongren as the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng had to flee by night to Nanhua Temple in the south to avoid the wrath of Hongren's jealous senior disciples.

Last patriarch

All surviving schools of Ch’an regard Huineng as their ancestor. He did not pass on the Dharma and robe of succession to any of his disciples. When he was near death, the head Monk, Fa Hai, asked, "Sir, upon your entering Nirvana, who will be the inheritor of the robe and the Dharma?" Huinen replied that all his sermons should be copied out in a volume entitled Sutra Spoken on the High Seat of the Treasure of the Law (Dharmaratha), to be circulated and passed down from one generation to another. Anyone who preached in accordance with its teachings would be preaching the Orthodox Dharma. The practice of transmitting the robe was to be discontinued, because all of his disciples were free from doubt and able to carry out the purpose of their School. He then quoted a stanza by Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch, on Dharma transmission:

“The object of my coming to this land (i.e., China)”
“Is to transmit the Dharma for the deliverance of those under delusion.”
“In five petals the flowers will be complete.”
“Thereafter, the fruit will come to bearing naturally.”

Southern School of Chan

A few decades later, in the middle of the eighth century, monks claiming to be among the successors to Huineng, calling themselves the “Southern School,” cast themselves in opposition to those claiming to succeed Hongren's publicly recognized student Shenxiu (神秀). The debates between these rival factions are believed to be the first documented historical records of Ch’an.

Aside from disagreements over the valid lineage, doctrinally the Southern School was associated with the teaching that enlightenment is sudden, while the Northern School was associated with the teaching that enlightenment is gradual. The Southern school eventually became predominant and their Northern school rivals died out. Since the only surviving records of this account were authored by members of the Southern school, modern scholars question the accuracy of this narrative.

Ch’an grew to become the largest sect in Chinese Buddhism and, despite its "transmission beyond the scriptures," produced the largest body of literature in Chinese history of any sect or tradition. The teachers claiming Huineng's posterity branched off into numerous different schools, each with its own special emphasis, but all of them kept the same basic focus on meditational practice, personal instruction and personal experience. The Ch’an school was transplanted to Korea as Seon, to Japan as Zen, and to Vietnam as Thiền.

The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch

The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (Chinese: 六祖壇經, fully 南宗頓教最上大乘摩訶般若波羅蜜經六祖惠能大師於韶州大梵寺施法壇經), one of the seminal texts in the Chan/Zen Buddhist schools, is derived from discourses given at Shao Zhou temple attributed to Huineng. Modern scholars question whether Huineng was the actual author of this text.

The Platform Sutra was first compiled some time between 700 and 720 by Huineng's disciple Fahai. Two copies dated to between 830 and 860 have been found in the Mogao Caves and both are thought to be based on an edition from about 780. In 1056, the Chinese monk Qisong produced a larger edition. In 1291, Tsungpao produced the edition that became part of the Ming Dynasty Chinese Buddhist canon. This canonical version, apparently based on the Qisong edition, is about a third longer than the Mogao Caves version, and structured differently. In the 1920s, Japanese scholar Yabuki Keiki produced an edition based on one of the Mogao Caves texts (the only one known at the time), dividing the text into fifty-seven sections. In 1934, D. T. Suzuki published an edition based on the Mogao Cave text, but incorporating corrections from the Tsungpao edition. In 1993, the Chinese Buddhist scholar Yang Zengwen published an annotated edition of the second Mogao Caves text (which has fewer errors than the first Mogao Caves text).[3] The first published translation into English was based on the Tsungpao edition, completed by Wong Mou-Lam in 1930, and published by the Yu Ching Press of Shanghai.[4] Shoemaker & Hoard published a translation and commentary by Red Pine, based on the second Mogao Caves text, in 2006.

The key topics of the discourse are sudden enlightenment, the direct perception of one's true nature, and the unity in essence of śīla (virtue), dhyāna (freedom from attachment to all external objects) and prajñā (wisdom). The doctrine of the Southern Chan or "Sudden Enlightenment" school of Ch'an Buddhism is based on this scripture.

Chapter One is an autobiographical account of how Huineng reached enlightenment, inherited the robe and Dharma from the Fifth Patriarch, fled to the South, and eventually assumed his public role. Chapter Two is a lecture on prajna, given after a recitation of the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra. In Chapter Three, Huineng answers questions from a lay audience. Huineng discusses the famous story of Bodhidharma telling Emperor Wu of Liang that his good deeds would bring him no merit. Next, he discusses the Pure Land of the West, asserting the greater importance of one's inner state compared to one's physical location. Huineng concludes by saying that lay practice outside of a monastery is preferable to following the forms of monastic renunciation without inner practice. In the chapter on his final instructions, Huineng instructs his accomplished disciples, "after my entering nirvana, each of you will be the Dhyana Master of a certain district. I am, therefore, going to give you some hints on preaching, so that you may keep up the tradition of our School:"

First mention the three categories of Dharmas, and then the thirty-six "pairs of opposites" in the activities of the bodhicitta. Then teach how to avoid the two extremes of "coming in" and "going out." In all preaching, stray not from the bodhicitta. Whenever someone puts a question to you, answer in the antonyms, so that a pair of opposites will be formed, such as coming and going. When the interdependence of the two is entirely done away with there would be, in the absolute sense, neither coming nor going….

Whenever a question is put to you, answer it in the negative if it is an affirmative one; and vice versa. If you are asked about an ordinary man, tell the questioner something about a sage; and vice versa. From the correlation or interdependence of the two opposites the doctrine of the Middle Way may be grasped. If someone asks what is darkness, answer thus: Light is the root condition and darkness is the reciprocal condition. When light disappears, darkness appears. The two are in contrast to each other. From the correlation or interdependence of the two the Middle Way arises.

In the Platform Sutra Huineng teaches:

Learned Audience, what is sitting for meditation? In our School, to sit means to gain absolute freedom and to be mentally unperturbed in all outward circumstances, be they good or otherwise. To meditate means to realize inwardly the imperturbability of the Essence of Mind.

Learned Audience, what are Dhyana and Samadhi? Dhyana means to be free from attachment to all outer objects, and Samadhi means to attain inner peace. If we are attached to outer objects, our inner mind will be perturbed. When we are free from attachment to all outer objects, the mind will be in peace. Our Essence of Mind is intrinsically pure, and the reason why we are perturbed is because we allow ourselves to be carried away by the circumstances we are in. He who is able to keep his mind unperturbed, irrespective of circumstances, has attained Samadhi.

To be free from attachment to all outer objects is Dhyana, and to attain inner peace is Samadhi. When we are in a position to deal with Dhyana and to keep our inner mind in Samadhi, then we are said to have attained Dhyana and Samadhi. The Bodhisattva Sila Sutra says, "Our Essence of Mind is intrinsically pure." Learned Audience, let us realize this for ourselves at all times. Let us train ourselves, practice it by ourselves, and attain Buddhahood by our own effort” (Translation by A.F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam).[5]

“In all things there is nothing real,
And so we should free ourselves from the concept of the reality of objects
He who believes in the reality of objects
Is bound by this very concept, which is entirely illusive.
He who realizes the 'Reality' (i.e.,Essence of Mind) within himself
Knows that the 'True Mind' is to be sought apart from false phenomena.
If one's mind is bound by illusive phenomena
Where is Reality to be found, when all phenomena are unreal?

“With those who are sympathetic
Let us have discussion on Buddhism.
As for those whose point of view differs from ours
Let us treat them politely and thus make them happy.
(But) disputes are alien to our School,
For they are incompatible with its doctrine.
To be bigoted and to argue with others in disregard of this rule
Is to subjects one's Essence of Mind to the bitterness of mundane existence.”[6]


  1. Isabel Stirling, Zen Pioneer: The Life & Works of Ruth Fuller Sasaki (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006, ISBN 978-1-59376-110-3), ix.
  2. Alan W. Watts, The Way of Zen (Great Britain: Pelican books, 1962, ISBN 0140205470), 111-113.
  3. Huineng, and Red Pine, The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng (Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006, ISBN 9781593760861).
  4. State University of New York, Foreword To New Edition. Retrieved January 12, 2009.
  5. Sinc, Platform Sutra. Retrieved January 12, 2009.
  6. Sinc, Chapter X, His Final Instructions. Retrieved January 12, 2009.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Blyth, Reginald Horace. Zen and Zen Classics. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1960.
  • Huineng, and Red Pine. The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006. ISBN 978-1593760861
  • Huineng, and Thomas F. Cleary. The Sutra of Hui-Neng, Grand Master of Zen: With Hui-Neng's Commentary on the Diamond Sutra. Boston: Shambhala, 1998.
  • Huineng, Mou-lam Wong, and Christmas Humphreys. The Sutra of Hui Neng: Sutra Spoken by the 6th Patriarch on the High Seat of "The Treasure of the Law." Hong Kong: H.K. Buddhist Book Distributor Press, 1982. ISBN 978-1570623486
  • Stirling, Isabel. Zen Pioneer: The Life & Works of Ruth Fuller Sasaki. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006. ISBN 978-1593761103
  • Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind: The Significance of the Sūtra of Hui-Neng (Wei-Lang). London: Rider, 1969.
  • Watts, Alan W. The Way of Zen. Great Britain: Pelican books, 1962. ISBN 0140205470

External links

All links retrieved January 21, 2024.


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