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Huineng, Sixth Patriarch of Zen

The Ideal of a Zen Maser


Huineng Tearing Sutras

Huineng tearing sutras to shreds

Liang-k'ai, 12th century

The influence of the Chinese master Huineng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an (Zen), resonates through Ch'an and Zen Buddhism to this day. Some consider Huineng, not Bodhidharma, to be the true father of Zen. His tenure, at the beginning of the T'ang Dynasty, marks the beginning of what is still called the "golden age" of Zen.

Huineng stands at the juncture where Zen shed its vestigial Indian trappings and found its unique spirit -- direct and unflinching. Through Huineng flow the several diverse currents of early Zen. From him flow all schools of Zen that exist today.

Nearly all of what we know about Huineng is recorded in the "Sutra From the High Seat of the Dharma Treasure," or more commonly, the Platform Sutra. This is a seminal work of Zen literature. Its passages are still actively discussed and used as a teaching devices in all schools of Zen. The Platform Sutra presents itself as a collection of talks given by the Sixth Patriarch at a temple in Canton.

Historians question the sutra's provenance and think it may have been pieced together from more than one source. Even so, historian Heimrich Dumoulin wrote, "It is this figure of Hui-neng that Zen has elevated to the stature of the Zen master par excellence. His teachings stand at the source of all the widely diverse currents of Zen Buddhism. ... In classical Zen literature, the dominant influence of Hui-neng is assured. The figure of the Sixth Patriarch embodies the essence of Zen." (Zen Buddhism: A History, India and China [Macmillan, 1994], p. 137)

The Patriarchs

Bodhidharma (ca. 470-543) founded Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism at the Shaolin Monastery in what is now Henan Province of north central China. Bodhidharma was the First Patriarch of Ch'an.

Bodhidharma bequeathed his robe and alms bowl to Hui-k'o (or Huike, 487-593), the Second Patriarch. In time the robe and bowl were passed to the Third Patriarch, Seng-ts'an (or Sengcan, d. ca. 606); the Fourth, Tao-hsin (Diaoxin, 580-651); and the Fifth, Hung-jen (Hongren, 601-674). Hung-jen was abbot of a monastery on Mount Huang-mei in southeast China, in what is now Fujian Province.

Huineng Comes to Hung-jen

According to the Platform Sutra, Huineng was a poor, illiterate young man of southern China who was selling firewood when he heard someone reciting the Diamond Sutra, and he had an awakening experience. The man reciting the sutra had come from Hung-jen's monastery, Huineng learned. Huineng traveled to Huang-mei and presented himself to Hung-jen.

Hung-jen saw that this uneducated youth from south China had rare understanding. But to protect Huineng from jealous rivals, he put Huineng to work doing chores instead of inviting him into the Buddha Hall for teaching.

The Last Passing of the Robe and Bowl

One day Hung-jen challenged his monks to compose a verse that expressed their understanding of the dharma. If any verse reflects the truth, Hung-jen said, the monk who composed it will receive the robe and bowl and become the Sixth Patriarch.

Shen-hsiu (Shenxiu), the most senior monk, accepted this challenge and wriote this verse on a monastery wall:

Our body is the bodhi tree
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour
And let no dust alight.

When someone read the verse to the illiterate Huineng, the future Sixth Patriarch knew Shenxiu had missed it. Huineng dictated this verse for another to write for him:

There is no bodhi tree
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?

Hung-jen recognized Huineng's understanding but did not publicly announce him the winner. In secret he instructed Huineng on the Diamond Sutra and gave him Bodhidharma's robe and bowl. But Hung-jen also said that, since the robe and bowl were desired by many who didn't deserve it, Huineng should be the last to inherit them to keep them from becoming objects of contention.

The Last Patriarch

Hung-jen's caution is understandable in light of events of his time. Some of Hung-jen's other dharma heirs, including former senior monk Shen-hsui, established a new school of Ch'an in north China that emphasized gradual enlightenment, as opposed to the sudden realization experience favored by the Southern school.

The Northern school flourished for a time but eventually died out, whereas the Southern school survived and continued. Huineng, the Sixth and last Patriarch, is the dharma ancestor of all Zen.

Not the Wind, Not the Flag

Huineng left Hung-jen's monastery and remained secluded for 15 years. Then, deciding he had been secluded long enough, Huineng went to Fa-hsin Temple in Canton. He entered the temple and found two monks disputing a waving flag. The following exchange in recorded in the koan collection The Mumonkan, case 29 (Robert Aitken's translation):

Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, "The flag moves." The other said, "The wind moves." They argued back and forth but could not agree.

The Sixth Ancestor said, "Gentlemen! It is not the wind that moves; it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves." The two monks were struck with awe.

The master of Fa-hsin recognized Huineng's insight and guessed that he was Hung-jen's mysterious heir and holder of Bodhidharma's robe and bowl. Huineng finally was recognized as the Sixth Patriarch. He taught for a time at Fa-hsin, then established his own monastery, Paolin, near Canton.

The Legacy of Huineng

Huineng's teachings focused on inherent enlightenment, sudden awakening, the wisdom of emptiness (shunyata), and meditation. His emphasis was on realization through direct experience rather than study of sutras. In legends, Huineng locks libraries and rips sutras to shreds. Yet the Diamond Sutra informed his understanding, and the only work written in Chinese to be graced with the title "sutra" is attributed to him.

Huineng was said to have died while sitting in zazen at the Nanhua Temple in Caoqi, where to this day a mummy said to be that of Huineng remains seated and robed.

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