Hui-neng -- Patriarch of Zen Buddhism

By Eloise Hart

Artists and writers often portray world saviors and heroes with such beauty that we tend to admire these creations rather than the individuals commemorated. This was not the case in China. Their drawings and stories of spiritual arhats tend to reflect their lifetimes-long struggles and conquests of the "villains and thieves" of their lower nature that robbed them of truth and hindered their progress.

But, we wonder, when one attains enlightenment would he not become godlike in appearance? Wouldn't such illumination change his whole life for the better? "Not much," a Zen Master once said. "His head is covered with ashes and his face smeared with mud," implying that while inwardly there is a great transformation, outwardly one's life may continue unchanged. This idea is borne out in the story of Hui-neng (638-713 AD), considered to be the father of Zen tradition, who perpetuated Gautama Buddha's teachings while giving them a characteristically Chinese quality. His story, like that of many spiritual figures of the distant past, is a legend in the sense that the incidents related are largely suggestive and symbolic. At times it reflects conflicts between the two main divisions of Ch'an Buddhism, the Sudden Enlightenment and the Gradualist schools, which did not begin until years after his death and continued for several centuries between their respective followers. Behind these elements, however, we can still discern the life of an enlightened soul and the ideas of the tradition he represents.

Hui-neng Cutting Bamboo, by Liang K'ai

Hui-neng was but a lad when his father died and, forced to forego an education, he provided for his mother and himself by gathering firewood and selling it in the markets of Canton. It was at one of these markets that he heard a verse from the Diamond Sutra -- "Let your mind flow freely without dwelling on anything" -- that illumined his mind and set his soul afire. Asking where he could learn more, he was referred to the Tung-tsan Monastery, five hundred miles to the north. By unexpected good fortune he was soon able to provide for his mother, and so set out for the monastery. When he arrived, the Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen, came to greet him and inquired: "How can you, an uneducated commoner from the South, possibly hope to attain buddhahood?"

Hui-neng answered him, "Although people are distinguished as Northerners and Southerners, there is neither north nor south in buddha-nature. In physical appearance, barbarians and monks may look different, but what difference is there in their buddha-nature?" By way of response, the Patriarch sent him off to the granary, where he was put to work hulling rice and splitting wood. He labored there for many months, until he heard something that disturbed him. The scholar and head monk Shen-hsiu had written a verse on a corridor wall in response to a request by the aged Patriarch:

Our body is the Bodhi Tree,
And our mind is a bright mirror.
At all times diligently wipe them,
So that they will be free from dust.

What disturbed Hui-neng was the statement that our minds collect dust and need to be continually wiped clean; to him our mind, being part of our spiritual nature, is always pure and above delusion. Putting this thought into verse, he asked a visitor to write on the wall:

The Tree of Perfect Wisdom is originally no tree.
Nor has the bright mirror any frame.
Buddha-nature is forever clear and pure.
Where is there any dust?

When the Patriarch read this, he realized that the illiterate lay-brother Hui-neng had "entered the door of enlightenment" and was worthy of succeeding him.

Readers familiar with the verse in H. P. Blavatsky's Voice of the Silence -- "For mind is like a mirror; it gathers dust while it reflects. It needs the gentle breezes of Soul-Wisdom to brush away the dust of our illusions" (p. 26) -- may wonder whether the verse of Shen-hsiu or of Hui-neng was closer to the truth. Both are! At our present stage of development our minds do gather the "dust" of vagrant thoughts and feelings and need "the gentle breezes of soul wisdom" to clear away illusions. But on a higher level where mind and spirit blend, duality disappears, forms and attachments dissolve before the oneness that transcends illusions. As William Q. Judge wrote: "The Higher Self needs no concentration because it is always pure, free, unconditioned" (Echoes of the Orient 3:316). To reach this higher state The Voice of the Silence suggests:

Thy Soul-gaze centre on the One Pure Light, the Light that is free from affection, . . .
The more thou dost become at one with it, thy being melted in its BEING, the more thy Soul unites with that which IS, the more thou wilt become Compassion Absolute. -- pp. 58, 70

Achieving enlightenment is one of the principal aims of Zen Buddhism: the word buddha, from the root budh, means "to awaken, to enlighten." According to tradition, when the Patriarch came upon Hui-neng's verse, he erased it. But late that night he summoned Hui-neng and, while others slept, imparted to him the sacred Law (Dharma). Coming to the line in the Diamond Sutra, "One should use one's mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachment," Hui-neng exclaimed with delight: "Who could have conceived that mind-essence is intrinsically free from becoming and annihilating! That mind-essence is intrinsically self-sufficient, and free from change! Who could have conceived that all things are manifestations of mind-essence!"

Certain now of the youth, the Patriarch gave him, as he himself had so long ago been given, the robe which symbolized successorship, and declared: "Hui-neng, you are now the Sixth Patriarch. Guard well these teachings and deliver them to as many as possible." Then he explained how, since the Indian monk Bodhidharma had brought it to China, this sacred Law has been transmitted heart-mind to heart-mind from one patriarch to another. This is reminiscent of the way Buddha Sakyamuni had passed it to his disciple Kasyapa when, instead of speaking to an assembled multitude, he had held up a flower. While the audience awaited teachings, Kasyapa alone had grasped the essence of the Law.

As the night grew on, the Patriarch became increasingly concerned for the safety of his young successor. Finally he got up and escorted Hui-neng to the river where, as they got into a boat together, he picked up the oars. When Hui-neng offered to row, his teacher replied, "No, it is only right for me to get you across the river" -- an allusion to Buddhist teachers helping their disciples reach the "other shore" of spirituality. But the young patriarch insisted: "I have had the honor to inherit the Dharma from you; since I am now enlightened, it is only right for me to cross the sea of birth and death by my own effort to realize my own essence of mind." Whereupon Hung-jen gave him the oars, and they reached the far shore safely. There they bade each other farewell, the Patriarch confident that his teachings would now be preserved.

Many tales are told of Hui-neng's later life. In one, as he made his way southward, he heard footsteps approaching. Throwing down his Dharma-robe, he turned to face his pursuer only to discover that it was a hot-tempered monk, Hui-ming, who demanded not the robe, but to be taught the Dharma. Hui-neng began by telling him to concentrate, to keep his mind perfectly empty and receptive. After a while he asked Hui-ming, ``When you are thinking of neither good nor evil, return to what you were before your father and mother were born.'' Instantly, the monk's mind opened, enlightened.

This story illustrates the basic Buddhist concept that our higher or buddha-mind is always present: we need but drop off the blinders of sense and mind-born illusions to see it. Or as Hui-neng often said: "Buddha-mind is here! Awake and behold it!" However, before Hui-ming departed he confessed that he still wanted to know Buddha's esoteric teachings. "These," Hui-neng declared, "I cannot give you. Each must discover them in himself." This thought, echoing Buddha's final commandment, "Be lamps unto yourselves!" filled Hui-ming with light. Bowing in homage, he declared that henceforth he was Hui-neng's devoted disciple.

Continuing his journey to spread his teachings, Hui-neng eventually arrived in Canton. There he came upon a monastery in which its Master was speaking on the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Intrigued, he stayed to listen and volunteered his thoughts on the subject. The dharma master was impressed, recognized him as a dharma-successor, and invited him to join them and be initiated in their Order. Hui-neng did this, for he had not yet officially become a Buddhist.

There, and wherever he later traveled, his humility, good humor, and insight inspired those who heard him or read his writings. One of his often repeated themes was that enlightenment is a "turning" inwards, an awakening to one's buddha-nature, which he insisted requires neither formal meditation nor philosophical discussion, only doing what is kind and helpful for all living creatures. This "buddha-nature" corresponds to the theosophical atma-buddhic consciousness which, when our hearts and minds open to its light, lets us vision things as they are. This is a spiritually transforming experience similar to what Christians and Hindus refer to as being "born again" or becoming "twice born."

It was the method of obtaining this illumination that distinguished Hui-neng's teachings from Shen-hsiu's. While both emphasized teachings of the Mahayana School, Shen-hsiu advocated a process of gradual enlightenment attained by formal meditation, rituals, and the study and practice of scriptures, while Hui-neng, although recognizing the value of discipline and sustained effort, insisted that enlightenment comes spontaneously when we open ourselves to our innate and everlasting buddha-nature.

When asked "What is the best way to attain liberation?" Hui-neng explained that the attainment of samadhi does not depend on the cross-legged position, or on any position, nor does it depend on a teacher or rituals -- which are but aids for the deluded. Actually, he declared, there is no such thing as attaining liberation:

From the point of ordinary men, enlightenment and ignorance are two separate things. Wise men who thoroughly realize Mind-essence, know that they are of the same nature. This sameness of nature, that is, this non-duality of nature, is what is called "true nature"; neither decreases nor increases; it is undisturbed in an annoying situation and is calm in samadhi. It is neither eternal, nor not-eternal . . . It is beyond existence and non-existence . . .

He elaborated his ideas with such clarity and wit that they not only have brought enlightenment to many, but have had a far-reaching influence on Chinese culture. For Hui-neng and his followers successfully adapted what was still essentially an Indian system to the Chinese character, giving it a practical emphasis and incorporating elements from Chinese traditions, particularly Taoism. According to Chinese historian Huai-chin Nan, this influence transcends any differences that originally existed between the Northern and Southern schools.

Shortly before his death, Hui-neng called his disciples together and told them he would not be with them much longer, adding

Do your best each of you; go wherever circumstances lead you.
With those who are sympathetic
You may have discussion about Buddhism.
As to those whose point of view differs from ours,
Treat them politely and try to make them happy.
Disputes are alien to our school,
They are incompatible with its spirit.

Greatly saddened at his impending death, one inquired if he had chosen a successor. The Patriarch explained that he expected all of his disciples to succeed him in transmitting the Dharma to others. Later, after saying good-bye to each in turn and reminding them to seek to become one with their own buddha-nature, his soul left his body. In due time his body was embalmed and placed in a stupa, and by Imperial Decree tablets were erected to commemorate his life. The main points mentioned were: the Patriarch inherited the robe when he was 24, was ordained at 39, and died at the age of 76. For 37 years he preached for the benefit of all sentient beings; 43 of his disciples inherited the Dharma, while those who had attained a measure of enlightenment were too many to be numbered. The robe which had been transmitted from the First Patriarch, as well as other sacred objects, were placed in the Po-lam Monastery and carefully preserved. His teachings were published and circulated and are treasured today by both scholars and the uneducated, by rich and poor. Thus is recorded the life of an enlightened soul who was for a time housed in the humblest of abodes.



A Buddhist Bible, Dwight Goddard, editor and publisher, Thetford, VT, 1938.
Manual of Zen Buddhism, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, The Eastern Buddhist Society, Kyoto, 1935.
The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, notes and trans. Philip B. Yampolsky, Columbia University Press, New York, 1967.
Sources of Chinese Tradition, comps. William Theodore de Bary, Wing-tsit Chan, Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, New York, 1960.
The Zen Teachings of Huang Po, trans. John Blofeld, Rider & Company, London, 1958.

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 2001; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)

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