Master Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch (1)

Speaker: Venerable Zhi Tong

FGS Institute of Humanistic Buddhism

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings, welcome to a new episode of English Dharma Services. My name is Zhi Tong, and today I would like to share the biography of a Chan master. 

As Buddhism began to take root in China, some of the doctrines and practices were widely received by Chinese, but some only flourished for a short period of time before being lost in history. Chinese Buddhism as we know it today began to take shape around the Tang dynasty centered on Chan and Pure Land Schools. 

The focus of Chan School is to discover one’s original nature and attain awakening. It begins with the Buddha himself, who transmitted the Dharma to Mahakasyapa. Mahayasyapa became the first patriarch of the Indian Chan School. The lineage continued until Bodhidharma, who was the twenty-eighth patriarch of the Indian Chan School as well as the First Patriarch of the Chinese Chan School.

In this episode, I would like to introduce the Sixth and last Chinese Patriarch, Master Huineng. Master Huineng’s biography and teachings were recorded in the well-known The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. He was the person who popularized Chan in Chinese society and integrated the Dharma into daily life. Furthermore, Master Huineng was a propagator of “sudden awakening” as compared to “gradual awakening.” 

Master Huineng advocated that “the mind is inherently pure and intrinsically a buddha. By knowing the mind and seeing the intrinsic nature, one will awaken suddenly and become a buddha.” Hence, this is the teaching of sudden awakening, which “points directly to the mind and helps one attain buddhahood through sudden awakening.”

Who was Master Huineng? Why was his teachings so popularly received and relevant even until today? Why was his story passed down through generations and still widely discussed by Buddhists and scholars alike? Let’s find out.

The Platform Sutra of the Six Patriarch was a record of Master Huineng’s teachings written down by his disciples. It is noteworthy that Master Huineng called himself an illiterate. As we have learned from the biographies of many Buddhist masters, they were all born into good families and had the opportunity to learn how to read and write. In fact, many Buddhist masters were well-respected scholars with a thorough understanding of Chinese classics. In this way, Master Huineng was already different from the generations of Buddhist masters before him. Let us listen to Master Huineng’s narration of the circumstances of his awakening, which was recorded in the very first chapter.

II. The First Realization

Master Huineng was born during the Tang dynasty on February 8th, 638 C.E. His father’s name was Lu Xingtao 盧行瑫, and his mother’s maiden name was Li. His father passed away when he was only three years old, so Huineng was raised by his mother, a devout Buddhist. Legend has it that when Master Huineng was born, two strange looking monastics came to his home and gave him the name “Huineng.” The name “Huineng” is made up of two Chinese characters, hui, meaning benefit,” and neng, meaning “ability.” The name Huineng thus means “One who will bring benefit to all sentient beings, and is able to do the Buddha’s work.” The two monastics prophesied that when the boy grew up, he would teach the Dharma and benefit sentient beings everywhere.

Though Huineng grew up in southern China, he was actually born in northern China. His ancestors were from Fanyang County in Hebei Province. When his father was stripped of his government title, they were exiled to the southern part of China in Xinzhou. This move from the north to the south would play an important part in Master Huineng’s life.

After Huineng’s father passed away, his family became destitute and could not afford to send him to school. Huineng was forced to provide for the family by selling firewood in the marketplace. 

One day, a customer came to purchase firewood and left instructions to deliver it to his shop. Upon delivery and payment, Huineng went outside and saw a man reciting a sutra. The moment when Huineng heard the sutra, his mind was awakened. Huineng asked the man, “What sutra are you reciting?”

The man replied, “The Diamond Sutra.”

Huineng asked, “Where did you come from? Why do you recite this sutra?”

He said, “I just came from Dongchan Temple in Huangmei, Qizhou. Hongren, the Fifth Patriarch, is the presiding abbot and has over one thousand disciples. When I went there to pay homage to the patriarch, I listened to and received this sutra. The venerable master often encouraged his disciples and devotees to practice the Diamond Sutra, saying that it is seeing intrinsic nature and attaining Buddhahood.”

Master Huineng was greatly inspired just by listening to a few sentences from the Diamond Sutra. He knew that he needed to visit the Fifth Patriarch to learn from him. The man who recited the sutra saw that this was a remarkable young person and sponsored him ten taels of silver for his journey to search for the truth. Huineng was extremely grateful, for this enabled him to take care of his mother. 

After making the necessary arrangements and receiving permission from his mother, Huineng left for the north and arrived at Huangmei in less than thirty days.

III. The Barbarian from the South

Upon arriving in the Fifth Patriarch’s temple, Huineng saw the patriarch himself. 

The Fifth Patriarch asked, “Where are you from? What do you seek?”

Huineng replied, “I am a commoner from Xinzhou in Lingnan. I have traveled far to pay homage to you. I seek to be a Buddha and nothing else.”

The Fifth Patriarch asked, “You are from Lingnan and also a barbarian! How do you expect to be a Buddha?”

I said, “Though people may be northerners or southerners, Buddha nature has no north or south. While this barbarian’s body is different from yours, Venerable Master, what difference is there in Buddha nature?”

The Fifth Patriarch wished to speak with Huineng further, but his other disciples were around him. Instead, the Fifth Patriarch instructed Huineng to join others in their work. Huineng said, “Venerable Master, this disciple’s inherent mind continually gives rise to wisdom and does not stray from inherent nature–it is a field of merit. What do you want me to do, Venerable Master?”

The Fifth Patriarch said, “The roots of this barbarian’s nature are finely honed. Say no more and go work in the mill!”

Huineng withdrew to the rear of the temple where he was told to chop firewood and pound rice. This continued for eight months.

IV. The Two Gathas

One day, the Fifth Patriarch gathered all his disciples and said, “I wish to speak to you on the great matter of life and death, for it is of great concern for all people. You spend the whole day seeking a field of merit and do not seek to depart from the bitter sea of birth and death. If intrinsic nature is obscured, how can merit be of any help to you? Each of you should observe your wisdom–your inherent mind’s prajna nature. Each of you should write a gatha and show it to me. If it reveals you are awakened to the great meaning, I will pass to you the robe of the Dharma, naming you the sixth patriarch. Go immediately without delay. Considering is of no use! It is apparent who has awakened to his intrinsic nature the moment he speaks, even if he is wielding a sword in battle.”

After the Fifth Patriarch spoke, the disciples withdrew and discussed among themselves, “Most of us need not calm our minds and exert ourselves to compose a gatha. What would be the benefit of showing our work to the venerable master? The elder Shenxiu is our instructor and will certainly be the one who receives it. Even if we were so bold as to compose a gatha, it would be a waste of our mental energy.” 

At this time, the Fifth Patriarch’s head of disciple was Shenxiu, and Shenxiu was greatly respected by the other disciples. Hence, the other disciples set their minds to rest and said, “From now on we will look to the elder Shenxiu for guidance. Why trouble ourselves with writing a gatha?” Hence, no one tried to write something, and they waited eagerly for Shenxiu to produce a gatha.

After much contemplation, Shenxiu wrote a gatha as expected,

The body is a bodhi tree,
The mind is like a bright standing mirror
Diligently clean it at all times
So it does not attract dust.

When the Fifth Patriarch looked at the gatha, he knew Shenxiu had yet discover his intrinsic nature. However, he said to the disciples, “Offer incense and pay homage to this gatha. Anyone who whole-heartedly recites this gatha will see intrinsic nature.” And so everyone in the temple began to recite the gatha and took it as their personal cultivation.

One day, Huineng heard a little boy reciting Shenxiu’s gatha. He asked the boy, “What is this gatha that you are reciting?”

The boy said, “You barbarian! Don’t you know? The venerable master told everyone to write a gatha and show it to him. If the gatha reveals that one is awakened to the great meaning, the Fifth Patriarch will pass the robe of the Dharma to the person. The head monk writes this formless gatha on the wall of the south corridor. The venerable master then instructed us to recite it. He said, ‘Anyone who practices this gatha will not fall into the lower realms. Anyone who practices this gatha will reap great benefit.”

Huineng was not bothered by the arrogant attitude of this boy. Instead, he said, “Good sir, I have been grinding at this mill for the last eight months and have not walked up to the patriarch’s hall. I hope you can take me to the gathat so I may pay homage to it.”

The young boy took Huineng to the gatha so that he could pay homage to it. Huineng said to him, “I do not read, please read it for me.” It was then that Zhang Riyong, a deputy perfect of Jiangzhou, passed by and read the gatha out loud to him. After hearing the gatha again, Huineng said, “I also have a gatha. I hope you can write it down for me.”

The deputy prefect replied, “You have also composed one? How unusual!”

Huineng said, “If you seek supreme bodhi, you must not slight beginners. The most junior person can have the most profound wisdom. The most senior person can have lapses in their wisdom. Looking down on others results in boundless wrongdoing.”

The deputy prefect was humbled and answered, “Please recite your gatha so I can write it down for you. If you are awakened, do not forget to teach me first.” 

Huineng then recited his gatha,

Essentially, bodhi is not a tree.
The bright mirror is also not standing;
Inherently, there is no thing,
Where can it attract dust?

After the gatha was written, many disciples were astonished and remarked, “How extraordinary! We should not judge a person by his looks. How can it be that, though he has not been here very long, he is now a living bodhisattva?” 

The patriarch saw the crowd’s response and was afraid that someone might do Huineng harm. He removed his shoe, erased Huineng’s gatha, and said, “He has not see inherent nature either.” And the other people accepted the Fifth Patriarch’s words.

V. The Secret Message

The next day, the patriarch quietly stepped into the mill. As Huineng was skinny and small, he was pounding rice with a stone pestle tied to his waist to add on to his weight. The fifth patriarch said,

“Many practitioners forget themselves for the Dharma. You should be like this.” He then looked at the rice that Huineng was pounding, and asked,”Is the rice ripe for harvest?” 

Huineng knew the fifth patriarch wasn’t really referring to the rice, but to himself. He replied, “It has been ready for a while, just waiting for the sieve.” 

The fifth patriarch struck the mortar three times with his staff before leaving. And Huineng instantly knew what he meant. 

What is the significance of striking the mortar three times? What does the Fifth Patriarch want with Huineng? Tune in to the next episode to find out.