Master Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch (2)

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 will continue with the next episode on Master Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch.

Last week, I shared about the early life of Master Huineng and how he came to study under the Fifth Patriarch.

Huineng grew up in a poor family after the passing of his father, and as he grew up he sold firewood as a means of livelihood. Huineng experienced his first awakening after hearing someone reciting the Heart Sutra and decided to travel north to seek for the renowned Buddhist master, Hongren, also the Fifth Patriarch of the Chan School.

Huineng possessed a sharp aptitude. He was immediately inspired by the Dharma after hearing it for the first time. Furthermore, he was undeterred by the series of verbal, physical, and mental tests given by the Fifth Patriarch upon meeting him. After eight months of working in the mill, the Fifth Patriarch left him a mystery by striking the mortar three times. What did Huineng do? Let’s find out.

II. Transmission of the Dharma

Huineng understood that the three strikes of the mortar signified the third watch of the night. So when the time arrived, Huineng went silently to the fifth patriarch’s room. The fifth patriarch had used his robe as a screen so that others could not see into his room. And in the middle of the night and under the utmost secrecy, the fifth patriarch expounded the meaning of the Diamond Sutra. When he reached the sentence,”Let the mind be present without an abode,” Huineng experienced a great awakening. He realized that all phenomena are not different from intrinsic nature.

He exclaimed to the fifth patriarch, “Who could have thought that intrinsic nature is inherently so pure and clear! Who could have thought that intrinsic nature is inherently neither created nor destroyed! Who could have thought that intrinsic nature is inherently complete! Who could have thought that intrinsic nature is inherently unmoving! Who could have thought that intrinsic nature can inherently manifest all phenomena!” 

At that moment, the Fifth Patriarch knew Huineng had awakened to inherent nature. He knew Huineng fully mastered the teaching of Chan. This was the successor he had been waiting for. The Fifth Patriarch said, “Without knowing the inherent mind, learning the Dharma is of no benefit. One who realizes the inherent mind and sees inherent nature is a person of greatness, a teacher of heavenly and human beings, a Buddha.”

In a night’s time, the Fifth Patriarch transmitted to the teachings of the Sudden School to Huineng, as well as the very important and symbolic  robe and bowl. The fifth patriarch said, “You are now the Sixth Patriarch. Protect your thoughts well and ferry all sentient beings. Spread the teachings for the future, and do not let them come to an end.” 

The Fifth Patriarch continued, “In the past, when the patriarch Bodhidharma first came to this land, the people did not grasp the lineage and the teachings, so he used the passing of the robe to authenticate the lineage from one generation to the next. The Dharma, though, is transmitted from mind to mind, based upon one’s own awakening and understanding. From time immemorial, Buddhas have passed to Buddhas the intrinsic nature, and patriarchs have passed to patriarchs the inherent mind. Because there has been such strife over this robe, do not continue handing it down. If you do so, the lives of future patriarchs will hang by a thread. You must leave quickly now, for others may do you harm.”  

Huineng asked, “Where should I go? I am from the South and am unfamiliar with the mountain trails. How do I get down to the river?” 

The patriarch said, “You need not worry. I will take you there.” 

The fifth patriarch accompanied Huineng all the way to the dock and instructed him to board a boat. While the gift patriarch  was manning the oars, Huineng said, “Venerable Master, please be seated. Your disciple should row.”

The patriarch answered, “But it is only fitting that I ferry you across.” 

I said, “When I was deluded, my teacher ferried me. Upon awakening, I ferry myself. Both are ways to get across, but the process is different. Since I was born in the countryside and do not speak the language properly, I am thankful that you, Venerable Master, transmitted the Dharma to me. Now that I am awakened, it is only appropriate that intrinsic nature ferries itself across.”

The patriarch remarked, “Precisely! Precisely! Henceforth, you shaIl spread the Dharma far and wide. Three years after your departure, I will pass away. You should depart now and quickly travel south. Do not start teaching too quickly because it is difficult to spread the Dharma.”

When they reached the other shore, Huineng bade farewell to the patriarch. 

Just think about it, Huineng took a month traveling to learn from the Fifth Patriarch, but after the initial meeting, he was sent to work in the mill for eight months. However, in just a few hours teaching the Dharma to Huineng, the Fifth Patriarch knew he had found the next successor of the Chan school. The relationship between the master and disciple does not need to last a very long time. It is more important for the disciple to realize the master’s teachings and take it to heart. Some disciples stayed by their masters’ side for their whole lives without ever realizing anything. This mind-to-mind transmission makes the Chan School so unique in Chinese Buddhism.

III. Running for Life

Going back to the Fifth Patriarch, when his disciples knew that he had transmitted the robe and bowl to Huineng, an uneducated barbarian from the south, a lay person, they were furious. In fact, many of them came in pursuit of the robe and bowl. Among them was a monk named Huiming. Huiming was an army general before renouncing as a monk. A rough and boorish man, he was intent in his pursuit and was the first to catch up to Huineng. 

Huineng knew he could not win by force, so he put the robe and bowl on a rock before hiding in a nearby busy. He thought, “This robe symbolizes trust. How can you take it by force?” 

When Huiming reached the rock, he was surprised to see the robe and bowl was just sitting there without being guarded, and he seized them immediately. But to his astonishment, he could not remove the robe and bowl. No matter how he tried, the robe and bowl remained unmoved. He felt ashamed of his own actions and called out, “Fellow practitioner, I came here for the Dharma, not for the robe.” 

Upon hearing this, Huineng came out and sat on the rock. Huiming bowed before him and said, “Please teach me the Dharma.” 

Huineng  replied, “Since you are here for the Dharma, remove all your mental conditioning and do not give rise to a single thought. I will then teach you.”

After Huiming had calmed down and cleared his mind, Huineng said to him,”Do not think of wholesomeness. Do not think of unwholesomeness. What is your original face?” 

When Huiming heard this, he felt as if he was struck by thunder. The delusion was blown away from his head like dark clouds blown away by the wind. He had realized his original face, his true nature that was clear of all delusion and troubles.

Huiming said in wonderment, “Though I had spent time at Huangmei, I did not awaken to my original face. Now, thanks to your guidance, I realize it in the same way that one who drinks water knows if the water is warm or cold. From now on, you are my teacher.”

Huineng said, “If this is the case, you and I are fellow disciples of Huangmei. Protect the Dharma well.” Huiming paid homage and left.

IV. Sixteen Years in Hiding

After Huineng reached the south, he was still pursued by vicious men. He had no choice but to hide his existence. For the next fifteen years, Huineng found sanctuary with a group of hunters, and taught them the Dharma whenever the opportunity arose. Often the hunters asked him to watch the nets, but each time an animal was captured, he would set it free. During mealtime, he would put vegetables into the same pot they cooked their meat in. When asked, he would say, “I just want to eat the vegetables next to the meat.” 

Huineng was waiting for the right time, and one day about fifteen years later, Huineng thought, “It is time for me to spread the Dharma. I cannot stay in hiding forever.” So he bade the hunters farewell and left the woods. He traveled into the city and arrived at Faxing Temple in Guangzhou. On the day of the arrival, a Venerable Yinzong was expounding the Mahaparinirvana Sutra.

During the Dharma talk, a banner was flapping in the wind, a monk said, “The wind is moving.” 

Another monk said, “The banner is moving.” Both stood their ground and refused to budge. 

Huineng came forward and said to the both of them, “The wind is not moving, and the banner is not moving. Your minds are moving.” Everyone was astonished by his answer. Very quickly, he was brought to the venerable.

Venerable Yinzong did not look down on this lay person and instead invited him to a high seat of honor and asked Huineng to speak about the deeper meaning of the Dharma. Huineng’s answers were brief, to the point, and not literary. 

Venerable Yinzong was astonished, “This practitioner is not an ordinary person. I have long heard that the robe and Dharma of Huangmei have come to the South. It is not you, is it?” 

“I dare not say so,” Huineng answered humbly. 

Venerable Yinzong knew that this was the Sixth Patriarch and paid homage to Huineng. He then asked him to show the assembly the robe and bowl he had inherited from the Fifth Patriarch. 

Venerable Yinzong asked, “What instructions did the Fifth Patriarch leave with you?” 

Huineng replied, “There are no specific instructions. We only discussed seeing intrinsic nature, not meditative concentration or liberation.” 

Venerable Yinzong asked, “Why did you not discuss meditative concentration or liberation?” 

Huineng answered, “Because they are dualistic, and are not the Dharma. The Dharma is not dualistic.” 

Venerable Yinzong was delighted with Huineng’s answers. With joined palms, he said, “The way I teach the sutras is like broken earthenware. Your discussion of their meaning is like gold.” 

He then shaved Huineng’s head. From this point on, Huineng officially became a monk, and he began to spread the teachings of Sudden awakening in the south.

V. Master Huineng’s Legacy

Master Huineng’s life was filled with twists and turns. Though born into poverty, he inherited the legacy of Chan Buddhism. Though becoming the Sixth Patriarch, he was forced to hide in order to protect the legacy. Even after he became established as a great Chan master in the south, he still experienced assaination attempts. Though he received the extremely symbolic robe and bowl, he never passed them down. But this doesn’t mean the Chan legacy was gone. In fact, his teachings attracted disciples far and wide, and many of them attained awakening under his sharp teaching. Together, the disciples of Huineng spread the Dharma and influenced Chan to become the mainstream form of practicing Buddhism. 

In the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, translated as The Rabbit’s Horn by the Fo Guang Shan International Translation Center, you will find the records of Master Huineng’s very inspiring and often surprising teachings of the Dharma. He never answers the way you’d expected, yet time and time again breaks the preconceived views of the people who came to challenge him in order to shake them away from the illusions that they think is the reality. That’s the Chan way.

As Master Huineng said, “The Dharma is within the world. Apart from this world, there is no awakening. Seeking the bodhi apart from the world, Is like looking for a rabbit’s horn.” Let us strive to look within and discover our true nature right here and right now in this world.

Thank you for listening to this episode of English Dharma Services.