The Life of Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch

“I am from Ling-nan, a commoner from Hsin-chou in the south, and I have come this long distance to make obeisance to you. I seek only to become a Buddha, nothing more.”

“Four hundred ninety-nine of my disciples understand well what Buddhism is, except one Hui-neng. He is a man not to measured by an ordinary standard. Hence the robe and the Dharma were handed down to him.”

One asked: “When the lay brother was treading the millstone in the grinding room, where was he when he forgot to move his feet?”
The master replied: “Drowned in a deep spring.” (The Record of Lin-chi)

Hui-neng (638-713)Huineng angle

When he was between 22 and 24, Hui-neng, an illiterate peddler of firewood, by chance heard a man reciting the Diamond Sutra and experienced an awakening. He obtained some money for his mother’s support and traveled north to ask the Fifth Ch’an Patriarch, Hongren, to ordain him. The Patriarch knew at once that Hui-neng was more advanced than any of his disciples, but for reasons of his own he didn’t ordain Hui-neng but sent him to work milling rice and chopping firewood. After eight months, Hongren went to the milling room to speak with him; he told him that he knew of his spiritual attainment, but that it would be unwise to let the other monks know of it.



A short time later Hongren told all of the monks to write a verse. If any monk showed by his verse that he had insight into the meaning of Ch’an, he would receive the robe and Dharma (direct teaching) of the patriarchate, becoming the Sixth Patriarch. Unsure of himself, the head monk secretly wrote his verse on a wall. Hearing it read, Hui-neng composed his own verse and asked a visiting dignitary to write it on the wall for him. After the Patriarch saw Hui-neng’s verse he summoned him to his hall in the middle of the night and read the Diamond Sutra to him. Upon hearing the Sutra, Hui-neng awoke to his original nature; the Patriarch thereupon conferred upon Hui-neng the Dharma and the robe. But fearing that other monks might do him harm, he told Hui-neng to leave the monastery and to refrain from teaching for three years, since his life and the Dharma would be “hanging by a thread.”

After living in hiding for 15 or 16 years, Hui-neng traveled to Canton. At the age of 39 (c. 676 C.E.) he presented himself at Dafan Temple in Shaozhou, where it was immediately evident to the master that he was in the presence of the Sixth Patriarch. Hui-neng was ordained a monk and invited to teach.

In 713, the year he died, the Patriarch gave a series of discourses from a specially-erected platform, which signified the fulfillment of a prophecy and gave the teaching the stamp of being an authentic teaching of the Buddha. This is why Hui-neng’s teaching, alone among the Chinese scriptures, is called a sutra.

The following account opens the Platform Sutra, the only written record from Hui-neng’s 37 years as a Ch’an master. The majority of the passages (in black) are from the translation by Philip B. Yampolsky.

The Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra

My worthy father was originally an official at Fanyang. He was dismissed from his post and banished as a commoner to Hsin-chou (Hsin Province) in Ling-nan. My father died when I was young, and my mother and I moved to Nan-hai. We suffered extreme poverty and here I sold firewood in the marketplace.

By chance a certain man bought some firewood and took me to the lodging house for officials. He took the firewood and left. Having received my money, I was turning toward the gate when I saw a man reciting the Diamond Sutra.

Upon hearing it my mind became clear and I experienced an awakening. I asked him, “Where do you come from that you have brought this sutra with you?” He replied, “I have made obeisance to Fifth Patriarch Hongren at the Feng-mu Monastery in Huangmei*, Ch’i-chou. While there I heard the Master urge the monks and and layman, saying that if  they recited only one volume, the Diamond Sutra, they could see into their own natures and with direct apprehension become Buddhas.” (*Hongren is sometimes referred to by the place of his monastery, Huangmei)

Hearing what he said I realized that it was predestined that I should have heard him. I obtained ten pieces of silver to provide for my old mother, and taking leave of her, I went to Feng-mu Monastery in Huangmei and paid obeisance to Fifth Patriarch Hongren.

The Master Hongren asked me, “Where have you come from that you come to this mountain to make obeisance to me? What is it that you seek here?”

I replied, “I am from Ling-nan, a commoner from Hsin-chou in the south, and I have come this long distance to make obeisance to you. I seek only the Buddhadharma, nothing more.”

The Patriarch said, “If you are from Ling-nan, you’re a barbarian. How can you become a Buddha?” I replied, “People may come from the north, or come from the south, but fundamentally there is no north or south to Buddha-nature. The body of a barbarian and that of a High Master are not the same, but what difference is there in our Buddha-nature?”

4. The Master wished to continue his discussion with me; however, seeing that there were others nearby, he said no more.

But I said, “This humble person begs your holiness: My mind has flashes of transcendental wisdom, and by not turning away from my essential nature I can become a ‘field of merits’ [a priest]. But I do not know what work his holiness would have me do.”  (Jordan)

The Fifth Patriarch wished to continue the conversation, but seeing his disciples gathering on all sides, he ordered his visitor to follow the group off to work. I said, “Hui-neng wishes to inform the High Master that wisdom (prajna) is always active in this disciple’s mind, as I never depart from my essential nature—this itself is the ‘field of blessings’ [attainment of priesthood]. What work would the High Master have me do?” (Heng Sure et al, 2014)

Then he sent me to work with the group. Later a lay disciple sent me to the threshing room, where I spent eight months treading the pestle.

ancient rice mill China

A little over eight months later, the Patriarch saw me one day and he said, “I think that your insight is very good, and I am afraid some wicked people might seek to harm you, so I have not been speaking to you. Do you understand that?” “Yes, sir,” I replied. “I will stay away from your hall. Others will not know.” (Jordan)

4. Unexpectedly one day the Fifth Patriarch called his disciples to come, and when they had assembled he said: “Let me preach to you. For people of this world, birth and death are vital matters. You disciples make offerings all day and seek only to become priests, but you do not seek to escape from the bitter sea of birth and death. Your own self-nature obscures the gateway to holiness; how can you be delivered? Return all of you to your halls and look within yourselves. Men of wisdom will grasp the original nature of their prajna on their own. Each of you, write a verse and bring it to me. I will read your verses; if there is one who is awakened to the cardinal meaning, I will give him the robe and the Dharma and make him the Sixth Patriarch.”

“Long thought is not needed. A man who has seen his essence can immediately talk about it, and thereafter cannot forget it. Even amidst swords and chariots, he never loses sight of it.” (Jordan)

5. The disciples received his instructions and returned to their halls. They talked it over amongst themselves, saying: “There’s no point in purifying our minds and making the effort to compose a verse to submit to the Master. Head Monk Shen-hsiu is our teacher. After he obtains the Dharma we will be under his authority, so let us not [offend him and] compose verses.” Then they all abandoned the idea of trying and didn’t bother to submit a verse.

In front of the Fifth Patriarch’s hall there was a corridor three rooms long. The walls were to be painted with stories from The Lankavatara Sutra, together with pictures of the Dharma transmissions of each of the five Patriarchs, in order to teach later generations and preserve a record of them. The Court artist Lu Chen had examined the walls and was to start work the next day.

6. Head Monk Shen-hsiu thought, “The others will not submit verses because I am their senior teacher. If I don’t submit a mind-verse, how can the Master judge the depth of my insight and understanding? If I offer my verse with the intention of gaining the Dharma, that is justifiable, but if I covet the title of Patriarch, that cannot be justified. It would be like a common person presuming to be a sage. But if I don’t submit a verse, I cannot obtain the Dharma. For a long time he thought, and was extremely perplexed.

At midnight, without letting anyone see him, he went to write his mind-verse on the central section of the south corridor wall, hoping to gain the Dharma. “If the Fifth Patriarch sees my verse tomorrow and is pleased, it will mean that I have an affinity with the Dharma. If he finds it unworthy, it will mean I am deluded, that there are karmic obstacles piled up from the past. Then I cannot attain the Dharma and I shall have to give up. The Patriarch’s intention is hard to fathom.

Then Head Monk Shen-hsiu, holding a candle, wrote the verse on the central section of the south corridor wall without anyone knowing. The verse read:

The body is the Bodhi tree
The mind* is like a mirror bright
At all times diligently polish it
And let no dust alight

[*hsin: the self; dust: the six sense-objects–thoughts, sights, sounds, the felt, scents, tastes]

7. After writing this verse, Head Monk Shen-hsiu returned to his room and lay down. No one had seen him.

At dawn the Fifth Patriarch called the painter Lu to draw illustrations from the Lankavatara Sutra on the south corridor wall. The Fifth Patriarch saw the verse and, having read it, said to the painter Lu: “I will give you thirty thousand. You have come a long distance to do this ambitious work, but I have decided not to have the pictures painted after all. It is said in the Diamond Sutra: “All forms everywhere are illusory and false.” It would be best to leave this verse here and to have the deluded ones recite it. If they practice in accordance with it they will not fall into the three evil paths. Those who practice by it will gain great benefit.”

The Master then called all his disciples to come, and burned incense before the verse. The disciples came in to see and all were filled with admiration. The Fifth Patriarch said: “You should all recite this verse so that you will be able to see into your own natures. With this practice you will not fall into the three evil paths.” The disciples all recited it, and greatly impressed cried out: “How excellent!”

The Fifth Patriarch then called Head Monk Shen-hsiu into the hall and asked: “Did you write this verse? If you wrote it you are qualified to receive my Dharma.”

Head Monk Shen-hsiu said: “I am ashamed to say that I did write the verse, but I do not dare seek the patriarchate. I beg you to have the compassion to tell me whether I have even a small amount of wisdom and insight into the cardinal meaning.

The Fifth Patriarch said: “This verse you wrote shows that you have not yet seen your original nature; you are still outside the gate and have yet to pass through it. If common people practice according to you verse they will not fall into the evil paths, but in seeking bodhi one will not succeed with such an understanding. You must pass through the gate and see your own original nature.”

“Unsurpassed bodhi means that right at the moment of speaking you are able to recognize your original mind, and see that your own fundamental nature is unborn and undying. Unsurpassed bodhi means you see this for yourself naturally, at all times and in every moment of thought; that the myriad dharmas are all one, all the same, and that what is true of one is true of all. The myriad dharmas are naturally such as they are, and a mind that sees in this way is in accord with the true reality. To see in this way is the essence of supreme bodhi.” (Heng Sure et al, 2014)

“Go and think about it for a day or two and then make another verse and present it to me. If you have been able to pass through the gate and see your own original nature, then I will invest you with the robe and the Dharma.” Head Monk Shen-hsiu left, but after several days he was still unable to write a verse.

8. Two days later an acolyte passed by the threshing room reciting this verse. As soon as I heard it I knew that the person who had written it had yet to know his own nature and to discern the cardinal meaning. I asked the boy: ‘What is the verse you are reciting?”

The boy answered, saying: “Don’t you know? The Master said that birth and death are vital matters, and he told his disciples to write a verse if they wanted to inherit the robe and the Dharma, and to bring them to him to look at. He who was awakened to the cardinal meaning would receive the robe and the Dharma and become the Sixth Patriarch. Head Monk Shen-hsiu wrote this verse on the wall of the south corridor. The Fifth Patriarch ordered everyone to recite it, because whoever cultivates in accord with this verse can avoid falling into the evil destinies and gain immense benefit.”

I said: “I have been treading the pestle for over eight months and have yet to visit the hall. I beg you to take me to the south corridor so that I can see this verse and make obeisance to it. I also want to recite it so that I can establish causation for my next birth and be born in a Buddha-land.”

The boy led me to the south corridor and I bowed before the verse. Because I was uneducated I asked someone to read it to me. As soon as I had heard it I understood the cardinal meaning. I composed a verse and asked someone who could write to put it on the wall of the west corridor so that I might offer my own original mind. If you do not know the original mind, studying the Dharma is to no avail. If you know the Mind and see its true nature, you then awaken to the cardinal meaning. My verse read:

With bodhi there never was a tree
The mirror is without a stand
Buddha-nature is forever clean and pure
Wherever can dust land?

I returned to the threshing room. The disciples were all amazed when they heard my verse. The Fifth Patriarch realized that I had a splendid understanding of the cardinal meaning, but afraid that those assembled should know this he said: “This is still not complete understanding” and rubbed out the verse with his shoe.

[Beginning of Goddard]
The next day the Patriarch came secretly to the hulling room and seeing me at work with a stone tied to my waist, he said, “A seeker of the Path would forfeit his life for the Dharma. Should he do thus?” Then he asked, “Is the rice ready?” “Ready long ago,” I replied, “only waiting for the sieve.” He struck the mortar thrice with his staff and left.

Knowing what he meant, at the third drum of the night I went to his room. Using his robe as a screen so that no one would see us, he read the Diamond Sutra to me. When he came to the sentence, “One should use one’s mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachment,” I suddenly became completely enlightened and realised that all things in the universe are Mind-essence itself.

I said to the Patriarch,
“Who could have conceived that Mind-essence is intrinsically pure!
Who could have conceived that Mind-essence is intrinsically free of becoming and annihilation!
That Mind-essence is intrinsically self-sufficient, and free of change!
Who could have conceived that all things are manifestations of Mind-essence!” 

Thus at midnight, to the knowledge of no one, was the Dharma transmitted to me, and I consequently became the inheritor of the teachings of the Sudden School, and the possessor of the robe and the begging-bowl.

“You are now the Sixth Patriarch,” said the Patriarch. “Take good care of yourself and deliver as many sentient beings as possible. Spread the teaching; keep the teaching alive; do not let it come to an end. Listen to my stanza:

“Sentient beings who sow seed of Enlightenment
In the field of causation will reap the fruit of Buddhahood.
Inanimate objects, which are void of Buddha-nature,
Sow not and reap not.”

The Patriarch further said: “When Patriarch Bodhidharma first came to China, few Chinese had confidence in him and so this robe has been handed down as a symbol from one patriarch to another. As to the Dharma, as a rule it is transmitted from heart to heart and the recipient is expected to understand it and to realise it by his own efforts. From time immemorial, it has been the practice for one Buddha to pass on to his successor the essence of the Dharma, and for one patriarch to transmit to the next, from mind to mind, the esoteric teaching. As the robe may give cause for dispute, you will be the last one to inherit it. If you should again hand it down to a successor, your life would be in imminent danger. You must now leave this place as quickly as you can, lest some one should harm you.” I asked him, “Where shall I go?” and he replied, “Stop at Wei and seclude yourself at Wui.”

As it was the middle of the night when I thus received the begging-bowl and the robe, I told the Patriarch that as I was a Southerner I did not know the mountain trails and it would be impossible for me to get down to the river. “You need not worry,” he replied, “I will go with you.” He then accompanied me to the Kiu-kiang landing where we got a boat. As he started to do the rowing himself, I asked him to be seated and let me handle the oar. He replied, “It is only right for me to take you across.” To this I replied, “Under delusion, I was dependent on you to take me across, but now it is different. It was my fate to be born on the frontier and my education is very deficient, but 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 in order to realise my own mind-essence.”

“Quite so, quite so,” he agreed. “Beginning with you (Ch’an) Buddhism will become very widespread. Three years after your departure I shall pass from this world. You may start on your journey now; go as fast as you can toward the South. Do not begin preaching too soon; (Ch’an) Buddhism is not to be easily spread.” (Goddard & Suzuki, 1932)

10. [That night] I set out with the robe and the Dharma. The Fifth Patriarch saw me off as far as Chiu-chiang Station. He instructed me: “Leave, work hard, take the Dharma with you to the south. For three years do not spread the teaching, otherwise calamity will befall the Dharma. Later, work to convert people; you must guide deluded ones well. If you are able to awaken the mind of another, he will be no different from me.” After completing my leave-taking, I set out for the south.

11. After about two months I reached the Dayu Mountains. Unbeknownst to me, several hundred men were following behind, hoping to steal the robe and Dharma. By the time I had gone halfway up the mountain they had all turned back. But there was one monk, Hui-ming, whose family name was Chen. Formerly he had been a general of the third rank and he was by nature and conduct coarse and violent. Reaching the top of the mountain, he caught up with me. I offered him the dharma-robe, but he was unwilling to take it.

“I have come this long distance only for the Dharma,” he said. “I have no need for the robe.” Then on top of the mountain, I taught the Dharma to Hui-ming, who when he heard it was suddenly enlightened. I then ordered him to return to the north and to convert people there.

[In the Yampolsky translation, the teaching of the Dharma follows, beginning with stanza number 12. The continuation of Hui-neng’s life story, below, is from the translation by Heng Sure et al, 2014]

Returning to the foot of the mountain, Hui-ming said to the crowd of pursuers, “Up above there are only rocky, trackless heights; there’s no trace of him to be found. We should search elsewhere.” The pursuers all agreed. Afterwards, Hui-ming changed his name to Dao-ming, to avoid using the first name of his master.

Later I came to Caoxi, but was again pursued by evil men. So I fled to Sihui, where I lived among hunters for fifteen years, occasionally teaching them the Dharma when the opportunities arose. The hunters had me watch over their snares, but whenever I saw living creatures, I released them. At mealtime I steamed vegetables in the pot alongside the meat. If they asked me about this, sometimes I’d say, “I only eat the vegetables cooked alongside the meat.”

One day I thought, “The time has come to spread the Dharma. I cannot stay in hiding forever.” Accordingly, I went to Dharma Essence Monastery in Guang Province, where Master Yinzong was lecturing on The Nirvana Sutra. At that time there was a pennant waving in the breeze. One monk there said, “The wind is moving.” Another monk said, “The pennant is moving.” They argued on this incessantly. I stepped forward and said, “It is your minds that are moving, kind sirs.” Everyone was startled.

Dharma Master Yinzong invited me up to the dais where he questioned me closely about the deeper meaning behind my words. He noticed that my responses were direct, concise, and did not come from written texts. Yinzong said, “This cultivator is certainly no ordinary person. Long ago I heard that the Dharma robe and bowl of Huangmei (Hongren) had come south. Might you be that one, Cultivator?” To this I politely assented.

Yinzong bowed and asked me to show the robe and bowl I had been entrusted with to the community. He questioned me further: “How exactly was Huangmei’s teaching transferred?” I replied, “There was no transfer. We merely discussed seeing the nature. There was no discussion of Ch’an meditation or liberation.” Yinzong asked, “Why was there no discussion about Ch’an meditation or liberation?” I said, “Because those are dualistic teachings, not the Buddha-Dharma. The Dharma of the Buddha is a Dharma of non-dualism.” Yinzong further asked, “What is the Buddha-Dharma you call the Dharma of non-dualism?” I answered, “The Dharma Master has been lecturing on The Nirvana Sutra’s elucidation of the buddha-nature—this is the non-dual Dharma of the Buddha-Dharma. Just as when Lofty Virtue King Bodhisattva asks the Buddha, ‘Those who break the four major prohibitions, or commit the five rebellious offenses, or who are irredeemably ignorant and the like, do they sever their roots of goodness and the buddha-nature?’ And the Buddha replies, ‘There are two kinds of roots of goodness: permanent and impermanent. The buddha-nature, however, is neither permanent nor impermanent.’ Therefore, it cannot be severed. That is what is meant by non-dual. The first roots are good, the second bad; but the buddha-nature is neither good nor bad. That is what is meant by non-dual. Ordinary people think of the skandhas and sense-realms in a dualistic manner; the wise person knows that they are non-dual in nature. The non-dual nature is the buddha-nature.”

Yinzong was overjoyed when he heard this explanation. He put his palms together and said, “My explanation of this sutra is like broken clay tiles, whereas your explanation of its meaning, kind sir, is like pure gold.” He then shaved my head and asked me to be his teacher. Thus, under that Bodhi-tree, I first began the East Mountain teaching.

I received the Dharma at East Mountain and endured such extreme hardship that it was as if my life were hanging by a thread. Today there is this gathering of the Prefect and officials, the monks, nuns, Taoist priests and laity—how could this happen without karmic affinities amassed over aeons of time? And now you have had the good fortune to hear the Sudden Teaching, the seed for realizing the Dharma. All of this can only be because in the past you made offerings to the Buddha and planted roots of goodness.

This teaching has been passed down from sages of the past, it is not my own wisdom. You who wish to comprehend the teaching of the past sages should purify your minds. After listening to it, cast aside your doubts, and you will be no different from the sages of generations past.

Delighted with what they had heard, the whole assembly bowed and withdrew.

* * *

Jordan, David K. “The Tale of Huineng: The Platform Scripture of the Sixth Patriarch.”

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro (1949). Essays in Zen Buddhism (First Series). New York: Grove Press.

Goddard, Dwight (1932). A Buddhist Bible (First Edition). (based on a translation by D. T. Suzuki) (

Heng Sure, Yuh-chirn Liang, Allen Huang, Yi-huan Shih, Madalena Lew and Martin J. Verhoeven (2014). The Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra (Translated from the Chinese of Zongbao Taisho, Volume 48, Number 2008). Ukiah, California: Buddhist Text Translation Society.

Price, A. F. and Wong Mou-Lam (2004). Sutra Spoken by the Sixth Patriarch on the High Seat of The Treasure of the Law. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing Company. (

Yampolsky, Philip B. (1967). The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. (The text of the Tun-Huang manuscript with translation, introduction and notes by Philip B. Yampolsky.) New York: Columbia University Press. (

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