The Dharma of Hui-neng: Meditation (12-16)

What follows is from the Sutra Spoken on the Diamond Jewel Platform, better known as The Platform Sutra. In the year of his death, 713, Hui-neng had this platform erected so that he could give his final sermons. He intended his teaching to be taken down, copied and disseminated as the exposition of the Sudden School of Buddhism in China. The Sixth Patriarch is held in such high esteem that this teaching was called a sutra, a title reserved for teachings attributed to the Buddha.

Although there have been several translations of The Platform Sutra, I particularly like the translation by Philip B. Yampolsky (1967, Columbia University Press). The translation by Price and Wong is also excellent, and it contains a wonderful story about a man sent by monks of Shen Hsiu’s Northern School to murder Hui-neng. The controversy over Hui-neng’s Southern School, known as the “Sudden Teaching” or “Direct Teaching” (tun-wu means sudden awakening) and Master Shen Hsiu’s Northern School, known as the “Gradual School,” is discussed in Chapter VIII of the Price-Wong translation of The Platform Sutra.

This part of the Platform Sutra is about “skilful means,” or practices to attain satori. These are methods of cultivating the mind so that the truth is revealed within. By ‘Samadhi of One Act’ or ‘Samadhi of Oneness’ (i-hsing sanmei一行三昧) Hui-neng refers to the awakened consciousness of a stream-enterer, a state which persists regardless of whether one is “sitting, walking, standing or lying down.” Zen masters discovered that this samadhi could be attained more quickly if meditation was practiced in all activities. As methods evolved, masters often redefined terms in order to avoid contradicting the teachings of previous masters; thus Hui-neng redefined ‘sitting’ to signify a state of mind rather than a physical position.

The Dharma taught by Hui-neng

12. “I was predestined to come to live here and to preach to you officials, monks and laymen. My teaching has been handed down from the sages of the past; it is not my own knowledge. If you wish to hear the teachings of the sages of the past, each of you must quiet his mind and hear me to the end. Please cast aside your own delusions; then you will be no different from the sages of the past.”

(p. 135) The Master Hui-neng called, saying: “Good friends, enlightenment (bodhi ) and prajna (intuitive wisdom 般若) are from the outset possessed by men of this world themselves. It is just because the mind is deluded that people cannot attain awakening to their self. They must seek a good teacher to show them how to see into their own natures. Good friends, if you awaken to prajna, enlightenment will be achieved.

13. “Good friends, my teaching of the Dharma (jian dun 漸頓 – doctrine) takes meditation (ting) and prajna (hui) as its basis. Never under any circumstances make the mistake of saying that meditation and prajna are different: they are one, not two. Meditation is the body of prajna; prajna is the function of meditation. When you have prajna, meditation is in prajna; when you have meditation, prajna is in meditation. Good friends, this means that meditation and prajna are one and the same. Students, be careful not to say that meditation gives rise to prajna, or that prajna gives rise to meditation, or that meditation and prajna are different from one other. To hold this view implies duality. If one speaks straight but the mind is crooked, meditation and prajna will not be alike. If mind and speech are both straight, then the internal and the external are in accord and meditation and prajna are the same. The practice of self-realization does not lie in verbal arguments. If you argue about which comes first, meditation or prajna, you are deluded. You won’t be able to settle the argument and instead will cling to objective things, and you will never escape from the four states of phenomena.

14. “The Samadhi of One Act1 is having a straight mind at all times—walking, standing, sitting, and lying. The Vimalakirti Sutra says: ‘The straight mind  is the place of practice; the straight mind is the Pure Land.’ Do not with a crooked mind speak of the straight teaching. If while speaking of the Samadhi of One Act you fail to practice the straight mind, you will not be disciples of the Buddha. Only practicing the straight mind, and in all things having no attachments whatsoever, is called the Samadhi of One Act. The deluded man clings to the characteristics of things, latches onto the Samadhi of One Act, [thinking that] the straight mind is sitting without moving, pushing away delusion and allowing nothing to arise in the mind. This he considers to be the Samadhi of One Act. This kind of practice is the same as insentience and causes an obstruction to the Tao. Tao must be something that flows freely—why impede it? If the mind does not abide in things the Tao flows freely; if the mind abides in things, it becomes entangled. If sitting in meditation without moving is good, why did Vimalakirti scold Sariputra for sitting in meditation in the forest?

“Good friends, there are some who teach people to sit viewing the mind and viewing purity, not moving and not activating the mind, and to this they devote their efforts. Deluded people do not realize that this is wrong; they cling to this doctrine and become confused. There are many such people. Those who instruct in this way are, from the outset, greatly mistaken.2

15. “Good friends, how then are meditation and prajna alike? They are like the lamp and the light it gives forth. If there is a lamp there is light; if there is no lamp there is no light. The lamp is the source of light; the light is the function of the lamp. Thus, although they have two names, in substance they are not two. Meditation and prajna are also like this.

16. “Good friends, in the Dharma there is no sudden or gradual, but among people some are keen and others dull. The deluded adopt the gradual method, the enlightened practice the sudden teaching. To understand your original mind is to see into your own original nature. Once enlightened, one sees that from the beginning there was never any difference between these two methods; but until enlightenment, one is caught in the cycle of transmigration for many ages.”

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1. Sheng-Yen (1988) writes:

The Chinese term tso-ch’an 坐禪 (zazen) was in use among Buddhist practitioners even before the appearance of the Ch’an (Zen) School. Embedded in the term is the word ch’an, a derivative of the Indian dhyana, which is the yogic practice of attaining samadhi in meditation. Literally translated, tso-ch’an means “sitting ch’an” and has a [general] and a specific meaning. The [general] meaning refers to any type of meditation practice based on taking the sitting posture. The specific meaning refers to the methods of practice that characterize Ch’an Buddhism.

The earliest Chinese translations of Buddhist sutras that describe methods of [attaining] samadhi appear around the end of the second century A.D. The most famous of these was the Tso-ch’an ching, The Sutra of Sitting Ch’an. In the beginning of the fifth century A.D., Kumarajiva translated a large number of sutras on the [attainment] of samadhi. One of these was the Sutra on Tso-ch’an and Samadhi. So we see that the term tso-ch’an was used in China as early as the second century, and there are at least two sutras that use the term in their titles. We know that many monks during this time practiced tso-ch’an to achieve samadhi in the Indian tradition. . . .

The Fourth Patriarch Tao-hsin (580~651) wrote

“He should contemplate the five skandhas as originally empty and quiescent, non-arising, non-perishing, identical, without differentiation. Constantly thus practicing, day or night, whether sitting, walking, standing or lying down, finally one reaches an inconceivable state without any obstruction or form. This is the Samadhi of One Act (i-hsing samadhi) 一行三昧.”  (pp. 361-364)

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In his essay, “The Koan Exercise,” D. T. Suzuki (1953) translates i-hsing as “Samadhi of Oneness”:

In the second half of the Saptasatika-Prajnaparamita (Man-t’o-lo version) a Samadhi known as i-hsing is mentioned, whereby the Yogin realizes supreme enlightenment and also comes into the presence of the Buddhas of the past, present, and future. The passage in the Man-t’o-lo runs as follows:

Again, there is the Samadhi i-hsing; when the Samadhi is practised by sons and daughters of good family, supreme enlightenment will speedily be realized by them.

Manjusri asked: Blessed One, what is this i-hsing Samadhi?

The Blessed One said: The Dharma Realm is characterized by oneness, and as the Samadhi is conditioned by the Dharma Realm it is called the Samadhi of Oneness (i-hsing). If sons and daughters of good family wish to enter upon this Samadhi of Oneness they must listen to the discourse on Prajnaparamita and practise it accordingly; for then they can enter upon the Samadhi of Oneness whereby they will realize the Dharma Realm of immutability, of endlessness, of no-thought, of limitlessness, of formlessness.

If sons and daughters of good family wish to enter into the Samadhi of Oneness, let them sit in a solitary place, let go of all disturbing thoughts, not become attached to forms and features, have the mind fixed on one Buddha and devote themselves exclusively to reciting his name, sitting in the proper form and facing the Buddha squarely. When their thoughts are continuously fixed on this one Buddha, they will be able to see in these thoughts all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future.

2. See Hui-neng’s sermon on the Mahaprajnaparamita: “Do not push away illusions and faults, for they themselves are the Dharma. When all things are illuminated by wisdom and there is neither grasping nor rejecting, then you can see into your own nature and gain the Buddha Way.” Compare to Bodhidharma: “Even though the mind has entered delusion, do not push delusion away. Instead, when a thought arises, rely on the Dharma to gaze at the place from which it arises.”

Suzuki, D. T. (1953). Essays in Zen Buddhism (Second Series). London: Rider and Company (pp. 164-165).

Price, A. F. and Wong Mou-Lam (2004). Sutra Spoken by the Sixth Patriarch on the High Seat of “The Treasure of the Law.” 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.) Columbia University Press. (Platform Sutra Yampolsky)

Sheng-Yen (1988). “Tso-Ch’an.” Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal, No. 2, (1988) Taipei: Chung-Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies.

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