The Dharma of Hui-neng (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, the Sixth Patriarch, caused this platform to be erected so that he could give his final sermons. He intended the teaching to be taken down, reproduced and disseminated as the exposition of the Sudden School of Mahayana Buddhism. The Sixth Patriarch is held in such high esteem that the teaching was given the title of Sutra, which is otherwise reserved for teachings attributed to the Buddha.

Although there have been several translations of The Platform Sutra, I like the translation by Philip B. Yampolsky (1967, Columbia University Press), although the translation by Price and Wong is excellent, and it has a 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 abrupt 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. They are not truths but ways 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 higher state of 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, and Hui-neng redefined ‘sitting’ to signify a state of mind rather than a posture.

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.”

(135) The Master Hui-neng called, saying: “Good friends, enlightenment (bodhi ) and intuitive wisdom (prajna 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 awake 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 say mistakenly 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 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 each other. To hold this view implies duality. If good is spoken while one’s mind is crooked, meditation and prajna will not be alike. If mind and speech are both true, 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 will never escape from the four states of phenomena.

14. “The Samadhi of One Act1 is having a straightforward mind [smrti] at all times — walking, standing, sitting, and lying. The Vimalakirti Sutra says: ‘Straightforward mind  is the place of practice; straightforward mind is the Pure Land.’ Do not with a crooked mind speak of the straightforward teaching. If while speaking of the Samadhi of One Act you fail to practice the straightforward mind, you will not be disciples of the Buddha. Only practicing the straightforward 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 straightforward mind is sitting without moving, casting out delusions 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 should he 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, some people teach men 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, cling to this doctrine, and become confused. There are many such people. Those who instruct in this way are, from the outset, greatly mistaken.

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 substance 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 distinction between these two methods; but until enlightenment, one is caught in the cycle of transmigration for many kalpas.”

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1. Master 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 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 practice of samadhi. One of these was the Tso-ch’an san-mei ching, 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. . . . (p. 361)

During the Sui Dynasty (589-617) the T’ien-t’ai master Chin-I wrote the The Minor Treatise on Samatha-Vipasyana. In it he describes tso-ch’an in terms of three aspects: how to regulate one’s body, one’s breath, and one’s mind. In the section on regulating the body, the posture of sitting meditation is the most important factor. In a later work called Ta chih-kuan, The Major Treatise on Samatha-Vipasyana, he described four methods to attain samadhi. The first method is called Samadhi Through Constant Sitting 常坐三昧, the second, Samadhi Through Constant Walking 常行三昧. The third is Samadhi Through Half Walking, Half Sitting 半行半 坐三昧. The fourth is The Samadhi Neither Through walking Nor Sitting 非行非坐三昧. (p. 362)

The Fourth Patriarch Tao-hsin (580~651) wrote Ju-tao anhsin yao fang-pien men, Methods for Entering the Path and Calming the Mind. In it, he quoted from the Lankavatara Sutra and the The Prajna Sutra Spoken by Manjusri. He stresses the importance of tso-ch’an (literally ‘sitting ch’an’) for the beginner, with emphasis on the right posture. The neophyte must then contemplate the five skandhas — the material skandha of form and the four mental skandhas: feeling, knowledge, mental formations and consciousness. The Manjusri Sutra says,

“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.” (p. 364)

In a sense, the Fourth Patriarch is describing the two meanings of tso-ch’an in Ch’an. In the beginning the practitioner starts by taking the sitting posture. He will use simple and basic methods of regulation the body and mind. At an advanced stage, he will not be limited to sitting, but in any posture, his mind will be in accord with the Samadhi of One Act. (p.365) . . .

In his Liusu t’an ching, The Platform Sutra, Hui-neng says that if one were to stay free from attachment to any mental or physical realms, and to think of neither good nor evil, that is, refrain from discriminating, neither thought nor mind would arise. This would be the true ‘sitting’ of Ch’an. Here, ‘sitting’, not limited to mere physical sitting, refers to a practice where the mind is not influenced, disturbed, or distracted by anything coming up, whether internally or in the environment. (p. 372)

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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 Dharmadhatu is characterized by oneness, and as the Samadhi is conditioned by the Dharmadhatu it is called the Samadhi of Oneness (i-hsing). If sons and daughters of good family with 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 Dharmadhatu in its aspect of immovability, of non-destruction, of no thought, of non-obstruction, of formlessness.’

‘If sons and daughters of good family wish to enter upon the Samadhi of Oneness, let them sit in a solitary place, let go of all thoughts that are disturbing, 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 style in the direction where the Buddha is, and facing him squarely. When their thoughts are continuously fixed on one Buddha, they will be able to see in these thoughts all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future. . . .’

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. (

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

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