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 directly 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 has a story about a layman 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.

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 personal 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, bodhi will be achieved.

13. “Good friends, my teaching of the Dharma (jian dun 漸頓) takes dhyana (ting) and prajna (hui) as its basis. Never under any circumstances say mistakenly that dhyana and prajna are different; they are one, not two. Dhyana is the body of prajna; prajna is the function of dhyana. When you have prajna, dhyana is in prajna; when you have dhyanaprajna is in dhyana. Good friends, this means that dhyana and prajna are the same. Students, be careful not to say that dhyana gives rise to prajna, or that prajna gives rise to dhyana, or that dhyana and prajna are different from each other. To hold this view implies duality. If good is spoken while the mind is crooked, dhyana and prajna will not be alike. If mind and speech are both straight, then the internal and the external are the same and dhyana and prajna are the same. The practice of self-awakening does not lie in verbal arguments. If you argue about which comes first, dhyana 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 Single-Practice Meditation (一行三昧)1 is a straightforward mind  at all times—walking, standing, sitting, and lying. The Vimalakirti Sutra says: ‘Straightforward mind [also “upright”] 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 Single-Practice Meditation you fail to practice straightforward mind, you will not be disciples of the Buddha. Only practicing straightforward mind, and in all things having no attachments whatsoever, is called the Single-Practice Meditation. The deluded man clings to the characteristics of things, latches onto the Single-Practice Meditation, [thinking that] straightforward mind is sitting without moving, casting out delusions and allowing nothing to arise in the mind. This he considers to be the Single-Practice Meditation. This kind of practice is the same as insentiency 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 wisdom 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 wisdom 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 recommend the gradual method, the enlightened practice the sudden (direct) 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; until enlightenment, one is caught in the cycle of transmigration for many kalpas.”


1. 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, perception, mental formations and consciousness. The Manjusri Sutra says,

“He should contemplate the five skandhas as originally empty and quiescent, non-arising, non-perishing, equal, 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 sanmei) 一行三昧.”

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 will 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. If you were to experience your self-nature, this would be called Ch’an (kensho in Japan). To see self-nature is to see one’s own unmoving Buddha-nature, and is the most fundamental level of enlightenment. Without tso-ch’an in this sense, one cannot attain Ch’an. Hence tso-ch’an is the method, Ch’an the result. Since Ch’an is sudden enlightenment, when it occurs, it is simultaneous with tso-ch’an. (Master Sheng-Yen, 1988)


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.

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