Hui-neng: “No-thought is the foundation” (17-19)

The consciousness of Zen specifically as the immediate understanding of the Dharma dawned in the mind of Hui-neng. If Bodhidharma used the term, wu-hsin for the Dharma, Hui-neng replaced hsin with nien. Nien is generally ‘memory’, ‘recollection’, ‘thinking of the past’, etc., and is used as equivalent to the Sanskrit smrti. Therefore, when it is used in connection with wu as wu-nien, this is asmrti, that is ‘loss of meaning’ or ‘forgetfulness’, and in this sense it is used in the Sanskrit texts. . . . When Hui-neng makes Wu-nien the most fundamental fact in the life of Zen, it corresponds to the Triple Emancipation — sunyata, animitta, and apranihita* — for the realization of the Wu-nien means emancipation for Zen followers. – D. T. Suzuki (1971, p. 30)
*empty, undifferentiated, desireless

It’s only without thought that you can be the Self. – Lester Levenson

(First part translated by D. T. Suzuki)

17.  “Good friends, our teaching, from ancient times up to the present, whether of the Abrupt school or of the Gradual, is established on the foundation of no-thought (wu-nien), while no-form (wu-hsiang) is the body, and non-abiding (wu-chu) is the root. What is meant by no-form? It means to be detached from form even while admitting it. No-thought means to be free of the functioning of it. Non-abiding is the original nature of a sentient being.

“[Consciousness] moves ever forward, never halting in its progression through past, present and future as one thought succeeds another without interruption. In order to descend to the Dharmakaya the stream of thought must be cut off just once; then we separate from the Rupakaya, and here there is no dwelling of thought anywhere on anything. If thought dwells anywhere on anything just once, it ceases to flow freely: this is called being in bondage. When there is no dwelling of thought anywhere on anything, this is being unbound. Therefore, not abiding anywhere is made the root.

“Good friends, being detached from all external forms, this is no-form. When you are detached from form, the essence of your nature is pure. Therefore, no-form is made the body.

“To be free of defilement (klesa) at all times is called no-thought. This is to be detached from things even as they are present in consciousness, for consciousness is not engaged in weaving thoughts concerning them. When thus all thoughts are cast out, consciousness is cleared of all its defilements. When consciousness is swept clean once and for all, there will be no new birth. Let students of Buddhism take heed not to go astray in this matter. If the meaning is not well grasped, not only will they become confused, but others will share the confusion and will be led to blaspheme the teaching. Hence no-thought is made the foundation.

“When names are grasped, various thoughts about the world arise; these thoughts lead people astray. All erroneous ideas about the world arise from this. So it is that our teaching is established on the foundation of no-thought. Views must be gotten rid of in order not to become entangled in thoughts. If thoughts are not aroused, no-thought is no place. ‘No’ (wu) is no what? ‘Thought’ (nien) means thinking of what? ‘Wu’ is no dualism, no passions (see footnote 1). Thought rises from original nature (tathata). Original nature is [like] the body; thoughts are the functioning of original nature. Thoughts, which arise from original nature, function in that which is seen, heard, believed and known (drista-sruta-mata-jnata), but original nature itself is not defiled by the myriad things; it remains forever free. So we read in the Vimalakirti,* ‘He who is adept in the discrimination of the manifold phenomena abides immovably in the First Principle.'” (Suzuki, 1971, pp. 33-35)

*They had learned to accept the fact that there is nothing to be grasped, no view of phenomena to be entertained. . . . Expert in comprehending the characteristics of phenomena (dharmalaksana), able to understand the capacities of living beings, they towered over the others of the great assembly and had learned to fear nothing. . . . In fame and renown they soared higher than Mount Sumeru; their profound faith was diamond-like in its firmness. (translation by Burton Watson)

(Second part translated by Philip Yampolsky)

18. “Good friends, in this teaching, from the outset tso-ch’an (sitting meditation)3 is not meditating on the mind nor is it meditating on purity; this is not what we call steadfastness [a persistent state of absorption or mindfulness]. If someone speaks of meditating on the mind, the mind is itself an illusion, and as we come to realize that it is only a phantasm we realize that there is nothing to be seen. If someone speaks of meditating on purity, that man’s original nature is pure, but because of false thoughts original nature is obscured. If you exclude delusions then original nature reveals its purity. If you focus your mind on purity without realizing that your own nature is originally pure, delusions of purity will be produced. Since delusion nowhere exists, you know that whatever you see is nothing but delusion.

“Purity has no form, but, nonetheless some people try to postulate purity as a form and consider this to be Ch’an practice. People who hold this view obstruct their own original nature and end up by being bound by purity [i.e. become judgmental]. One who practices steadfastness does not see the faults of people anywhere. This is the steadfastness of self-nature. The deluded man, however, even if he doesn’t move his own body, will speak of the merits and faults of others the moment he opens his mouth, and thus behave in opposition to original nature. Therefore, meditating on the mind and meditating on purity cause an obstruction to original nature.

19. “Now that we know that this is so, what is it in this teaching that we call tso-ch’an (sitting meditation)? In this teaching ‘sitting’ means being free of obstruction everywhere [you happen to be], externally and under all circumstances not to activate thoughts [i.e., ‘sitting’ is not to be taken literally]. Meditation is to see original nature within and not to become distracted.

“And what do we call Ch’an meditation (ch’an-ting) ? Outwardly to be detached from form is ch’an; inwardly to be free of distraction is meditation. Even though there is form on the outside, when internally one’s nature is not distracted, then, from the outset you are yourself pure and of yourself in meditation. Contact with circumstances itself causes distraction. Detachment from form on the outside is ch’an; being untouched on the inside is meditation. Being ch’an externally and in meditation internally is known as Ch’an-ting. The Vimalakirti Sutra says: ‘At once, suddenly, you regain the Original Mind.’ The P’u-sa-chieh says: ‘From the beginning your original nature is pure.’

“Good friends, see for yourselves the purity of your original nature; practice and accomplish it for yourselves. Your original nature is the Dharmakaya and self-practice is the practice of Buddha. By self-accomplishment you may achieve the Buddha Way for yourselves.”

* * *

1. Jan Yun-Hua (1989) writes:

Contrary to most standard references, wu-nien is not a term exclusive to Ch’an Buddhism. It appeared in the Chinese translations of Indian Buddhist texts centuries before the formation of the Ch’an schools, and was also used in other Chinese Buddhist works. The concept is found, for example, in the translations of the Tathagata-jnana-mudra-samadhi-sutra, as well as the Vimalakiirtinirdesa by the Indo-scythian monk, Chihch’iene (fi. A.D. 222-229). The former text discusses samadhi or concentration; the latter is usually related to the Perfection of Wisdom literature because of its philosophical inclinations.

The first text, related to samadhi, describes the process leading to sameness (samata) in meditation. Considering the significance of the work and its early date, the passage should be quoted in full:

What is the characteristic of effortlessness (akarmaka)? The characteristic is the perception of the nonexistence of things (anupalabdhi). What is the characteristic of perception of nonexistence? The characteristic is the perception that things do not decay (aksaya). What is the  characteristic of perception that things do not decay? The characteristic is the perception of the non-arising of things. What  is the characteristic of the perception of non-arising? The characteristic is the perception of the non-extinction of things. What is the characteristic of the perception of non-extinction? The characteristic is the perception that nothing new comes into existence. What is the characteristic of the perception that nothing new comes into existence? The characteristic is non-dependence. What is the characteristic of non-dependence? The characteristic is non-abiding (asthana: nowhere existing). What is the characteristic of non-abiding? The characteristic is non-departing. What is the characteristic of non-departing? The characteristic is immovability (acala: no regression). What is the characteristic of immovability? The characteristic is the freedom from regression. What is the characteristic of freedom from regression? The characteristic is no-mind (wu-hsin). What is the characteristic of no-mind? The characteristic is no-thought (wu-nien). What is the characteristic of no-thought? The characteristic is non-duality. What is the characteristic of non-duality? The characteristic is the sameness of things (samata).

The statement contains a number of technical terms of Indian Buddhism that are clearly not of Chinese origin. Although the original Indian text of this work is no longer extant, some of these technical terms are identifiable from other works. . . .

No-thought is also linked with concentration in other Chinese translations  of Indian Buddhist  scriptures. In the Ch’ih-hsin-fan-t’ien so-wen ching there is a passage which reads:

No-consciousness and no-thought . . . when the four consciousnesses are stopped, one will then not abide in anything nor dwell in thoughts. Those who are not abiding in thoughts abide in the absolute (chen-chi). When abiding in the absolute, one does  not abide in anything; the consciousness does not abide anywhere. If consciousness abides anywhere, it is not real and is called false.

The stopping of the four consciousnesses mentioned here is a translation of “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” or Smrtyupasthanna, which is one of the oldest Buddhist meditation teachings. The most significant point of the passage is the relationship of the absolute and thought: “Not abiding in thoughts” is abidance in the absolute. In other words, No-thought is the way and the state of the absolute; abidance in any thought is a falsehood.

The relation between thoughts and falsehood, and between No-thought and the absolute, are both confirmed in the Ch’ih-shih ching translated by Kumarajiva. In the chapter on the Eightfold Noble Path, when “correct knowledge and correct thought” for the Boddhisattva and Mahasattvas are discussed, it states:

All thoughts from knowing and seeing are not-Self
Whichsoever thoughts abide are all not-Self
No-recollection and no-thought are called the correct thought (samyaksmrti)

Once a Bodhisattva has attained the path of correct thought, he

will neither follow nor be conditioned by thought or No-thought. This is because when he attains to the unconditioned, he will realise that all thoughts are really non-thoughts, he will no longer be bothered either by thought or No-thought. Thus he peacefully abides in the correct thought. . . .

Although the term wu-nien or No-thought is not Chinese in origin, its place in Ch’an Buddhism is quite different from the Indian context. The concept was, for the first time in history, upgraded by the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch to become one of the three key teachings of Ch’an Buddhism. Shen-hui (684-758) [who studied under Hui-neng] was responsible for the concretization of the concept with a number of items. He also regarded No-thought as the only way to attain reality. He stated clearly that this was the exclusive way, only for holy men. However, there are other important teachings besides the concept of No-thought, both in the Platform Sutra was well as in Shen-hui’s sermons. The ideas of the original purity of Buddha-nature in all sentient beings, the Sudden Enlightenment, the non-duality of meditation and wisdom, and the precepts of formlessness are good examples.


2. Master Sheng-Yen (1988) writes:

Hui-neng 惠能(638~713), who succeeded Hung-jen as the Sixth Patriarch, was not an advocate as sitting as the path to enlightenment. With him, we have a distinction between tso-ch’an which attains enlightenment through sitting, and tso-ch’an which attains enlightenment without sitting. Hui-neng had a different interpretation of what tso-ch’an means. He said that when there is no mind, or no thoughts arising, that is called “sitting” (tso). When you see internally that the self-nature is not moving, that is ch’an. This was different from the sitting tso-ch’an of Bodhidharma. The Sixth patriarch took his inspiration from the Samadhi of One Act, described in the Manjusri Sutra mentioned above. The method is to put your mind steadfastly on the One Dharma Realm 一法界, in which there is no differentiation into forms. Quoting from the Vimalakirti Sutra 維摩詰經, he also said, “The straightforward mind is the Path.” Its meaning is that all forms are equivalent to one form. Any time, any place, whether walking, standing, sitting or lying down, there is no situation that is not an opportunity to practice tso-ch’an. In this view sitting was not only not necessary, but could be a hindrance. (pp. 365-366)


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.

Gregory, Peter N. (1991). Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought. Motilal Banarsidass.

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

Suzuki, D. T. (1971). Essays in Zen Buddhism (Third Series). New York: Samuel Weiser.

Yun-Hua, Jan. “A Comparative Study of ‘No-Thought’ (Wu-nien) in some Indian and Chinese Buddhist texts.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 16 (1989) 37-58. (

4 thoughts on “Hui-neng: “No-thought is the foundation” (17-19)

Comments are closed.