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 (no-mind) 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 is 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 while in the midst of form. No-thought is to be without thought while in the midst of thought. Non-abiding is the original nature of human beings.

Consciousness moves ever forward, never halting in its progression through past, present and future as one thought succeeds another without interruption.1 In order to descend to the Dharma body the stream of thought must be cut off just once; then we separate from the form body, 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 of the teaching.

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 of the teaching.

To be free of defilements at all times is called no-thought. This is to be detached from things even though one is aware of them, for consciousness is not busy weaving thoughts concerning them. When all thoughts are thus cast out, consciousness is cleared of all its defilements. When consciousness is swept clean once and for all, there will be no rebirth. Let students of Buddhism take heed not to misunderstand this matter. If the meaning is not well understood, not only will they become confused but others will share the confusion and will be led to misrepresent the teaching. Therefore, no-thought is made the foundation of the teaching.

When names are grasped, various thoughts about the world arise; these thoughts lead people astray. All erroneous ideas about the world arise from this. Thus it is that our teaching is established on the foundation of no-thought. In order not to become entangled in thoughts one must cast out views. 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. Thought rises from original nature. Original nature is [like] the body, and thoughts are the function of original nature.2 Thoughts arise from original nature and are manifested in what is seen, heard, believed and known (drista-sruta-mata-jnata), but original nature itself is not defiled by the myriad things; it remains forever pure. So we read in the Vimalakirti, “Adept in the discrimination of the manifold phenomena, he abides immovably in the Dharma.”3  (Suzuki, 1971, pp. 33-35)

(Second part translated by Philip Yampolsky)

18. Good friends, in this teaching, from the outset tso-ch’an (sitting meditation) is not meditating on the mind nor is it meditating on purity; this is not what we call steadfastness [a persistent state of 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 phantom 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 his original nature is obscured. If you cast out delusions then original nature reveals its purity; but if you focus your mind on purity without realizing that your own nature is originally pure, delusions of purity will be produced. Since delusion does not exist anywhere, 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. But the deluded man, even if he doesn’t move his body, will speak of the merits and faults of others the moment he opens his mouth, and will 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)? To be detached from external form is ch’an; internally to be free of distraction is meditation. Even though there is external form, when internally your nature is not distracted [you know that] from the beginning you are pure and in meditation. Contact with circumstances can cause distraction. Detachment from external form is ch’an; being untouched internally 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.”Consciousness moves ever forward, never halting in its progression through past, present and future as one thought succeeds another without interruption.” Consciousness is vijnana in Sanskrit. A vijnana is an awareness of something. Since nothing really exists outside of the mind, all that really exists of phenomena, including thoughts, is our awareness of them.

2. “Original nature is [like] the body, and thoughts are the function of original nature.” The skandhas are five functions performed by our Self, but we take them as proof of the existence of a separate self. We are like a man who makes a wooden puppet and takes it with him everywhere, making it move and speak in a lifelike manner. Forgetting that he made it and not realizing that he is manipulating the strings and speaking for it, he believes that he is the puppet.

Mahamati, it is like Pisaca, who by means of his magic makes a corpse or a machine-man dance with life though it has no power of its own: the ignorant cling to the non-existent, imagining it to have the power of movement. – The Lankavatara Sutra

3. The Vimalakirti Sutra: “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.” (Wisdom Library)

4. 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. He said that when there is no mind, or no thoughts arising, that is to be called “sitting” (tso). When you see internally that the self-nature is [quiescent], that is ch’an. The Sixth patriarch took his inspiration from the Samadhi of One Act, described in the Manjusri Sutra. 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 unnecessary, but could be a hindrance. (pp. 365-366)

5. Jan Yun-Hua (1989) writes:

The concept of no-thought is found 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 first text, related to samadhi, describes the process leading to sameness (samata) in meditation.

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

6. As one can see from the above passage, no-thought is only attained after intense investigation. When Hui-neng says that one must not sit like a block of wood, he means that one does not achieve no-thought by emptying the mind, but by using the thoughts and feelings that arise to show us what attachments we have, so that we can let go of them. As Bodhidharma said,

Even though the mind has entered delusion, do not push delusion away. Instead, when something arises from the mind, rely on the Teaching to gaze at the place from which it arises. If the mind discriminates, rely on the Teaching to gaze at the place of the discrimination. Whether greed, anger or ignorance arise, rely on the Teaching to gaze at the place from which they arise. To see that there is no place from which these can arise is to cultivate the Way. If there is anything arising from the mind, then investigate it, and relying on the Teaching, clean house! (Bodhidharma’s Method For Quieting the Mind)

* * *

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.

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. (

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