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 working of it. Non-abiding is the original nature of a sentient being.

“[Consciousness] moves ever forward, never halting in its progression through the three periods 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, no 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 at all times is called no-thought (wu-nien). 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 the body; thoughts are the functioning of original nature. Thoughts, which come from original nature, function in seeing, hearing, perceiving and knowing (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 diamondlike 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 [constant 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, both 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 [no-thought] 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 samaadhi or concentration; the latter is usually related to the Perfection of Wisdom [Maha Prajnaparamita] literature because of its philosophical inclinations.

The first text, related to samadhi, describes the process leading to sameness (samata); [samadhi is translated by the Chinese as] wu-nien 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 to an incomplete stage of enlightenment) ). 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.

The text begins with the statement on ‘no-work’ (wu-tsuo) . . . Thereafter, the practitioner, step by step, enters into progressively deeper stages of concentration. In the final four states of the practice, once one has reached no-mind, there will be no thought; and consequently one attains non-duality and sameness. The process from no-work to sameness is very systematic, especially compared to the Abhidharma doctrines. . . .

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 [see The Four Foundations of Mindfulness]. 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 not thoughts, he will no longer be bothered either by thought or No-thought. Thus he peacefully abides in the correct thought.

First, regarding the identification of No-thought with mindfulness, No-thought is a technical term in Indian Buddhism; the thought that is to be negated does not have broader senses. Second, the thought precisely referred to in the context denotes contemplative thought on four items: body, feeling [vedana], mind and mind-objects. Third, one can rid oneself of worldly greed and grief through contemplation on these four items; in this way one may ardently and consciously  remain on the Buddhist path. Because of the negation of worldly greed and grief as well as remaining on the path, an early and authentic Buddhist scripture, the Satipatthana-sutta, evaluates the effectiveness of mindfulness in these words:

This is the only way, monks, for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana, namely the four Foundations of Mindfulness.

The claim that the Four Foundations of Mindfulness is the “only way” to achieve  the  religious goal of  Buddhism makes Mindfulness something very special. It is much more advanced than views (ditti) and thought (sankappa). Mindfulness is concerned with religious achievement and realization; philosophical views and understanding relate to the outlook of world phenomena and personal attitudes  towards these phenomena. Views and understanding mark the beginning of religious awareness; mindfulness denotes an advanced stage of religious cultivation.

. . .

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 [samadhi and prajna], and the precepts of formlessness are good examples.

It was during the 8th century that the concept of No-thought reached its climax in the history of Buddhist thought, when Monk Kim proclaimed it as the whole of Buddhist teachings. For Kim, the doctrine of No-thought covered all the practices and wisdoms of Buddhism. The concept became the “all-embracing Dharma” (tsung-chih-fa) of the Ch’an school under his leadership.

Although his disciple Wu-chu taught other doctrines, the concept of No-thought is actually the core teaching of his sermons. Wu-chu followed his teacher, Monk Im, in regarding No-thought as the “all-embracing Dharma” of Buddhism and studied Shen-hui for the content of the concept. With Wu-chu No-thought became a concentrated and intensified way to achieve the religious goal of Mahaayaana Buddhism, the attainment of Buddha-hood. This way starts from the negation of discriminative and common thoughts, contrasts these thoughts with religious ones, and finally negates altogether the discrimination between common and religious thoughts.

When the structure and content of the concept as found in the Ch’an documents are compared with those found in the translations of Indian Buddhist texts, two contradictory tendencies emerge. On the one hand, the Ch’an thinkers followed a reductionistic pattern by brushing aside a number of ideas that were associated with the concept of No-thought in the Indian texts; yet, at the same time, they developed the concept by making it the core of Buddhism with a new and concrete content. It is true that some technical terms from Indian Buddhism still remained as important ideas in Ch’an doctrine, yet most forms are Chinese in flavor. No-thought is thus no longer a foreign, abstract and remote concept beyond the grasp of the average Chinese. Both structure and content have been transformed into a form that is more suitable and effective in the Chinese context.

This comparative study of No-thought in translated Indian texts and its Chinese development can be taken as a case study in the Chinese assimilation of foreign ideas. The pattern of this assimilation confirms that of other studies on the subject. For example, Pure Land Buddhism and T’ien-t’aiv in China both underwent a pattern of selective, concentrative and intensified development. The Chinese generally selected one or two foreign ideas or practices out of many, set the rest aside, and devoted themselves to the selected few that suited  their needs and were effective in solving their problems. This pattern is clearly seen in the present study. Of the many concepts in Indian Buddhism, the Ch’an thinkers selected a few, made them main doctrines, practised them and verified them by their experience; they then further reduced the number, retained and enriched the most effective one, thereby making it Ch’an’s exclusive doctrine.

In this pattern the selection-concentration-intensification process began with many, then reduced the many to a few, and finally ended with one. The process is, therefore, reductionistic. This approach is necessary since religious philosophy or practice always aims at the liberation of an individual from bondage. This liberation is possible only through the concentrated use of one of the ideas or methods. As no individual can do everything at a given moment, especially with regard to such a serious matter as salvation, it therefore becomes necessary to select a method that suits one’s own situation. By concentrating on it and deepening it in one’s experiences, one is able to achieve freedom. This pattern is clearly seen in both Pure Land Buddhism and the schools of Ch’an Buddhism.

2. Master Sheng-Yen writes:

The Chinese term tso-ch’an 坐禪 (zazen) was in use among Buddhist practitioners even before the appearance of the Ch’an 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 comprehensive and a specific meaning. The comprehensive 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.
. . .
“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 p.366一法界, 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. (Master Sheng Yen, 1988)


Yampolsky, Philip B. 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, 1967.

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

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

Suzuki, D. T. Essays in Zen Buddhism (Third Series). N.Y., Samuel Weiser, 1971.

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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