Introduction to the Platform Sutra

Translator’s Introduction to The Sixth Patriarch’s Diamond Jewel Platform Sutra       Martin Verhoeven, PhD.

Huineng (638-713) was the Sixth Patriarch in China, and the thirty-third in Patriarchal descendants from the time of the Buddha in India. He was the immediate successor of Master Hongren (601-674). The Sixth Patriarch himself wrote nothing, nor left any record of his life or teaching. This text, The Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra, represents the only account we have of his life and lectures. So highly regarded is his place in the Buddhist tradition that, to our knowledge, this text is the only one that has been accorded the title “sutra,” a term traditionally reserved only for teachings directly attributed to the Buddha.


After the Fifth Patriarch, Hongren, had passed on the robe and bowl to the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng, he told him to immediately go into hiding. Huineng’s life might be in danger, the Fifth Patriarch warned. The Sixth Patriarch fled, but was quickly pursued by an evil crowd wishing to steal these symbols of the Dharma’s bequeathal. The first to catch up with him was a monk named Huiming, a rough and coarse-natured former military commander. Unable to wrest the items away by force, Huiming cried out, “Cultivator, cultivator! I have come for the Dharma, not for the robe.” The Sixth Patriarch told him to calm down, and then instructed him on the essentials of Dharma: your own mind in its original purity and stillness is the Buddha. Huiming felt he had now at last received the ‘secret meaning.’ Yet its purport was so simple and straightforward that he asked further, “Other than the secret words and secret meaning you just uttered, is there yet another secret meaning?” The Master answered, “What I just told you is not a secret. If you look within yourself, you’ll find the ‘secret’ is with you.”

Less than a year earlier when Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch to be, first visited his teacher, the Fifth Patriarch Hongren, the Master asked him, “Where are you from? What do you seek?” Huineng replied, “Your disciple is a commoner from Xin Province in Lingnan. I come from afar to bow to you, and seek only to be a Buddha, nothing else.” To test him, the Patriarch said, “If you are from Lingnan, you must be a barbarian. How could you become a Buddha?” But Huineng replied, “People may come from the north, or come from the south, but fundamentally there is no north or south to the buddha-nature. The body of a barbarian and that of a High Master are not the same, but what difference is there in our buddha-nature?”

This initial intuitive understanding, so strikingly evident in the Sixth Patriarch even before he commenced formal study and received training, would later mature into the platform of his entire teaching—called the “direct teaching” (dun jiao). He succintly conveyed its central tenet as follows:

“You should now believe that the knowledge and vision of the Buddha is just your own mind; there is no other Buddha.”

“Why don’t you immediately see, right within your own mind, the true reality of your original nature?” (p. 11)

Here then in these two encounters we find the essence of the Sixth Patriarch’s philosophy, and indeed the substance of the Buddha’s teaching: all beings have the buddha-nature; all can become Buddha. As the Patriarch himself pointed out, “This teaching has been passed down from sages of the past; it is not my own wisdom.” But what exactly is this nature? And how is it realized?

The Sixth Patriarch insists that this nature (xing), called the essential-nature or original-nature (zi xing; ben xing), is universally possessed by all sentient beings. It is not greater in the sage, or less in the average person. Human nature is the buddha-nature; Buddhas come from people. The difference between a Buddha and an ordinary living being, between the liberating joy of wisdom and the anguish of delusion, is one of degree, not of kind. In a fully awakened being, the nature is perfectly realized. In an ordinary person, this capacity lies dormant, covered over, and asleep, so to speak.

“You should know that the buddha-nature is fundamentally no different for the foolish and the wise. The only difference between them is: the foolish are confused; the wise are awakened.”

Buddhas and living beings are two forms of a single substance, just as water and ice belong to a common element. In yet another example of the direct teaching, the Sixth Patriarch tells his followers:

“Good and Wise Friends, unawakened, Buddhas are just living beings. At the moment they awaken, however, living beings are Buddhas. Therefore, you should realize that the ten thousand dharmas are all within your own mind.”

The fundamental sameness of the human and Buddha, the worldly and world-transcending, the ordinary mind and the Buddha mind, are all different ways of expressing a corollary axiom of this teaching: “non-duality”. In his very first formal lecture the Sixth Patriarch states unequivocally: “the Dharma of the Buddha is a non-dual Dharma.” The fundamental sameness of a Buddha and an ordinary person also means that Buddhahood is not a future state or a far-distant celestial abode, but exists “right within your own mind” and is immediately available. The implications are manifold. (p. 12)

When taken together, we are presented with a powerful and resounding totalistic vision of human nature as the buddha-nature, unconditioned by culture, schooling, gender, ethnicity, or even religious belonging. It is not even delimited by time and space, nor by birth or death. This indwelling capacity remains whole and complete within all of us, waiting to be fully expressed if only we could see it.

“Our real nature is non-dual. It is not diminished in ordinary people, nor is it greater in worthy sages. It is not disturbed amid the afflictions; nor is it stilled and static while in ch’an concentration. It does not end, nor last forever. It does not arrive or leave; and has no location: neither inside nor outside nor in the middle. Unborn, undying, its essence and appearance is ‘just so; as it really is.’ It is permanent and unchanging—it is called the Way.”

The ideas of innate and primary wholeness, non-duality, and immediacy form the unvarying thematic core of the Sixth Patriarch’s teaching career and color all of his talks and encounters.

Three interrelated themes flow from this direct teaching. First, because awakened nature is intrinsic to all beings, it cannot be sought for outside. Thus, the compound characters (ka wu, lit. ‘opening up’) meaning “awakening” suggest a releasing of what has been there all along, much as a flower opens to or unfolds in the sun. Rather than an acquisition of something novel, divine, or even transcendent, awakening connotes a natural enlivening of an immanent and inborn human capacity. In describing the path to awakening, the text avoids language hinting at mysticism, or any sense of striving, acquiring, obtaining, getting, or even having an experience. Instead, it favors a single term, “seeing” (jian) to convey the experience, which could also be rendered as “realizing” or “waking up to.” One is being led to behold something intrinsic and at-hand all along, rather than to yearn for a dreamy transcendent reward somewhere beyond.

Indeed, it was in the here-and-now, in the midst of his everyday routine while standing in front of a village shop that Huineng, then a poor woodcutter, had his own initial awakening. Upon hearing a stranger utter the famous line of text from The Diamond Sutra: “Let your mind be unattached, clinging to nothing,” his mind immediately opened. Mere months later he arrived at an even deeper understanding upon hearing the same line, this time recited by his teacher, Hongren. The Sixth Patriarch relates, “As soon as these words were uttered I experienced a profound awakening, and understood that the inherent nature embraces the ten thousand things.” He exclaimed,

How unexpected! The essential nature is intrinsically pure.
How unexpected! The essential nature is originally unborn and undying.
How unexpected! The essential nature is complete in itself, lacking nothing.
How unexpected! The essential nature is fundamentally still and unmoving.
How unexpected! From the essential nature the myriad dharmas come to be.

Master Hongren, the Fifth Patriarch, affirmed Huineng’s realization, and as if to further emphasize the point, told him: “To study the Dharma without recognizing your original mind is useless. If you recognize your original mind, and see your essential nature, you can be called a great hero, a teacher of gods and humans, a Buddha.”

In this terse exchange we see the subtle and dynamic relationship between student and teacher that the direct teaching requires. This pedagogy is sometimes called the “mind pointing to the mind,” because the insights and profound understanding (prajna) that awakening occasions are intrinsic and cannot properly be transmitted or transferred from one person to another. Because the true mind is in itself complete, nothing can be added to it by a teacher. Its subtle, wondrous functioning (miao yong) must be discovered, or more accurately, recovered, in and by oneself.
. . .
In this tradition, the goal of the skillful spiritual teacher is not to inculcate the student with a prescribed body of knowledge, but to stimulate the student to self-knowledge. As a result, the teaching style tends less to profess or preach than to provide situations that can spur the student to self-recognition and rouse direct insight. The teacher does not bestow the vision, but only presents the student with the means to discover it within. This earnest and sustained transformative activity of direct inquiry, self-reflection, and maturing in the Way is called self-cultivation (xiu xing). As the dynamic nature of the Chinese characters imply (xiu, lit. ‘correcting; repairing; to rectify’ and xing, lit. ’steps’) self-cultivation requires a total mind-body engagement; it is a ‘doing,’ a way of becoming an exemplary person, which entails both rigorous training and an active ‘pruning’ and ‘repairing’ of one’s character and conduct. . . .

(p. 16) This leads to the second theme (p. 16): the need to engage, to practice, to enact (xing). Although our original nature is the Buddha-nature, most of us could not describe our present state as Buddhahood. The Sixth Patriarch’s question posed above is straightforward, not merely rhetorical: “Why don’t you immediately see, right within your own mind, the true reality of your original nature?” He answers with an analogy drawn from the natural world: “It is like when thick clouds obscure the sun; if the wind doesn’t blow, the sun cannot shine.”

The “clouds” are the self-inflicted impediments of delusion and afflictions (klesa) which we have let cover over our fundamental pure nature. They obscure our vision so that we are unable to “recognize our own mind and see our nature.” Huineng develops this analogy more fully:

“It is like the sky above which is always clear, and the sun and moon which are ever bright. Even if they are obscured by floating clouds that overshadow the world below in darkness, the sky above remains clear. If a wind suddenly comes up, scattering the clouds, then above and below are both bright, and everything reappears and becomes visible. The tendency of people is to constantly drift like the clouds in the sky.

“Good and Wise Friends, insight is like the sun, and wisdom is like the moon. Insight and wisdom are always bright, but if we attach to external things, the floating clouds of errant thoughts cover over our essential nature so it is obscured and cannot shine.”

The Dharma, when practiced, acts like wind scattering the clouds.

According to the Sixth Patriarch, the Dharma teachings are something to be used, applied and tested. Indeed, for the Master, the Way must be walked, or it is not the Way. The Tao elucidated by the Sixth Patriarch is not a religious doctrine, nor an ontological or metaphysical Truth, nor even a faith to espouse. The Chinese character for the Tao denotes movement, literally ‘walking,’ suggesting the Way is existentially real, found underfoot. As the word implies, a ‘path’ is for walking, and reveals itself only in and through the traversing of it. Confucius may have been hinting at something similar in saying, “It is the person that can make the Way great, and not the Way that can make the person great.”

Thus the Way is discovered concretely, not surmised abstractly. Stationary, there appears to be no Way, but as soon as one walks, the road appears. Hence the saying, “From afar, the mountain appears unscalable, but when you get to the bottom of the mountain, there is always a way.” . . . As Huineng stresses to his followers, “This must be practiced with the mind; not merely recited by the mouth.”

(p. 17) “Good and Wise Friends, people chant “prajna” all day long without realizing the prajna of their own essential nature. Just as talking about food will not satisfy hunger, so too only talking about emptiness, even for myriad eons, will give you no insight into your own nature—ultimately it is of no benefit.”

. . .
The Sixth Patriarch’s explication of the Way is completely consistent with the overarching motif of the text: non-duality. The Tao, the Dharma, are not presented as the results of philosophical conjecture or as divine revelations bequeathed from without, but as signifiers of living truths residing within. . . .

The Sixth Patriarch in fact tells his students, “All Buddhas of the past, present, and future, as well as the twelve divisions of sutras are originally inherent, whole and complete, within human nature.” . . . As with wisdom (prajna) and awakening (bodhi), so too with the teachings (Dharma): they are of a piece with the mind, and firmly grounded in human nature. Self-understanding is the key to unlocking the meaning of the Sutras because the essential nature is the very wellspring of the teachings themselves. . . .
Huineng tells his students,

“All the sutras and writings were established because of people—and could only have been set up because of [their] wisdom nature. If there were no people in the world, all the myriad Dharma-teachings would not exist by themselves. Therefore, you should realize that the myriad Dharma-teachings arise because of people, and all Sutras are taught and explained for people.”

But how does one attain the Way? How are we to uphold the Dharma teachings? (p. 20) This brings us to a third theme in the text: setting up nowhere; attaining nothing-to-attain.

The Sixth Patriarch must direct his students to truths that cannot be grasped, cannot be seen, cannot be thought, and yet are more real than anything that can be held, seen, or imagined. He faces the same paradox the Buddha faced: how to elicit in his students a certain intellectual stance, an open-minded sensibility that avoids falling into the two extremes of eternalism or nihilism. For example, when one of his disciples asks about the ‘impermanence’ of our passing thoughts and the ‘permanence’ of our essential nature, the Master pointedly contradicts the established teaching by answering in the opposite: it is the Buddha-nature which is impermanent, and the confused mind which is permanent. The student is stunned. But then Huineng explains,

“Don’t you realize—if the buddha-nature were permanent, then what good or bad states would there be to speak of? And not a single person until the end of time would ever aspire to bodhi. That is why I say it is impermanent. This is precisely the path to true permanence taught by the Buddha. Moreover, if all things were impermanent, then everything would have its own nature that was subject to birth and death, and the truly permanent nature would not be universal, all-pervading. That is why I say they are permanent. And that is precisely what the Buddha meant by teaching true impermanence.” (p. 20)

. . .
In describing the Buddha’s reason for coming into the world, the Master is perhaps relating his own:

“It is only because living beings cover over their own light with lust and craving for sensory experiences, become enslaved to things outside and disturbed within, that the World Honored One is roused from his samadhi to exhort them to cease, to not seek outside themselves, and instead to realize they are the same as the Buddha. . . I, too, am always exhorting people to realize the Buddha’s knowledge and vision within their own minds. But ordinary people are perverse; confused and deluded, they do wrong. Their talk may be good, but their minds are bad. Greedy, hateful, envious, fawning and flattering, deceitful, and arrogant, they take advantage of others and harm living creatures. Thus, they only realize the knowledge and vision of living beings.”

(p. 21) As this last passage shows, it is not lack of esoteric knowledge or metaphysical insight that impedes our enlightenment, but our lack of self-understanding. The most ordinary of human faults, character flaws, and bad habits obscure our “seeing” and obstruct our liberation. So too, it in only by facing up to and correcting these “afflictions” that the Buddha of our own mind is found. . . .

For the Sixth Patriarch all time is one time, all places are one place. When it comes to self-cultivation, only the here-and-now matters.

“The Buddha Dharma is right here in the world
There is no awakening apart from this world
To search for Bodhi somewhere beyond this world
Is like looking for a rabbit with antlers”

. . .
(p. 24) The Sixth Patriarch does not condemn grasping, craving, and wanting as immoral or evil. The tone of the text throughout is largely descriptive, not judgmental. He simply points out that such unquenchable thirst does not deliver. Craving, as the Buddha observed, only brings suffering, stress, and dissatisfaction. The restless seeking, the “frantic passage through life” as Huineng calls it, covers over people’s light to such a degree that they “become enslaved to things outside and disturbed within.” In a lengthy and graphic teaching to the monk Zhidao, the Master says,

“You should know that the Buddha [taught] because deluded people mistook the combination of the five skandhas for their own essence and being, and discriminated so as to make all things external to themselves. They loved life and dreaded death, drifted and flowed along from thought to thought, unaware that this was all an unreal dream, hollow and false. They pointlessly turned round and round on the wheel of birth and death, wrongly imagining that the eternal bliss of nirvana was some kind of suffering, and all day long frantically sought after something else.”

. . .
Huineng’s teaching, like the Buddha’s, has one goal: to exhort people to stop and rest, not to seek outside themselves, and realize that the “knowledge and vision of the Buddha is just their own mind.” He urges on his disciples by quoting a line from The Vimalakirti Sutra, “just here and now, regain your original mind.” He then empowers them with the following:

“Good and Wise Friends, when I was with the Venerable Master Hongren, I awoke as soon as I heard his words and immediately saw my original nature as it truly is. That is why I am conveying this teaching and practice, so that students of the Way may directly awaken and realize Bodhi. Each of you look into your own mind; see your original nature yourself.”

. . .
The Sixth Patriarch’s philosophy is often depicted as exclusively self-directed (zi li), requiring no beliefs or faith (xin), as opposed to [reliance on] ‘other-power’ (ta li). This characterization is . . . not entirely accurate. First, in Huineng’s understanding, a distinction between ‘self-power’ and ‘other-power’ sets up a false dichotomy. The Dharma of non-duality means that the Buddha and the living being, one’s own pure mind and the Pure Land of Amitabha, are fundamentally the same. The full and proper use of one’s own mind is the Buddha’s mind:

“If your essential nature is balanced and centered, the living being is a buddha. When your essential nature deviates off course, the buddha is a living being. If your mind is devious and crooked, the buddha is concealed within the living being. But with one thought balanced and trued, the living being becomes a buddha. Our own mind itself holds the buddha, and this inherent buddha is the real buddha. If our own mind did not have its own inherent buddha, where could the real buddha be sought?”

. . .
Faith is not absent from his teachings; it is simply recessed. . . . [I]t does not require a blind acceptance of something external, or dependence on someone else, but instead an appreciation of one’s own abilities. Thus a better rendering of xin in this sutra might be “trust” or “confidence.” It grows from an intuitive appreciation of the soundness of the essential nature, and an affirmation of one’s own ability to walk the same path the Buddha walked. The ‘faith’ Huineng exhorts his students to embrace is not in him, nor even in the Buddha, but within themselves. He says, “Your own mind is the Buddha. Never doubt this!”

The direct teaching, to and from the nature, can be seen again when the Sixth Patriarch ritually initiates new students to Buddhism through the formal ‘taking refuge’ ceremony. Taking refuge in the Buddha, in Huineng’s teaching, is not a leap of faith into the arms of a divine being who saves you, but a personal commitment to ‘saving’ yourself (du; lit. ‘cross over,’ and ‘ferry across’). He tells the initates,

“Good and Wise Friends, each of you examine yourself. Do not go about this incorrectly. The sutra clearly says you should return [to] and rely on your own buddha, not some other buddha. If you do not return to the buddha within, there is nothing you can rely on.”

Central Element & Themes

While a number of versions of The Platform Sutra exist, it is noteworthy that most renditions rather closely parallel one another, and show sufficient similarity in content and themes to suggest they derive from a common source, however obscure to us now. Central elements might be delineated as follows:

The Essential Meaning of All Buddhas . . .

The text itself traces its lineage back to what it calls the “source” (yuan), not of a particular school, as the character zong is often narrowly translated, but to the source teachings (zong zhi) of all Buddhas. This grounding of the text’s deep-rooted purport is witnessed by the listing of successive teachers given in the final chapter. Here, having been asked how many generations have passed along this teaching since its beginnings, the Sixth Patriarch enumerates a patriarchal lineage going back not just to the Buddha of our era, Shakyamuni, but to seven Buddhas of antiquity that preceded him. In fact, the Patriarch says, the number of Buddhas who have passed along this teaching is “numberless and incalculable.” In other words, this “source teaching” holds the essential meaning of all Buddhas, and as such is without beginning or end. In cultivating it, one is not simply following a particular  Buddha, (p. 27) or even following in the footsteps of all Buddhas, but is actually seeking after what they sought. Huineng exhorts his students:

To learn the Way, look within, observe your own essential nature;
Then you are one and the same with each and every Buddha.

The Way is to be sought not in the past or in the future, but right now in oneself. When he finally grasped this point, Zhichang, one of the Master’s students, exclaimed: “Our own nature is the essential source of awakening.”

Transformative Not Merely Informative . . .

Dharma is not Dharma unless it works, that is to say, [effectively] serves to convert the afflictions (klesa) into insight, liberation, and an end to suffering. As the Sixth Patriarch explains, there seem to be 84,000 diverse teachings only “because people have 84,000 kinds of affliction.” . . .

A corollary to this understanding is that no method of practice, or vehicle of deliverance (cheng), is inherently better than another. Superiority or inferiority is not within the thing itself, but determined by effectiveness, appropriate to the person. Thus, the Sixth Patriarch admonishes a student,

Vehicles are methods of practice; not subjects for debate. Cultivate yourself; don’t ask me. At all times, your own essential nature is itself truly as it is.”

For the Sixth Patriarch, even the notion of “this shore” and “the other shore” would pose a false dichotomy. Non-duality implies that only a single thought, not a vast body of water, separates samsara from nirvana. As The Avatamsaka Sutra says, “one place is every place; one time is all time.” A change of mind is the other shore; one arrives but there is no moving, just still quiescence. Thus in his instructions to disciple Zhicheng, the Master says, “Awaken by yourself to your own essential nature; awaken directly by cultivating directly. There are no gradual stages; nor anything to set up. All things are still and empty.” (p. 30)

Role of the Teacher . . .

Teachers are also a timely expedient. . . . The Sixth Patriarch explains,

“If you cannot understand on your own, you must seek out a Good and Wise Advisor who can lead you to see. If you are someone who can awaken on your own, however, do not seek outside. . . . Within your own mind there is a good advisor who can awaken you yourself.”

Dismantling the Familiar . . .

[T]he Master deconstructs almost all of the then-current forms of practice and belief. He also dismantles the exclusive truth claims of various sects or schools of his time—dismantles, but does not destroy them. Rather, he refocuses almost every form of Buddhist belief and devotion through the sharp lens of the essential nature. In doing so, he reveals their expedient purpose and provisional legitimacy, while not denying their utility or demeaning their worth. (p. 32) He points to their pragmatic function as liberating techniques, and thereby reaffirms their true purpose as remedies for restoring the ‘mind-ground’ (xin di), fortifying the root nature (ben xing).

Hence, when asked about the merit accrued by the famous Buddhist protector Emperor Liang, who built temples, supported monks, endowed monasteries, printed sutras, and bestowed charity, Huineng answered, “There truly was no merit and virtue.” While charity and generosity create blessings, they in no way constitute merit and virtue. Huineng advises his audience,

“Good and Wise Friends, merit and virtue must manifest from within your own nature; do not seek for them by making donations and offerings. . . . Seeing one’s essential nature is merit; equanimity is virtue. To be flexible and unimpeded iin thought after thought, always cognizant of the true and wondrous workings of one’s original nature—this is called merit and virtue.”

[Regarding the Pure Land school] Huineng informs one of his disciples, Prefect Wei, that the Pure Land is as close or far away as a pure mind. . . . (p. 33)

“Ordinary deluded people, unaware of their essential nature, do not realize that the Pure Land is within themselves. Thus, they long to be born in the East, and they long to be born in the West. To the enlightened person all places are the same.”

The act of taking Refuge in the Three Treasures (the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), which is the formal way of becoming a Buddhist, is also turned inward. “Good and Wise Friends,” he urges, “take refuge in and return to the three treasures of your own essential nature.” The Sixth Patriarch explains,

“The Buddha is awakening
The Dharma is what is right and true
The Sangha is purity”

Most people, he laments, “fail to understand this, and so from morning to night they take the Three Refuge Precepts,” meaning, they recite this phrase almost like a prayer. He poses this question to his audience: “You say you take refuge with the Buddha, but where is the Buddha? If you do not recognize the Buddha, how can you return to him? Such talk is absurd.” . . . The idol is false; the true Buddha is one’s own mind. The Three Jewels and the Three Bodies of the Buddha arise from one’s own nature, not from without. . . . He further says,

“If you do not return to the Buddha within, there is nothing you can rely on. Now that you have awakened yourselves, each of you take refuge with the three treasures of your own mind. Inwardly, regulate your mind and character; outwardly, respect others. This is to take refuge with yourself.”

. . .
(p. 35) Huineng further maintains that taking refuge is not a one-time act of conversion, but a continuous method of self-correcting and self-affirming—“Constantly use the three treasures of your essential nature to verify and confirm.” . . .

Meditation . . .

“The mind regulated and subdued, why toil following rules?
Your steps straight and true, what use is sitting in meditation?”

(p. 36) As the second line of the above verse intimates, even sitting meditation (zuo ch’an), seen by many Buddhists as the most direct and ultimate practice, comes in for criticism.

In some ways, some of the text’s harshest scrutiny and cautionary injunctions are reserved for meditation. To stop thinking and contemplate stillness is a sickness, not Ch’an meditation, the Master admonishes. The practice of constant sitting restricts the body and clouds the mind. How, he asks, could it help towards discovering the truth? He gives this verse to one disciple who is enamored with the practice of prolonged sitting:

“Alive sitting and not lying
Dead lying and not sitting
A pile of stinking bones
Of what use was all the effort?” [Suzuki’s translation]

This error is dramatically illustrated in Chapter 7, “Lively Encounters.” Here a Ch’an practitioner is introduced who has acquired a big reputation by living in a hut and having devoted himself to constant sitting meditation for twenty years. The Sixth Patriarch’s disciple, Xuance, happens to be wandering through the area, and on hearing of Zhihuang’s reputation, he pays a visit to his hut. There he asks him, “What are you doing here?”

Thinking he had already realized genuine samadhi, the hermit calmly replies, “Entering concentration.”

Xuance says, “You say you are entering concentration; do you have a thought of entering, or are you entering without a thought? If you enter without a thought, then all insentient things like grass and trees, rocks and stones, should attain samadhi. If you enter with thought, then all sentient beings with consciousness should attain samadhi.”

The hermit is speechless. After a while he asks what Xuance’s teacher, the Sicth Patriarch, teaches about meditation. Once again, Xuance’s answer brings us back to the nature, to the mind-ground teaching. His description of the Sixth Patriarch’s teaching on meditation is worth quoting in full:

“My teacher explains it as a subtle, wondrous, perfect serenity that interacts both in essence and application with reality as it truly is. Here, the five skandhas are fundamentally empty; the six sensory realms do not exist. One neither enters nor comes out of this samadhi concentration, it cannot be settled into or disturbed. The essence of ch’an concentration is non-dwelling, clinging to nothing; it goes beyond even the act of abiding in meditative stillness. Ch’an concentration by its very nature cannot be initiated, and you cannot even conceive the thought or idea of it. The mind is like emptiy space, yet without even a notion of empty space.”

(p. 37) In yet another encounter, when an Imperial envoy dispatched from the palace asks whether it is true, as “the worthy Ch’an masters of the capital” all teach, that it is absolutely necessary to practice sitting meditation in order to gain understanding of the Way, the Master replies,

“The Way is realized through the mind. How could it come from sitting? The Diamond Sutra says, ‘If you claim that the Tathagata either sits or lies down, you are traveling a wrong path. Why? Because he neither comes from anywhere, nor goes anywhere.’ Freedom from birth and death is the Tathagata’s pure ch’an meditation. The still emptiness of all things is the Tathagata’s pure ch’an sitting. Ultimately there is no realization; how much the less for sitting.”

This answer, as with so many of his exchanges, is not to be taken as absolute Truth, but as a timely and tactical truth aimed at breaking the attachment of the questioner. . . .

The Single-Practice Concentration . . .

Other conventional forms of practice and popular religious activity—memorizing and reciting sutras, erudition, debating, and even leaving home to become a monastic—while salutary, and in many ways admirable, will not, according to the Master, themselves lead to awakening or wisdom. Used correctly, they liberate; used incorrectly (i.e. with unwholesome intention, either to garner name and fame, or to acquire material or spiritual power), they can actually hinder awakening and deplete virtue. Perfectly legitimate spiritual exercises of the ‘great Way’ (da dao) can all too easily become entangling by-paths, twisted by what Huineng calls a “crooked mind.” He cites The Vimalakirti Sutra which says, “The direct mind is the place of awakening; the direct mind is the Pure Land.”

Thus, he exhorts his students to maintain a pure intention and singleness of purpose, to seek for nothing outside, and to sincerely cultivate one’s own mind-ground in every situation; to hold to the ‘straight mind’ or ‘direct mind’ whether “walking, standing, sitting, or reclining.” He terms this the Single-Practice concentration (yi xing san mei), and explains,

“The Single-Practice Samadhi means always maintaining a direct mind in all situations. . . . Do not allow the workings of your mind to become twisted, while merely talking about directness with your mouth; nor expound on the Single-Practice Samadhi but fail to cultivate the direct mind. Just cultivate with a direct mind and do not cling to anything.”

. . . [Regarding emptiness]

“The wondrous nature of people is originally empty; there is nothing that can be grasped. And the true emptiness of the essential nature is the same.”

. . . [The liberated state]

“Those who see their essential nature can set these up or not as they choose. They can come and go freely, unhindered and spontaneous. Everything they do and all their words are appropriate, timely, and according to need. Wherever and however they appear, they never depart from the inherent nature. They are just realizing the spiritual powers of self-mastery and the samadhi of playfulness. This is called ‘seeing the nature.’”

[The Tao]

“It does not arrive or depart; and has no location, neither inside nor outside nor in the middle. Unborn, undying, its essence and appearance is tathata. It is permanent and unchanging—it is called the Way.”

More on meditation . . .

“You might say it [sitting meditation] is fixating on purity, yet people’s nature is basically pure. Only because of confused thinking is its natural true tathata (ru shi) obscured. Only put an end to your confused thinking, and the nature is pure of itself. . . . Good and Wise Friends, what does sitting meditation mean? To engage in this practice means you remain unhindered and unobstructed. Your mind and thoughts do not stir no matter what good and bad state or external situation presents itself. This is called ‘sitting.’ And to inwardly discern the unmoving stability of the essential nature—this is called ‘meditation.’”

(p. 42)

“Simply let your mind be like empty space, without attaching to an idea of your mind as empty space; responding appropriately without any hindrance, clear of mind whether moving or still. Distinctions like ‘worldly’ and ‘holy’ forgotten; subject and object dissolved. Essence and appearance are tathata—then there is no time and you are not in ch’an concentration.”

(p. 44)

“When your essential nature is free from error, unobstructed, undisturbed and unconfused, when prajna oversees and illuminates your every thought, and you are far removed from the superficial appearances of things, independent and free absolutely everywhere and anywhere—what is there to ‘set up’?”

Verhoeven, Martin J. The Sixth Patriarch’s Diamond Jewel Platform Sutra (3rd Edition). Buddhist Text Translation Society, Burlingame, CA. 2014.

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