Brother Fa Ta, a native of Hung Chou, who joined the Order at the early age of seven, used to recite the Saddharma Pundarika (Lotus of the Good Law) Sutra. When he came to pay homage to the Patriarch, he failed to lower his head to the ground. For his abbreviated courtesy the Patriarch reproved him, saying, “If you object to lowering your head to the ground, would it not be better do away with obeisance altogether? There must be something in your mind that makes you so puffed up. Tell me what you do in your daily exercise.” “Recite the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra,” replied Fa Ta. “I have recited the whole text three thousand times.” “Had you grasped the meaning of the Sutra,” remarked the Patriarch, “you would not have assumed such a lofty bearing, even if you had recited it ten thousand times. Had you grasped it, you would be treading the same Path as I. What you have accomplished has already made you conceited, and moreover, you do not seem to realize that this is wrong. Listen to my stanza:
Since the object of ceremony is to curb arrogance
Why did you fail to lower your head to the ground?
To believe in a self is the source of sin,
But to treat all attainment as empty attains merit incomparable!
The Patriarch then asked for his name, and upon being told that it was Fa Ta (meaning Understanding the Law), he remarked, “Your name is Fa Ta, but you have not yet understood the Law.” He concluded by uttering another stanza:
Your name is Fa Ta.
Diligently and steadfastly you recite the Sutra.
Mere recitation is placing one’s hope in the pronunciation of words,
But he whose mind is enlightened by grasping the meaning is a Bodhisattva indeed!
On account of conditions going back to our past lives I will tell you the following:
If you will only believe that a buddha speaks no words,
Then the Lotus will blossom in your mouth.
Having heard this stanza, Fa Ta became remorseful and apologized to the Patriarch. He added, “Hereafter, I will be humble and polite on all occasions. As I do not quite understand the meaning of the Sutra I recite, I am doubtful as to its proper interpretation. With your profound knowledge and high wisdom, will you kindly give me a short explanation?”
The Patriarch replied, “Fa Ta, the Teaching is quite clear; it is only your mind that is not clear. The Sutra is free from doubtful passages; it is only your mind that makes them doubtful. In reciting the Sutra, do you know its principal object?”
“How can I know, Sir,” replied Fa Ta, “since I am so dull and stupid? All I know is how to recite it word by word.” The Patriarch then said, “Please recite the Sutra, as I cannot read it myself; I will then explain its meaning to you.” [Hui-neng may have acquired the ability to read by this time, and simply claim illiteracy to make a point. – The Editor]
Fa Ta recited the Sutra, but when he came to the chapter entitled ‘Parables’ the Patriarch stopped him, saying, “The theme of this Sutra is to set forth the aim and object of a buddha’s incarnation in this world. Though parables and illustrations are numerous in this text, none of them goes beyond this pivotal point. Now, what is that object? What is that aim? The Sutra says, ‘It is for a sole object, a sole aim, verily a lofty object and a lofty aim that the Buddha appears in this world.’ Now that sole object, that sole aim, that lofty object, that lofty aim referred to is the seeing of bodhi (enlightenment).
“Common people attach themselves to objects without; and within, they fall into the wrong idea of emptiness. When they are able to free themselves from attachment to objects while being in contact with objects, and to free themselves from the false views of annihilation and the doctrine of emptiness, they will be free from delusions within and without. He who understands this and whose mind is thus enlightened in an instant is said to have opened his eyes for the seeing of bodhi. The word ‘Buddha’ is equivalent to bodhi, which is dealt with under four heads:
To open one’s eyes for the seeing of bodhi;
To see bodhi;
To awaken to the seeing of bodhi;
To be firmly established in bodhi.
“If we are able, upon being taught, to grasp and understand thoroughly the teaching of bodhi, then our inherent quality or true nature, bodhi, will be able to manifest itself. You should not misinterpret the text and come to the conclusion that bodhi is something special to the Buddha and not common to us all, just because you happen to find this passage in the Sutra: ‘To open one’s eyes for the seeing of bodhi, to see bodhi, etc.’ Such a misinterpretation would amount to slandering the Buddha and blaspheming the Sutra. Since one is [already] a buddha, one is already in possession of bodhi and there is no need to open one’s eyes for it. You should therefore accept the interpretation that bodhi is the bodhi of your own mind and not that of any other buddha.
“Being captivated by sense-objects, and thereby shutting themselves off from their own light, all sentient beings, tormented by external circumstances and inner vexations, act as willing slaves to their own desires. Seeing this, our Lord Buddha had to rise from his samadhi in order to exhort them with earnest teachings of various kinds to renounce their desires and to refrain from seeking happiness without, that they might become the same as him. For this reason the sutra says, ‘To open the eyes for the seeing of bodhi, etc.’
“I advise people constantly to open their eyes for the bodhi within their own mind. But in their perversity they commit sins under delusion and ignorance; they are kind in words, but wicked in mind; they are greedy, malignant, jealous, crooked, flattering, egotistic, offensive to men and destructive to inanimate objects. Thus, they open their eyes for the knowledge of common people. Were they to rectify their hearts so that wisdom arose perpetually, their minds would be under introspection, and evil-doing replaced by the practice of good; then they would initiate themselves into bodhi.
“You should therefore, moment by moment, open your eyes, not for the knowledge of common people but for bodhi, which is supramundane, while the former is worldly. On the other hand, if you stick to the belief that the mere practice of daily recitation is good enough, then you are like the yak that is captivated by its own tail.”
Fa Ta then said, “If that is so, we have only to know the meaning of the Sutra and there would be no need for us to recite it. Is that right, Sir?”
Replied the Patriarch, “There is nothing wrong in the Sutra that you should refrain from reciting it. Whether reciting the Sutra will enlighten you or not, or benefit you or not, depends entirely on yourself. He who recites the Sutra with the tongue and puts its teaching into practice with his mind ‘revolves’ the Sutra. He who recites it without putting it into practice is ‘revolved’ by the Sutra. Listen to my stanza:
When our mind is under delusion, the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra revolves us.
With an enlightened mind it is we who revolve the Sutra.
To recite the Sutra for a long time without knowing its principal object indicates that you are a stranger to its meaning.
The correct way to recite the Sutra is without holding any arbitrary belief;
Otherwise, it is wrong.
He who is above affirming and negating
Rides permanently in the White Bullock Cart.”
Having heard this stanza, Fa Ta was enlightened and moved to tears. “It is quite true,” he exclaimed, “Heretofore I was unable to revolve the Sutra. It was rather the Sutra that revolved me.”
He then raised another point: “The Sutra says, ‘From Sravakas up to Bodhisattvas, even if they were to speculate with combined efforts they would be unable to comprehend bodhi.’ But you, Sir, give me to understand that if an ordinary man realizes his own mind, he is said to have attained bodhi. I am afraid, Sir, that with the exception of those gifted with superior abilities, some may doubt your remark. Furthermore, three carts are mentioned in the Sutra: namely, the cart yoked with goats (i.e., the vehicle of the Sravakas), the cart yoked with deer (the vehicle of hermit-buddhas), and the cart yoked with bullock (the vehicle of the Bodhisattvas). How are these to be distinguished from the White Bullock Cart?”
The Patriarch replied, “The Sutra is quite plain on this point; it is you who misunderstand it. The reason why Sravakas, hermit-buddhas and Bodhisattvas cannot comprehend bodhi is because they speculate upon it. They may combine their efforts to speculate, but the more they speculate, the farther they are from the truth. It was to ordinary men, not to other buddhas, that Buddha Gautama preached this Sutra. As for those who cannot accept the doctrine he expounded, he allowed them to leave the assembly. You do not seem to know that since we are already riding in the White Bullock Vehicle, there is no need for us to go looking for the other three vehicles. Moreover, the Sutra tells you plainly that there is only the Buddha-vehicle, and that there are no other vehicles. It is for the sake of this sole vehicle that the Buddha had to preach to us with innumerable skillful devices, using various reasons and arguments, parables and illustrations, etc. Why can you not understand that the other three vehicles are makeshifts, for the past only, while the sole vehicle, the Buddha-vehicle, is the ultimate, meant for the present?
“The Sutra teaches you to dispense with the makeshifts and to turn to the ultimate. Having turned to the ultimate, you will find that even the name ‘ultimate’ disappears. You should appreciate that you are the sole owner of these treasures and they are completely at your disposal. When you are free from the arbitrary belief that they belong to the father (the patriarch), or the son (the heir), or that they are at the disposal of so-and-so, you may be said to have learned the right way to recite the Sutra. In that case, throughout the ages the Sutra will be in your hand, and from morning to night you will be reciting the Sutra at all times.”
Being thus awakened, Fa Ta praised the Patriarch, in a transport of great joy, with the following stanza:
The delusion that I have attained great merit by reciting the Sutra three thousand times
Is all dispelled by an utterance of the Master of Ts’ao Ch’i (Hui-neng).
He who has not understood the object of a Buddha’s incarnation in this world
Is unable to subdue the wild passions accumulated in many lives.
The three vehicles yoked by goat, deer and bullock are makeshifts only,
While the three stages, preliminary, intermediate, and final, in which the orthodox Dharma is expounded, are well set out, indeed.
How few appreciate that within the burning house itself [the world] the King of the Dharma is to be found!”
The Patriarch then told Fa Ta that henceforth he might call himself a ‘Sutra-reciting monk’. After that interview, Fa Ta was able to grasp the profound meaning of Buddhism, yet he continued to recite the Sutra as before.
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. (https://terebess.hu/zen/PlatformPrice.pdf)