Hui-neng instructs Fa Ta

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 read 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 read it ten thousand times. Had you grasped it, you would be treading the same Path as mine. 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 his name 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 steadily you recite the Sutra.
Lip-repetition of the text goes by the pronunciation only,
But he whose mind is enlightened by grasping the meaning is a Bodhisattva indeed!
On account of conditions which may be traced to our past lives I will explain this to you.
If you only believe that 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 Law 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.”

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 sight of Buddha-knowledge (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 when in contact with objects, and to free themselves from the false views of annihilation or 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 sight of Buddha-knowledge.

“The word ‘Buddha’ is equivalent to Buddha-knowledge (bodhi), which is dealt with under four heads:
To open the eyes for the sight of Buddha-knowledge;
To see Buddha-knowledge;
To awaken to the sight of Buddha-knowledge;
To be firmly established in Buddha-knowledge.
If we are able, upon being taught, to grasp and understand thoroughly the teaching of Buddha-knowledge, then our inherent quality or true nature, Buddha-knowledge, will be able to manifest itself. You should not misinterpret the text, and come to the conclusion that Buddha-knowledge is something special to Buddha and not common to us all because you happen to find in the Sutra this passage, ‘To open the eyes for the sight of Buddha-knowledge, to see Buddha-knowledge, etc.’ Such a misinterpretation would amount to slandering Buddha and blaspheming the Sutra. Since he is a Buddha, he is already in possession of Buddha-knowledge and there is no need for him to open his eyes for it. You should therefore accept the interpretation that Buddha-knowledge is the Buddha-knowledge of your own mind and not that of any other Buddha.

“Being infatuated by sense-objects, and thereby shutting themselves off from their own light, all sentient beings, tormented by external circumstances and inner vexations, act voluntarily as slaves to their own desires. Seeing this, our Lord Buddha had to rise from his samadhi in order to exhort them with earnest preaching of various kinds to renounce their desires and to refrain from seeking happiness without, that they might become the same as the Buddha. For this reason the sutra says, ‘To open the eyes for the sight of Buddha-knowledge, etc.’

“I advise people constantly to open their eyes for the Buddha-knowledge within their 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. Should they rectify their heart, so that wisdom arises perpetually, the mind would be under introspection, and evil-doing replaced by the practice of good; then they would initiate themselves into the Buddha-knowledge.

“You should therefore from moment to moment open your eyes, not for the knowledge of common people but for the Buddha-knowledge, which is supramundane, while the former is worldly. On the other hand, if you stick to the concept that mere recitation as a daily exercise is good enough, then you are infatuated like the yak 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 necessity for us to recite it. Is that right, Sir?” “There is nothing wrong in the Sutra,” replied the Patriarch, “so that you should refrain from reciting it. Whether sutra-reciting will enlighten you or not, or benefit you or not, all depends on yourself. He who recites the Sutra with the tongue and puts its teaching into actual practice with his mind ‘revolve’ 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 we revolve the Sutra instead.
To recite the Sutra for a considerable 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 the Buddha-knowledge.’ But you, Sir, give me to understand that if an ordinary man realizes his own mind, he is said to have attained the Buddha-knowledge. I am afraid, Sir, that with the exception of those gifted with superior abilities, others may doubt your remark. Furthermore, three kinds of carts are mentioned in the Sutra, namely, carts yoked with goats (i.e., the vehicle of Sravakas), carts yoked with deer (the vehicle of Pratyekabuddhas), and carts yoked with bullocks (the vehicle of Bodhisattvas). How are these to be distinguished from the White Bullock carts?”

The Patriarch replied, “The Sutra is quite plain on this point; it is you who misunderstand it. The reason why Sravakas, Pratyekabuddhas and Bodhisattvas cannot comprehend the Buddha-knowledge 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 let them 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 out to look 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 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 resort to the ultimate. Having resorted to the ultimate, you will find that even the name ‘ultimate’ disappears. You should appreciate that you are the sole owner of these valuables and they are entirely subject to your disposal. When you are free from the arbitrary conception that they are the father’s, or the son’s, 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 all the time.” 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 merits by reciting the Sutra three thousand times
Is all dispelled by an utterance of the Master of Ts’ao Ch’i (i.e., the Patriarch).
He who has not understood the object of a Buddha’s incarnation in this world
Is unable to suppress the wild passions accumulated in many lives.
The three vehicles yoked by goat, deer and bullock respectively, 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 King of Dharma
is to be found!”

The Patriarch then told him that henceforth he might call himself a ‘Sutra-reciting Bhikkhu’. 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. (

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