Ding-hwa HSIEH

The mummified body of Huineng, the Chan Buddhist master. Certain sects of Buddhist monks preserve the dead bodies of masters by applying dry lacquer and strips of cloth to the body.

Huineng was the Sixth Patriarch of the Chinese Chan Buddhist school. His teaching of “sudden enlightenment” (dunwu ??) became the essential aspect of the Southern Chan (nanchan ??) tradition. Subsequent Chan sects all traced their lineage back to Huineng, and they came to be known as the “Five Houses and Seven Schools” (wujia qizong ????).

Huineng ?? (638–713 CE) was the sixth patriarch of Chan Buddhism. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (Liuzu tanjing), an important Chan text written between the eighth and ninth centuries, is said to have contained the patriarch’s autobiographical account and sermons he preached at Dafan Temple in Shaozhou, Guangdong Province, shortly before his death. Huineng’s emphasis on “sudden enlightenment” (dunwu) and advocacy of the “no-thought” (wunian) practice became the hallmark of the Southern School (nanzong) of Chan Buddhism, as opposed to the Northern School (beizong) led by Shenxiu (606?–706), who allegedly taught “gradual enlightenment” (jianwu).

According to the Platform Sutra discovered at Dunhuang in Gansu Province, Huineng was born into the Lu family in south China. His father died when Huineng was still a child. Poor and illiterate, Huineng sold firewood to support his mother and himself. One day he happened to hear someone reciting the Diamond Sutra (one of the discourses of the Buddha that constitutes the basic text of Buddhist scripture), and he was awakened. Huineng then decided to seek further instruction of Buddhism; he traveled all the way to the East Mountain in Hubei and became a disciple of the fifth Chan patriarch, Hongren (601–674).

Huineng treaded the pestle in the monastery’s threshing room for eight months. One day Hongren announced that anyone who could write a verse to demonstrate his superior understanding of Chan would be given the patriarch robe and the dharma (the basic principles of cosmic or individual existence). Shenxiu, Hongren’s most learned disciple, wrote the following verse as a demonstration of his qualification:

The body is the Bodhi tree,

The mind is like a clear mirror.

At all times we must strive to polish it,

And must not let the dust collect. (Platform Sutra, sec. 6; Yampolsky, 1967, 130)

In response, Huineng wrote the following verse on the wall:

Bodhi originally has no tree,

The clear mirror also has no stand.

Buddha nature is always clear and pure;

Where is there room for dust? (Platform Sutra, sec. 8; Yampolsky, 1967, 132)

It is said that upon reading the preceding verse, Hongren immediately made Huineng his legitimate successor.

In his sermons recorded in the Platform Sutra, Huineng reiterated the essential teachings of Chan: the doctrine of inherent Buddha nature, the ineffable experience of self-realization, and the nonconceptual state of enlightenment. However, he placed an unprecedented emphasis on the nonduality of meditation (Sanskrit: samâdhi; Chinese: ding) and wisdom (Sanskrit: prajñâ; Chinese: hui):

Never should one say that meditation and wisdom are different; they are essentially a unity not two. Meditation is the “essence” (ti) of wisdom, and wisdom is the “function” (yong) of meditation. (Platform Sutra, sec. 13; Yampolsky, 1967, 135)

In short, meditation should be considered a simultaneous expression of enlightenment, not a preliminary to enlightenment. From his assertion of the nonduality of meditation and wisdom, Huineng went on to propose a new concept of meditation: the doctrine of no-thought. “No-thought is not to think even when involved in thought… If in all things successive thoughts do not cling, then you are unbound” (Platform Sutra, sec. 17; Yampolsky, 1967, 138). Through the Platform Sutra enlightenment in Chan thus came to mean a direct insight into one’s self-nature, a sudden realization of one’s inherent Buddhahood, and a spontaneous manifestation of one’s unbiased and detached mind in everyday life.

According to Chan history, Shenxiu’s Northern School declined after the eighth century, whereas Huineng’s Southern School continued to expand. Subsequent Chan sects all traced their lineage of “mind-to-mind transmission” (yixin chuanxin) back to Huineng, and they came to be known as the “Five Houses and Seven Schools” (wujia qizong). Among them Linji and Caodong were the most prominent ones, and both continue to flourish in Japan and Korea today.

Further Reading

Dumoulin, H. (1994). Chan Buddhism: A history, India & China with a new supplement on the Northern School of Chinese Chan. New York: Macmillan.

Gregory, P. N. (Ed.). (1987). Sudden and gradual: Approaches to enlightenment in Chinese thought. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Jorgenson, J. (2005). Inventing Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch: Hagiography and biography in early Ch’an. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

Poceski, M. (2007). Ordinary mind as the way: The Hongzhou School and the growth of Chan Buddhism. New York: Oxford University.

Yampolsky, P. B. (Trans.). (1967). The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, the text of the Tun-huang manuscript. New York: Columbia University Press.

Source: Hsieh, Ding-hwa. (2009). Huineng. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1108–1109. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Huineng (Huìnéng ??)|Huìnéng ?? (Huineng)

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