The sixth patriarch Hui-neng’s meditation:
A study in the Chinese Buddhism’s history
and thought (period 625-755AD)
By Thich Nu Nguyen Huong
In recent years, as the crises facing humankind about morality, economy, politics, v.v... have become more and more numerous and acute, attention on the Buddhist meditation has begun to increase. People worldwide, East as well as West, from various walks of life have to regard it as a valuable and practical method for living in these troubled times.
Buddhist meditation, a method of mental training, traces back to the Buddha’ s time, more than 2500 years ago, when it was with it, under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, Gaya, India, the Buddha with his own way, after his dissatisfaction towards the meditation of his two teachers-Alara Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra, for the first time, attained enlightenment opening a new religion, or rather a way of life for human beings to end their suffering. And the Buddha had to make use of words, called sutras, as a skilful means to transmit his experience, the state of mind of enlightenment, to others.
The teachings of the Buddha as depicted in Pàli Canon and the famous work of Buddhaghosa Thera, i.e., the Visuddhimagga, offer a great variety of methods of mental training and subjects of meditation, suited to the various of individual needs, temperaments and capacities. All these methods ultimately converge in the ‘Way of Right-Mindfulness’ (Satipatthana) called by the Buddha himself ‘the only way (ekayano maggo) to liberation’.
However, in due course of time, after the Buddha’ s demise, with its dynamism and flexibility, Buddhism spread, developed and produced new doctrines, called the Mahayana sutras. In the Mahayana Buddhism of the Far East there were Mahayana meditation and Chinese meditation (Ch’an) with its characteristics of Sunyata, non attachment, no dualism, or thoughtless which is the main cause of the appearance of Zen meditation in Japan, and are closest to the sprit of Satipatthana.
Buddhist meditation was a most important method of practicing in the religion. However, in reality, there have been no less of people, who, due to their lack or misunderstanding of the method and its history as a necessary background, practiced it in a wrong way leading to various kinds of mental sickness; a lot of them have lose faith to Buddhism; and anothers of them have rashly criticized about Buddhism!
According to proposals of The 3rd Biannual International Conference of The Sri Lanka Association for Buddhist Study, the Buddhist themes are limited in recent trends. So, I like to select above topic which is one of all my thesis of Ph.d, i.e. “The Evolution of Buddhist Meditation: A historical study”.
Realizing the importance of the history as well as the practice of Buddhist meditation, this paper introduces to you about the history, thought as well as method of the sixth Patriarch Hui-neng’s meditation as the following matters:
I. The Hui-neng’s meditation:
According to The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, the meditation in the Sanskrit is Dhyàna (absorption), in the Pàli is Jhàna, in the Chinese is Ch’an, and in the Japanese is Zen1.
According to the Sutra of Hui-neng, to meditation means to realise inwardly the imperturbability of the Essence of Mind. What are Dhyaøna and Samaøtha ? Dhyaøna means to be free from attachment to all outer objects, and Samàdhi means to attain inner peace. If we are attached to outer objects, our inner mind will be perturbed. When we are free from attachment to all outer objects, the mind will be in peace. Our Essence of Mind is intrinsically pure, and the reason why we are perturbed is because we allow ourselves to be carried away by the circumstances we are in. He, who is able to keep his mind unperturbed, irrespective of circumstances, has attained Samàdhi.
To be free from attachment to all outer objects is Dhyàna, and to attain inner peace is Samàdhi. When we are in a position to deal with Dhyàna and to keep our inner mind in Samàdhi, then we are said to have attained Dhyàna and Samàdhi. The Bodhisattva Sìla suøtra says, “Our Essence of Mind is intrinsically pure.” Let us realize this for us at all times. Let we train ourselves, practice it by ourselves, and attain Buddhahood by our own effort.” 2
2. The method of Hui-neng’ s meditation:
According to the Sùtra of Hui-neng, Dhyàna or meditation is to realize inwardly the imperturbability of the Essence of mind: “To meditate means to realize inwardly the imperturbability of the Essence of mind”3
Hui-neng considers the essence of mind as a state of absolute void different from the idea of vacuity, and it is beyond the extremes or duality.
“The essence of mind, which is a state of absolute void (i.e., the voidness of non-void.) Learned audience, when you hear me told about the void, do not at once fall into the idea of vacuity, (because this involves the heresy of the doctrine of annihilation) . . . When we see the goodness or the badness of other people we are not attracted by it, nor repelled by it, nor attached to it, so that our attitude of mind is as void as space. In this way, we say our mind is great therefor e we call it Maha.” 4
Again, Mahaprajnaparamita, or the wisdom of enlightenment, is analyzed by Hui-neng. When the mind is as void as space, it is called Maha. While prajna means the mind works without hindrance and is at liberty to come or go, paramita means reaching the opposite shore in literal, or beyond extremes in figurative. The Mahaprajnaparamita is the exalted, the supreme, and the most. By means of it Buddhas in the present, past and future attain Buddhahood. This great wisdom, according to Hui-neng, is inherent in everyone and come from the essence of mind, not from an exterior source. He advises one to use this great wisdom to break up the five Skandhas, for to follow such a practice ensures the attainment of Buddhahood. The three poisonous elements (greed, hatred and illusion) will then be turned into Sila (good conduct), Samadhi and Prajna.5
Dhyana is neither keeping a watch on mind for tranquillity nor suppressing mind from all thinking.
“Some teachers of meditation instruct their disciples to keep a watch on their mind for tranquillity, so that it will cease from activity. Henceforth the disciples give up all exertion of mind. Ignorant persons become insane from having too much confidence in such instruction . . . It is a great mistake to suppress our mind from all thinking; for ever if wee succeed in getting rid of all thoughts, and die immediately thereafter, still we shall be reincarnated elsewhere.”6
Hui-neng’ s meditation is not sitting quietly and keeping mind blank.
“ There is also a class of foolish people who sit quietly and try to keep their mind blank. They refrain from thinking of anything and call themselves ‘great’ 7
Again, Hui-neng advises one not to attach oneself to anything since they are not real and nothing but the concept of the reality of objects.
“ We should practice straight forwardness and should not attach ourselves to anything.” 8
“ In all things there is nothing real,
And so we should free ourselves from the concept of the reality of objects “ 9
So, in the Hui-neng’ s system of meditation, there is no separate method for practice of Samàdhi (concentration) or Prajna (wisdom). According to Hui-neng, Samàdhi and Prajna are one entity in his meditation.
“In my system (Dhyàna), Samàdhi and Prajna are fundamental. But do not be under the wrong impression that these two are independent of each other, for they are inseparably united and are not two entities. Samadhi is the quintessence of Prajna, while Prajna is the activity of Samadhi At the very moment that we attain Prajna, Samadhi is therewith . . . If you understand this principle, you understand the equilibrium of Samadhi and prajna.” 10
In brief, the fundamental principles of Hui-neng’ s meditation are ‘Non-attachment” and ‘Non-duality”. Hui-neng said:
“ When we use Prajna for introspection we are illumined within and without, and in a position to know our own mind. To know our mind is to obtain liberation. To obtain liberation is to attain Samàdhi of Prajna, which is ‘thoughtlessness’. What is ’thoughtlessness’? ‘Thoughtlessness’ is to see and to know all Dharma (things) with a mind free from attachment.’ 11
“ If we allow our thoughts, past, present, and future, to link up in a series, we put ourselves under restraint. On the other hand, if we never let our mind attach to anything .we shall gain emancipation. For this reason, we take ‘Non-attachment’ as our fundamental principle” 12
II.The sixth Patriarch Hui-neng’s history and The Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra ):
1.Hui-neng became the sixth Patriarch of Ch’an meditation in China:
The Patriarch Hung-jen had two able disciples, i.e., Hui-neng (683-713A.D.) and Shen-hsiu (606-706A.D.) The regular succession fell on one of them, Hui-neng, who became the founder of the Southern Ch’an School. His aim was a sudden attainment of enlightenment and his school is called the Southern School of sudden enlightenment was Shen-hsiu who remained in the north and propagated the patriarch Ch’an earnestly. His School was called the northern Ch’an school. His teaching was a gradual attainment of enlightenment and named the northern Ch’an school. His teaching was a gradual attainment of enlightenment and named the northern school of gradual enlightenment. 13
Hui-neng’s early life was unlucky. His father died when he was only three years old, leaving his poor and miserable mother. Once he happened to hear someone recite the Vajracchedika Sutra (Diamod Sutra) while he was selling firewood in the market. He was deeply impressed by the words: “Thought should spring from a state of non-attachment,” Hearing the name of the Patriarch Hung-jen, he immediately wen to Hwang-may district to pay homage to the Patriarch. He was asked by Hung-jen where did he belong to and what did he expect to obtain from him? He replied, “I am a commoner in Lin-nan and have traveled far to pay my respect to you. I request nothing but Buddhahood.” You are a native of Lin-nan, and moreover, you belong to the aborigines. “How can you expect to be a Buddha?” said Hung-jen. He answered: “Although there are northern people and southern people, north and south make no difference to their Buddha-nature. An aborigine is different from your Holiness physically, but there is no difference in our Buddha-nature.” Hung-jen then realized that the man is wise and ordered him to join the crowd work.
For eight months, Hui-neng was employed in the lowest menial tasks, and then the time came for Hung-jen to choose his successor. In order to make sure of choosing wisely, Hung-jen asked his disciples to submit the stanzas to him for his consideration. One of them, Shen-hsiu, who was also an instructor of the monastery, wrote the following, which was heartily admired by the others.
“Our body is the Bodhi tree,
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight?” 14
The Fifth Patriarch knew that it was written by Shen-hsiu and said: “If they put its teaching into actual practice, they will be saved from the misery of being born in these realms of existence. The merit gained by one who practices it will be great indeed.” He then ordered all his disciples to recite it, so that they might realize the essence of mind.
When Hui-neng heard of this Stanza, he asked some one to read it to him, whereupon he replied with another stanza as follows:
“There is no Bodhi-tree,
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is Void,
Where can the dust alight”. 15
The Fifth Patriarch saw it and said that the author of this stanza had also not yet realized the Essence of Mind; but next day the Patriarch came secretly to the room where the rice was pounded, and asked Hui-neng to go to see him in third watch of the night for religious instruction. The Patriarch expounded the Vajracchedika Sutra to Hui-neng, when he came to the sentence, “One should use one’s mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachment,” Hui-neng at once became completely enlightened, and realized that all things in the universe are the Essence of Mind itself.
Then Hui-neng said to the fifth Patriarch Hung-jen:
“Who would have thought that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically pure!
Who would have thought that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically free from becoming or annihilation!
Who would have thought that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically self-sufficient!
Who would have thought that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically free from change!
Who would have thought that all things are the manifestation of the Essence of Mind!” 16
The fifth Patriarch further said: “As robe may give cause for dispute, you are the last one to inherit it.” 17
According to the record, Hui-neng inherited the robe at 24, has his hair shaved (i.e., ordained) at 39 and died at the age of 76 (AD. 713)18
2. Hui-neng obtained the Essence of Mind itself from the Diamond Sùtra:
He was deeply impressed by the words: “Thought should spring from a state of non-attachment,” in the Vjracchedika Sùtra (Diamod Sutra). Hui-neng obtained the Essence of Mind itself from the Diamond sutra, which must have a great influence on him.
Diamond Sutra is a small book of a great work named Mahaprajnaparamita (Perfection of transcendental wisdom). It may be called a classic, a scripture or a discourse, as all these three terms are comprehended in the Sanskrit word-sutra, which is the appellation given to the Sacred books of the Buddhist canon. Maha-prajnaparamita is one of many books in the Great canon of Mahayana Buddhism, but it is considered as the mother of all Mahayana books, and by for the largest it runs into a great number of volumes. Many of the books of which this is made up are written in the form of dialogues between the Buddha and one or other of his chief disciples; but in point of fact these dialogues are not likely to be records of actual discourses. The Buddha left no written testament, and though records were made from memory by his followers some years after his passing, many parts of the Northern Canon are of much later date. It is generally considered by the faithful that these later works enshrine the deep teaching of their Lord, and that these teachings were passed down orally from generation to generation among those who proved the truth for themselves by practice. Precisely why, when, and by whom, this oral transmission came to be set down in symbols can not be stated with certainty; but research may provide these data at any moment.
The writings here concerned are generally considered to the work of the profound and saintly thirteen patriarch, Nagarjuna, who lived in India in the second century AD.; but it would seem wiser to take the view that there was a succession of authors and compilers extending over a period of several hundred years from the first century BC, and that the Diamond sutra was written in the fourth century AD.
Although it forms so small a part of the Great scriptures on the perfection of transcendental wisdom, its importance lies in its being an epitome of the whole. It is therefore extremely profound and extremely subtle.
The Diamond sutra was first translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva about 400 AD. It is recorded that Kumarajiva was a native of Kucha, an ancient state in Eastern Turkestan. When he was in his middle age he traveled to Ch’ang-an and there engaged upon translation work which reached monumental proportions. His rendering of the Diamond sutra is a exquisite classic which has taken popular precedence in China over subsequent translations made by Bodhiruci, Paramartha, Hsuan-tsang, I-tsing and Dharmagupta.
III. The background and position of Hui-neng’s Ch’an school in China:
The Chinese are generally considered to be a practical, earthbound people not given to speculations about such religious problems as the nature of the universe, the afterlife, and so forth. When the Chinese were first brought face to face with Indian Buddhism with its rich and elaborate imagery, concepts, and modes of thinking, they were fascinated at first and finally overwhelmed and conquered. However, after a few centuries, the practical nature of the Chinese began affirming itself, it began to seek for certain features within Buddhism that it could understand and practice, and this effort it soon found out the dhyana, or Ch’an in China, practice, as the essence of Buddhism. As a result Ch’an school emerged and flourished, particularly under the guidance of Hui-neng, an illiterate but most famous Ch’an patriarch of the Tang dynasty.
According to Kenneth Ch’en ¨ by late in the 7th century intellectual conditions in China were ready for the development of Ch’an Buddhism. For over one hundred and thirty years, from AD, 625 to 755, the T’ang dynasty had enjoyed tranquility, security, and prosperity without any internal rebellion or external invasion to mar the orderly march of events. During this era all phases of Chinese culture, religion, art, and literature enjoyed a long period of free growth and development. This development reached its highest level during the 8th century, the reign of Ming-huang, which started in 713 and moved on an even, prosperous keel until 755. When the peace of the empire was rudely shattered by An-lu-shan rebellion the prevailing tendency of the period was one of freedom of expression and naturalism in poetry, art, etc. The Ch’an movement during the period is but one aspect of the whole liberating tendency that characterized the age. This is one of the reasons why it became so popular in China. The school was not so speculative as the Ti’en-t’ai, Hua-yenj, and Wei-shih schools, and hence appealed more to the practice; tendency in Chinese thought. It did not antagonize Confucian thought, and it bore a close affinity with Taoism in its philosophical ramifications
After Hui-k’o, the Ch’an patriarch was translated to Seng-ts’an (d. 606). Tao-hsin (580-651), Hung-jen (602-675), and then Shen-hsiu (600-706). This was the genealogy in vogue during the early part of the eighth century. Shen-hsiu was thus the sixth in line. But, in 734 a Southern monk named Shen-hui (670-762) suddenly attacked this line of transmission. He accepted the first five patriarchs, but he contended that the sixth was not Shen-hsiu but was Hui-neng (638-713), who received the patriarchal robe from Hung-jen. He also attacked the doctrine of gradual enlightenment held by Shen-hsiu and put forth his own position in favor of complete instantaneous enlightenment, contending that pure wisdom is indivisible and undifferentiated to be realized completely and instantly or not at all. After firing these shots against Shen-hsiu, Shen-hui rapidly became well-known and the southern Ch’an school that he represented grew stronger and stronger. The Northern school under the leadership of Shen-hsiu’ s disciples could either stop him or ignore him.
With the triumph of the Southern school of Hui-neng and Shen-hui very little more is heard about the Nothern school. The subsequent history by of Ch’an is primarily the history of the Southern school, which is sometimes referred to by historians as the new Ch’an because of its emphasis on complete and instantaneous enlightenment, its iconoclastic attitude toward the Buddhas and Boddhisattvas,and its disregard for literature and rituals. Hover, Hui-neng himself asserted his ch’an to be a branch of Orthodox Buddhism.
During the period of emperor Wu-tsung’ s reign of the T’ang dynasty (841-846 A.D.), the emperor Wu-tsung listened to a Taoist named Chao Kueichen’ s advice and ordered the destruction of Buddhism and collection of the bells and copper statues of the monasteries. He ordered his officers to make coins out of the copper statues and agricultural implements of the iron. People were t surrender Buddha’ s portraits and vessels of Law to the Government within one month. This is called the crises of the Three Wu in the history of Buddhism in China.20
After the great persecution of the year 845 A.D. and during the later period of the Five Dynasties (907-960 A.D.), the Buddhist schools at the close of the T’ang period declined, but only Ch’an flourished. This way of Ch’an opened the Five of Meditative Sects (or Five Houses), i.e., Wei (or Kuei)-yang, Yun-men, Tsao-t’ung, Fa-yen, and Lin-chi.· The two of the Five of Meditative Sects, i.e., The Lin-chi and Tsao-t’ung Sects were specially flourished very long and splendid .Because the devotees of Ch’an in that period do not require Sutras or Sutras for their publicity and preaching; they were living either on the hills or by the side of rivers, even under trees or in jungles where they cultivated matters of spirit and propagation of their doctrines.* 38 The Five Houses arose in the Southern Ch’an, but when these sects were founded id not definitely known, though it appears to have been soon after the death of Fa-yen (885-958 A.D.),the founder of the last of the “Five Houses.” 21
According to Hui-neng, the spirit of the Ch’an meditation is no-attachment, no-duality or thoughtless. To transmit the Ch’an from the master to disciple, the Five meditative Sects had no special system but some indications in gestures or words, both
of which, being altogether unapproachable, repelled rather than attracted the truth-seekers. According to Suzuki’ estimate in his work, Essence of Zen Buddhism, the Zen masters’ s methods are naturally very uncommon, unconventional, illogical, and consequently incomprehensible to the uninitiated, paradox, going beyond opposites, contradiction,22
If we trace the history of the Buddhist Sutra and meditation, we shall find out that after attaining the state of mind of enlightenment by the way of meditation the Buddha made use of words, called Sutra, as a skilful means to express and transmit his experience to others. After Bodhidharma (the first Patriarch of meditation in China) came to China, he handed over the Lankavatara Sutra to the Second Patriarch Hui-k’o and Hui-k’o preached the Lankavatara Sutra. Farther, the Fifth Patriarch Hui-k’o and the Sixth Patriarch Hui-neng who used to recite the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita-Sutra became also enlightenment through this very sutra. So we come to know that at that time the Patriarch of meditation did not give up the exoteric aspect of the Buddhist sutras. In other words the Buddhist meditation based and depended on the Buddhist sutra. If the meditation does not base on or doesn’t originate from the Buddhist sutra, it is not the Buddhist meditation.
So, We can conclude that the Hinayana meditation originate from Panchanikaya (the Pàli Canon), the Mahayana meditation originate from the Mahayana sùtra, and the Ch'an meditation from the Lankavatara sutra and the Diamond sutra. The Hui-neng’s meditaion also origitated from the Diamond Sùtra. Therefore, Hui-neng’s meditation is belong to the Buddhist meditaion.
Nowadays, we admit that people have more a very high life than the olden times of the two aspects: the tools of labor and the comfortable life of material. These great results have made from the intelligent persons, who had their efforts in fields of science, technique, and so on, during the last centuries. They have hoped their results will extinguish all sufferings of human but until present time people have not yet stopped sufferings from the birth, the old age, the sick, the die, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, despair and not getting what one desires. Beside, there are persons whose mind have been strained by the crises of moral, the economics, the disasters of earthquake and the infectious sickness of H.I.V.v.v...; the cold wars of economic, politic, education and society have continuously happened on the world. In the present days, science is also developed it is easy for people to fulfill their desires and to lure them on to desire more and more. The most people are too much influenced by their surroundings, which these days seem been designed to stimulate desire. Because not everyone can get what they want, so evil actions are committed and merit is lost to gain a desired end. From day to day merit decreases and demerit increases as desires multiply. However, we come to know that all sorrow and problems of individual or from Human society converge into the Five Hindrances, i.e., Lust, Anger, Pride, Doubt and Ignorant.
The only cure for all above these is to reduce the power of desire, to be free from attachment to all outer objects and an effective way of doing these is through the teachings of the Hinayana, the Mahayana, and the Hui-neng’s Ch’an meditation. When the house is on fire it is no use trying to save it with more fire, only water will extinguish it. Similarly, the way out of the tangle of desires is not to make them stronger by repeatedly indulging them but to weaken them through the way of the Buddhist meditations.
The meditation in the Early Buddhism and the Hinayana aims at attainment of the state of Nibbana (Sanskrit-Nirvana) while the meditation in the Mahayana and the Ch’an of Hui-neng aim at attainment of the state of mind of Enlightenment or the state of Buddhahood. The words of Nibbana, Enlightenment and Buddhahood are not different in the content. All these words express Mind is in state of very peace, fresh, clear, subtle, still and free from the Five Hindrances, i. e., Lust, Anger, Ignorance, Pride, and Doubt.
Through the history of the Buddhist meditation, we come to know that the Buddhist mediation bases on the authority of the Buddhist sutras in the two system, i.e., the system of the Pàli Canons and the system of the Sanskrit Sùtras. However, for the aspect of history, the Buddhist meditation, is still limited by the free sprit of itself. The spirit of the Buddhist meditation stated itself is not cling, not attach to anything beyond dualism and thinking. So even the Early and Hinayana meditators, which originated in India, did not write down any the meditative materials to the later. The history of the Buddhist meditation was written and traced by the Chinese and Japanese historians later .According to the history of the Buddhist meditation, the Early and Hinayana meditation is regarded as the basic factor for the Mahayana and Hui-neng’s Ch’an meditation developing in the historical forms as well as the contents of the Buddhist meditation.
* * *
1 The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, tr. Michael H..Kohn, Boston, 1991, p.56
2 Nanjio, The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng,tr. A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam, Boston, 1969, book two, p. 48.
4 Ibid., p.26
5 Ibid., p.27-28
6 Nanjio, The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng,tr. A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam, Boston, 1969, book two, p.44-45
7 Ibid., p.26
8 Ibid., p.43
9 Ibid., p. 103
10 Nanjio, The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng,tr. A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam, Boston, 1969, book two, p.42
11 Ibid., p.3
12 Nanjio, The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng,tr. A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam, Boston, 1969, book two, p.44-45
13 Junjiro Takakasu, The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy, Dellhi, 1975, pp.167-168
14 Nanjio, The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng,tr. A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam, Boston, 1969, book two, p.15
15 Ibid., p. 18.
16 Ibid., pp. 18-19.
17 Heinrich Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism, tr. Paul Peachey, London, 1963, pp.79-81
18 Heinrich Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism, Opcit., p. 89.
¨ Kenneth Ch’en, Buddhism in China, Priceton, 1964.
20 Chou Hsiang Kuang, Dhyana Buddhism in China, Allahabad, 1960, p.98.
* Chou Hsiang Kuang, Dhyana Buddhism in China, Opcit., p. 98.
21 Heinrich Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism, tr. Paul Peachey, London, 1963, p. 106.
22 Suzuki D. T., Essays in Zen Buddhism,First series, London, 1949, p.p. 271-272.