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Dajian Huineng – The "Official" Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an

Dajian Huineng (Traditional Chinese: 大鑒惠能; pinyin: Dàjiàn Huìnéng; Wade–Giles: Ta-chien Hui-neng; 638–713), is the official Sixth Patriarch of Chinese Ch'an following Bodhidharma and the successor of Daman Hongren, the Fifth Patriarch of Ch'an. He is a central and semi-legendary figure in early Chinese Ch'an Buddhism. Fiction is difficult to separate from facts in his life accounts. He is said to not have passed on the Dharma and Bodhidharma's robe to any of his disciples,is disciples, making him the last official patriarch though unofficial "patriarchs" of different lineages derived from Ch'an emerged. The existing schools of Ch'an see Huineng as their ancestor. Huineng's status as the Sixth Patriarch is based on dubious grounds, though.

The two main sources of Huineng's life are the preface to the Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch and the Transmission of the Lamp. The majority of modern scholars doubt the accuracy of these and other traditional works about Huineng, though.

The Platform Sūtra in particular is credited to Fahai (法海), a student of Huineng's, and presents itself as a chronicle of Huineng's life, teachings, and dealings with disciples. However, the text shows signs of having been composed over a period of time from the eighth to thirteenth centuries with multiple layers of writing.

Huineng was born in the town of Xing (present day Xinzhou within Xinxing County) in Canton province (modern Guangdong province) in South China. His surname was Lu. Huineng may have been of the Miao people or more specifically the Hmong, a sub-group of the Miao people. His father was from Fanyang and rose to a government position, but he was dismissed from service and passed away while Huineng was still young. Huineng and his mother relocated to Nanhai, where Huineng sold firewood to provide for his family. Since his family was impoverished, Huineng grew to adulthood without obtaining an education.

Huineng cutting bamboo.

Huineng cutting bamboo.

One day, Huineng delivered firewood to an inn where he encountered a guest reciting the Diamond Sutra. "On hearing the words of the scripture, my mind opened up and I understood." He immediately determined to learn the Way of Buddhahood.

He asked the purpose for the chanting of the Diamond Sutra and the guest said that he had arrived from the Eastern Meditation Monastery in Huangmei District of Qi province, where Hongren lived and taught. The guest gave him ten silver taels to care for his mother, and Huineng set out for Hongren's monastic community. After traveling on foot for thirty days, Huineng arrived at Huangmei Mountain.

Chapter I of the Platform Sūtra records:

I then went to pay homage to the Patriarch (Hongren), and was asked where I came from and what I expected to get from him. I replied, "I am a commoner from Hsin Chou of Kwangtung. I have traveled far to pay you respect and I ask for nothing but Buddhahood."

"You are a native of Kwangtung, a barbarian? How can you expect to be a Buddha?" asked the Patriarch.

I replied, "Although there are northern men and southern men, north and south make no difference to their Buddha-nature. A barbarian is different from Your Holiness physically, but there is no difference in our Buddha-nature."

Hongren immediately asked him to do chores in the rice mill. Huineng stayed to chop wood and pound rice for eight months.

Hongren set Huineng to work in the rice-hulling shed in order to avoid embarrassing the senior monks as well as to get Huineng started in his Ch'an training.

Since Huineng was slightly built, the task of hulling rice from its husks required much energy. A wooden treadle (leaver or pedal) was employed in which the operator used his body weight to press down on the treadle, which gave motion to the rice husker machine that hulled the rice.

Huineng needed to tie a rock about himself in order to make himself heavy enough to operate the rice husker.

Hard manual labor is a common feature in Ch'an (Zen) training. Its purpose is to bring students out of their heads and into the moment.

Buddha is quoted as saying, "It is in this very fathom-long physical frame with its perceptions and mind, that, I declare, lies the world, and the arising of the world, and the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world."

In Ch'an terms, many people live too much within their heads with their thoughts and opinions, convictions, and likes and dislikes. Most are deeply attached to the concept where "I" and the ego-self plays the main role.

The physical labor of Ch'an training directs energy away from such thoughts and towards to place total focus on the task the person is doing whether it be meditation, martial arts practice, gardening, or another activity.

Following the end of Huineng's initial eight months, the Platform Sutra records that Hongren announced:

The question of incessant rebirth is a momentous one. Day after day, instead of trying to free yourselves from this bitter sea of life and death, you seem to go after tainted merits only (i.e. false merits which cause rebirth). Yet merits will be of no help if your Essence of Mind is obscured. Go and seek for Prajna (understanding) in your own mind and then write me a stanza (gatha) about it. He who understands what the Essence of Mind is will be given the robe (of Bodhidharma) and the Dharma (the teachings of Buddha), and I shall make him the Sixth Patriarch. Go away quickly.

Delay not in writing the stanza, as deliberation is quite unnecessary and of no use. The man who has realized the Essence of Mind can speak of it at once, as soon as he is spoken to about it; and he cannot lose sight of it, even when engaged in battle.

This account ignores the fact that Yuquan Shenxiu, Hongren's lead disciple, with whom Huineng supposedly vied against in the poetry contest, had left East Mountain Monastery in 657 or 661, some ten years before the arrival of Huineng.

The Platform Sūtra erroneously records that Hongren's students decided among themselves that they wouldn't compose any gathas and that Shenxiu would be chosen as the Sixth Patriarch. Only Shenxiu offered a gatha to Hongren. Being Hongren's lead disciple and the head monk of the community, though, Shenxiu was under the pressure of great expectations of writing a gatha that would qualify him as Hongren's successor. Unsure of his understanding of mind, Hongren wrote his stanza anonymously at midnight on the south corridor wall of the community's monastery. The other monks read the stanza and praised it. If Hongren approved, Shenxiu would claim his ownership of it. Shenxiu's gatha stated:

The body is the tree of enlightenment,
The mind is like a bright mirror's stand;
Time after time polish it diligently,
So that no dust can collect.


When Hongren viewed the gatha, he told his disciples, "Practice according to this gatha, you will not fall into the evil realms, and you will receive great benefits. Light incense and pay respect to this gatha, recite it and you will see your essential nature."

Hongren's students memorized the gatha accordingly.

In private, though, Hongren said to Shenxiu, "You have arrived at the gate, but haven’t entered it. With this level of understanding, you still have no idea what the supreme Bodhi mind is. Upon hearing my words, you should immediately recognize the original mind, the essential nature, which is unborn and unceasing. At all times, see it clearly in every thought, with the mind free from all hindrances. In the One Reality, everything is real, and all phenomena are just as they are."

Hongren stressed to Shenxiu that his gatha did not demonstrate understanding of "[his] own fundamental nature and essence of mind."

Shenxiu's poem emphasized methodical practice and logic—the opposite of the instant, antilogical leap of intuition that comes with true Enlightenment.

Hongren asked Shenxiu to write another gatha to show that he had entered the "gate of enlightenment."

Try as he might, Shenxiu's mind was agitated and he failed to compose another verse.

When Huineng overheard a young initiate monk reciting Shenxiu's gatha as he passed the rice mill, Huineng saw the verse's lack of insight. He went to the wall with Shenxiu's poem gatha written on it and asked a district office stationed there to write a poem of his own alongside.

The officer objected to Huineng's request. "How extraordinary!" said the officer. "You are illiterate, and you want to compose a poem?"

Huineng answered, "If you seek supreme enlightenment, do not slight anyone. The lowest class may have great insights, and the highest class may commit foolish acts."

In contrition, the officer wrote Huineng's gatha on the wall as requested:

Bodhi is no tree,
nor is the mind a standing mirror bright.
Since all is originally empty,
where does the dust alight?


Huineng's lines went beyond the insight of Shenxiu's poem. Huineng pointed out that to see the mind as a "thing" to be kept pure by constantly "sweeping away" defilements is to miss the elemental truth that mind is in itself buddha (awakened, enlightened), and is therefore inherently pure. There is no "dust" to collect. This mind-as-buddha view is at the heart of Ch'an.

Huineng returned to the mill to resume pounding rice.

Huineng's gatha soon generated a larger stir than Shenxiu's.

The monks said, "Amazing! You can’t judge a person by his looks! Maybe he will become a living bodhisattva soon!"

But when Hongren viewed the gatha, he said, "This hasn’t seen the essential nature either."

He wiped the gatha from the wall with his shoe.

Hongren realized that it was the product of one who understood the essence of the mind, though. He erased it to save Huineng from the outrage of monks loyal to Shenxiu.

That night Hongren summoned Huineng to see him in his home.

"Should not a seeker after the Dharma risk his life this way?" asked Hongren. "Is the rice ready?"

Huineng responded that the rice was ready and only waiting to be sieved.

Hongren went on to explain the Diamond Sutra to Huineng. When Hongren read the passage "to use the mind yet be free from any attachment," Huineng experienced a realization and understood that all dharmas (universal truths taught by Buddha) are indivisible from self-nature.

"How amazing that the self-nature is originally pure!" said Huineng. "How amazing that the self-nature is unborn and undying! How amazing that the self-nature is inherently complete! How amazing that the self-nature neither moves nor stays! How amazing that all dharmas come from this self-nature!"

Hongren said to Huineng, "If one recognizes the original mind and the original nature, he is called a great man, teacher of gods and humans, and a Buddha."

Though Hongren had given the robe and begging bowl of Bodhidharma to Shenxiu, who was acknowledged by Empress Wu Zetian (reign 690–705) as the Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an, the Platform Sūtra records that Hongren instead gave the robe and begging bowl to Huineng as a sign of the transmission of Dharma and Huineng's selection as the Sixth Patriarch. "You are now the Sixth Patriarch. Take care of yourself, save as many sentient beings as you can, and spread the teachings so they will not be lost in the future."

Hongren explained to Huineng that the Dharma was transmitted from mind to mind, while the robe was handed physically from one patriarch to the next. Hongren then advised Huineng to flee south that night to Nanhua Temple in Guangdong Province to escape the anger of Hongren's senior disciples who favored Shenxiu. "You can stop at Huai and then hide yourself at Hui."

Hongren led Huineng from the monastery and rowed him across the Yangtze River to aid his escape. Huineng assured Hongren that he could ferry to "the other shore" with the Dharma that had been passed to him.

Huineng flees

Huineng flees.

This fictional event is memorialized in the Ch'an proverb:

The seen hundred eminent monks understood the Dharma; only Huineng did not. That's why he obtained the Ancestor's robe and bowl.

Huineng reached the Tayu Mountains within two months. But hundreds of men followed him, seeking to take from him the robe and bowl and even to kill him.

Those disciples of Hongren's who were jealous of Huineng ignorantly believed that the Dharma transmission was material, and determined to take the robe and bowl. They set out after him when they realized he had gone from the monastery. The leader of their expedition was Huiming, whose lay surname was Chen. Huiming had been a Tang dynasty general of the fourth rank. He was hot-tempered and ill mannered.

When Huineng was about to be captured, he threw the robe and begging bowl onto a rock and hid himself. "This robe is nothing but a symbol," said Huineng. "What is the use of taking it away by force?"

When Huiming reached the rock, he attempted to carry away the robe and bowl, but couldn't lift them. "Lay Brother, Lay Brother," he called out (as Huineng had not formally joined Hongren's monastic order), "I come for the Dharma, not for the robe."

Huineng emerged from hiding and sat upon the rock. Huiming paid obeisance and begged him for instruction.

"Since the object of your coming is the Dharma," said Huineng, "refrain from thinking of anything and keep your mind empty. I will then teach you."

Together they meditated at length. After a while, Huineng asked Huiming "When you are thinking of neither good nor evil, at this particular moment, what is your original nature (Buddha Nature)?"


Huineng's question typified the Ch'an concept of an original nature in every person that precedes and overshadows affected values like good and evil.

Huiming became enlightened upon hearing this. "Apart from those esoteric sayings and esoteric ideas handed down by the Fifth Patriarch from generation to generation, are there any other esoteric teachings?" he asked.

"What I can tell you is not esoteric," said Huineng. "If you turn your light inwardly you will find what is esoteric within you."

For several years, Huineng lived in seclusion among hunters in the south and hid his identity. But as he neared forty, he ventured into Lingnan, an area south of the Nanling Mountains. Huineng went to the Faxing Temple in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province in southern China and a port city on the Pearl River 75 miles north-northwest of Hong Kong. He entered the temple on the eighth day of the first lunar month in the first year of the Yifen reign (676) of the Emperor Gaozong of the Tang dynasty.

That day Yinzong, the temple abbot, was giving a lecture about the Nirvana Sutra. Huineng listened to the lecture as an apparent lay observer. Afterwards, Huineng overheard two monks debating over whether the temple flag or the wind was moving.

Temple banner

There was a wind blowing the streamers from time to time.

One monk : "The banner is moving."

Another monk: "No, it is the wind that is moving."

Although he appeared to be but a lay observer, Huineng could not contain himself: "You are both wrong. It is your mind that moves."

Yinzong, standing nearby, was astonished by the great insight of the unknown visitor, which he recognized to be the dharma of Master Hongren of the Huangmei Mountain. He bowed to Huineng and asked to taken as his pupil.

Huineng declined to be Yinzong's master, but revealed his identity and requested to have his head shaved and to receive ordination at last as a Buddhist monk.

When Yinzong asked Huineng if Hongren had passed to him any particular methods, Huineng answered, "He had no particular methods, but only stressed the necessity of seeing one's self-nature. He did not even speak of deliverance through dhyāna."

Huineng spent 37 years at the Baolin Temple in Caoxi (the present-day Nanhua Temple in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province) spreading and teaching Ch'an Buddhism. His teachings, which advocated "sudden enlightenment," formed the basis of what came to be called the Southern Ch'an School of Buddhism, or "Southern Neng," by an obscure monk named Heze Shenhui, who supposedly studied under both Shenxiu and Huineng. Stressing his connection to Huineng, Shenhui falsely labeled Shenxiu's teachings as "gradual enlightenment" and attributed them to what he speciously called the Northern Ch'an School, or "Northern Xiu." Shenxiu was truly a teacher of the "East Mountain" School founded by the Fourth (Dayi Daoxin) and Fifth (Daman Hongren) Patriarchs. Shenhui went on to spark the Northern versus Southern School of Ch'an controversy, which saw the fictitious Southern School eventually become institutionally dominant.

In the first year of the Shenlong reign period (705), the Tang Dynasty Emperor Zhongzong (656–710) and the Empress Wu Zetian (624–705) sent their page Xue Jian to Caoxi to summon Huineng to Chang'an, the Tang imperial capital. Feeling too weak to make the journey, an elderly Huineng declined the summons, preferring to spend his days in the mountains and forests preaching the dharma. He did give Xue Jian a dharma sermon that startled the messenger into an intense sudden awakening. Returning to Chang'an Xue Jian reported his experience to the emperor who issued an edict praising Huineng and bestowing special gifts upon him.

Emperor Zhongzong granted to Huineng a cassock (clerical robe) and 500 pieces of gauze for his sustenance. The emperor also renamed the Baolin Temple as the "Zhongxing Temple" and appointed the governor of Shaozhou Prefecture to rebuild it. He also allocated subsistence rations to the Faquan Temple and designated Master Huineng’s former residence in Xinzhou as the "Guo'en Temple."

In the second year of the Kaiyuan reign period (730) of Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, Shenhui bested two of Shenxiu's disciples, Puji and Congyuan, in a debate at the Wuzhe Meeting ("Boundless Meeting"), a religious assembly in which all sects participated. Significantly, Shenhui made no mention of the alleged verse contest between Shenxiu and Huineng during his campaigning against the Northern School. Huineng's so-called Southern School went on to become the prominent form of Ch'an in all of China, though, and has remained so to the present.

Huineng tearing sutras

Huineng tearing sutras.

In the first year of the Yanhe reign period (712), Huineng returned to Xinzhou and requested that his disciples build the Bao'en Pagoda. As he neared death, Huineng did not pass on the Dharma and robe of succession to any of his students.

Fahai, one of Huineng's ten primary disciples and "chief monk" of Huineng's monastic community, asked, "Sir, upon your entering Nirvana, who will be the inheritor of the robe and the Dharma?"

Huineng answered that all his sermons should be copied in a volume titled Sutra Spoken on the High Seat of the Treasure of the Law (Dharmaratha), to be circulated and passed down the generations. Anyone who preached its teachings would be passing the Orthodox Dharma. The practice of passing the robe was to be ended so that all of his disciples would be freed from doubt and able to carry out the purpose of their School. He then quoted a verse by Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch, on Dharma transmission:

"The object of my coming to this land (China)"
"Is to transmit the Dharma for the deliverance of those under delusion."
"In five petals the flowers will be complete."
"Thereafter, the fruit will come to bearing naturally."

In 713, he passed away in the Guo'en Temple in Xinzhou aged 76. His most prominent students were Shenhui , Nanyang Huizhong, Nanyue Huairang, Qingyuan Xingsi, and Yongia Xuanjue. Emperor Xianzong (778–820) of the Tang Dynasty honored him in 816 with the posthumous title of Dajian ("Great Mirror").

Folowing Huineng's death, his body remained incorrupt and was brought back to Caoxi in Shaozhou (modern day Shaoguan in Guangdong Province). His disciples embalmed and mummified his body. Huineng's preserved remains are still maintained in the Nanhua Temple and worshipped in the Lingzhao Pagoda.

Though obscure in his lifetime, Huineng became the leading proponent in spreading Ch'an Buddhism throughout China and making it the largest sect in Chinese Buddhism. The form of Chinese Zen Buddhism that is currently most popular across the world originates from Shenhui's artificial Southern School of Ch'an, making Huineng the official Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an in place of Shenxiu, who had actually been named as the Sixth Patriarch by Hongren. The Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch (六祖壇經) is one of the most influential texts in Far East Asian meditative tradition. Readers should keep in mind that its accuracy is questionable, though.

Teachers claiming Huineng's legacy split off into numerous different schools, each with its own emphasis, but all of them kept the same basic focus on meditation practice, personal instruction, and personal experience. Ch'an was transplanted to Korea as Seon, to Japan as Zen, and to Vietnam as Thiền. Huineng is called Hyeneung in Korea, Daikan Enō in Japan, and Hoằng Nhẫn in Vietnam.

The tradition of Ch'an Buddhism and Shaolin martial arts are continued in martial arts classes for men, women, and children offered by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple.


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