Dajian Huineng lived in China between approximately 638 and 713 AD. He was the sixth and last Patriarch of Chinese Ch’an Buddhism. The most famous text about him and his teaching is the “Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch”.
Huineng was born in a family of a government official. His father died when he was a child and his family lived in poverty. In order to provide for himself and his mother, Huineng sold firewood in a marketplace. Once, while he was helping his customer to carry firewood to an inn, he heard a guest reciting the Diamond Sutra. At this very moment he experienced an awakening. After that Huineng decided to head for the monastery of the Fifth Patriarch Hongren, who was teaching this sutra, in order to become his disciple. However, when he arrived the novice was given chores in the rice mill and for the first eight months was given almost no teaching.
Some time later Hongren gathered monks and suggested they try their powers in writing gathas, a short poem reflecting the essence of the teaching. The one who would be able to recognize his own nature and wisdom of insight, would become his Dharma successor and the sixth Patriarch.
As Huineng did not know to write he asked one young monk to write down his gatha on the wall.
“Bodhi originally has no tree.
The clear and bright mirror also has no support.
Buddha-nature is constantly purifying and clearing.
Where could there be dust?”
After seeing this gatha Hongren decided, that Huineng has to become his successor and proclaimed him the Sixth Patriarch.
The following 16 years Huineng lead the life of a hermit. Rumors about wisdom of his comprehension (wisdom based on the theory of “sudden enlightenment” and explanation of the Prajnaparamita sutra) spread around the country and he was invited to numerous monasteries to teach Dharma.
Before his very death Huineng uttered the following ghata:
“Being motionless you’ll never cultivate kindness.
Rising up do not commit evil.
Being in quietness, decline from seeing and hearing.
Being in peace, let your heart abide nowhere.”
When we discussed the story of Sixth Patriarch with my Teacher, Vova Pyatsky, he made the following comments:
The peculiarity of Huineng’s teaching comes from his undistracted practice of the principals of the Dharma and giving them an extraordinarily refinement. In that, he resembles Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma’s approach focused on the breakthrough experience-, on energy, on super-effort (he pulled out his eyelashes to prevent himself from falling asleep).
Huineng has a different temper, he is against mental strain, he says: “The Dharma’s aroma, the best fragrance ever, are your own virtuous deeds.” When Huineng talks about sudden enlightenment, the suddenness is based upon the fact that enlightenment is ever present and manifests every moment. If we speak of enlightenment as of something to be achieved, then we decline from communication with our own enlightened state of mind in the present moment. The person who thinks that gradualness of the path is identical to the gradualness of enlightenment moves the very enlightenment away, for such disciple enlightenment becomes cold, distant and alien. After all, if we bring a lantern into a dark room, light fills it in an instant, not gradually.
The Huineng’s strength is that he points out that you already possess an enlightened nature and you have to learn by communicating with it. If you do not communicate with your own Buddha nature, then you wouldn’t be able to realize it. The enlightened mind is the basis of all phenomena in us as well as around us, but in a state of delusion we are not able to recognize and to understand it.
Then the question arises: how can we reconcile the constant presence of the enlightened mind with a gradualness of the path? Gradually developing our skills is necessary for obtaining skillfulness in the way enlightenment manifests. We take a decision to communicate with our natural state and abide in a Teaching’s play of light.
A peculiarity of Huineng’s sermon is in its beauty and simplicity. In connection with the Huineng’s story one more moment from the “Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch” should be mentioned. It is the story of the head monk, who wrote his gatha before Huineng, but as it was not mature enough Huineng won. Most probably this story was invented by Huineng’s followers, who were trying to make his teaching special. In fact, at that time there were few schools and the head monk’s school was not less honored than Huineng’s one. An attempt to distinguish one’s teaching and to defame teachings of others demonstrates the danger of turning simplicity into primitiveness.
As Huineng teach, it is the presence of the perfect beauty of Dharma Fragrance– virtues deeds of the Dharma followers, which distinguishes between primitiveness and simplicity, between deep inner peace and intellectual stupor. His teaching followed Buddha’s words, “The fragrance of flowers spreads in the wind. But the fragrance of virtuous deeds spreads even against the wind”(“Dhammapada”).
Translation: Ilona Erkin & Dorey Glenn
↩ – Yampolski, Philip B. (1967), The platform sutra of the sixth patriarch: the text of the Tun-huang manuscript with translation, introduction, and notes(PDF), ISBN 978-0-231-08361-4