Friday, December 19, 2014

Hui-neng: His Legendary Biography, the Platform Sutra and the Diamond-Cutter

Hui-neng, the sixth Patriarch, asked, “Whence do you come?”
Huai-jang of Nan-yueh said, “I come from Tung-shan.”
Hui-neng asked, “What is it that thus comes?”
Huai-jang did not know what to answer. For eight long years
 he pondered the question; then one day it dawned upon him,
 and he exclaimed,
“Even to say it is something does not hit the mark.”1

To attempt writing this post, I have read five translations and commentaries on The Diamond Sutra including Hui-neng’s, and four translations of The Platform Sutra, and I know nothing. Certainly I know less than when I began, but it must be admitted that this is most surely a good result. There are thoughts, reactions and opinions regarding what I have read, but the questions are so much more alive in me than anything I could positively say about any of this. To say anything is to miss the mark.
When I first read The Platform Sutra many years ago, I wondered how this could be Buddhism? Indeed, there was much I recognized from other readings, but there was also much that seemed foreign to what I had read previously. I was especially taken aback by certain terms used by Hui-neng that seemed terribly close to how Brahman is referred to in the Upanishads. Additionally, I was displeased by the sectarianism that seemed to penetrate much of the text, and when I later learned about some of the political maneuvering, and how the lineage was more created myth than reality – and considering how the practice of lineage had been so misused up until this day – I turned away from what Hui-neng could teach me.

This current engagement represents a new grappling with Hui-neng and what his life has to teach me personally, as well as all practitioners of Buddha-Dharma, and in no way is to be seen as conclusive. It is but barely a beginning!


The dates generally agreed upon for Hui-neng, also called Wei-lang, are 638 to 713 CE. He is recognized as the sixth Chinese Patriarch of Ch’an, and as such is sometimes regarded as the “real” father of the Ch’an tradition because of the strong Chinese “stamp” or “flavor” he imparted to what until his time had been strongly marked by traditional Indian Buddhism. While he never formally transmitted the patriarchate to a successor, he did have several outstanding students, and among them, Huai-jang and Shen-hui had a great impact on the “five houses—seven schools” of Ch’an during the T’ang period.

For centuries it has been taught that he gave the teachings recorded in the only Chinese Buddhist work accorded the status of sutra: The Sutra Spoken from the High Seat of the Dharma Treasure, more commonly referred to as The Platform Sutra. From this sutra, we learn that Hui-neng came from a poor background, supporting his widowed mother by gathering and selling firewood, and thus had never learned to read or write.

One day, while tending to his business, he heard someone reciting The Diamond Sutra, and upon hearing the sentence, “Let your mind flow freely without dwelling on anything,” he had a spontaneous enlightenment (or enlightening) experience. Upon questioning the man who had been reciting the sutra, he learned about Hung-jen, the Fifth Patriarch of Ch’an and his monastery on Mount Huang-mei.
Hui-neng left home (after providing for his mother) to go see Hung-jen, who we are told, immediately recognized his potential, but had Hui-neng assigned to the kitchen where his chores were to split firewood and crank the rice mill. Apparently he worked there for years, mostly unnoticed by all but the Fifth Patriarch.

When the time came for Hung-jen to transmit the patriarchate to a successor, he asked his students to express their experience and understanding of the Dharma in a poem. All the students, sure that the senior monastic, Shen-hsiu, was destined to become Hung-jen’s successor because of his intellectual brilliance, refrained from writing poems, so that the only poem written was by Shen-hsiu.
In his poem, Shen-hsiu compared the human body with the Bodhi-tree and the mind with a mirror-stand holding a mirror that must be continuously cleaned in order to keep it free from dust settling upon it. When Hui-neng had Shen-hsiu’s poem read to him, he composed a poem in answer and had someone write it for him:

“Enlightenment originally has no tree,
And a clear mirror is not a stand.
Originally there’s not a single thing –
Where can dust be attracted?”2

Hung-jen, recognizing Hui-neng’s deeper understanding, and fearing internecine strife, called for Hui-neng to meet with him in the middle of the night and explained The Diamond Sutra to him. According to The Platform Sutra, when Hung-jen got to the point where The Diamond Sutra says, “You should activate the mind without dwelling on anything,” Hui-neng had the overwhelming realization that “all things are not apart from inherent nature.”3

Realizing that Hui-neng had realized original nature, Hung-jen transmitted the robe and bowl symbolizing the transmission of the patriarchate, thus making Hui-neng the Sixth Patriarch. Hung-jen told Hui-neng that the robe had become a “robe of contention” and that its passing should stop with him, and that fearful for his safety if he should remain, Hung-jen had Hui-neng leave the monastery under cover of the night and go into hiding in southern China.

Fifteen years passed while Hui-neng lived among hunters. Finally, it seemed to Hui-neng that the time had come for him to start spreading the teaching, so he went to Fa-hsin monastery in Kuang-chou where the doctrinal master Yin-tsung was expounding upon the Nirvana-Sutra. It was at this time that Hui-neng’s famous dialogue with the monks arguing over whether it was the flag or the wind in motion took place. He stepped forward and said, “It is not the flag or the wind moving; it is your minds moving.”

With this statement, all who heard it were impressed and master Yin-tsung, recognizing Hui-neng’s deep understanding surmised that he must indeed be the carrier of the Dharma as transmitted from Hung-jen. When Hui-neng acknowledged that he indeed was the Dharma successor of Hung-jen, master Yin-tsung shaved Hui-neng’s head and ordained him as a monk, while requesting that Hui-neng become his teacher.

This is how Hui-neng began his teaching career, first at the Fa-hsin monastery, and then eventually at his own monastery, the Pao-lin-ssu near Ts’ao-chi, near the port city of Canton. His teaching became known as the Southern School of Ch’an, while Shen-hsiu and his students taught what became known as the Northern School, also claiming the true successorship of the Fifth Patriarch. As might be expected from the respective verses of Shen-hsiu and Hui-neng, the Northern School advocated a gradual approach to enlightenment along with the intellectual understanding of the meaning of the sutras, whereas the Southern School stressed reaching awakening through “a sudden, intuitive leap into intellect-transcending immediacy of experience.”4

Shen-hsiu’s approach seems more in keeping with the Dhyana movement and emphasis of Indian Buddhism, while Hui-neng’s approach took the definitive step toward assimilating Indian Dhyana Buddhism into the Chinese cultural milieu, marked at least as strongly by Taoism (and perhaps some elements of Confucianism) as by Buddhism. Hiu-neng’s Southern School, with its radical rejection of mere book learning, which was a view already exemplified for centuries by Taoist sages,5 and the more Chinese folk cultural traits of earthiness, combined with dry humor, produced all the great lineages of Ch’an. During the T’ang and Sung periods the successors of Hui-neng were responsible for what has come to be called the “golden age of Ch’an” and it is many of their deeds and sayings that in the form of koans have become an important component of Zen training.


Ching Ch'ing asked a monk, “What sound is that outside the gate?” The monk said, “The sound of raindrops.”
Ching Ch’ing said, “Sentient beings are inverted. They lose themselves and follow other things.”
The monk said, “What about you, Teacher?”
Ch’ing said, “I almost don’t lose myself.”
The monk said, “What is the meaning of ‘I almost don’t lose myself?’”
Ch’ing said, “Though it still should be easy to express oneself, to say the whole thing has to be difficult.”6

Reading the history of the Platform Sutra, as one may find in Philip Yampolsky’s The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, we find that by the middle of the eighth century in China, there was a great intensification of internecine quarrels among the various Buddhist groups. Works attacking rival doctrines (and personages) contributed to the rise of “sectarian Buddhism.”7 According to Yampolsky, due to a combination of historical circumstances, political patronage and the very nature of its teachings, Ch’an emerged as the primary school of Chinese Buddhism.

Yampolsky writes that as Indian Buddhism infiltrated Chinese culture, its meditation teachings were adopted, assimilated with the Taoist contemplative arts, and were put to use by the various schools of Buddhism. Eventually groups of wandering ascetics who emphasized meditation practice began to come together to form communities of practice. By the end of the seventh century, one such community was that of Hung-jen’s who had himself gained considerable prominence. It was with him and his students that the story of Ch’an as a separate sect begins.

It can be somewhat disconcerting to a Westerner to learn that the history of Ch’an she has been taught is no more than “legend” or “myth.” And further, as Yampolsky says, “In the manufacture of this history, accuracy was not a consideration; a tradition traceable to the Indian Patriarchs was the objective.”8 Throughout the eighth century, a two-fold movement took place: there was the primary attempt to establish the upstart Ch’an as a legitimate sect within the larger fold of Buddhism, and there was the internal struggle to gain acceptance for a particular school of Ch’an within the Chinese society in which it existed.

The lovely story about the Buddha holding a flower and thus “transmitting” the Dharma to Mahakashyapa, while perhaps hinting at a deep and profound truth, is itself but one of these manufactured legends that were repeated over time until they became accepted as fact. Many Western students of Zen are totally unaware of this, and feel almost a sense of betrayal when they find out. This was true for me, but over time I have found a way to relate to the deeper existential truth in this and other stories. But I do believe we should critically look at the history and extract what is useful and at least revaluate other aspects that have proven to have had a truly devastating impact on the history of Zen.

Yampolsky states that “To achieve the aura of legitimacy so urgently needed, histories were compiled, tracing the Ch’an sect back to the historical Buddha…”9 The whole lineage chanted in many Japanese and American Zen centers rooted in Japanese Zen, is more fabrication than literal truth. Indeed, the idea of lineage was Chinese manufactured, reflecting the more Confucian ideal of ancestor worship and the hierarchal stratification of Chinese society. In the Pali Canon, and throughout the Theravada tradition, it is explicitly made clear that the Buddha rejected naming anyone as his successor. The almost obsessive emphasis on lineage and authenticity of transmission found in Japanese Zen, in particular (we never chanted any so-called 'blood-line' in my Korean Seon training) has led to much abuse, and ironically, we see its roots at the very beginning with the story of Hui-neng and Shen-hsiu.

The various texts starting from the eight century that purport to tell the history of Ch’an, and the biographies of its major proponents have little to say about Hung-jen, who they name as the Fifth Chinese Patriarch. One text, the Ch’uan fa-pao chi tells us that he died at the age of 74 in the year 675, after transmitting his teachings to Fa-ju. This same text tells us that Shen-hsiu was the heir to Fa-ju, yet in all other works it is Shen-hsiu who was the heir of Hung-jen. All the other works, that is, except for the Platform Sutra that purports to tell us of the “true” transmission line to Hui-neng.

Shen-hsiu (606? – 706) was acknowledged as one of the great Ch’an masters, honored by court and populace alike. He was the great leader of the Lankavatara School, which later came to be known as the Northern Ch’an and was, according to all contemporary records, one of the most eminent priests of his time. The first mention we have of Hui-neng is found in the Leng-chia jen-fa chih where he is simply listed as one of the eleven principle disciples of Hung-jen along with Shen-hsiu, Fa-ju, Chih-hsien and seven others. This same text states that Shen-hsiu transmitted the Patriarchate to P’u-chi, and that along with P’u-chi, Shen-hsiu had three other principle heirs: Ching-hsien, I-fu, and Hui-fu.
While this Ch’an of Shen-hsiu and his disciples was enjoying great popularity and prestige, a then unknown priest from Nan-yang, Shen-hui, intent upon promulgating a new school of his own launched an attack upon the Ch’an of Shen-hsiu, and after years of struggle, eventually carried the day. Apparently, Shen-hui had been a student of Hui-neng’s, and it is most probable that The Platform Sutra was actually written by a student of Shen-hui’s and includes much that is similar to the Discourses of Shen-hui.

Paramount among Shen-hui’s arguments is that "the true transmission" was from Hung-jen to Hui-neng, and not to Shen-hsiu as had been accepted. This, of course, if true, would (conveniently) make Shen-hui’s teachings, as a former student of Hui-neng, more “authentic” than the teachings of students of Shen-hsiu.

Shen-hui did not criticize the “Northern Ch’an” of Shen-hsiu only for its alleged usurpation of the Patriarchate. He also accused the Northern School of holding erroneous views, especially regarding meditation practice. In one of his Discourses, which parallels the alleged teaching of Hui-neng in The Platform Sutra, Shen-hui includes the following passage:

“Master Yuan said: ‘P’u-chi ch’an-shih of Sung-yueh and Hsiang-mo of Tung-shan, these two priests of great virtue, teach men to concentrate the mind to enter dhyana, to settle the mind to see purity, to stimulate the mind to illuminate the external, to control the mind to demonstrate the internal. On this they base their teaching. Why, when you talk about Ch’an, don’t you teach men these things? What is sitting meditation?’
Shen-hui said: ‘If I taught people to do these things, it would be a hindrance to attaining enlightenment. The sitting I’m talking about means not to give rise to thoughts. The meditation I’m talking about is to see the original nature.’”10

Further, in a passage that closely resembles the passage in section 13 (of the Tun-huang text) of the Platform Sutra and throughout chapters two, four, five and eight of the other texts, Shen-hui elucidates his teaching on the identity of prajna and dhyana:

“Not to give rise to thoughts, emptiness without being, this is the true meditation. The ability to see the non-rising of thoughts, to see emptiness without being, this is the true wisdom; at the moment there is meditation, this is the substance of wisdom; at the moment there is wisdom, this is the function of meditation. Thus the moment there is meditation, it is no different from wisdom, The moment there is wisdom, it is no different from meditation. Why? Because by their nature, of themselves, mediation and wisdom are alike.”11

This point is further elaborated by Shen-hui and throughout the Platform Sutra, in the frequent criticism made against the Northern School that it taught a gradual method of attaining enlightenment (as epitomized in Shen-hsiu's poem) through diligent meditative practices, as opposed to the Southern School's "sudden method" of direct intuitive insight into "original nature."

In the following sections of this essay, I seek to describe some of my responses to these three points: 1. the issue of lineage and authenticity; 2. the issue of "practice" and 3. the issue of "gradual" or "sudden" ("immediate"), especially as to how these issues relate to the concepts of "Buddha-Nature" (dhatuvada) and "intrinsic enlightenment."


“The Dhamma I have taught has no secret and public versions: there is no ‘teacher’s closed fist’ about good things here. Surely it would be someone who thought this: ‘I shall govern the Sangha’ or ‘The Sangha depends on me’ who might make a pronouncement about the Sangha? A Perfect One does not think like that…each of you should make himself his island, himself and no other his refuge; each of you should make the Dhamma his island, the Dhamma and no other his refuge.”12

Lineage as a concept meaning that every student and practitioner of the Dharma has learned from other students and practitioners, and that this line of succession goes all the way back to the Buddha in India is both unexceptional and true. It might even be accurate to call it a “truism.” But it helps to deepen one's understanding of continuity and connection to an ancestral stream. When I first took precepts, I felt like I was stepping into a spiritual “ancestral lineage”  and I took great support and nourishment from this awareness, that I am not “alone” and that I am truly a part of something much grander than “this life” or “this lifetime.”

However, lineage has come to mean much more than this. It has come to mean the “certification,” the “seal of sanctioned approval” of one Master’s enlightenment by another through a “mind-to-mind” transmission, certifying the legitimacy of the succeeding teacher to be a teacher and leader of the Sangha. It is this idea of lineage transmission  that is greatly emphasized in Zen. This practice can be seen as a means of ensuring that only properly certified and genuinely enlightened people are allowed to teach which would be seen as a protection for those of us who are unenlightened from being exploited, or it can be seen as a system for maintaining priestly power and creating mystique.

It is obvious that the idea of transmission and lineage is intended to impart the aura of legitimacy, but this begs the question of why would a school or a teacher need such “legitimacy?” Presumably, the answer would be that what they have to offer is non-obvious. What they have to offer is something those of us who are unenlightened would be unable to evaluate. David Brazier, in The New Buddhism, gives the example of using the services of a greengrocer and a doctor. We do not ask to see certification from the greengrocer. We just ask if he has cabbages for sale if that is what we seek and then we look to see their quality. But we do ask to see certification from our doctor because if we wait to see if he knows what he is doing through personal practical experimentation, it may be too late before we realize he is a quack! The lineage system puts Dharma Teachers in the same category as doctors and not in the same one as greengrocers.

Interestingly, Brazier points out that the Buddha put himself in the greengrocer category. “Come and see and try it out for yourself,” he said. If you like what I offer and it helps you to overcome suffering, use it. If not, not. The Buddha did not appoint a successor (although the Mahayana created the legend of the flower sermon to legitimize the idea of succession through Mahakashyapa). The Buddha did offer his opinion as to who was enlightened when asked about particular people. However, there is a passage where Ananda, seeming to pester the Buddha with this question, is told by the Buddha that Ananda could simply see for himself whether someone is enlightened or not, telling him that the test of one’s enlightenment and understanding is how well they follow the discipline. So it seems that the Buddha thought that the matter was obvious, not non-obvious. If a person was enlightened, you could tell from what he or she did. You could know them by their deeds.

After the death of the Buddha, differing camps began to arise, each with its own slant on the teachings of the Buddha. Once the Mahasanghika, the spiritual ancestors of the Mahayana, began to express willingness to change the rules and the form, criterion other than orthodoxy was required to establish legitimacy. Lineage was grasped onto as a way of showing that while the way a particular school practices or teaches may not look like the way the Buddha did; it is directly descended from and derived from him. Lineage also implies that as all the changes were made by certified enlightened Masters, they are not only authentic and true, they are perhaps even improvements on what the Buddha taught and how the orthodoxy practices! That is to say again, lineage becomes a means of legitimizing the non-obvious.

This use and understanding of lineage is highly problematic. First of all, lineage is a form of “argument from authority” which Western logic regards as a fallacious argument (although, unfortunately as we have learned all too sadly in the USA throughout the “war on terrorism,” all too accepted by popular opinion). Just because someone holds a high position does not, of itself, ensure that he or she is right. The Buddha himself stressed this in his Discourse to the Kalamas when he told them not to believe and accept something just because of the position of the person who has told you it – including himself in this. Things are not true simply because the Buddha says it. They are true if they are true, and regarding things that matter, like birth and death and how to live a “noble” life, while we may need wiser folk to point it out to us, we still need to test what they say for ourselves. Sadly, humans like to shirk this responsibility and simply accept authority all too easily. Those societies based upon legitimization systems, such as the Roman Catholic Church, as seen most recently in their handling of the sexual abuse crisis, tend to work quite badly.

The fact is that in the last fifty years there have indeed been some disturbingly significant examples of “legitimately authorized” Buddhist Masters acting in such ways that one must question the usefulness of lineage. Recently, there seems to have been a spate of such abuse, (Richard Baker, Genpo Roshi, Shimano Roshi and way too many others) I will only address one, and that is the case of Yasutani Roshi who received “transmission” and was legitimated by the lineage system of the Soto Zen School two months after publishing a book on Dogen which is full of militarist and anti-Semitic propaganda. The book uses the teachings of Dogen to “support the war, deify the emperor, promote the superiority of Japan, foster anti-Semitism and encourage people to exterminate the enemy.”13 Included in his commentary on the First Precept is the following passage: “Failing to kill an evil man who ought to be killed, or destroying an enemy army that ought to be destroyed, would be to betray compassion and filial obedience, to break the precept forbidding the taking of life. This is a special characteristic of the Mahayana precepts.” Thankfully, most teachers within the Buddhist world do not hold this non-obvious “special characteristic”.
The merits of a system that rewards someone with its highest seal of approval and spiritual authority when he is confirmed in such warmongering attitudes are also non-obvious! It is clear that if the function and purpose of lineage is to offer a “guarantee” of someone’s enlightenment it has failed to do so – in this case at least. A guarantee that is unreliable is no guarantee at all. It seems to me that lineage, as an authentication system is not a system that was accepted by the Buddha and is not one he would have approved of. I believe that Buddhism is hindered, not served, by unnecessary mystification, and much of “transmission” and lineage reeks of mystification and obscuration. While I agree that people rarely become enlightened without spiritual teachers, it is ultimately the students who authenticate and authorize the teachers. It is our responsibility to, as the Dalai Lama points out, examine the teacher before committing to studying with him or her, and evaluate how he or she lives according to the discipline. An enlightened being is one who embodies the precepts, and if someone says they are above the precepts, they have not fully understood the Dharma.
What is perhaps even more troubling is the response of those who were given transmission by Yasutani to the uncovering of their teacher’s ideology. All seemed to defend Yasutani through various twists of non-obvious logic, but Jiun Kubota, the Third Patriarch of the Religious Foundation Sanbo-kyodan founded by Yasutani published an apology for his teacher’s expressions of support for war that still harbors what I feel is a dangerous doctrine. He states in his “apology” that Dharma and political ideology are two separate things and that Yasutani’s disciples were only interested in the dharma and not in the ideology. I reject this unequivocally. The task of the Dharma Teacher is, not to be perfect perhaps, but surely involves “imparting values, vision and inspiration that touch all aspects of the disciple’s lives.”14 The doctrine that says Dharma and social attitudes are unrelated is not what I understand to be the teachings of the Buddha.


The farmer channels water to his land.
The fletcher whittles his arrows.
And the carpenter turns his wood.
So the wise man directs his mind.15

Statements attributed to Hui-neng that echo the statements from Shen-hui’s Discourses as quoted above, and other statements such as, “Do not say there is a difference between stabilization coming first and then producing insight, and insight coming first and then producing stabilization. Those who entertain this view are dualistic in their doctrine;”16 and “Deluded people stick to the appearances of things: they cling to the idea of absorption in one practice as only meaning constantly sitting unmoving, not letting the mind be aroused at random. They identify this with absorption in one practice, but those who make this interpretation are equivalent to inanimate objects,”17 as well as his response to Shen-hsiu’s student, Chih-ch’eng who asserts that Shen-hsiu “instructs people to stop the mind, and contemplate quietude, sitting constantly without lying down” by saying, “Stopping the mind and contemplating quietude is pathological: it is not Ch’an. Sitting all the time constricts the body – how does it help toward truth?”18 have led many to conclude that Hui-neng and Shen-hui swept aside all meditation and rejected sitting practice.

However, if this is so, we would find ourselves in the awkward position of studying and honoring the teaching of a teacher while practicing the complete opposite, for as anyone who has ever practiced in any Zen tradition knows, sitting meditation is central to practice. We would have to conclude, based upon this fact, that Hui-neng’s ideas were completely ignored by later Ch’an teachers. Yet, as Hui-neng makes it explicitly clear in his response to Fa-ta regarding the latter’s recitation practice, Hui-neng was criticizing the method, not the meditation. He was criticizing the attachment to the form of practice, whether the ritualized and unmindful recitation of sutras, or the limiting of meditation to formalized sitting practice; he was basically saying that it can be and must be “practiced” at all times. Hui-neng was attempting to correct the rather common misperception of meditation practice as being completely immobile, thoughtless and actionless.  As he asserts in The Platform Sutra, “Freedom from form means detachment from forms in the midst of forms. Freedom from thought means having no thoughts in the midst of thoughts,”19 which is no more than the central teaching of The Diamond Sutra that first startled Hui-neng into spontaneous realization, “Let your mind flow freely without dwelling on anything.”

Indeed, within Hui-neng’s teaching of the “Five Perfumes,” he says, “Once one’s own mind is not fixated on anything, good or bad, it will not do to sink into vacuity and keep to quiescence; one should study broadly and learn a lot, (emphasis added) recognizing one’s own original mind and master the principles of the buddhas, harmonize enlightenment to deal with people, free from egoistic personality, unchanging right up to the attainment of the true nature of enlightenment.”20 This is a wonderful prescription for “engaged practice,” and the obviousness of the non-dual nature of dharma and politics, among other things. It also puts to rest that Hui-neng completely rejected scholarship.

And yet, the truth is, this teaching which is often claimed by Ch’an as one of its great innovations over the original Indian Buddhist tradition is already present in some of the earliest teachings of the Buddha as we find in the Anapanasati and Satipatthana Suttas where the Buddha tells us that we should be able to practice full awareness when sitting, walking, lying down and standing. He goes on to include everything from eating to defecation, making it obvious and quite clear that nothing of our moment-to-moment experience is to be excluded from practice.

The great Theravadin Vipassana teacher, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu concludes his commentary on the Anapanasati Sutta with a discussion of the three qualities needed for correct practice: stability, purity, and readiness. He tells us, “This kind of concentration can be used not only in formal meditation practice but in any of the necessary activities of life… Obviously, concentration is more than sitting like a lump of rock or a block of wood – stiff, rigid, and dead to the world. Instead, with concentration, the citta is perfectly ready to perform its duty, namely, to grow in knowledge and understanding from moment to moment.”21 He concludes by emphasizing “the essential point: when the mind is in samadhi, we can walk or stand or sit or lie down or work or taste the fruit of our labor or help others or help ourselves… One who has samadhi (is) able to perform every kind of duty.”22 This seems to perfectly coincide with Hui-neng’s exhortation above to “study broadly and learn a lot, harmonizing enlightenment to deal with people.”


There are trivial truths and the great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.
-- Niels Bohr23

We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must first learn a great deal more about ‘and.’
-- Sir Arthur Eddington24

In the dialogue between Hui-neng and Fa-tu alluded to above, Hui-neng continues to tell Fa-tu, “indeed, the scripture clearly tells you, ‘There is only one vehicle of buddhahood, no other vehicle, no two or three… The countless expedients, various stories, metaphors, and expressions, these teachings are all for the sake of the one vehicle of buddhahood.’ Why do you not realize that the three vehicles are provisional, being for the past, while the one vehicle is real, being for the present? I am only teaching you to leave the provisional and return to the real. After you return to the real, the real has no name either.”25 This point made by Hui-neng goes right to the heart of both the “gradual versus sudden enlightenment” debate and the difficulties raised by Hui-neng’s and the Ch’an tradition extolling the notions of “Buddha-nature” and “intrinsic enlightenment.”

Dating from the early 1990s, a movement that has come to be known as “Critical Buddhism” arose in Japan as a strong critique of the Soto Zen tradition, and as it is this tradition that has had such a tremendous influence on the Western interpretation and practice of Buddhism, its arguments present us with a serious challenge. While I do not agree with all the points raised by the Critical Buddhists, much of what they have to say relates to my initial difficulty with the teaching of Hui-neng as presented in The Platform Sutra.

The Critical Buddhists assert that the teaching of Buddha Nature “is not Buddhist.” They say that this idea and others closely related to it were introduced into Buddhism over 500 years after the Buddha’s own time and hinder the radical critique and program of the Buddha’s original teaching. They argue that these concepts were made to accommodate popular spirituality first in India, and then particularly in China.

Among the main elements of “popular spirituality” that have in the Critical Buddhist view been incorporated into Buddhism are:

* Belief in an underlying, eternal, transcendental unity in the world called God, Tao, the Great Spirit or what have you.   
* Belief in an underlying, immortal, transcendental unity in the person called a soul, spirit, atma, self, etc.
* Belief that these metaphysical entities are superior, magical and more real than the things of the ordinary world.
* Because of this metaphysical reality, although bad things may happen in the world, it is really all right because the world and what happens in it are less real.
* A sense that those who believe in this metaphysical reality are “saved.”

This then is the basic structure of what the Critical Buddhists call “popular spirituality” found throughout the world in various particularities. At the other extreme are those who reject this whole idea and assert materialism, that is to say, that there is no metaphysical realm and because of this it matters not what one believes or does. Pleasure then is thought to be the only guide to action. The Buddha rejected both these positions, and this is one of the reasons his teaching is referred to as the Middle Way. The challenge, as articulated by Vasubandhu in the early fourth century is to distinguish the middle from the extremes.

The problem with these “popular spirituality” ideas is that they collude to put people in a less responsible position vis a vis their life and the situation they find in the world. These metaphysical ideas can even be used to support social discrimination, since the metaphysical realm is hierarchical itself. This is just how it was used in the time of the Buddha (and even, sadly today) to justify the caste system that the Buddha, rejecting the metaphysical basis, also rejected. As he put it, people are not “chosen” or “born noble,” but it is by one’s actions that one becomes noble. The Critical Buddhists assert that Buddhism was and should remain a critical countercurrent that can arise within different religious contexts and that to align itself with such creeds, as just another religion may be a serious mistake.

The main issue I would like to address is that of the concept of the “dhatuvada.”  The Sanskrit word “dhatu” means “ constructing element,” and any teaching that asserts that underlying manifest reality as we experience it is a more fundamental, metaphysical substratum is referred to as “Dhatuvada.” An example of a Dhatuvada is Brahmanism (Brahman is the substratum) and another is the Tao of Taoism. Two related notions the Critical Buddhists challenge are the concepts of Buddha Nature and the concept of original or inherent enlightenment. These concepts evolved in China as Buddhism assimilated ideas from Taoism. The related idea of the tathagata-garbha arose in India and influenced the other two concepts. The scenario for how this happened over time is something like this:

* The tathagata-garbha concept entered into Mahayana Buddhism to appease those who wanted to be Buddhists but couldn’t or wouldn’t give up some of their Brahmanical ideas. The tathagata-garbha clearly is a re-working of the Vedic idea of Hiranya-garbha.
* The Buddha Nature concept derived from tathagata-garbha appeasing and making more palatable to the Chinese who were acculturated with Taoist ideas.
* Inherent Enlightenment gives even fuller expression to Taoist thought in China.
* Finally, in Japan the idea of inherent enlightenment was extended to include even insentient objects through the influence of Shintoism. This is an idea that has no basis in canonical texts and is often cited as the epitome of the distinctively Japanese approach to Buddhism, as expressed in the popular slogan, “even the grasses, trees, mountains and rivers all attain Buddhahood.”

So, what does it matter? Isn’t this an example of Buddhism’s flexibility and tolerance for other cultures? Hasn’t Buddhism become enriched rather than made poorer for its assimilation of these ideas from the cultures it has become exposed to? No, say the Critical Buddhists, because they say these ideas detract from the Buddha’s emphasis on personal responsibility, karma, and clarity of understanding, as well as having been used to support the arrogant, nationalist spirituality that accommodates itself to oppressive world powers all too easily, and to rationalize all manners of social discriminatory practices.

As Niels Bohr’s quote that opens this section states, I think that they are right, and that these concepts can be useful, if we remember Hui-neng’s advice not to get attached to the form. The “gradual versus sudden” debate has its basis in the idea of “inherent enlightenment” and Buddha Nature. The idea of “original enlightenment” first arose in China in the fourth century in the text The Awakening of Mahayana Faith. Originally thought to have originated in Sanskrit, modern scholarship now recognizes that the text was written in Chinese, and there was no Indian version. The tathagata-garbha concept arose in India in texts that use positive language to describe the ability of all beings to attain enlightenment. The mainstream understanding is simply that all people, including corrupt or evil people, can become enlightened in the future. A later interpretation treated the tathagata-garbha as some kind of self-existent soul. In Tibet, there are in fact two different readings of the Tathagatagarbha Sutra along these two lines of interpretation. The non-soul one is, of course, the older.

In China, intrinsic enlightenment became aligned with the notion of Buddha Nature, a Chinese notion that reflected essentially Taoist ideas. In fact, early Buddhist missionaries to China utilized many Taoist notions to combat the conservative thrust of Confucianism that rejected Buddhism as “un-Chinese.” The presentation of Buddhism that included the ideas of intrinsic enlightenment and Buddha Nature allowed it to spread throughout China and those lands within the Chinese zone of cultural influence.
In India these ideas never took root, with tathagata-garbha merely signifying that enlightenment is always possible and for all beings. As one Indian text puts it, “ordinary people have tathagata-garbha whereas buddhas do not,” which is to say we who are ordinary have the potential for enlightenment, while buddhas really are enlightened. If we do not take Hui-neng’s pronouncements of “essence of mind” as literally referring to a dhatu (that which is an “only real” essence or substratum to empirical existence) we could read his statement “When they’re deluded, buddhas become beings. When they’re awake, beings become buddhas”26   in this same vein.

Hui-neng uses many phrases in the Platform Sutra that sound very much like essentialist statements. It has always been a tendency for people to reify ideas and concepts, making “emptiness” for instance into “The Void,” as if emptiness were just another word for Tao, or Godhead or Brahman. Nagarjuna’s dialectic, echoing The Diamond Sutra’s approach reminds us that emptiness is not to be found outside of the 10,000 things. Tang Hoi the 10th century Vietnamese Zen Master told his students, “Be diligent in order to attain the state of no-birth and no-death.” He was asked by a student, “Where can we touch the world of no-birth and no-death?” Tang Hoi responded, “Right here in the world of birth and death.”27 Thus we can see that there is a difference between the monistic notions of “The One” and the highest teaching of the non-dual nature of reality as taught in The Diamond Sutra.


If you do not comprehend the middle way, but see and hear and think and ponder, fixated on the externals of doctrine, talking about the conduct of Buddha without applying it in your own mind, that is called thinking.
Confused people who sit in meditation frantically trying to get rid of illusion and do not learn kindness, compassion, joyfulness, equanimity, wisdom, and expedient skills, and so are like wood or stone, without any function, are called nonthinking.

The above quotation from Hui-neng’s commentary on The Diamond Sutra elucidates that text’s profound teaching of non-attachment to forms and concepts, and points out that to become a buddha is to act as a buddha. Our problem as students of the Buddha is we do, repeatedly, allow ourselves to get caught in thinking and non-thinking. We get caught in our notions about reality and fail to see through and beyond the cage of self that is created though our identification with the thinking mind. This is not to say, once again, that we must stop thinking. Hui-neng makes it plain that to do so is to become as insentient at a block of wood or a stone. The Dhammapada tells us that our work is to discover our work and then to give ourselves to it with all our heart. It tells us, “So awake, reflect, watch. Work with care and attention. Live in the way, and the light will grow in you.”29

When we learn in the Platform Sutra that Hui-neng was chosen over Shen-hsiu, many have taken this to mean that the poem of Shen-hsiu was wrong. Yet all evidence points to the truth that his poem literally states the obvious – that we do indeed need to practice in order to clear the mind of the hindrances. Even Hui-neng tells us in his commentary to The Diamond Sutra that while “there are no habit forces or afflictions; nirvana means complete purity, it is attained only by extinguishing all habit energies.” Hui-neng’s poem may indeed state the non-obvious truth from the enlightened perspective, but if we stop there and do not cultivate that wisdom and vision, we are caught in thinking. If we do not act from the awareness of buddhahood, than we are caught in nonthinking.

The Diamond Sutra is clear that the bodhisattva is unsparing in his or her work to liberate all beings. And it is equally clear in reminding us that there is no self to do the liberating and no others to liberate. “All beings” includes all the states of mind we “inhabit” or manifest throughout any given day – throughout any given hour! Our task is to liberate all the beings in our own mind.

In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “When you begin to practice, you need some tools, just as someone who comes to work on a farm needs tools to work the soil. When you are given tools there is no use in having them and not working the soil… Certain ideas and images can be accepted as tools of spiritual practice. By using them you can acquire some peace, comfort, stability, and joy. If you continue the practice and make some progress, more sophisticated images and ideas will be provided. These are tools to help you explore the soil of your own life. The Buddha described the practice as citta-bhavana, cultivating the mind and heart.”30

Thay issues a warning that echoes that of the Critical Buddhists when he points out that many Buddhists (and Christians) do not truly practice – or if they do, they practice only in difficult times or it is a mere superficial practice. He says that many practitioners align themselves with those in power in order to strengthen the position of their church or community. “They build up a self instead of letting go of the ideas of self. This is a very dangerous attitude; it always leads to conflicts and war. Its nature is intolerance.”31

The Diamond Sutra teaches that the Tathagata cannot be seen through sounds or images. The Tathagata neither comes nor goes. “Great Doubt” in Zen practice involves the constant questioning of all our beliefs. This includes questioning all our notions about Buddha, nirvana, emptiness, self, no-self, god etc. Thomas Merton wrote, “Here we are advancing beyond the stage where God made himself accessible to our mind in simple and primitive images. Here He becomes present without any image, beyond any satisfactory mental representation. ”32 There is no longer any notion we can have that can represent God, just as there is no longer any notion that can represent suchness or nirvana – both words that point to a reality beyond the cessation of all notions. But this need not be posited as a transcendental substratum or dhatu – what are transcended are the notions that stand between us and reality. But even saying this is not right, because there never is or could be a “real” separation.
Prajnaparamita is the wisdom that goes beyond all that keeps us intimately aware of all that is; beyond  our ideas about reality and how reality is or should be so that we can be intimately engaged with what and how things really are. It is the direct realization of what is beyond all representations in the way that a night in New York City is beyond any and all maps representing it. It is the simply realization that we've no representation for whether the candle flame now is the same or different from the flame of five minutes ago. It offers the warning against taking the map for the land, the finger for the moon to which it points.

The Buddha in The Diamond Sutra could not be any clearer when he tells us, through his dialogue with Subhuti, “Those who know that the teaching of the good law is like a raft abandon it. How much more do they abandon that which is not the teaching.”33          


1 Steve Hagen, How The World Can Be The Way It Is (Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1995), p.17
2 Thomas Cleary, The Sutra of Hui Neng Grand Master of Zen (Boston: Shambhala, 1998), p.10
3  ibid., p. 11
4 Stephan Schuhmacher & Gert Woerner, The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (Boston: Shambhala, 1994), p. 148
5 ibid., p. 148
6 Hagen, op. cit., p. 249
7 Philip Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch ( NY: Columbia University Press, 1967), p. 2
8 ibid., p. 4
9 ibid., p. 4
10 ibid., pp. 32-33
11 ibid., p. 33
12 Bhikkhu Nanamoli, The Life of the Buddha (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1992 3rd. edition), p.299
13 David Brazier, The New Buddhism (NY: Palgrave, 2002), p. 162
14 ibid., p. 177
15 Thomas Byrom, The Dhammapada (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), p. 24
16 Cleary, op. cit., p. 31
17 ibid., p. 32
18 ibid., p. 61
19 ibid., p. 32
20 ibid., p. 38
21 Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Mindfulness with Breathing (Boston: Wisdom, 1997 Rev. Edition), p. 85
22 ibid., p. 86
23 Hagen, op. cit., p. 251
24 ibid., p. 109
25 Cleary, op. cit., p. 49
26 Red Pine, The Diamond Sutra (NY: Counterpoint, 2001), p. 82
27 Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1998), p. 130
28 Cleary, op. cit., p. 93
29 Byrom, op. cit., p. 8
30 Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (NY: Riverhead, 1995), p. 162
31 ibid., p. 169
32 ibid., p. 170
33 The Buddhist Publishing Group, The Diamond Sutra (Leicester, England: Buddhist Publishing Group, 1984), p. 10   


Brazier, D. The New Buddhism, New York, Palgrave, 2002
Buddhadasa, Bhikkhu. Mindfulness with Breathing, Boston, Wisdom Publications, 1997 Rev. Edition
Buddhist Publishing Group. The Diamond Sutra, Leicester, England, 1984
Byrom, T., transl., The Dhammapada, Boston, Shambhala, 1993
Cleary, T., transl., The Sutra of Hui-neng, Boston, Shambhala, 1998
Conze, E. Buddhist Wisdom Books, New York, Harper and Row, 1972
Hagen, S. How the World Can Be the Way It Is, Wheaton, Ill., Quest Books, 1995
Hanh, N. The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion, Berkeley, Parallax Press, 1992
Hanh, N. Living Buddha, Living Christ, New York, Riverhead, 1995
Hanh, N. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Berkeley, Parallax Press, 1998
Kim, J.W. Polishing the Diamond, Enlightening the Mind, Boston, Wisdom Publications, 1999
McRae, J. R. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, Berkeley, Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2000
Nanamoli, Bhikkhu. The Life of the Buddha, Kandy, Sri Lanka, Buddhist Publication Society, 1992 2nd Edition
Price, A.F. and Wong Mou-Lam. The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui Neng, Berkeley, Shambhala, 1969
Red Pine. The Diamond Sutra, New York, Counterpoint, 2001
Schuhmacher, S. & Woerner, G. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion, Boston, Shambhala, 1994
Soeng, M. The Diamond Sutra, Boston, Wisdom Publications, 2000
Yampolsky, P. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, New York, Columbia University Press, 1967