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The Sutra of Hui Neng

by Sangharakshita

The Sutra of Hui-neng (the sutra spoken by the Sixth Patriarch)
(unedited seminar transcript)

Held at the Old Rectory (later known as Abhirati), Tittleshall, Norfolk, in March 1974.

Present: Sangharakshita, Buddhadasa, Chintamani, Devamitra, Gotami, Mangala, Hridaya, Ratnapani, Subhuti, Sulocana, John Hunter, Wolf Pilchick.

Unfortunately this was a very poor recording and much of the material was indecipherable.

"double quotation marks" indicate passages from the text itself. The first edition of the text under discussion (see below) is out of copyright and this older edition is available at www.sacred-texts.com/bud/bb/

[1]

S: Altogether there are four translations available of the sutra. First of all there is one by Wong Mou-lam which was the first in various editions; then there is one by the Chinese scholar Wing-Tsit Chan [The Platform Scripture, New York, 1963, tr.], one by Charles Luk [Ch'an and Zen Teaching, third series, London 1962, tr.], and another by Philip Yampolsky [Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, New York and London 1967, tr.]. So altogether we've got these four versions, but it seems that Wong Mou-lam in his various editions has stood the test of time, and that's the one that we are going to use, the one that's in 'A Buddhist Bible' [ed. Dwight Goddard, London 1956]. Altogether there are nine chapters, but before we begin on the sutra, we shall go through Yampolsky's 'Content Analysis', which will give us a sort of birds-eye view of the subject matter of the whole text. After that we shall go through Charles Luk's introduction. Yampolsky is rather scholarly, so we'll start off with a rather scholarly analysis of the content, and then there will be a rather more devotional introduction by the Chinese practiser.

The 'Content Analysis' is part of a very lengthy introduction, mostly of a very scholarly and historical nature.

p.111: "All the difficulties encountered in attempting to place the Platform Sutra in a positive historical setting" which is what he's been trying to do in the previous section of the introduction "repeat themselves when one attempts to deal with the thought and ideas contained in the work." We won't be too hypercritical about these expressions. He says, "thought and ideas contained in the work". Well there are thoughts, there are ideas, but they are only instrumental, the link, (unclear) the medium of communicating the Sixth Patriarch's experience. They are not thoughts and ideas in the ordinary sense.

"The Platform Sutra can be divided into two parts: the sermon ..." he uses this word 'sermon'; we shall try to avoid it - "the sermon at the Ta-Fan Temple, which includes the autobiography, and all the remaining portions of the work. This latter material, while largely unrelated to the sermon, does at times serve to reiterate and reinforce certain points of doctrine. The title 'Southern School, Southern Doctrine, Supreme Mahayana Great Perfection of Wisdom: The Platform Sutra preached by the Sixth Patriarch Hui-neng at the Ta-fan Temple in Shao-chou' applies to the sermon alone, and clearly identifies the type of Buddhism that is to be preached."

Buddhadasa: So the first part consists of the sermon and the autobiography?

S: Yes. The autobiography and the sermon which immediately follows. Strictly speaking the title Platform Scripture or Platform Sutra applies only to the first section.

"The work opens as though it proposes to launch immediately into the sermon, but the preaching has scarcely begun when it is interrupted by the story of Hui-neng's early life. By using an autobiographical format, the compilers are able to impart to the audience a sense of intimacy with Hui-neng. A simple man of humble origins, unlettered and without pretensions, he was able with his own innate capacities to achieve the highest rank in Ch'an, while yet a layman. The availability of this teaching to the populace in general is emphasized throughout the work. Not only was Hui-neng himself a layman when he first undertook his training, but the sermon is delivered at the behest of Wei Ch'u, a government official, before a large audience of monks, nuns, and lay followers. The point is further brought out in section 36, where it is specifically stated that study as a layman is not only possible, but that it may be carried out as well outside the temple environment as within."

This of course is a very fundamental emphasis of Ch'an or Zen throughout, though again it expresses the Mahayana [2] emphasis. In the Mahayana generally the rather hard and first distinction, not to say difference, which has been set up for in the Hinayana between the monks and the laymen, tends to be abrogated, and the emphasis is placed on the Bodhisattva ideal, the Bodhicitta. And it's emphasized again that these are ideals and experiences which can be followed, can be achieved, whether one is a monk or a layperson, whether one is a bhikkhu or whether one is an upasaka, just as in the very early Buddhism, the emphasis was on the Going for Refuge. That was the basis thing, that was the fundamental thing. Whether, after having gone for refuge, you lived as a monk, as a wanderer, or as a householder, that was relatively of secondary importance. So Ch'an or Zen, in a way, gets back to the original emphasis of Buddhism and the original emphasis of the Mahayana itself: that it is the spiritual commitment and the spiritual experience that is basic and fundamental, whether you're living in that particular way as a monk or that particular way as a layperson. So therefore right at the very beginning this fact is stressed, this general availability of Ch'an or Zen, the teaching of the Sixth Patriarch, and the fact that it can be practised, it can be applied, outside the special temple or monastic environment.

Of course if you have a nice temple where everything is beautiful and quiet with lovely flowering trees in the courtyard and beautiful temple gongs and bells and the novices chanting in the early morning, it makes it much more easy, and maybe you are quite justified periodically in retiring into such an environment to get really into your practice, whether for a weekend or a week or a month or a year, or even longer than that. But you can come out of that and you can practise and you can apply in the world in general. If you are very tough and very determined you may not need to go into retreat at all, ever. You can stay right here in the midst of the world just like the proverbial lotus blooming in the midst of the fire, and never really need any retreat other than that which you get within your own mind. But this is for the exceptional person. Most do need to retreat and retire from time to time, and can quite legitimately and quite justifiably do that. I'm afraid if we try to be a lotus blooming in the midst of the fire our petals only drop and get a bit singed.

pp.111-2: "Hui-neng's illiteracy, much spoken of in later Ch'an, is treated here in a rather casual manner, and serves primarily to underline the conflict with Shen-hsiu. We are told early in the autobiography (sec. 8) that Hui-neng cannot read, and that someone with the ability to write was needed to inscribe the verse that he had composed on the wall. In the story of Fa-ta and the Lotus Sutra (sec. 42), we again hear of the Sixth Patriarch's inability to read. Later Ch'an has called much attention to Hui-neng's supposed illiteracy, largely in an effort to underline the contention that Ch'an is a silent transmission from 'mind to mind'." [3]

It should also be pointed out, by the way, that as far as we know the Buddha was illiterate. I know that there are very late texts which describe him as learning the alphabet, and in fact learning all the alphabets, but in the Pali scriptures there's nothing to suggest that the Buddha could either read or write. There's no reference to it at all. It is known that in the Buddha's day reading and writing were restricted to secular use. The merchants and shopkeepers kept accounts and they had business correspondence and things like that, and it seems as though the Indian alphabet came from Sumeria, but as far as religious matters were concerned, spiritual matters, there everything was learned by heart and repeated orally and learned orally in that sort of way. And in the whole of the Pali scriptures there is no reference, to the best of my recollection, to the fact that the Buddha ever read anything or wrote anything or even used any sort of figure of speech. He does sometimes refer to someone being like a skilful accountant reckoning up the parts, reckoning up the (?)requisite parts of the body, but that's about as near as you get to any literary reference - the skilful accountant. And the Buddha himself seems to have been, like Hui-neng, non-literate. Actually 'illiterate' is the wrong sort of connotation: non-literate, not dependent on books and things of that sort.

p.112: "The Platform Sutra, however, does not seek to convey this impression." It doesn't underline, the Platform Sutra makes it clear he was illiterate, full stop. Later Ch'an or Zen underlines it and emphasizes it quite a lot for various reasons of its own.

"Hui-neng's first interview with the Fifth Patriarch is verbal, a written verse demonstrates the degree of Hui-neng's understanding." The first time that the future Sixth Patriarch meets the Fifth Patriarch there is a verbal exchange. There is no silent transmission, the emphasis of this seems to have come later. And again a verse, a written verse, a verse written up on the wall (unclear).

"And, after he had transmitted the Patriarchship, the Fifth Patriarch spends the night expounding the Diamond Sutra to his heir." This doesn't sound very Zen-like, in a way. He gets the transmission and ...

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