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The Sutra of Hui Neng

by Sangharakshita

... then what happens he has a study session the whole night on the text. What this is all getting at is that the Zen or Ch'an of Hui-neng is not so Zen-like as some of the things we read about later on. This is the source. This is where it all starts from, but it's [4] much nearer the original Indian tradition than Zen afterwards, because here you've got the verbal exchange, you've got the use of the scriptures, you've got the stanza playing an important part, but you haven't got the mind to mind transmission, and you haven't got the bizarre sort of doings and sayings as later on you had. Hui-neng is quite innocent of this. This is the point that is being made here. Hui-neng was not so Zen-like as some of the later Zen people, which is quite a thought.

"There is no indication here that the written word and the canonical works are in any way inimical to the teaching of Ch'an". This is a very important point. There is no indication that the scriptures in themselves are inimical. Sure, they can be misused, and Hui-neng himself makes this clear, but Hui-neng has got nothing against the scriptures as such, so this sort of attitude on the part of some modern pseudo-Zen people that study doesn't matter and you can disregard the scriptures, throw them away. This doesn't have the sanction of Hui-neng himself.

"Indeed, when one takes into account the fairly large number of scriptural references contained in the sermon..." This is interesting; he's supposed to be illiterate, and no doubt he was, but he must have heard quite a lot, because the supposedly illiterate Hui-neng every now and then refers to the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra, the Vajracchedika Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, and some of the other sutras, the Parinirvana Sutra. He seemed to know them well enough, even though he seems to have been illiterate.

"...it is clear that the Tun-huang version of the Platform Sutra..." that is, by the way the oldest known version, "was not particularly concerned with emphasizing Hui-neng's illiteracy; nor was it attempting to assert that Ch'an was a teaching in which traditional Buddhism played no part." That's very important, that in this sermon which forms the first of the two sections and to which really the title Platform Scripture pertains, there is nothing which is at all out of harmony with traditional classical Indo-Chinese or Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. It's almost not Zen.

"The account of Hui-neng furnished by the autobiography stops with his departure for the south after he has gained the Patriarchship. Of his life until he reached Shao-chou, where he preached the sermon, we are told nothing. In the meanwhile he has become a renowned Ch'an Master, the recognized Sixth Patriarch, and it is as such that he appears throughout the remainder of the Platform Sutra. A few biographical details are furnished, the circumstances surrounding his death are described, but chiefly we find him as the rather disembodied voice represented by the phrase 'The Master said'." This is a bit Confucian of course (unclear) so that the Chinese scholar reading would be a bit reassured. A bit like the Buddha's parables - a nice little gospel-like echo.

"We do not gain from this work any precise knowledge either of the manner in which the doctrine was transmitted or of the teaching methods used." That's very important; and [5] what does it remind you of in the life of the Buddha? When the Buddha taught his first disciples in the Deer Park all that we are told by the earliest accounts is that he, in the words of the English translation, admonished them. According to later accounts of course we are told that he taught them the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, but in the earlier accounts we are not told what he taught them. We are not told that. The oldest versions do not give any actual content, any actual teaching. All that we actually know - and later traditions filled in the gaps with the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path; it was good standard Buddhist fare - was that the Buddha spent that rainy season with those five disciples sending them out to beg for food turn by turn while he admonished the others. Other than that he was there with them communicating, talking, but what he actually taught, what the content was, whether there was in fact any doctrinal or dogmatic content, we just don't know. All we know was that the Buddha was in contact and communication with those disciples over that whole three month period, as a result of which they gained Enlightenment. But there was nothing very specific. There wasn't, so far as we know, a sort of regular course of instruction, it was just the impact of the Buddha's Enlightened being, we may say on their unenlightened beings.

It's much the same here originally with Hui-neng; it all seems rather vague to the rational and tidy mind. We don't really know in what that transmission consisted. It wasn't the later rather stereotyped kind of thing. All that we know was that there was the Sixth Patriarch and there were his disciples around and something happened, and once it had happened it was acknowledged: 'oh yes it's happened; it's been transmitted to you.' But how it was done we are not really told. It's a bit mysterious, a bit intangible. It hasn't been reduced to something systematic - a study course or interview or a graded series of examinations as they had in later Zen. You passed a series of examinations in koans and the koans are graded and they've got three thousand of them and you pass the koans of this grade and then you pass the koans of that grade until you reach Enlightenment. Anyway you get a certificate to say you are Enlightened. That's later Zen, that is what is happening now, that's the system that continues, but it was very different then - so that's the point.

"The transmission is described merely as the acknowledgement on the part of the teacher of his disciple's understanding." It's not the [6] teacher giving the disciple the understanding; the transmission isn't that. The teacher says, 'Ah yes, you've understood,' - that's the transmission. It's not, 'Here it is I'm going to give it to you - wham! - now you've understood.' No. It's confirmation that I recognize in you what I experience in myself and invite you to recognize it in me. It's not anything sort of given, not a doctrine or even thoughts are handed over, but when the disciple has sort of sweated and struggled enough, long enough, and got a certain (unclear). The teacher might just have been taking a friendly interest from a distance and not said a word, but then the disciple says something or does something and the teacher says, 'Ah yes he's got it,' and that acknowledgement is the transmission.

"Up to the time of Hui-neng, we are told, the robe of Bodhidharma was handed down as a symbol of the transmission of the teaching." It says, "as a symbol of the transmission of the teaching", but we don't really even know that. It would have been better if the translator had said the robe had been handed down just as a symbol, or transmission even, but we don't even know if it was transmission of teaching. He's going a bit beyond his brief.

p.113: "But the Platform Sutra pointedly explains that this practice ceased with the Sixth Patriarch." It's as though Hui-neng thought that was a lot of nonsense: 'This handing down of a robe, well what does that prove?' Then later on in the autobiography there is even a plot to steal this robe. Well if one gets (unclear), well it doesn't really mean very much. Anyone can grab hold of a robe and say, 'Well I'm the Patriarch', so it's my personal feeling that Hui-neng wasn't very happy about this business of transmitting the robe and rather unceremoniously sort of terminated the tradition.

p.113: "... It would seem, then, that at this time a renowned Ch'an teacher, such as Hung-jen or Hui-neng is esteemed to have been, gathered under him a great number of disciples." Hung-jen, by the way, is Hui-neng's teacher, the Fifth Patriarch [i.e. Hwang-yan in Wong Mow Lam's transliteration, tr.].

"Those with particular talent served the Master, attended on him..." This is rather interesting. This isn't our Western way of looking at things at all. If someone considers themselves a rather advanced disciple he wouldn't expect to be bringing cups of tea and looking after the master's comforts and making his bed etc, but that's not the Eastern attitude, "...received instruction from him." That comes afterwards you see. Sometimes that serving attendant might last for ten or fifteen years before he'd get any instruction at all. [7]

Devamitra: Like Milarepa with Marpa.

S: Yes, except that Milarepa wasn't doing all that much serving and attending. He was sent away to be on his own, wasn't he? But he did serve and attend for quite a few years.

"...and eventually became teachers on their own." That 'eventually' might come twenty or thirty years later.

"We do not know how precisely these heirs were designated or which of the students whose names appear in conjunction with Hui-neng were legitimate heirs. By the time the Ching-te ch'uan-teng lu was completed in 1004, the number of Hui-neng's heirs had increased to forty-three. The Platform Sutra, however, is quite specific in its insistence that a copy of the work itself be required as proof of the transmission of the teaching." That's quite interesting. It's almost as though the text takes the place of the robe, in a way. How it is to be known that you are a genuine follower of the tradition of Hui-neng. It seems that by the time the text was compiled, the text itself - and the fact that you had it in your possession or had been given or had been allowed to make a copy of the text - was regarded as a sort of outward and visible sign that you belonged to that particular spiritual lineage. So obviously ...

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