Hui Neng Becomes the Sixth Patriarch
A translation from Chinese of the first chapter of the Platform Sutra of Hui Neng (六祖壇經)
The great master spoke to the assembly. ‘Spiritual friends, awakening is your own nature, primordially pure. You need only employ this mind and you will attain Buddhahood straight away. Spiritual friends, listen to me. Practise in this way and you will get to the meaning of the Dharma.
My father was originally from Fan Yang, but he was banished to Lingnan and worked as a commoner in Xin Prefecture. Unfortunately, he died young. My old mother was left alone, and we moved to Nan Hai where we suffered hardship and poverty. I sold firewood in the market, and one day a traveller bought some from me and asked me to deliver it to the inn where he was staying. I was happy to have earned some money. When I left I saw another traveller who was reciting a sutra outside the door. I heard some of the words of the sutra, and my mind opened into Awakening. I asked the traveller what sutra he was reciting, and he said, “The Diamond Sutra”. I then asked him where he had come from, and where he had learned this sutra.
He replied, “I have come from the Eastern Chan Temple in Huang Mei County, in Qi Prefecture. The Fifth Patriarch, who is a great and patient master, is the abbot of this temple, and has more than a thousand disciples. I paid homage to him, listened to him, and received this sutra. The master constantly urges both the monastic sangha and the laity to learn the Diamond Sutra. If one does so, one will be able to see one’s own nature directly, and attain Buddhahood.”
I decided to leave for Huang Mei to pay homage to the Fifth Patriarch. I made sure that my old mother had enough clothes and food, and a place to stay. I then bade her farewell, and after thirty days I arrived in Huang Mei and paid homage to the Fifth Patriarch.
The Patriarch asked me, “Where are you from? What do you want?” I replied, “I am from Lingnan, a commoner from Xin Prefecture. I have come a long way to pay homage to the master. My only desire is to attain Buddhahood. There is nothing else I desire.”
The Patriarch said, “If you’re from Lingnan then you’re a barbarian. How can you attain Buddhahood?” I said, “Although someone may be from the south or from the north, their fundamental buddha-nature is not from the south or the north. A barbarian and a Dharma teacher may be different in appearance, but what difference is there in their buddha-nature?”
The Fifth Patriarch wanted to say more, but seeing that we were surrounded by his disciples, he instructed me to work with his disciples. I said, “Allow me to explain, teacher. Wisdom often arises in the mind of a disciple. This is nothing other than his own nature, which is a field of karmic benefit. In the end, if one examines the teacher’s instructions, what work is there to be done?”
The Patriarch said, “This barbarian is very sharp. Do not say any more. Go to the threshing room.” I retreated to the courtyard. A practitioner sent me to the threshing room, where I spent more than eight months working the foot pestle.
One day, the Patriarch suddenly said to me, “I think your insight could be useful to others, but I’m concerned that evil people might harm you. I will not, therefore, command you to speak. You may refuse to do so.” I said, “The disciple understands what the master means. I do not dare to stand at the front of the hall, in case this may cause anyone to fail to attain awakening.”
One day, the Patriarch asked all of his students to assemble. “Allow me to address you. For worldly people, samsara is of vital importance. You lot spend all your time just trying to get karmic benefit for yourselves, and not trying to escape from samsara, the ocean of suffering. If you are obsessed with karmic benefit, how can you be rescued? I want you each to go and look for wisdom. Get hold of your fundamental mind, which is the essence of wisdom. You are each to go and write a verse and present it to me. If any of you have realised the profound meaning, I will give you the robe and the Dharma, and make you the Sixth Patriarch. Hurry now – this is no time for laziness! Thinking about it isn’t going to help you. Anyone who is able to gain insight into their own nature will do so as soon as they hear these words. If there is anyone here who is able to do this, they will be able to do it even sitting on top of a ring of knives.”
The disciples withdrew. They said to each other, “There are a lot of us. We don’t all need to purify our minds in order to compose a verse. What’s the point of presenting a verse to the Patriarch? The Elder Shen Xiu is our teacher, he will certainly be able to manage it. Indeed, it would be disrespectful if we were to write our own verses. It would be a waste of effort.” When the other disciples heard them speaking in this way, they were relieved. They all said, “We already rely on Shen Xiu as our teacher. Why go to the trouble of writing our own verses?”
‘Shen Xiu reflected, “None of those who look to me as their teacher are going to present a verse. I must write a verse to present to the Patriarch. If I do not present a verse, how will the Patriarch know whether my insight is profound or shallow? If I present a verse with the intention of seeking the Dharma, this is wholesome. However, if I do so with the intention of becoming the next Patriarch, this is unwholesome. That would be like an ordinary person seeking to usurp a sacred office. On the other hand, if I don’t present a verse, I won’t be able to obtain the Dharma. How difficult! How difficult!”
In front of the Fifth Patriarch’s hall, there was a corridor with three sections. He had commissioned the artist Lu Zhen to paint images from the Laṅkāvatāra Sutra, and the lineage of the Fifth Patriarch, which would be of benefit to future generations. When Shen Xiu had successfully composed his verse, he made several attempts to go to the hall to present it. But each time, his mind would suddenly become confused, he would break out in a sweat all over his body, and not be able to do it. He tried again after four days, and again, he couldn’t do it. After thirteen attempts, he thought, “Perhaps it would be best to write the verse in the corridor for the Patriarch to read. If he says that it is in accordance with the path, I will come forward, pay homage, and say, ‘This is the work of Shen Xiu’. If he says that it is not, then the years I have spent in the mountains will have been in vain. I will have accepted homage, but what path will I have been practising?”
In the third watch of the night, at around midnight, he took a lamp and went in secret to write his verse on the wall of one of the sections of the corridor, to present the insight he had gained. His verse was as follows:
The body is the bodhi tree.
The mind is like a stand for a clear mirror.
We must polish it constantly,
never allowing the dust to gather.
When Shen Xiu had written his verse, he returned to his room. No-one knew what he had done. He reflected, “If the Fifth Patriarch is happy when he sees my verse tomorrow, then I will be able to give the Dharma to others. If he says that it is not good, that will mean I am overwhelmed by the effects of my previous unwholesome actions, and that I will not be able to realise the Dharma. The profound truth is difficult to fathom.” In his room he reflected restlessly in this way, and was not able to sit or lie down in peace.
In the early morning, the Patriarch saw that Shen Xiu had not entered the door of the Dharma, and that he had not yet attained realisation and insight into his own nature. At dawn he summoned Lu Zhen. “I have commissioned you to paint some scenes in the corridor outside the southern hall. Now, however, I see this verse written there. It should be left there, so there is no need for your paintings. I am sorry you have come so far for nothing. In the Diamond Sutra it says, ‘All appearances are illusory’. Let us leave this verse here and have people learn and recite it. Those who rely upon this verse will not fall into states of misfortune. It will be of great benefit to them.” He had his disciples burn incense in front of the verse, and pay homage to it. He said, “If you recite this verse constantly, you will gain insight into your own nature.” The disciples recited the verse, and all exclaimed, “Excellent!”
In the third watch of the night, at around midnight, the Patriarch asked Shen Xiu to come to the hall and asked him, “Is this verse your work or not?” Shen Xiu replied, “Indeed it is, but I do not dare to request the robe and the office of the Patriarch. I would ask you to show compassion for your disciple, and tell me whether or not I have attained some small measure of wisdom.”
The Patriarch replied, “You have not attained insight into your fundamental nature. You have reached the door, but you have not passed through it. If people seek unsurpassed awakening by following your verse, they will not attain it. To attain unsurpassed awakening, you must understand your fundamental mind, and see that your fundamental nature is unarisen and unceasing. You should bear this view in mind at all times. The great countless mass of phenomena is unobstructed. Each one is real, and all are real. The great countless mass of worlds are as they are, and the mind – as it is – is reality. Seeing things in this way is the nature of unsurpassed perfect awakening. Go and reflect on this for a day or two and compose another verse. I will read your verse, and if you have passed through the door, then I will give you the robe and the Dharma.” Shen Xiu paid homage and left. After several days had passed, he was still not able to compose a new verse. His mind was confused, and his thoughts were restless. Whether walking or sitting, he was not able to find contentment.
A couple of days later, one of the disciples passed by the threshing room reciting Shen Xiu’s verse. As soon as I heard it, I knew that whoever had composed it had not attained insight into their fundamental nature and that, whilst they were not ignorant of the teachings, they had not yet understood the profound meaning. I asked this disciple, “What’s that verse you’re reciting?”.
He replied, “Don’t you know, barbarian? The Master has said that for worldly people, samsara is of vital importance, and that anyone who wishes to receive the transmission of the robe and the Dharma is to write a verse. If there is anyone who has realised the profound meaning, then they will receive the robe and the Dharma and become the Sixth Patriarch. The Elder Shen Xiu wrote a verse on freedom from characteristics on the wall of the southern corridor, and the Master had everyone recite it. By practising the teaching contained in this verse, one will avoid falling into states of misfortune, and it will bring one great benefit.”
I said, “I would also like to recite this verse, to ensure that I have the necessary conditions for attaining a good rebirth. I have been working the foot pestle, and I have not yet been to the hall. Would you be so kind as to show me this verse, so that I can pay homage to it?” He showed me where it was, and I said, “I cannot read. Would you read it aloud for me?” At that time, Riyong Zhang, an official from Jiang Prefecture happened to be there, and he read the verse aloud. When I had listened to it, I said, “I too have a verse. Would you be so kind as to write it on the wall for me?” The official said, “You have composed a verse as well? How odd.”
I said to the official, “If you want to train yourself in unsurpassed perfect awakening, you should not make light of those who are beginning their training. The lowest of people can possess the highest wisdom, and the highest of people may have no understanding whatsoever. Making light of others is boundlessly, immeasurably unwholesome.”
The official said, “Recite your verse and I’ll write it on the wall for you. But if you attain the Dharma, you have to teach me first. Don’t forget that!” I then recited my verse:
Bodhi fundamentally has no tree
and the clear mirror has no stand.
Fundamentally, nothing comes into being.
Where can dust gather?
When the official had written this verse on the wall, all the disciples were shocked, and gasped in amazement. They all said to each other, “Incredible! You can’t judge people on their appearance. All this time, he was a living bodhisattva!”
When the Patriarch saw everyone’s amazement he was afraid that they would do me harm, so he rubbed out the verse with his shoe and said, “This person has not attained insight into their nature either.” Everyone accepted this.
The next day the Patriarch came to the threshing room in secret and saw me pounding rice with a rock at my waist. He said, “Someone who seeks the path would even give up their body for the Dharma. Are you this kind of person?” He then asked, “Is the rice ripe or not?” I replied, “The rice has been ripe for a long time. It just needs to be sifted.” The Patriarch struck the pestle three times with his staff, and left. I understood that this was a signal that I was to go and see him in the third watch of the night, at midnight.
The Patriarch kept his outer robe hidden away where no-one could see it. He explained the Diamond Sutra to me, and when he got to “a bodhisattva should cultivate a mind which is not based on anything at all”, I attained great awakening, and realised that the great countless mass of phenomena are not separate from my own nature.
I revealed my awakening to the Patriarch by saying, “One’s own nature is always fundamentally and naturally pure. One’s own nature is always fundamentally and naturally unarisen and unceasing. One’s own nature is always fundamentally and naturally complete. One’s own nature is always fundamentally and naturally unmoving. The great countless mass of phenomena can always arise from one’s own nature.”
The Patriarch then knew that I had realised my own fundamental nature, and said to me, “If you do not know your fundamental mind, there is no point in training yourself in the Dharma. If you know your own fundamental mind, then you will gain insight into your fundamental nature. This is what it means to be a teacher of gods and human beings, a Buddha.”
In the third watch of the night, I received the Dharma without anyone else’s knowledge. The Patriarch passed on the sudden teaching to me, as well as the robe and bowl. “You are now the Sixth Patriarch. Maintain your mindfulness, and spread the teaching widely. Do not allow the transmission to be broken. Listen to this verse:
Living beings sow seeds,
and because there is earth, fruit arises.
Inanimate objects have no seeds,
no nature, and no arising.”
The Patriarch continued, “When the great master Bodhidharma first came here, people did not have faith, so he passed on this robe as an embodiment of faith. It has been passed on from master to disciple. The Dharma is transmitted from mind to mind. The mind must always attain its own realisation, its own liberation. From ancient times, the buddhas have only passed on the fundamental essence, whilst the masters have secretly transmitted the fundamental mind. The robe has become a source of conflict, and you should not pass it on. If you do, your life will hang by a thread. Go quickly! I am afraid that someone will harm you.”
I replied, “Where should I go?” The Patriarch said, “When you encounter cherishing, you should stop. When you come across a group of people, you should hide.”
In the third watch of the night, I received the robe and bowl and said, “I am originally from the south, I do not know these mountain roads. How do I get to the mouth of the river?” The Fifth Patriarch said, “Do not worry. I will accompany you.” The Patriarch accompanied me as far as the ninth post-house on the river, where we got into a boat. The Fifth Patriarch took the oars and began to row. I said, “Please, Teacher, come over here. The disciple should do the rowing.” The Patriarch said, “I should take you over to the other side.”
I said, “When your mind is confused, you believe that the teacher takes you over to the other side. When you have attained realisation, you see that you take yourself across. The words ‘take across’ are used in different ways. I was born in a faraway place, and my pronunciation is not correct. I have received the Dharma from you, Master, and attained realisation. My own nature itself has been taken across.”
The Patriarch said, “Exactly. Exactly. In the future, the Buddha-Dharma will spread widely because of you. Three years after your departure, I will pass away. You should go now. Try your best to go south. Don’t be in a hurry to start teaching. It is difficult to establish the Buddha-Dharma.”
I took my leave of the Patriarch, and headed south.’