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The sixth patriarch Hui-nengs meditation:

A study in the Chinese Buddhisms history

and thought (period 625-755AD)
By Thich Nu Nguyen Huong

In recent years, as the crises facing humankind about morality, economy, politics, v.v... have become more and more
numerous and acute, attention on the Buddhist meditation has begun to increase. People worldwide, East as well as West,
from various walks of life have to regard it as a valuable and practical method for living in these troubled times.
Buddhist meditation, a method of mental training, traces back to the Buddha s time, more than 2500 years ago, when it was
with it, under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, Gaya, India, the Buddha with his own way, after his dissatisfaction towards the
meditation of his two teachers-Alara Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra, for the first time, attained enlightenment opening a
new religion, or rather a way of life for human beings to end their suffering. And the Buddha had to make use of words,
called sutras, as a skilful means to transmit his experience, the state of mind of enlightenment, to others.
The teachings of the Buddha as depicted in Pli Canon and the famous work of Buddhaghosa Thera, i.e., the
Visuddhimagga, offer a great variety of methods of mental training and subjects of meditation, suited to the various of
individual needs, temperaments and capacities. All these methods ultimately converge in the Way of Right-Mindfulness
(Satipatthana) called by the Buddha himself the only way (ekayano maggo) to liberation.
However, in due course of time, after the Buddha s demise, with its dynamism and flexibility, Buddhism spread, developed
and produced new doctrines, called the Mahayana sutras. In the Mahayana Buddhism of the Far East there were Mahayana
meditation and Chinese meditation (Chan) with its characteristics of Sunyata, non attachment, no dualism, or thoughtless
which is the main cause of the appearance of Zen meditation in Japan, and are closest to the sprit of Satipatthana.
Buddhist meditation was a most important method of practicing in the religion. However, in reality, there have been no less
of people, who, due to their lack or misunderstanding of the method and its history as a necessary background, practiced it
in a wrong way leading to various kinds of mental sickness; a lot of them have lose faith to Buddhism; and anothers of them
have rashly criticized about Buddhism!
According to proposals of The 3rd Biannual International Conference of The Sri Lanka Association for Buddhist Study, the
Buddhist themes are limited in recent trends. So, I like to select above topic which is one of all my thesis of Ph.d, i.e. The
Evolution of Buddhist Meditation: A historical study.
Realizing the importance of the history as well as the practice of Buddhist meditation, this paper introduces to you about the
history, thought as well as method of the sixth Patriarch Hui-nengs meditation as the following matters:

I. The Hui-nengs meditation:

1. A definite of the Hui-nengs meditation:

According to The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, the meditation in the Sanskrit is Dhyna (absorption), in the
Pli is Jhna, in the Chinese is Chan, and in the Japanese is Zen1.
According to the Sutra of Hui-neng, to meditation means to realise inwardly the imperturbability of the Essence of Mind.
What are Dhyana and Samatha ? Dhyana means to be free from attachment to all outer objects, and Samdhi means
to attain inner peace. If we are attached to outer objects, our inner mind will be perturbed. When we are free from
attachment to all outer objects, the mind will be in peace. Our Essence of Mind is intrinsically pure, and the reason why we
are perturbed is because we allow ourselves to be carried away by the circumstances we are in. He, who is able to keep his
mind unperturbed, irrespective of circumstances, has attained Samdhi.
To be free from attachment to all outer objects is Dhyna, and to attain inner peace is Samdhi. When we are in a position
to deal with Dhyna and to keep our inner mind in Samdhi, then we are said to have attained Dhyna and Samdhi. The
Bodhisattva Sla sutra says, Our Essence of Mind is intrinsically pure. Let us realize this for us at all times. Let we train
ourselves, practice it by ourselves, and attain Buddhahood by our own effort. 2
2. The method of Hui-neng s meditation:
According to the Stra of Hui-neng, Dhyna or meditation is to realize inwardly the imperturbability of the Essence of mind:
To meditate means to realize inwardly the imperturbability of the Essence of mind3
Hui-neng considers the essence of mind as a state of absolute void different from the idea of vacuity, and it is beyond the
extremes or duality.
The essence of mind, which is a state of absolute void (i.e., the voidness of non-void.) Learned audience, when you hear
me told about the void, do not at once fall into the idea of vacuity, (because this involves the heresy of the doctrine of
annihilation) . . . When we see the goodness or the badness of other people we are not attracted by it, nor repelled by it, nor
attached to it, so that our attitude of mind is as void as space. In this way, we say our mind is great therefor e we call it
Maha. 4
Again, Mahaprajnaparamita, or the wisdom of enlightenment, is analyzed by Hui-neng. When the mind is as void as space,
it is called Maha. While prajna means the mind works without hindrance and is at liberty to come or go, paramita means
reaching the opposite shore in literal, or beyond extremes in figurative. The Mahaprajnaparamita is the exalted, the
supreme, and the most. By means of it Buddhas in the present, past and future attain Buddhahood. This great wisdom,
according to Hui-neng, is inherent in everyone and come from the essence of mind, not from an exterior source. He advises
one to use this great wisdom to break up the five Skandhas, for to follow such a practice ensures the attainment of
Buddhahood. The three poisonous elements (greed, hatred and illusion) will then be turned into Sila (good conduct),
Samadhi and Prajna.5
Dhyana is neither keeping a watch on mind for tranquillity nor suppressing mind from all thinking.
Some teachers of meditation instruct their disciples to keep a watch on their mind for tranquillity, so that it will cease from
activity. Henceforth the disciples give up all exertion of mind. Ignorant persons become insane from having too much
confidence in such instruction . . . It is a great mistake to suppress our mind from all thinking; for ever if wee succeed in
getting rid of all thoughts, and die immediately thereafter, still we shall be reincarnated elsewhere.6
Hui-neng s meditation is not sitting quietly and keeping mind blank.
There is also a class of foolish people who sit quietly and try to keep their mind blank. They refrain from thinking of
anything and call themselves great 7
Again, Hui-neng advises one not to attach oneself to anything since they are not real and nothing but the concept of the
reality of objects.
We should practice straight forwardness and should not attach ourselves to anything. 8
In all things there is nothing real,
And so we should free ourselves from the concept of the reality of objects 9
So, in the Hui-neng s system of meditation, there is no separate method for practice of Samdhi (concentration) or Prajna
(wisdom). According to Hui-neng, Samdhi and Prajna are one entity in his meditation.
In my system (Dhyna), Samdhi and Prajna are fundamental. But do not be under the wrong impression that these two
are independent of each other, for they are inseparably united and are not two entities. Samadhi is the quintessence of
Prajna, while Prajna is the activity of Samadhi At the very moment that we attain Prajna, Samadhi is therewith . . . If you
understand this principle, you understand the equilibrium of Samadhi and prajna. 10
In brief, the fundamental principles of Hui-neng s meditation are Non-attachment and Non-duality. Hui-neng said:
When we use Prajna for introspection we are illumined within and without, and in a position to know our own mind. To
know our mind is to obtain liberation. To obtain liberation is to attain Samdhi of Prajna, which is thoughtlessness. What is
thoughtlessness? Thoughtlessness is to see and to know all Dharma (things) with a mind free from attachment. 11
If we allow our thoughts, past, present, and future, to link up in a series, we put ourselves under restraint. On the other
hand, if we never let our mind attach to anything .we shall gain emancipation. For this reason, we take Non-attachment as
our fundamental principle 12

II.The sixth Patriarch Hui-nengs history and The Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra ):
1.Hui-neng became the sixth Patriarch of Chan meditation in China:
The Patriarch Hung-jen had two able disciples, i.e., Hui-neng (683-713A.D.) and Shen-hsiu (606-706A.D.) The regular
succession fell on one of them, Hui-neng, who became the founder of the Southern Chan School. His aim was a sudden
attainment of enlightenment and his school is called the Southern School of sudden enlightenment was Shen-hsiu who
remained in the north and propagated the patriarch Chan earnestly. His School was called the northern Chan school. His
teaching was a gradual attainment of enlightenment and named the northern Chan school. His teaching was a gradual
attainment of enlightenment and named the northern school of gradual enlightenment. 13
Hui-nengs early life was unlucky. His father died when he was only three years old, leaving his poor and miserable mother.
Once he happened to hear someone recite the Vajracchedika Sutra (Diamod Sutra) while he was selling firewood in the
market. He was deeply impressed by the words: Thought should spring from a state of non-attachment, Hearing the name
of the Patriarch Hung-jen, he immediately wen to Hwang-may district to pay homage to the Patriarch. He was asked by
Hung-jen where did he belong to and what did he expect to obtain from him? He replied, I am a commoner in Lin-nan and
have traveled far to pay my respect to you. I request nothing but Buddhahood. You are a native of Lin-nan, and moreover,
you belong to the aborigines. How can you expect to be a Buddha? said Hung-jen. He answered: Although there are
northern people and southern people, north and south make no difference to their Buddha-nature. An aborigine is different
from your Holiness physically, but there is no difference in our Buddha-nature. Hung-jen then realized that the man is wise
and ordered him to join the crowd work.
For eight months, Hui-neng was employed in the lowest menial tasks, and then the time came for Hung-jen to choose his
successor. In order to make sure of choosing wisely, Hung-jen asked his disciples to submit the stanzas to him for his
consideration. One of them, Shen-hsiu, who was also an instructor of the monastery, wrote the following, which was heartily
admired by the others.
Our body is the Bodhi tree,
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight? 14
The Fifth Patriarch knew that it was written by Shen-hsiu and said: If they put its teaching into actual practice, they will be
saved from the misery of being born in these realms of existence. The merit gained by one who practices it will be great
indeed. He then ordered all his disciples to recite it, so that they might realize the essence of mind.
When Hui-neng heard of this Stanza, he asked some one to read it to him, whereupon he replied with another stanza as
There is no Bodhi-tree,
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is Void,
Where can the dust alight. 15
The Fifth Patriarch saw it and said that the author of this stanza had also not yet realized the Essence of Mind; but next day
the Patriarch came secretly to the room where the rice was pounded, and asked Hui-neng to go to see him in third watch of
the night for religious instruction. The Patriarch expounded the Vajracchedika Sutra to Hui-neng, when he came to the
sentence, One should use ones mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachment, Hui-neng at once became
completely enlightened, and realized that all things in the universe are the Essence of Mind itself.
Then Hui-neng said to the fifth Patriarch Hung-jen:
Who would have thought that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically pure!
Who would have thought that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically free from becoming or annihilation!
Who would have thought that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically self-sufficient!
Who would have thought that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically free from change!
Who would have thought that all things are the manifestation of the Essence of Mind! 16
The fifth Patriarch further said: As robe may give cause for dispute, you are the last one to inherit it. 17
According to the record, Hui-neng inherited the robe at 24, has his hair shaved (i.e., ordained) at 39 and died at the age of
76 (AD. 713)18
2. Hui-neng obtained the Essence of Mind itself from the Diamond Stra:
He was deeply impressed by the words: Thought should spring from a state of non-attachment, in the Vjracchedika Stra
(Diamod Sutra). Hui-neng obtained the Essence of Mind itself from the Diamond sutra, which must have a great influence
on him.
Diamond Sutra is a small book of a great work named Mahaprajnaparamita (Perfection of transcendental wisdom). It may
be called a classic, a scripture or a discourse, as all these three terms are comprehended in the Sanskrit word-sutra, which
is the appellation given to the Sacred books of the Buddhist canon. Maha-prajnaparamita is one of many books in the Great
canon of Mahayana Buddhism, but it is considered as the mother of all Mahayana books, and by for the largest it runs into a
great number of volumes. Many of the books of which this is made up are written in the form of dialogues between the
Buddha and one or other of his chief disciples; but in point of fact these dialogues are not likely to be records of actual
discourses. The Buddha left no written testament, and though records were made from memory by his followers some years
after his passing, many parts of the Northern Canon are of much later date. It is generally considered by the faithful that
these later works enshrine the deep teaching of their Lord, and that these teachings were passed down orally from
generation to generation among those who proved the truth for themselves by practice. Precisely why, when, and by whom,
this oral transmission came to be set down in symbols can not be stated with certainty; but research may provide these data
at any moment.
The writings here concerned are generally considered to the work of the profound and saintly thirteen patriarch, Nagarjuna,
who lived in India in the second century AD.; but it would seem wiser to take the view that there was a succession of authors
and compilers extending over a period of several hundred years from the first century BC, and that the Diamond sutra was
written in the fourth century AD.
Although it forms so small a part of the Great scriptures on the perfection of transcendental wisdom, its importance lies in its
being an epitome of the whole. It is therefore extremely profound and extremely subtle.
The Diamond sutra was first translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva about 400 AD. It is recorded that Kumarajiva was a
native of Kucha, an ancient state in Eastern Turkestan. When he was in his middle age he traveled to Chang-an and there
engaged upon translation work which reached monumental proportions. His rendering of the Diamond sutra is a exquisite
classic which has taken popular precedence in China over subsequent translations made by Bodhiruci, Paramartha, Hsuan-
tsang, I-tsing and Dharmagupta.

III. The background and position of Hui-nengs Chan school in China:

1. Background:
The Chinese are generally considered to be a practical, earthbound people not given to speculations about such religious
problems as the nature of the universe, the afterlife, and so forth. When the Chinese were first brought face to face with
Indian Buddhism with its rich and elaborate imagery, concepts, and modes of thinking, they were fascinated at first and
finally overwhelmed and conquered. However, after a few centuries, the practical nature of the Chinese began affirming
itself, it began to seek for certain features within Buddhism that it could understand and practice, and this effort it soon found
out the dhyana, or Chan in China, practice, as the essence of Buddhism. As a result Chan school emerged and flourished,
particularly under the guidance of Hui-neng, an illiterate but most famous Chan patriarch of the Tang dynasty.
According to Kenneth Chen by late in the 7th century intellectual conditions in China were ready for the development of
Chan Buddhism. For over one hundred and thirty years, from AD, 625 to 755, the Tang dynasty had enjoyed tranquility,
security, and prosperity without any internal rebellion or external invasion to mar the orderly march of events. During this era
all phases of Chinese culture, religion, art, and literature enjoyed a long period of free growth and development. This
development reached its highest level during the 8 th century, the reign of Ming-huang, which started in 713 and moved on
an even, prosperous keel until 755. When the peace of the empire was rudely shattered by An-lu-shan rebellion the
prevailing tendency of the period was one of freedom of expression and naturalism in poetry, art, etc. The Chan movement
during the period is but one aspect of the whole liberating tendency that characterized the age. This is one of the reasons
why it became so popular in China. The school was not so speculative as the Tien-tai, Hua-yenj, and Wei-shih schools,
and hence appealed more to the practice; tendency in Chinese thought. It did not antagonize Confucian thought, and it bore
a close affinity with Taoism in its philosophical ramifications
1. Position of Hui-nengs Chan school in China:
After Hui-ko, the Chan patriarch was translated to Seng-tsan (d. 606). Tao-hsin (580-651), Hung-jen (602-675), and then
Shen-hsiu (600-706). This was the genealogy in vogue during the early part of the eighth century. Shen-hsiu was thus the
sixth in line. But, in 734 a Southern monk named Shen-hui (670-762) suddenly attacked this line of transmission. He
accepted the first five patriarchs, but he contended that the sixth was not Shen-hsiu but was Hui-neng (638-713), who
received the patriarchal robe from Hung-jen. He also attacked the doctrine of gradual enlightenment held by Shen-hsiu and
put forth his own position in favor of complete instantaneous enlightenment, contending that pure wisdom is indivisible and
undifferentiated to be realized completely and instantly or not at all. After firing these shots against Shen-hsiu, Shen-hui
rapidly became well-known and the southern Chan school that he represented grew stronger and stronger. The Northern
school under the leadership of Shen-hsiu s disciples could either stop him or ignore him.
With the triumph of the Southern school of Hui-neng and Shen-hui very little more is heard about the Nothern school. The
subsequent history by of Chan is primarily the history of the Southern school, which is sometimes referred to by historians
as the new Chan because of its emphasis on complete and instantaneous enlightenment, its iconoclastic attitude toward
the Buddhas and Boddhisattvas,and its disregard for literature and rituals. Hover, Hui-neng himself asserted his chan to be
a branch of Orthodox Buddhism.
During the period of emperor Wu-tsung s reign of the Tang dynasty (841-846 A.D.), the emperor Wu-tsung listened to a
Taoist named Chao Kueichen s advice and ordered the destruction of Buddhism and collection of the bells and copper
statues of the monasteries. He ordered his officers to make coins out of the copper statues and agricultural implements of
the iron. People were t surrender Buddha s portraits and vessels of Law to the Government within one month. This is called
the crises of the Three Wu in the history of Buddhism in China.20
After the great persecution of the year 845 A.D. and during the later period of the Five Dynasties (907-960 A.D.), the
Buddhist schools at the close of the Tang period declined, but only Chan flourished. This way of Chan opened the Five of
Meditative Sects (or Five Houses), i.e., Wei (or Kuei)-yang, Yun-men, Tsao-tung, Fa-yen, and Lin-chi. The two of the Five
of Meditative Sects, i.e., The Lin-chi and Tsao-tung Sects were specially flourished very long and splendid .Because the
devotees of Chan in that period do not require Sutras or Sutras for their publicity and preaching; they were living either on
the hills or by the side of rivers, even under trees or in jungles where they cultivated matters of spirit and propagation of their
doctrines.* 38 The Five Houses arose in the Southern Chan, but when these sects were founded id not definitely known,
though it appears to have been soon after the death of Fa-yen (885-958 A.D.),the founder of the last of the Five Houses.
1. The techniques of the Five Meditative Sects:
According to Hui-neng, the spirit of the Chan meditation is no-attachment, no-duality or thoughtless. To transmit the Chan
from the master to disciple, the Five meditative Sects had no special system but some indications in gestures or words, both
of which, being altogether unapproachable, repelled rather than attracted the truth-seekers. According to Suzuki estimate
in his work, Essence of Zen Buddhism, the Zen masters s methods are naturally very uncommon, unconventional, illogical,
and consequently incomprehensible to the uninitiated, paradox, going beyond opposites, contradiction,22

If we trace the history of the Buddhist Sutra and meditation, we shall find out that after attaining the state of mind of
enlightenment by the way of meditation the Buddha made use of words, called Sutra, as a skilful means to express and
transmit his experience to others. After Bodhidharma (the first Patriarch of meditation in China) came to China, he handed
over the Lankavatara Sutra to the Second Patriarch Hui-ko and Hui-ko preached the Lankavatara Sutra. Farther, the Fifth
Patriarch Hui-ko and the Sixth Patriarch Hui-neng who used to recite the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita-Sutra became also
enlightenment through this very sutra. So we come to know that at that time the Patriarch of meditation did not give up the
exoteric aspect of the Buddhist sutras. In other words the Buddhist meditation based and depended on the Buddhist sutra. If
the meditation does not base on or doesnt originate from the Buddhist sutra, it is not the Buddhist meditation.
So, We can conclude that the Hinayana meditation originate from Panchanikaya (the Pli Canon), the Mahayana meditation
originate from the Mahayana stra, and the Ch'an meditation from the Lankavatara sutra and the Diamond sutra. The Hui-
nengs meditaion also origitated from the Diamond Stra. Therefore, Hui-nengs meditation is belong to the Buddhist
Nowadays, we admit that people have more a very high life than the olden times of the two aspects: the tools of labor and
the comfortable life of material. These great results have made from the intelligent persons, who had their efforts in fields of
science, technique, and so on, during the last centuries. They have hoped their results will extinguish all sufferings of human
but until present time people have not yet stopped sufferings from the birth, the old age, the sick, the die, sorrow,
lamentation, pain, grief, despair and not getting what one desires. Beside, there are persons whose mind have been
strained by the crises of moral, the economics, the disasters of earthquake and the infectious sickness of H.I.V.v.v...; the
cold wars of economic, politic, education and society have continuously happened on the world. In the present days,
science is also developed it is easy for people to fulfill their desires and to lure them on to desire more and more. The most
people are too much influenced by their surroundings, which these days seem been designed to stimulate desire. Because
not everyone can get what they want, so evil actions are committed and merit is lost to gain a desired end. From day to day
merit decreases and demerit increases as desires multiply. However, we come to know that all sorrow and problems of
individual or from Human society converge into the Five Hindrances, i.e., Lust, Anger, Pride, Doubt and Ignorant.
The only cure for all above these is to reduce the power of desire, to be free from attachment to all outer objects and an
effective way of doing these is through the teachings of the Hinayana, the Mahayana, and the Hui-nengs Chan meditation.
When the house is on fire it is no use trying to save it with more fire, only water will extinguish it. Similarly, the way out of the
tangle of desires is not to make them stronger by repeatedly indulging them but to weaken them through the way of the
Buddhist meditations.
The meditation in the Early Buddhism and the Hinayana aims at attainment of the state of Nibbana (Sanskrit-Nirvana) while
the meditation in the Mahayana and the Chan of Hui-neng aim at attainment of the state of mind of Enlightenment or the
state of Buddhahood. The words of Nibbana, Enlightenment and Buddhahood are not different in the content. All these
words express Mind is in state of very peace, fresh, clear, subtle, still and free from the Five Hindrances, i. e., Lust, Anger,
Ignorance, Pride, and Doubt.
Through the history of the Buddhist meditation, we come to know that the Buddhist mediation bases on the authority of the
Buddhist sutras in the two system, i.e., the system of the Pli Canons and the system of the Sanskrit Stras. However, for
the aspect of history, the Buddhist meditation, is still limited by the free sprit of itself. The spirit of the Buddhist meditation
stated itself is not cling, not attach to anything beyond dualism and thinking. So even the Early and Hinayana meditators,
which originated in India, did not write down any the meditative materials to the later. The history of the Buddhist meditation
was written and traced by the Chinese and Japanese historians later .According to the history of the Buddhist meditation,
the Early and Hinayana meditation is regarded as the basic factor for the Mahayana and Hui-nengs Chan meditation
developing in the historical forms as well as the contents of the Buddhist meditation.

1 The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, tr. Michael H..Kohn, Boston, 1991, p.56
2 Nanjio, The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng,tr. A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam, Boston, 1969, book two, p.
3 Ibid.,p48
4 Ibid., p.26
5 Ibid., p.27-28
6 Nanjio, The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng,tr. A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam, Boston, 1969, book two, p.44-45
7 Ibid., p.26
8 Ibid., p.43
9 Ibid., p. 103
10 Nanjio, The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng,tr. A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam, Boston, 1969, book two, p.42
11 Ibid., p.3
12 Nanjio, The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng,tr. A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam, Boston, 1969, book two,
13 Junjiro Takakasu, The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy, Dellhi, 1975, pp.167-168
14 Nanjio, The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng,tr. A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam, Boston, 1969, book two,
15 Ibid., p. 18.
16 Ibid., pp. 18-19.
17 Heinrich Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism, tr. Paul Peachey, London, 1963, pp.79-81
18 Heinrich Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism, Opcit., p. 89.
Kenneth Chen, Buddhism in China, Priceton, 1964.
20 Chou Hsiang Kuang, Dhyana Buddhism in China, Allahabad, 1960, p.98.
Heinrich Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism, tr. Paul Peachey, London, 1963, p. 106
* Chou Hsiang Kuang, Dhyana Buddhism in China, Opcit., p. 98.
21 Heinrich Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism, tr. Paul Peachey, London, 1963, p. 106.
22 Suzuki D. T., Essays in Zen Buddhism,First series, London, 1949, p.p. 271-272