What is the Altar Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch?

The Altar Sutra is a Mahayana Buddhist text by the Sixth Patriarch in the Ch’an Buddhist tradition, Hui-neng.

Hui-neng (638–713) is one of the most respected and revered figures in Buddhist history. He was an illiterate woodcutter who suddenly attained Enlightenment upon hearing the Diamond Sutra. He became the Sixth Patriarch in the Ch’an tradition. All Ch’an/Zen lineages descend from him. He is regarded as the creator of the Sudden Enlightenment philosophy. He embodies the fact that anyone can attain Enlightenment, regardless of education, class, or lineage.

His collection of talks is called the Altar Sutra, Liùzǔ Tánjīng. The title is often translated as either ‘the Platform Sutra’ or simply, ‘The Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch’. I think Altar Sutra is a more accurate title, but it is debatable and has been debated at length. Sometimes it’s simply called the Sutra of Huineng.

It is the only Chinese Buddhist text that has been given the title Sutra.

I’m going to write my own line by line commentary of this Sutra, as time permits.

My version differs from most. I have placed Huineng’s autobiography at the end and his wonderful teachings at the beginning.

It’s not that the Master’s story isn’t important. Of course it is. But, I think, far too often we get caught up in hero worship and we pay attention to the story instead of the teachings. The story matters, but the teachings are what we need to remember.

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About Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg is an independent dharma teacher living in Kansas City. He gives online teachings through the Open Heart Project. He also runs the Monday Night Zen Group at the Rime Buddhist Center. His writing has appeared in Lion's Roar, Patheos, Tattooed Buddha, and Elephant Journal.

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