The Altar Sutra: Temperament and Circumstances

A monk named Fa Hai in his first interview with the Patriarch asked him to explain the meaning of the proverb: “What mind is, Buddha is’.

The Patriarch replied, “Prajna is mind. Samadhi is Buddha. In practicing Prajna and Samadhi, let them be equal. Then our thoughts will be pure. This can only be understood if we practice.
Samadhi functions, but does not become. The teaching is to practice Prajna as well as Samadhi.”

After hearing this Fa Hai was Enlightened.

He said, “Now I know the causes of Prajna and Samadhi, both of which I wll practice to free myself from attachment.”

One day Chih Ch’ang asked the Patriarch, “The Buddha taught about the ‘Three Vehicles’ and also the ‘Supreme Vehicles’. Can you explain this?”

The Patriarch replied, “Look within yourself. The differences between these four vehicles don’t exist in the Dharma, but only in our minds.”

“To see, hear, and recite the sutra is the small vehicle.”
“To know the Dharma and understand it’s meaning is the middle vehicle.”
“To put the Dharma into practice is the great vehicle. To understand thoroughly all Dharmas, to absorb them completely, to be free of attachments, to be above phenomena is the Supreme Vehicle.”

“All depends on practicing things yourself, so you do not need to ask more. But I will remind you at all time that your true nature is Awakened.”

Chih Ch’ang bowed and thanked the Patriarch. He acted as the Patriarch’s assistant until his death.

Things could get confusing here. Branches of Buddhism are divided into ‘yanas’ or vehicles. In the modern world the most common division is Hinayana, Mahayana (of which Hui-neng is a member), and Vajrayana. But, that’s not the division Hui-neng is talking about. The three yanas he is referring to are these:
Sravakayana: For those who attain Enlightenment by listening to or reading the teachings of the Buddha.
Pratyekabuddhayana: Those who achieve liberation by practicing the Dharma but do not teach others. They are said to remain silent and solitary.
Bodhisattvayana: Those who attain Enlightenment in order to help awaken others and lead as many to Enlightenment as possible.

One day the Patriarch was looking for a place to wash the robe he had inherited. He found a stream to wash it behind the monastery and when he was washing it a monk appeared.

“My name is Fang Pien. When I was in South India I met the Patriarch Bodhidharma and he told me to return to China.”

Bodhidharma is the first Chinese Patriarch, the man who brought Dhyana teachings to China. He is the first in the lineage which claims Hui-neng as the sixth. Because he couldn’t still be alive in Hui-neng’s time, it seems that Fang Pien is telling a story about meeting Bodhidharma’s ghost.

“Bodhidharma told me that the lineage had been transmitted to you, so I came to find you. Can you show me the robe and bowl that you have inherited?” Fang Pien said.

“After a long voyage, I have arrived.  May I see the robe and begging bowl you inherited? ”

The Patriarch showed him the robe and bowl.

Fang Pien showed the Patriarch a life-like sculpture he had made of Bodhidharma.

The Patriarch gave Fang Pien a special blessing.

A monk quoted the following stanzed by Dhyana Master Wo Lun: “There are ways and means to protect the mind from all thoughts. When circumstances do not react on the mind, the Tree of Enlightenment will grow steadily.”

Hearing this the Patriarch said, “The writer of this stanza has not realized Awakening. To put it’s teaching into practice would not Awaken you.”

The Patriarch recited his own stanza:
“Hui-neng has no ways and means to protect the mind from all thoughts. Circumstances often react on the mind. How can the Tree of Enlightenment grow?”

 

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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. His writing has appeared in Lion's Roar, Patheos, Tattooed Buddha, and Elephant Journal.

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