Altar Sutra: The Sudden School and the Gradual School

While the Patriarch was living in Pao Lin Monastery giving teachings there was a competing teacher in the North of China named Shen Hsiu.

Shen Hsiu was a very accomplished and respected student of the Fifth Patriarch. Many people expected Shen Hsiu to receive Dharma Transmission, but it went to Hui-neng instead. Shen Hsiu’s Ch’an lineage died out, so all Ch’an lineages today descend from Hui-neng.

The two schools were sometimes called ‘Sudden’ and ‘Gradual’. Many Ch’an students wondered which school they should follow.

Seeing that many were having this difficulty, the Patriarch gave this teaching:
“The truth is there is only one School. Distinctions are not real. While there is only one Dharma, some students realize it more quickly than others.

As far as the Dharma is concerned, distinctions between Sudden and Gradual do not exist.”
Many of the followers of Shen Hsiu had negative things to say about the Patriarch and his teachings. Shen Hsiu himself, on the other hand, always said that the Patriarch was Enlightened and gave good teachings.

A student of Shen Hsiu named Chi Ch’eng came to learn from the Patriarch. They discussed the differences between the two Schools.

“How does your teacher give instructions?” the Patriarch asked.
“He tells us to meditate on purity, to keep up the sitting position all the time,” replied Chi Ch’eng.
“To meditate on purity and restrict ourselves to just sitting is not helpful,” Hui-neng replied, “Listen to my stanza:
A living man sits and does not lie down all the time
A dead man lies down and does not sit.
Why should we impose this task of just sitting?”

Bowing, Chi Ch’eng said, “Although I have studied Buddhism for nine years under the teachings of Shen Hsiu, my mind was not Awakened. But as soon as you gave this teachings I was Enlightened. Please teach me more.”

“Tell me how your teacher gives instructions in Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom,” Hui-neng replied.

“According to his teaching,” Chi-cheng said, “To refrain from all evil is Morality. To practice whatever is good is Wisdom. To purify one’s own mind is Dhyana. May I know your system of teaching?”

“I am not a teacher. I am an awakener. If I told you I had a system that I transmitted to others, that would not be correct. I liberate my students from suffering with whatever means the situation requires.
The way your master teaches Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom is wonderful, but my explanations are different. The teachings of your master are for followers of the Mahayana School. Mine is for those of the Supreme School. In expounding the Dharma I speak what I realize intuitively. I do not deviate from the Buddha nature that is inherent in all of us.
The true teaching of Morality, Meditation and Wisdom should derive from our Buddha nature.

Listen to my stanza:
To free the mind from impurity is the Morality of Buddha nature.
To free the mind from disturbances is the Meditation of Buddha nature.”

Addressing the assembly of students one day the Patriarch said, “I have an article which has no head or name, no front or back. Do any of you know it?”

A young student named Shen Hui came forward and replied, “It is the source of all Buddhas and the Buddha nature of Shen Hui.”

“I have told you already that it is without name and yet you name it.”

Again, from Taoist philosophy: “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” the truth is beyond words and labels.

Seeing that the students had many questions the Patriarch said, “One who walks the path should do away with all thoughts, good as well as evil. It is merely an expedient that we put a label on Buddha nature. This non-dual nature is our true nature upon which all Dharma systems of teaching are based. One should realize their Buddha nature as soon as they hear of it.”

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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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