Altar Sutra: The Story of Hui-neng

This story was told by the Patriarch at Pao Lin Monastery and was transcribed by his students.
This teaching was attended by government officials, Confucian scholars, monks and nun, laymen and laywomen, and Taoist Philosophers.

The congregation asked him to give the most complete teaching he could and he told the story of how he came to be the sixth Patriarch.

“Our true nature is the seed of Enlightenment. It is pure and by making use of it we can Awaken.
Let me tell you about my life and how I came to be in possession of the Mystical teachings of the Ch’an School.
My father died when I was very young and my mother was poor.
We lived in Canton in bad circumstances.
I was selling firewood in the market one day when, outside a shop I heard a man reciting a Sutra.

So, Hui-neng’s mother didn’t have anyone to help her raise him after his father died. They were so poor that he had to go sell wood at the market to help support them. This was not an unusual condition for a poor family in this context.

As soon as I heard this text, I had an experience of Awakening. I asked the man what the name of the book was that he was reciting and he told me that it was the Diamond Sutra.

The Diamond Sutra is one of the most revered texts in all of Mahayana Buddhism. It is a classic of the world’s spiritual literature. It is a short text, around 6,000 words, but it has been interpreted in many different ways. The title in Sanskrit is Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, which translates to ‘the diamond cutting perfection of wisdom Sutra. It’s been said that just hearing one line of the text can bring one to Enlightenment and that is the assertion Hui-neng is claiming.

I asked the man why he was reciting this Sutra and he said that he came from Tung Ch’an Monastery and he was being given lectures on the Sutra by the Abbot of the temple, Hung Yen, the Fifth Patriarch.
He told me that the Patriarch encouraged laity as well as monks to recite this Sutra, as by doing so they might become Enlightened.

I think it was because of good karma from past lives that I came upon this man. He gave me money to leave for my mother so I could go to the monastery and meet the Fifth Patriarch myself.
The journey to the Monastery took me thirty days.

I went to meet the Patriarch.

When I met him he asked where I had come from and what I expected to gain.

I replied, “I am a peasant from Kwangtung. I have travelled to pay you respect and I ask for nothing but Awakening.”

“You are a native of Kwangtung? A barbarian? How can you become Awakened?” asked the Patriarch.

I replied, “Although there are northern and southern men, north and south make no difference to their Buddha nature. A barbarian is different from you physically, but there is no difference in Buddha nature.”
I was given a job pounding rice in the monastery.

Eight months later the Patriarch assembled his students.

He said, “Whatever merits you gain in life are of no help if your Buddha nature remains obscured. Go look for Prajna within your own minds and write a gatha about it.”

Gatha is a Sanskrit word that means song. Students often write gathas when they gain Dharma Transmission.

“Whoever composes a gatha that demonstrates an understanding of their Buddha nature will be given Dharma Transmission and will become the Sixth Patriarch. Go.”

Dharma transmission is a custom in which a person is established as a successor in a spiritual bloodline, an unbroken lineage of teachers and students that is theoretically traced back to the Buddha himself. This system may have been created to reflect the importance of family structures in ancient China to form a symbolic ritual for the establishment of the spiritual family. Bodhidharma brought this lineage to China. He passed it on to Huike. Huike passed it on to Sengcan. Sengcan passed it on to Daoxin. Daoxin passed it on to Hung Yen, the Fifth Patriarch in this story.

The students left. They all thought that it would be Shen Hsiu, the Patriarch’s best student that would write the best gatha. They all believed in him. They decided it was not worth their time to even make an effort when they thought they knew what the outcome would be.

Shen Hsiu took notice. He saw that none of the other students were trying to compete. He was actually not as confident in himself as all of the other students were, but he decided to go ahead and compose a gatha.

He was nervous. He did not believe he was worthy of Dharma Transmission. But, at the same time, he couldn’t possibly pass up the opportunity to try.

In front of the Patriarch’s hall there were pictures from the Lankavatara Sutra as well as pictures of the Five Patriarchs. Across from these there was a blank wall.

The Lankavatara Sutra is another beloved Mahayana text. It takes places in Sri Lanka and involves a deep discussion between the Buddha and a Bodhisattva named Mahamati.

Shen Hsiu couldn’t summon the courage to submit his gatha, so he wrote on the blank wall instead. He thought that if the Patriarch read it and declared it was good, he could reveal that he had written it. And if the Patriarch said it was bad, he did not have to come forward.
At midnight he went with a lamp and wrote his gatha on the wall.
he course of four days he made altogether thirteen attempts to do so. 

The gatha read:
Our body is the Bodhi-tree,
And our mind a mirror bright. 
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight.

The Patriarch saw the gatha and said that it was good. He had all of his students recite it.
Later, he asked Shen Hsiu in private if he had written it.

“I did,” replied Shen Hsiu, “I do not know if I deserve to be the Patriarch. Can you tell me if my gatha shows any sign of wisdom?”

“Your gatha shows that you have not yet unleashed your Buddha nature. So far you have reached the doorway to Enlightenment, but you have not entered.

To become Enlightened, one must know one’s own true nature. Once your true nature is known you will be free from delusion and will dwell in harmony.

Such a state of mind is the Truth. If you see things in such a state of mind, you will be Enlightened.
Go write another gatha and if it shows you have entered the door of Enlightenment, then I will transmit the Dharma to you.”

Shen Hsiu bowed and left.

For a few days he tried to write another gatha, but he could not.

Two days later a boy read the gatha and came to recite it for me.

As soon as I heard it, I knew that he hadn’t realized his true nature.

The boy told me about the Patriarch’s instruction to his students to write a gatha.
I composed a gatha of my own and asked him to write it next to the first one for me.

Hui-neng was raised in poverty. In that era, literacy was not the norm. Because he was raised in poverty he did not know how to read or write. This story gives us the important lesson that anyone can attain Enlightenment, regardless of education or social standing. Because Hui-neng could not read or write, he had to ask for help.

My gatha read:
There is no Bodhi-tree,
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is Void,
Where can the dust alight?

Shen Hsiu’s gatha was wise, but he was still thinking in duality. Hui-neng’s gatha tears through that duality to try to get to the truth.

Everyone that saw this was surprised. They wondered how such a wise and Enlightened individual was working for the monastery. Seeing that the crowd was overwhelmed, the Patriarch declared that I had not yet Awakened.
The next night the Patriarch summoned me to his room.

In his room, he gave teachings from the Diamond Sutra to me. When it came to the line, “One should use one’s mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachment,” I immediately became Enlightened and I realized that the whole universe is one, that when we realize our Buddha nature, we understand that we are one with everything.

“Our true nature is inherently pure. Free from the beginning, perfect. Everything is a manifestation of Buddha nature,” I said.
Knowing that I had Awakened, the Patriarch said, “For one who does not know his own mind, there is no use in learning Buddhism.
One the other hand, if one knows his own mind and intuitively sees their own nature, they are a hero, a teacher, a Buddha.”

So, he transmitted the Dharma to me and I inherited the lineage of the Patriarchs as well as his robe and begging bowl.

“You are now the Sixth Patriarch,” he said, “Take care of yourself and bring as many beings as you can to Enlightenment. Spread and preserve the teaching and don’t let it come to an end. Take note f my gatha:
Those who sow the seeds of Enlightenment will reap the fruit of Buddhahood.
Objects neither sow nor reap.

When the Patriarch Bodhidharma first came to China, most people had no confidence in him and his robe was handed down as testimony from one Patriarch to the next.
The Dharma is transmitted from one mind to another and the recipient must realize it by their own efforts. It has always been the practice for one Awakened being to pass on the teachings and the Dharma to a successor. And for one Patriarch to transmit to another a mystical teaching from one mind to another. This is the teaching of the Ch’an Patriarchs and Masters, which I have transmitted to you.

As there may be dispute among those who are jealous of you, you should leave immediately and preserve and protect this sacred Dharma. Go seclude yourself. You will know when the time is right to give teachings.”
Many jealous students of the Patriarch did pursue me. I went to a remote place to live.
A monk named Hui Ming found me. I thought he was coming to attack, but when he saw me he asked for teachings.
He said, “I haven’t come to take the robe and bowl from you. I have come to receive teachings.”
I replied, “Since you have come here for the Dharma, I will teach you. Clear your mind. When you are thinking of neither good nor evil, in that moment you are dwelling in your true nature, beyond duality.”
As soon as he heard this he became Enlightened. But he asked, “Apart from those mystical teachings and ideas handed down by the Patriarch from generation to generation are the any other secret teachings?”

“What I can tell you is not a secret,” I replied, “If you turn your light inward, you will find the secrets are within you.”
“In all of my time at the monastery I did not Awaken. Now, thanks to your teachings, I have. You are now my teacher.”
As I was not yet ready to teach, I sent him away.

I stayed in hiding for fifteen years, although occasionally I gave teachings to those I found in the wilderness.

One day, I knew it was the right time. I went to the Fa Hsin Temple in Canton.
When I approached two monks were looking at a flag that was blowing in the wind. One said it was the flag that was moving and the other said that it was the wind that was moving.
I declared that they were both wrong and the real motion was in their minds.
They were impressed by this and took me inside to meet Dharma Master Yin Tsung.
He questioned me about the Buddha’s teachings. Seeing that my answers were correct, he said,
“I was told long ago that the successor to the Fifth Patriarch would come here. Is this you?”
I nodded. He immediately bowed and asked me to show the assembled monks my robe and begging bowl.

He further asked what instructions I had when the Fifth Patriarch transmitted the Dharma to me.

“He told me that Buddha nature is all that there is, that duality is an illusion. Buddhism doesn’t really have two ways. From the perspective of the unawakened the component parts of an individual and factors of consciousness are separate, but Enlightened ones understand that they are not really separate. Buddha nature is non-duality.”

Yin Tsung was pleased with my answer.
“Your teachings are more valuable than mine.”

He ordained me as a monk and asked me to accept him as my student.

At this point Hui-neng reminds us that he was not a monk when he received Dharma Transmission. Enlightenment is available to everyone because at our core we all have Buddha nature.

Since then, I gave teachings.
We are fortunate to be here and able to lay the foundation for the successful propagation of the Dharma.
This teaching has been handed down from Patriarchs throughout history and is not my creation. Those who wish to hear it should first purify their minds. After hearing it they should each clear up their doubts in the same way that sages did in the past.”

The assembled students bowed and thanked me for my teaching.

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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, the largest virtual mindfulness community in the world. His writing has appeared in Lion's Roar, Patheos, Tattooed Buddha, and Elephant Journal.

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