Huineng, Sixth Patriarch of Zen

The Ideal of a Zen Maser

Huineng
Huineng tearing sutras to shreds. Liang-k'ai, 12th century. Public Domain, via Wikipedia Commons

The influence of the Chinese master Huineng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of Ch'an (Zen), resonates through Ch'an and Zen Buddhism to this day. Some consider Huineng, not Bodhidharma, to be the true father of Zen. His tenure, at the beginning of the T'ang Dynasty, marks the beginning of what is still called the "golden age" of Zen.

Huineng stands at the juncture where Zen shed its vestigial Indian trappings and found its unique spirit -- direct and unflinching.

From him flow all schools of Zen that exist today.

Nearly all of what we know about Huineng is recorded in the "Sutra From the High Seat of the Dharma Treasure," or more commonly, the Platform Sutra. This is a seminal work of Zen literature. The Platform Sutra presents itself as a collection of talks given by the Sixth Patriarch at a temple in Guangzhou (Canton). Its passages are still actively discussed and used as a teaching devices in all schools of Zen. Huineng also appears in some of the classic koans.

Historians believe the Platform Sutra was composed after Huineng had died, probably by a disciple of one of Huineng's dharma heirs, Shenhui (670-762). Even so, historian Heinrich Dumoulin wrote, "It is this figure of Hui-neng that Zen has elevated to the stature of the Zen master par excellence. His teachings stand at the source of all the widely diverse currents of Zen Buddhism. ... In classical Zen literature, the dominant influence of Hui-neng is assured.

The figure of the Sixth Patriarch embodies the essence of Zen." (Zen Buddhism: A History, India and China [Macmillan, 1994])

Huineng's teachings focused on inherent enlightenment, sudden awakening, the wisdom of emptiness (sunyata), and meditation. His emphasis was on realization through direct experience rather than study of sutras.

In legends, Huineng locks libraries and rips sutras to shreds.

The Patriarchs

Bodhidharma (ca. 470-543) founded Zen Buddhism at the Shaolin Monastery in what is now Henan Province of north central China. Bodhidharma was the First Patriarch of Zen.

According to Zen legend, Bodhidharma bequeathed his robe and alms bowl to Huike (or Hui-k'o, 487-593), the Second Patriarch. In time the robe and bowl were passed to the Third Patriarch, Sengcan (or Seng-ts'an, d. ca. 606); the Fourth, Diaoxin (Tao-hsin, 580-651); and the Fifth, Hongren (Hung-jen, 601-674). Hongren was abbot of a monastery on Shuangfeng Mountain, in what is now Hubei Province.

Huineng Comes to Hongren

According to the Platform Sutra, Huineng was a poor, illiterate young man of southern China who was selling firewood when he heard someone reciting the Diamond Sutra, and he had an awakening experience. The man reciting the sutra had come from Hongren's monastery, Huineng learned. Huineng traveled to Shuangfeng Mountain and presented himself to Hongren.

Hongren saw that this uneducated youth from south China had rare understanding. But to protect Huineng from jealous rivals, he put Huineng to work doing chores instead of inviting him into the Buddha Hall for teaching.

The Last Passing of the Robe and Bowl

What follows is a story describing a pivotal moment in Zen history.

One day Hongren challenged his monks to compose a verse that expressed their understanding of the dharma. If any verse reflects the truth, Hongren said, the monk who composed it will receive the robe and bowl and become the Sixth Patriarch.

Shenxiu (Shen-hsiu), the most senior monk, accepted this challenge and wrote this verse on a monastery wall:

The body is the bodhi tree.
The heart-mind is like a mirror.
Moment by moment wipe and polish it,
Not allowing dust to collect. 

When someone read the verse to the illiterate Huineng, the future Sixth Patriarch knew Shenxiu had missed it. Huineng dictated this verse for another to write for him:

Bodhi originally has no tree,
The mirror has no stand.
Buddha-nature is always clean and pure;
Where might dust collect?

Hongren recognized Huineng's understanding but did not publicly announce him the winner. In secret he instructed Huineng on the Diamond Sutra and gave him Bodhidharma's robe and bowl. But Hongren also said that, since the robe and bowl were desired by many who didn't deserve it, Huineng should be the last to inherit them to keep them from becoming objects of contention.

Chronicles of the Northern School

The standard story of Huineng and Shenxiu comes from the Platform Sutra. Historians have found other chronicles that tell a very different story. According to followers of what was called the Northern School of Zen, it was Shenxiu, not Huineng, who was named the Sixth Patriarch. It's not even clear that Shenxiu and Huineng lived at Hongren's monastery at the same time, throwing the famous poetry contest story into doubt.

Read More: The Northern and Southern School of Early Zen History

Whatever happened, Shenxiu's llineage eventually faded away. Every Zen teacher today traces his lineage through Huineng.

It is believed Huineng left Hongren's monastery and remained secluded for 15 years. Then, deciding he had been secluded long enough, Huineng went to Fa-hsin Temple (now called Guangxiaosi) in Guangzhou, where he was recognized as Sixth Patriarch.

Huineng was said to have died while sitting in zazen at the Nanhua Temple in Caoxi, where to this day a mummy said to be that of Huineng remains seated and robed.