The Legacy of Hui Neng “image by JACKRATANA”
by Robert Chu
Of all figures in Chinese history, the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng (638 – 713), is in my opinion amongst the most influential. Even now, the true founder of Chinese Zen (aka Chan in Chinese) Buddhism’s influence is far reaching in today’s society. Perhaps you may have heard of Hui Neng’s teachings. They have been drawn from and popularized in today’s books on golf, tennis, shooting, motorcycle maintenance, and even martial arts. Even Bruce Lee read and studied D.T. Suzuki’s work entitled “The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind” which is an essay discussing Hui Neng’s life and work in the book, “6th Patriarch Platform Sutra”. Hui Neng’s teaching certainly appears in the “Tao of Jeet Kune Do” and sadly, not given credit for. Hui Neng simplified and interpreted the Buddha’s way in a practical light, simply pointing at the realization of self as enlightenment, instead of going through rituals, Zenting, sutra reading, seated meditation and the like to reach enlightenment. In his way, Hui Neng also burned a path for martial arts masters to take the complex and simplify the material, as he did with transplanted Indian Buddhism in China.
Hui Neng became the 6th Patriarch of Zen under unusual and extraordinary circumstances. He started out as a poor illiterate peasant boy from Xin Zhou (present day Guang Dong/Canton) selling firewood. One day, he overheard a man reciting from the Diamond Sutra – “All Bodhisattvas (Compassionate Ones) should develop a pure mind which clings to nothing whatsoever.” At these words, Hui Neng became enlightened. So many martial artists, Buddhists, and others seeking the truth, rarely have this much luck to attain enlightenment in just a flash. The stranger who recited this sutra passage encouraged Hui Neng to meet the Fifth Zen Patriarch, Hong Ren, at the Dong Qian Monastery in Huang Mei. Upon meeting the Fifth Patriarch, Hui Neng said, “I am a commoner from Xin Zhou, Guangdong. I have traveled far to pay you respect, and I ask for nothing but Buddhahood.”
Hong Ren replied, “You, a barbarian? A southerner (Cantonese), how can you expect to be a Buddha?”
Hui Neng replied, “Although there are northerners and southerners, Buddha nature makes no distinction of north and south. A barbarian may be different from you physically, but there is no difference in our Buddha Nature.” Delighted, Hong Ren immediately accepted Hui Neng, but put him to work in the kitchen and splitting fire logs for 8 months.
Getting along in years, the Fifth Patriarch told his followers to express their wisdom in a poem. The one that had true understanding of his original nature (awakening or “Buddha Nature”) would be ordained the Sixth Patriarch. Shen Xiu, the most learned and senior disciple wrote the following:
“The body is the bodhi-tree,
The mind is like a bright mirror on a stand;
Take care to wipe it clean from time to time,
to allow no dust to cling.”
The poem showed the Fifth Patriarch that Shen Xiu had not yet found his original nature, so he asked him to try again. Shen Xiu could not. He reminds me of certain martial arts theorists of today. The commotion and praise of Shen Xiu’s poem drew Hui Neng’s attention, who stated he also had a poem. As Hui Neng was illiterate, he had a visiting magistrate write for him:
“Fundamentally no bodhi-tree exists,
Nor the stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is empty from the beginning,
Where can the dust alight?”
The Fifth Patriarch pretended that he wasn’t impressed with this poem in front of his long time disciples, but he summoned Hui Neng to his chambers in the middle of the night. The Fifth Patriarch personally read and clarified the Diamond Sutra to Hui Neng, and passed on Bodhidharma’s robe and bowl as a symbol of his successorship. Hui Neng was advised to hide in the South and to hide his successorship until the proper time. Imagine your sifu teaching and explaining one form to a newcomer to your gwoon and then declaring him his successor! Just like in Wing Chun, we have a saying, “Don’t speak of who is first or last, the one who attains is first!”
As amazing as it seems, fellow monks were jealous and ignorant, and deludely believing that the transmission was material, and decided to get back the robe and the bowl. After pursuing Hui Neng for months, Hui Ming, a former fourth rank General, found him on top of a mountain. When Hui Neng was about to be overtaken by Hui Ming, he threw the robe and the begging bowl on a rock, and quickly hid. When Hui Ming arrived at the rock, he tried to pick up the robe and bowl, but was unable to do so. He cried out, “Lay Brother, I come for the way, not for the robe.” Hui Neng emerged from his hiding place and sat down on the rock. Hui Ming showed proper respect and begged him to teach him. Hui Neng said, “Since the object of your coming is the teachings, refrain from thinking of anything and keep your mind empty. I will then teach you.” They meditated together for a considerable time, then Hui Neng asked Hui Ming, “When you are thinking of neither good nor evil, at this particular moment, what is your original nature (Buddha Nature)?” As soon as Hui Ming heard this, he instantly became enlightened. Hui Ming then further asked, “Apart from those esoteric sayings and esoteric ideas handed down by the Fifth Patriarch from generation to generation, are there any other secrets?” Hui Neng replied, “What I can tell you is not secret. If you turn your awareness inwardly and you will find what is secret within you.” Now, I have to interject here, after achieving the basics, how many of you think there are still some mysterious secrets in your martial arts?
Hui Neng’s statement of “what did your original face look like before you were born? ” was used as a kong an (aka “koan” in Japanese, a question) from then on. Kong ans represent pointing to truths that can’t be understood by logic alone. Hui Neng’s koan cuts through concepts and speculations about one’s nature. It wakes up the practitioner. Just like in martial arts, who becomes a master is the one who attains first. It has nothing to do with outward ranks, certificates, colored belts and trophies; mastery comes from within you. You can compare the martial arts as a kung an also. What did your martial art look like before you started training?
At the time of the Fifth Patriarch, Zen Buddhism still placed emphasis on Sutra reading and discussions focussing around important Mahayana sutras, such as the Lankavatara Sutra, Maha Parinirvana Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Prajna Paramita Sutra and other works. Also important were conceptual discussions and the thought that gradual attainment of enlightenment would be the end goal. Hui Neng’s way differed. It was the beginning of the simple, direct and economical pointing of direct awakening.
Martial arts is like Buddhism in many ways. Sutras are like martial arts forms. Question and answer sessions are like two man sensitivity drills, mantras are like fist sayings, mudras are like salutations and hidden gestures. Many can intellectualize or memorize passages on mastery, but really have not come to true mastery. I’m sure you have all met great martial arts theorists and sutra reading monks, but true mastery is alive and different and in the moment.
Hui Neng taught three concepts that applies to martial arts today, that of unconsciousness, formlessness, and the non-abiding mind. Formlessness means to be in form and yet be detached from it; unconsciousness is meant to have thoughts and yet not to have them, and non-abiding is to have the primary nature of man.” (paraphrased from D.T. Suzuki’s “The Zen Doctrine of No Mind”). Can we not see the liberation from the fixed that Hui Neng passed down to us? We get stuck in the different facets of martial arts training, but in using them, you must be alive in the moment. Then you will have attained mastery.
Hui Neng founded the pragmatic, Zen school so that the Chinese could understand Zen. Some referred to his teachings as the “school of sudden enlightenment”. His teachings showed that sudden enlightenment was possible, given the right teacher and method. Hui Neng’s teaching emphasize non-duality and oneness of everything. After his death, his teachings were collected and classified as the only Chinese Buddhist sutra, called “Liu Zhu Tan Jing” (“The Sixth Patriarch’s Platform Sutra”, also known as the “Sutra of Hui Neng” or the “Platform Sutra” in English). His school of Sudden Awakening is the major school of Chinese Buddhism that spread abroad to Korea, Japan, Vietnam and now all over the world. Hui Neng defined seated Zen meditation as: “In the midst of all good and evil, not a thought is aroused in the mind – this is called Zen. Seeing into one’s original nature, not being moved at all – this is Zen.” He taught that Zen should be practiced at all times, not just during formal sitting. He stressed the attitude of mind that is most important, and not the physical posture, because truth can be found seated, standing, walking, lying down, or even practicing martial arts forms. Taken further to modern times, these concepts can help us in business, driving, surfing the internet, writing, and any other endeavor.
The most important point in the teaching of the Zen lies in introspection, to look inwardly. To illustrate, let us take the analogy of punching. We know that when a punch lands, it should have devastating effect on our opponent. If we engross too much on the outer appearance, style’s requirements, mechanics, timing, positioning and force of a punch, rather than being in the moment of a punch when it is correct to do so, we can rarely punch correctly and in the moment. If we can just punch, then that is real mastery.
We live in a time of many “masters”. In Hui Neng’s time, many suggested they were enlightened, but when a truly enlightened man came, no one could tell the difference between real and fake. The situation is pretty much the same today, where everyone claims to be masters of the martial arts, yet cannot master themselves, nor use their martial arts to take them as a way of finding wisdom to cross over from ignorance. A martial artist who develops his art to a high level should know that the principles of his art have their purpose and are without limit.