Huineng the Sixth Patriarch of Zen

Picture of Huineng

Huineng's body at Nan Hua Monastery with Master Hanshan on his left and Master Danlian on his right
Huineng's body at Nan Hua Monastery with Master Hanshan on his left and Master Danlian on his right

Huineng Zen Buddhism

The Sutra of Huineng and the Diamond Sutra

There seem to be a lot of Buddhist hubs around at the moment, so I thought I'd join in the fun by posting this brief (actually not quite so brief !) hub on the Sixth Zen Patriarch Huineng.

Huineng was remarkable because he was one of those fortunate people who was uneducated and who found enlightenment at a very early age through no fault of his own. In fact you could say enlightenment found him.

He was also remarkable because after he died his body did not decay but remained intact i the monastery until the 1960s when Chinese Red Guards tried to destroy it during the 'Cultural Revolution' - Nan Hua Monastery

Huineng Biography

He was born in 638 A.D. in the town of Xing in Canton province, China. His family was poor, so he had no chance to learn to read or write. One day he was delivering firewood to an inn when he left the inn he heard a guest outside reciting a sutra. As soon as he heard the sutra his mind at once became enlightened. He then asked the man the name of the book he was reciting. He was told that it was the Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedika or Diamond Cutter).

At this point it may be useful to get a glimpse of what the Diamond Sutra is and what it says. Firstly, what it is. It is a dialogue between the Buddha and one of his disciples Subhuti. It is interesting to note that the Diamond Sutra is the earliest dated and printed book in existence, it was found after being hidden for centuries in a sealed up cave in north-west China - and you can see a digital copy of the scroll in the British Library by clicking here - Diamond Sutra - scroll down and click on 'Oldest Printed Book' (in fact a scroll).

What does the Diamond Sutra say ?


Buddha's Blue Meditation

Buddha's Blue Meditation from
Buddha's Blue Meditation from

The Diamond Sutra is quite short and can be chanted in around 40 minutes. It is designed to destroy illusion. Its main message is that the world is an illusion and that not only the world is an illusion, Buddhism is an illusion, the Buddha is an illusion and that illusion is also an illusion.

Section IX

"Tell me, Subhuti. Does a Buddha say to himself, 'I have obtained Perfect Enlightenment.'?"

"No, Lord. There is no such thing as Perfect Enlightenment to obtain. Lord, if a Perfectly Enlightened Buddha were to say to himself, 'such am I' he would be admitting to an individual identity, a separate self and personality and in such case would not be a Perfectly Enlightened Buddha."

"Oh, World-honored One! Thou hast declared that I, Subhuti, excel amongst Thy holy men in knowing the bliss of samadhi, in being perfectly content in seclusion, and in being free from passions. Yet I do not say to myself that I am so, for if I ever thought of myself as such then it would not be true that I escaped ego delusion. I know that in truth there is no Subhuti and therefore Subhuti abides nowhere, that he neither knows nor is ignorant of bliss, and that he neither is free nor enslaved by passions."

The Diamond Sutra when correctly appreciated undermines everything including itself, as one commentator put it, it is ironic that the earliest dated printed book in existence is a work that "seeks systematically to undermine all clinging to words, all reification of conceptual expression, including its own teachings."

In Section 25 the Buddha talks about the Ego.

"Section XXV. The Illusion of Ego

Subhuti, what do you think? Let no one say the Tathagata (Buddha) cherishes the idea: I must liberate all living beings. Allow no such thought, Subhuti.

Wherefore? Because in reality there are no living beings to be liberated by the Tathagata. If there were living beings for the Tathagata to liberate, He would partake in the idea of selfhood, personality entity, and separate individuality.

Subhuti, though the common people accept egoity as real, the Tathagata declares that ego is not different from non-ego. Subhuti, those whom the Tathagata referred to as "common people" are not really common people; such is merely a name.

In Section 13

"Buddha answered: Subhuti, this Discourse should be known as "The Diamond of the Perfection of Transcendental Wisdom" - thus should you receive and retain it. Subhuti, what is the reason herein?

According to the Buddha-teaching the Perfection of Transcendental Wisdom is not really such. "Perfection of Transcendental Wisdom" is just the name given to it. Subhuti, what do you think? Has the Tathagata a teaching to enunciate?

Subhuti replied to the Buddha: World-honored One, the Tathagata has nothing to teach. "

This is part of the Diamond Sutra that Huineng heard over 1500 years ago.

Huineng asked the man where he came from and why he recited this particular sutra. The man replied that he came from Dong Shan Monastery in the Huang Mei District of Qi Zhou; that the Abbot in charge of this temple was Hong Ren, the Fifth Patriarch; ..... that His Holiness encouraged people to recite this sutra as by doing so they might realize their own Essence of Mind, and thereby reach Buddhahood directly.

Huineng determined to travel to Huang Mei Mountain, where the Fifth Patriarch Hongren presided, this took him 30 days on foot..

When he arrived he went to pay homage to the Patriarch. He was asked where he came from and what he expected to get. Huineng replied, "I am a commoner from Hsin Chou of Kwangtung. I have travelled far to pay you respect and I ask for nothing but Buddhahood."

"You are a native of Kwangtung, a barbarian? How can you expect to be a Buddha?" asked the Patriarch. Huineng replied, "Although there are northern men and southern men, north and south make no difference to their Buddha-nature. A barbarian is different from Your Holiness physically, but there is no difference in our Buddha-nature."

Hongren asked him to work in the rice mill. Huineng chopped wood and pounded rice for eight months.

One day Hongren announced that the person who wrote the best stanza to describe his understanding of the Essence of Mind would be named the Sixth Patriarch.

Shenxiu was the head monk and so wrote a gatha for Hongren. but as he was uncertain as to his understanding, he wrote it anonymously on the wall in the middle of the night. The gatha stated :

The body is a Bodhi tree,
the mind a standing mirror bright.
At all times polish it diligently,
and let no dust alight

When Hongren read the gatha he praised it saying that such practice would bring great benefits. But in private he told Shenxiu "You have arrived at the gate, but haven’t entered it. With this level of understanding, you still have no idea what the supreme Bodhi mind is. Upon hearing my words, you should immediately recognize the original mind, the essential nature, which is unborn and unceasing. At all times, see it clearly in every thought, with the mind free from all hindrances. In the One Reality, everything is real, and all phenomena are just as they are."

Hongren asked Shenxiu to write another gatha to demonstrate true understanding, but Shenxiu was unable to do so.

One day Huineng, who could not read or write, heard a young novice chant Shenxiu's gatha, he immediately knew the verse lacked true insight.

He therefore asked a district officer to write a poem of his own for him on the wall.
The surprised officer said "How extraordinary! You are illiterate, and you want to compose a poem?" Whereupon Huineng said, "If you seek supreme enlightenment, do not slight anyone. The lowest class may have great insights, and the highest class may commit foolish acts." In veneration, the officer wrote Huineng’s gatha on the wall for him, next to Shenxiu's.

Huineng's gatha stated :

Bodhi is no tree,
nor is the mind a standing mirror bright.
Since all is originally empty,
where does the dust alight?

When Hongren read the gatha he casually said, "This hasn’t seen the essential nature either," and wiped the gatha off the wall with his shoe.

One night, however, Hongren received Huineng and expounded the Diamond Sutra to him. At the passage, "to use the mind yet be free from any attachment," Huineng came to great enlightenment—that all dharmas (things) are inseparable from the self nature. He exclaimed, "How amazing that the self nature is originally pure! How amazing that the self nature is unborn and undying! How amazing that the self nature is inherently complete! How amazing that the self nature neither moves nor stays! How amazing that all dharmas come from this self nature!"

Hongren said "If one recognizes the original mind and the original nature, he is called a great man, teacher of gods and humans, and a Buddha." He gave Huineng the robe and begging bowl as a symbol of the Dharma Seal of Sudden Enlightenment.

However, for his own safety, Huineng was not allowed to make himself known as the Sixth Patriarch until much later. Hongren feared that the other monks might be angered that Shenxiu or one of the other more senior monks had not been made Sixth patriarch.

Section 17 of the Diamond Sutra

Buddha replied to Subhuti: Good men and good women seeking the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment must create this resolved attitude of mind: I must liberate all living beings, yet when all have been liberated, verily not any one is liberated. Wherefore? If a Bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego-entity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality, he is consequently not a Bodhisattva, Subhuti. This is because in reality there is no formula which gives rise to the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment.

Comments 4 comments

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 7 years ago from South Africa

Excellent exposition of the teachings of the Sixth Patriarch. Thanks very much

Love and peace


Bloggify profile image

Bloggify 7 years ago Author

Hi Tony - thanks for dropping by and thanks for the compliment - love and peace to you too - Vic

newday98033 5 years ago

A lot like a free pass to the hot dog stand at a Mariner game (back when it was busy). Thank you Bloggfly, very illuminating!

pat 4 years ago

I'm looking for more of the story of Huineng, can you help? I understand that he fled the monastery and lived as a vagrant. That's the part I would like to hear more about.

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