HUINENG (638–713) was a Chan Buddhist teacher, who is best considered in terms of two entirely different persona: historical and legendary.
The Historical Figure
Very little is known about the historical Huineng. He was included in an early list of the ten most important students of Hongren (601–674), the primary figure of the East Mountain Teaching phase of early Chan. However, the list identifies him as a teacher of merely regional significance, and the only credible detail known about him is that after his death his family home was donated to the saṃgha (i.e., the Buddhist monastic community) for use as a temple, which implies a certain degree of wealth and local prominence. Presumably because of Huineng's place of residence in the far south of China, no awareness of his religious teachings was conveyed either to the Buddhist centers of the Yangzi River valley or the two capitals of Luoyang and Chang'an. Nor did Huineng's famous student, Shenhui (684–758), know very much about his own teacher—or at least this great storyteller provides us with no anecdotes about him. Furthermore, Shenhui was apparently unable to provide Wang Wei (699?–759) with even the most basic biographical details for an epitaph that the great poet, literatus, and Buddhist devotee wrote for Huineng in 739 or shortly thereafter.
The Figure of Legend
The legendary account of Huineng portrays him as a penniless and illiterate layman living in Nanhai in the far south (Guangdong province) and supporting his widowed mother by selling firewood. This account derives primarily from the Platform Sūtra, the earliest known version of which dates from about 780, almost seven decades after the historical Huineng's death. This text begins with an entertaining and instructive anecdote in which Huineng has a flash of religious insight upon hearing someone recite the Diamond Sūtra, after which he travels to Hongren's monastery in the middle Yangzi area (Huangmei, in modern Hubei province). In his first encounter with Hongren, who is depicted as first treating the newly arrived southerner as a bumpkin, Huineng reveals his inner wisdom by pointing out that there was no distinction of north and south in the possession of the buddha-nature, the luminous potential for enlightenment inherent within all sentient beings. In spite of his precociousness, Huineng is sent off to work threshing rice, treatment that may indicate his laborer origins. In the process, however, he becomes one of the temple's lay practitioners (a pre-ordination track in the two-tier system of becoming formally ordained in Tang-dynasty Buddhism).
The story continues to the effect that Hongren, having decided to appoint a successor, instructs his students to write verses expressing their levels of understanding. The only one to do so is the senior student Shenxiu (606?–706), dharma instructor to the other students, who with great trepidation writes:
The body is the bodhi tree. The mind is like a bright mirror's stand. At all times we must strive to polish it and must not let dust collect.
In response, the illiterate but inspired layman Huineng dictates the following (only one of several variants is given here):
Bodhi originally has no tree. The mirror also has no stand. The Buddha-nature is always clear and pure. Where is there room for dust? (McRae, 1986, pp. 1–2)
Despite his lack of formal qualifications to become head of the community—illiterate, penniless, of humble family background, and not even an ordained monk—Huineng is appointed "sixth patriarch" by Hongren. The balance of the text is devoted to his explanation of the dharma, which is identified as the teaching of "sudden enlightenment." However, the verses and Huineng's sermon, when considered together, actually describe a threefold structure consisting of: (1) the constant teaching of bodhisattva practice (in the verse attributed to Shenxiu); (2) the deconstruction of the terms of that teaching through the doctrine of śūnyatā, or emptiness (in the verse attributed to Huineng); and (3) a restatement of Chan practice in highly metaphoric terms, culminating in bestowal of the "formless precepts" (in Huineng's sermon that follows).
Although the Platform Sūtra follows Shenhui in accepting Huineng as Hongren's sole successor, it effectively writes Shenhui out of the story, saying nothing of his famous campaign and belittling him as a foolish young monk. The Platform Sūtra account is demonstrably ahistorical, for Shenxiu studied with Hongren in the 650s, not toward the end of the master's life. In addition, the clever drama by which Hongren selects a single successor could only have made sense after Shenhui's vigorous campaign to have Huineng recognized as the "sixth patriarch" of Chan, which stipulated for the first time that the transmission had to be strictly unilinear.
In spite of the fictive quality of the Platform Sūtra, the text had inestimable value as a religious scripture throughout East Asia, based on its inspired depiction of Huineng as an unlettered sage. The legendary persona of Huineng had an everyman quality to it, implying that book learning or even difficult religious training was not necessarily required for spiritual enlightenment, only the innate capacity to understand the ultimate truth. At the same time, this seemingly liberal message had a conservative underside: by showing that the Chan school would go so far as recognizing someone who was so lacking in formal qualifications, the text also implied the converse, that anyone the Chan school installed as abbot (i.e., the patriarch of a given monastic community) was therefore an enlightened individual, no matter what role social privilege or other factors might have played in his selection.
The Platform Sūtra is a masterful synthesis of ideas from various early Chan sources. For example, in the text Huineng famously redefines "seated meditation" so that "seated" actually means "not to activate thoughts," while "meditation" means to see the buddha-nature within oneself. This style of radical redefinition is associated with both the Northern and Oxhead schools; indeed, a member of the latter faction may have edited the earliest known version of the text. The threefold structure described above also seems to be characteristic of Oxhead Chan. Substantial material was added to the scripture over the years, so that the standard editions used from the thirteenth century onward are well over twice the length of the original.
In addition to the fame accorded him through Shenhui's campaign and his depiction in the Platform Sūtra, the legendary Huineng is also recognized as the teacher of two figures from whom all later Chan lineages are said to derive. (There is no reliable biographical evidence that these or any of the other supposed students of Huineng's actually studied with the historical figure.) These are Nanyue Huairang (677–744) and Qingyuan Xingshi (d. 740), who are known only through their identities as the teachers of Mazu Daoyi (709–788) and Shitou Xiqian (710–790), from whom derive the later Linji and Caodong lineages (Japanese, Rinzai, and Sōtō).
For a masterful study of the growth of the legend of Huineng and a translation of the earliest version of the Platform Sūtra, which also includes an edition of the Dunhuang manuscript on which the translation is based, see Philip B. Yampolsky, The Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch: The Text of the Tun-huang Manuscript with Translation, Introduction, and Notes (New York, 1967). Another translation of the same version, sometimes useful for its renderings of colloquial Chinese phrases, is Wing-tsit Chan, The Platform Scripture (New York, 1963). For a translation of the much expanded thirteenth-century version of the text, see John R. McRae, The Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch, BDK English Tripṭaka 73-II (Berkeley, Calif., 2000). Morten Schlütter has discussed the evolution of the text in "A Study in the Genealogy of the Platform Sutra," Studies in Central and East Asian Religions 2 (Autumn 1989): 53–115. For analysis of the legendary identity of Huineng and the contents of the Platform Sūtra, see John R. McRae, The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch'an Buddhism (Honolulu, 1986), pp. 1-6 and 235–238, and Seeing through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Zen Buddhism (Berkeley, Calif., 2003), pp. 60–69.
Philip Yampolsky (1987)
John R. McRae (2005)
"Huineng." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/huineng
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