Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (Liuzu Tan Jing)

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The Liuzu tan jing (Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch) is the capstone text of the early Chan school of Chinese Buddhism. The sūtra resolves hotly contested issues of earlier decades in a charmingly instructive narrative. At its heart is a verse competition between Shenxiu (ca. 606–706) and Huineng (ca. 638–713), in which the latter becomes sixth patriarch in spite of being an illiterate and socially declassé layman from the far south of China. The entire story is fictional—Shenxiu had long since left the "fifth patriarch" Hongren's (601–674) monastic training center when the events supposedly took place—but the text's imaginative dramatization of Chan spiritual training has been almost universally accepted. Composed originally around 780 (the approximate date of the Dunhuang version), the Platform Sūtra is an important source for understanding both the Chinese monastic institution and the state of evolution of Chan mythology at that time. Although the text did not remain universally popular throughout the medieval and premodern period—the Japanese Zen master DŌgen (1200–1253) was particularly critical of it—it is widely read and cited throughout East Asian Buddhism today.

In the opening anecdote, Hongren instructs his students to compose verses demonstrating their understanding of Buddhism, with the author of the best verse becoming his successor. After some consternation, Shenxiu submits:

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.

The response by Huineng, a menial laborer at the monastery for the preceding eight months, reads:

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?

The Dunhuang manuscript actually contains two slightly different versions of Huineng's response. Further editorial adjustment is shown in later versions from the tenth and thirteenth centuries, which reduce this contribution to a single verse with a famous third line, "Fundamentally there is not a single thing."

The Platform Sūtra has generally been misread as a clear-cut validation of a subitist "Southern school" associated with Huineng. However, the text actually outlines a three-level movement from an initial assertion about Buddhist practice, through a deconstruction of that assertion using the rhetoric of Ś ŪnyatĀ (emptiness), to a profoundly nuanced restatement of the initial assertion. Shenxiu taught the constant or perfect practice of the path of the bodhisattva, by which he meant that one should always remain in meditation and always work to help other sentient beings. If he had actually used the metaphor of the mirror as given here, polishing the mirror would be a standard procedure of ethical training, not a gradualistic device for progressing toward enlightenment.

Huineng's verse contains no reference to suddenness, but is rather a deconstructive move implying a more profound understanding of Shenxiu's initial "perfect teaching." The balance of the Platform Sūtra explains this more profound understanding using such expressions as the "formless precepts" and metaphoric reinterpretations of "sitting in meditation."


McRae, John R. The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch'an Buddhism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986.

McRae, John R., trans. The Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch. Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2000.

Yampolsky, Philip B. The Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch: The Text of the Tun-huang Manuscript with Translation, Introduction, and Notes. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1967.

John R. McRae