Huineng (638-713 C.E.)

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Huineng (638-713 C.E.)

Huineng is a legendary master of Zen or Chan Buddhism to whom the doctrine of sudden enlightenment is attributed. He is believed to be author of The Platform Scripture of the Sixth Patriarch, a classic statement of the Zen position.

Huineng was born in what is now Guangdong Province, China, to a working class family. He began adult life as a peddler of firewood. He was in his early twenties when he read the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist scripture and left his home in southern China to study with the Fifth Patriarch, known for his teaching activity on the Diamond Sutra, who resided in the north. According to legend, the Patriarch had his new students compose a poem for him. Both Huineug and another student composed a poem. The other student, Shenxiu (605-706 C.E.) voiced a doctrine of gradual enlightenment, while Huineng's poem suggested sudden enlightenment. The Fifth Patriarch favored Huineng, and in 661 C.E. he was given the robe as the Sixth Patriarch. Huineng returned to southern China to teach and is revered as the founder of the Southern School of Chan. Shenxiu remained in the north and is recognized as the founder of the Northern School of Chan. The Southern School was by far the more influential.

In 676 C.E. Huineng settled in Canton. At the age of 39 he became a Buddhist monk. The following year he was invited to lecture at Dafan Temple in Shaozhou. The lectures were recorded by his disciple Fahai, and published as The Platform Scripture. The essence of the teaching is that everyone shares the Buddha-nature (or wisdom). It was believed if one turned their mind inward and are able to keep from distractions, they can receive enlightenment. Meditation and wisdom are identified. Meditation is the function of the original nature. By implication, Huineng stresses the necessity of practice to attain an undistracted or direct mind. During practice one intuits the unity of nature and knows that all dharmas are the same. Meditation is not a matter of making the mind inactive, it is a freeing of the mind from all things. Huineng continued to teach until his death in 713 C.E. .


de Bary, William Theodore, Wing-tsit Chan, and Barry Watson, comps. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.

Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Buddhism: a History. New York: Macmillan Co., 1994.

The Platform Scripture. Ed. by Wing-tsit Chan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963.