The Six Patriarchs of Chan Buddhism
The word ‘Zen’ is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word ‘Chan’. This in turn is derived from the Indian Sanskrit word ‘Dhyana’, which means ‘mental absorption’ or ‘meditation’.
The modern Zen tradition of today is based on a school of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China during the Tang dynasty, and was known as Chan Buddhism. Some scholars say that Chan Buddhism was first influenced by Taoism, which developed into a distinct school of Chinese Buddhism, and then spread northeast into Korea, and later further east into Japan.
The Chan teachings emphasise strict self-discipline, sitting-meditation, completeness, insight into the Buddha-nature of all beings, and incorporating this insight into daily life in order to be of benefit to all beings, and thus attaining the Bodhisattva-ideal. Hence, it places less emphasis on the scholasticism of the sutras in favour of direct realisation attained through sitting-meditation and dialogue with an accomplished master.
Chan teachings comprise of several important philosophical texts on Mahayana thinking and doctrines, including those of the Yogachara School, and the Tathagatagarbha sutras, but especially those of the Huayan School. In addition, the core philosophies of the Prajnaparamita texts and Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka have also been shaped into the central belief-system of Chan Buddhism.
The Six Patriarchs
The Chan lineage was first introduced during the Tang Dynasty, incorporating the teachings of great masters from Indian Buddhism and the Chinese Mahayana tradition. It was then published, and gained wider acceptance towards the end of the Tang period.
This lineage of Chan patriarchs was first mentioned in the inscription on Faru’s tomb (638–689), a master and former disciple of the 5th patriarch, Daman Hongren (601–674). In The Long Scroll of the Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices, as well as The Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks, Daoyu and Dazu Huike are the only disciples of Bodhidharma that were explicitly mentioned. The inscription traces the lineage to Bodhidharma as the first patriarch.
In the 6th century CE, biographies of great monks were collected and compiled. These biographies of great monks were meant to be non-sectarian in nature. Naturally, the Chan biographical material intended to establish Chan as an authentic school of Buddhism rooted in Indian origins. These biographies are mainly hagiographies, which meant less emphasis was placed on historical accuracy and heavier emphasis on legends and traditional tales. The complete lineage was probably first published by the 9th Century CE.
According to D. T. Suzuki, the popularity of Chan during the 7th and 8th centuries attracted criticism that claimed there were no records showing Chan teachings having been derived from the Buddha. Hence, the earlier Chan masters re-established Bodhidharma as the 28th patriarch after the Buddha, thereby legitimising the Chan lineage. This early line of ancestry, from Bodhidharma down to Huineng, was called The Six Patriarchs.
- Bodhidharma (440 – 528 CE)
- Huike (487–593 CE)
- Sengcan (?–606 CE)
- Daoxin (580–651 CE)
- Hongren (601–674 CE)
- Huineng (638–713 CE)
Bodhidharma was an Indian monk who lived between 5th and 6th Century CE, and was credited to have been the founding father of Chan Buddhism in China. That is why he is the first of the Six Patriarchs of Chan Buddhism.
According to Chinese sources, Bodhidharma originated from the Western Regions, which roughly corresponds to what is now Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Hence, some sources claim that he was a ‘Persian Central Asian’ or ‘the third son of a great South Indian king’.
Throughout Buddhist art, Bodhidharma is depicted as an unruly, bearded, wide-eyed and dark-skinned Indian. He is referred to as ‘The Blue-Eyed Barbarian’ in an earlier description, and some claims have him hailing from within the region of Peshawar in Pakistan but so far, no claim has been able to conclusively prove their case.
There are two accounts that give different dates of his arrival to China. One earlier account claims that he arrived during the Liu Song dynasty (420-479 CE), while the later states that he arrived during the Liang dynasty (502-557 CE). However, he travelled extensively throughout the territories of the Northern Wei (386 – 534 CE), and so many modern scholars officially place the date of Bodhidharma’s travels in China as being early 5th Century CE. While in China, Bodhidharma’s teachings centered on meditation and specifically on the Lankavatara Sutra.
It is said that Bodhidharma achieved enlightenment, and was instructed by Prajnatara, his guru, that he had to travel to China in order to further the Mahayana doctrine there. He set out on an epic three-year voyage by sea before arriving at the coastal city of Canton. He found his way to the imperial court of the ruling Liang Dynasty in Nanjing and gained an audience with Emperor Wu, who proclaimed himself to be one of China’s greatest patrons of Buddhism.
In a famous anecdote, the emperor asked the Indian master the amount of merit that he had earned for ordaining monks, building monasteries, and accomplishing other good deeds. Bodhidharma replied bluntly that he had accumulated no merit. This puzzled the Emperor, who slowly turned to rage. The Indian master beat a hasty retreat and left northwards towards the Shaolin Temple in the state of Wei that he had heard about. His travels brought him to the mighty Yangtze River that he had to cross. According to legend, he crossed the river while balanced atop a tiny reed, which has since been frequently depicted in Chinese art. While at the Shaolin Temple, he sat down to meditate for nine years while facing a wall in a cave, earning the name ‘Wall-Gazing Brahman’.
Bodhidharma’s austere meditation won over a few students, but one of them, Huike, was most famous. According to legend, Huike was said to have stood outside the cave in the snow and waited on the master for a whole week. Then, in sheer frustration, Huike chopped off his left arm and presented it to the master in order to express his determination to attain enlightenment, a scene that is also popularly represented in Chinese paintings. Huike would eventually become Bodhidharma’s successor, and the next patriarch. There were two attempts to poison Bodhidharma, but on the third attempt, the sage decided to take the poison and passed away at the age of 150.
Three years after his passing, a Chinese emissary by the name of Song Yun was on his way back to China from India when he chanced upon Bodhidharma on the road. The master was on his way back to India and the official observed that he was walking barefoot and carrying one shoe in his hand. It was only upon his return to his homeland that he realised that the master had passed away. The master’s grave was exhumed only to discover that his body was missing, and all that remained was one shoe. The Chinese considered this a sign that Bodhidharma had become an immortal, and had merely feigned his own death. He was thus included in the Taoist pantheon of immortals.
According to tradition, Bodhidharma is attributed to be the founder of martial arts at the Shaolin Temple. As the legend goes, Bodhidharma faced the wall for nine years at the Shaolin Temple, and when he departed, he left behind a great chest. When the monks searched the contents of the chest, they discovered two books on martial arts: Marrow Washing Classic (Xi Sui Jing) and Muscle Change Classic (Yi Jin Jing).
His disciple Huike took the first book and it was eventually lost to time, while the second book was treasured by the monastery and was developed into what is characteristically known as the Shaolin martial arts. However, recent historians assert the claim that the text was actually written by Taoist priest Zining of Mt. Tiantai and thereby allaying centuries-old claims that Bodhidharma founded the Shaolin martial arts.
Dazu Huike (487–593 CE) was the Second Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, and became Bodhidharma’s successor. He is considered the 29th in the lineage that stemmed from Buddha Shakyamuni. According to the Hsu kao-seng chuan, Huike was born in Henan and was given the name Shen-Guang.
Huike was a scholar in both Buddhist and classical Chinese texts, including those of Taoism. He met his teacher Bodhidharma at the Shaolin Monastery in 528 CE when he was about forty years old, and he studied under Bodhidharma for six years (the duration varies according to sources).
There is little surviving information on the lives of Bodhidharma and Huike, and the few accounts of them are semi-mythical in nature. The most famous account was the meeting of Bodhidharma and Huike that occurred during winter, when Huike stood in the snow waiting outside a cave for the master. As an offering to the master, Huike cut off his arm and made his request, “Master, your disciple’s mind has no peace. Please put it to rest.” Bodhidharma responded, “Bring me your mind, and I will put it to rest.” Huike then replied, “I have searched for my mind but I cannot find it.” Bodhidharma finally replied, “Then I have completely put it to rest for you.”
Bodhidharma built the Zhuoxi Spring or Four Springs, situated in front of the Second Ancestor’s Temple at the Shaolin Temple so it would be easier for Huike to fetch water with his remaining arm. Then, Huike travelled to Yedu (modern day Henan) around 534 CE and lived there. When political turmoil engulfed China and Buddhist persecution was rampant in 574 CE, he hid in the area of Yedu and Wei (modern Hebei).
It was during this turbulent period that Huike sought refuge in the mountains near the Yangtze River and this was where he met Sengcan, who would become his successor and the Third Chinese Patriarch of Chan. In 579, Huike returned to Yedu and gave teachings which drew huge crowds. This attracted the envy and hostility of other Buddhist teachers, one of whom, Tao-heng, hired an assassin to have Huike killed, but in a dramatic turn of events, the master converted the would-be assailant.
The Compendium of Five Lamps (Wudeng Huiyan) compiled by Dachuan Lingyin Puji (1179–1253) wrote that Huike lived up to the age of one hundred seven. He was entombed about forty kilometres northeast of Anyang City in the Hebei Province. After his passing, the Tang Dynasty emperor De Zong bestowed on Huike the honorific title Dazu or ‘Great Ancestor’. Some accounts claim that influential Buddhist priests had Huike executed due to complaints about his teachings being heretical. These accounts say that blood did not flow from his decapitated body, but rather, a white milky substance flowed from his neck, astonishing everybody.
One of the most important aspects of the early Chan teachings by Bodhidharma and Huike was that of attaining sudden enlightenment rather than the gradual approach to enlightenment characteristic of the Indian tradition. Huike and Bodhidharma attributed their teachings to the Lankavatara Sutra, which stresses self-realisation and transcending words and thoughts. In his teachings, Huike stressed on meditation as a tool towards understanding the true intent of the Buddha, and that meditation should also be free of dualism or attachment.
Jianzhi Sengcan (6th Century CE) was the Third Chinese Patriarch of Chan following Huike and Bodhidharma, and is considered the thirtieth Patriarch after Buddha Shakyamuni. He is the sole successor of the second Chinese Patriarch, Dazu Huike.
It is said that Sengcan was over forty years old when he first chanced upon Huike in 536 CE, and he remained with his teacher for six years while receiving teachings. It was Huike who gave him the name Sengcan or ‘Gem Monk’. The Transmission of the Lamp gives this exchange between Huike and Sengcan, where Sengcan says, “I am riddled with sickness. Please absolve me of my sins.” Huike responded by saying, “Bring your sins here and I will absolve them for you.” After a long pause, Sengcan finally answered, “When I am looking for my sins, I cannot find them.” Huike then replied, “I have absolved them for you. You should live by the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.” Huike appointed him as his successor by passing down to him the robes of Bodhidharma and Bodhidharma’s Dharma (which is widely believed to be a copy of the Lankavatara Sutra) and thus, Sengcan became The Third Patriarch of Chan.
According to historians, Sengcan fled with Huike up to the mountains due to Buddhist persecution. However, the Lamp Records claim that after giving a Dharma transmission, Huike told Sengcan to live up in the mountains and wait for the time when he could transmit the Dharma to someone else. This instruction was based on an earlier prophecy by Prajnatara that was passed down to Bodhidharma, and this in turn was passed down to Sengcan. Due to the prophecy, Sengcan lived in hiding on Wangong Mountain in Yixian, and then on Sikong Mountain in southwestern Anhui. Thereafter, he wandered with no fixed abode for another ten years.
Sengcan met Daoxin (580-651 CE), a novice monk of just fourteen years old. Daoxin served Sengcan for nine years and received the Dharma transmission when he was just in his early twenties. Subsequently, Sengcan spent two years at Mount Luofu (northeast of Guangtung) before returning to Wangong Mountain. Sengcan is attributed to be the author of the popular Chan poem, Verses on Faith-Mind (Xinxin Ming). This poem has been popular with Chan practitioners for over a thousand years. The poem is said to reveal Taoist influences on Chan Buddhism, as it deals with non-duality and the metaphysical concept of emptiness or Shunyata, which is a central to the doctrine that Nagarjuna (150-250 C.E.) taught.
Sengcan passed away sitting under a tree while giving a Dharma discourse in 606 CE, and he was bestowed with the honorary title Jianzhi or ‘Mirrorlike Wisdom’ by Xuan Zong, the Emperor of the Tang dynasty.
Dayi Daoxin (580–651 CE) came to be regarded as the fourth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism following Jianzhi Sengcan (died 606 CE), and his successor was Daman Hongren (601–674 CE).
Daoxin was first mentioned in the Further Biographies of Eminent Monks (Hsu Kao Seng Chuan) published in 645 CE. Later, he was also mentioned in the Annals of the Transmission of the Dharma-Treasure (Chuan Fa Pao Chi) published around 712 CE, which provided a detailed account of Daoxin’s life. The accounts of these early Chan masters were not particularly accurate and at times, details in one account would contradict another.
However, the following biography is the traditional tale of Daoxin that was brought together from various sources, including the Compendium of Five Lamps (Wudeng Huiyuan) compiled in the early 13th century by the monk Dachuan Lingyin Puji (1179–1253).
Daoxin was born to a family with the surname ‘Si-ma’ in the Yongning County of Qizhou, today known as Wuxue City of the Hubei Province. Daoxin began studying Buddhism at the tender age of seven, and although his first teacher had impure moral conduct, Daoxin was not adversely influenced, secretly maintaining his vows for the next five to six years.
According to the Compendium of Five Lamps , Daoxin encountered Sengcan when he was only fourteen years old. Daoxin made his request at the feet of his master, “I ask for the Master’s compassion. Please instruct me on how to achieve release.” Sengcan asked, “Is there someone who binds you?” Daoxin thought awhile, and answered, “There is no such person.” Sengcan then asked, “Why then seek release when no one restrains you?” It was said that upon hearing these words, Daoxin was said to have become enlightened.
The young Daoxin followed and served Sengcan for the next nine years. When Sengcan decided to travel to Mount Loufu, he forbade Daoxin to follow him. In an account taken from the Chuan Fa Pao Chi, the master said, “The Dharma has been transmitted from Patriarch Bodhidharma to me. I am going to the South and will leave you here to spread and protect the Dharma.”
For the next ten years, Daoxin studied at the feet of the master Zhikai at the Great Woods Temple on Mount Lu. Zhikai was an adept of the Taintai and Sanlun schools, and also chanted the Buddha’s name as part of his practice. These other schools heavily influenced Daoxin’s practice, and he finally received full ordination as a monk in 607 CE.
In 617 CE, Daoxin along with his disciples travelled to the Ji Province and entered a town that was under attack by bandits. In an unprecedented move, Daoxin expounded on the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra so well that the bandits laid down their weapons and abandoned their plans to attack the town. Daoxin continued on his travels and eventually settled at East Mountain Temple on Shuangfeng (Twin Peaks). He continued to teach Chan Buddhism for the next thirty years and attracted a large number of practitioners. According to records, he had five hundred students comprising of lay and ordained monks.
In 643 CE, the Emperor Tai Zong officially invited Daoxin to the capital but Daoxin turned the invitation down. The Emperor sent emissaries on three occasions and each time, Daoxin refused the imperial decree. On the third time, the Emperor, out of frustration, instructed for either Daoxin or his head to be brought to the capital. When the emissary arrived at the monastery, he related this instruction to Daoxin. In response, Daoxin stretched out his neck to allow the emissary to decapitate him. The emissary-official was so shocked that he left and he reported what transpired to the Emperor, who went on to honour Daoxin as an exemplary Buddhist master.
In 651 CE, Daoxin gave instructions for his students to build his funerary stupa in preparation for his death. According to the Further Biographies of Eminent Monks , his disciples requested for the aging master to name a successor. Daoxin replied, “I have made many deputations during my life.” He then passed away and the Emperor Tai Zong honored the late Daoxin with the posthumous title of ‘Dayi’, meaning ‘The Great Healer’.
The Five Gates of Daoxin is a compilation of his teachings, but as this text did not appear until the second decade of the eighth century, after Hongren’s record, its historical accuracy is in doubt. The Chronicle of the Lankavatara Masters , which appeared in the early eighth century, has Daoxin quoting from the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) and Pure Land Sutras but some scholars do not consider the study of these sutras to be part of Daoxin’s teachings. However, Daoxin was said to have taught extensively on meditation.
The teachings of Daoxin along with his successor, Hongren are known as the East Mountain Teachings, which became the basis of the vein of Chan Buddhism that flourished all over China in the mid of 8th Century CE. A major contributing factor was the fact that Daoxin was the first Chan master to settle at one spot for an extended period of time, and thus developed a stable monastic community that influenced the flourishing of other monastic communities throughout China.
Daman Hongren (601 – 674 CE) became the fifth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. He was said to have received transmission from Daoxin, and he in turn bestowed the bowl and robe to mark the transmission upon Huineng, the sixth and last of the Chan patriarchs.
As with all the early Chan patriarchs, much of Hongren’s life, which was compiled long after his passing, was largely shrouded by time and myth. Hongren was born in Huangmei into the Chou household. According to The Records of the Teachers and Disciples of the Lankavatara (Leng-ch’ieh shih-tzu chih), his father abandoned his family, but Hongren supported his mother thereafter, displaying admirable filial duty in. However, at the age of twelve, Hongren left home to be ordained as a monk and came to study at the feet of Daoxin, the fourth patriarch of Chan.
The meeting between Daoxin and Hongren is recorded in the Japanese text, Transmission of Light (Denkoroku) by Keizan Jokin Zenji (1268-1325 CE), which is a collection of 53 enlightened tales based on the traditional accounts of the Chan or Zen transmissions between successive masters and disciples in the Soto Zen Buddhist lineage. Daoxin initially met Hongren on a road in Huangmei. When Daoxin asked his name, Hongren replied, “I have essence but it is not a common name.” The master then asked, “What is its name?” To which Hongren replied, “It is the essence of Buddhahood.” Daoxin added, “Have you no name?” Hongren then said, “None, because essence is empty.” It is said that Daoxin would pass on the teachings and the robe down to Hongren, thus appointing Hongren as the next Patriarch of Chan Buddhism.
It was said that Hongren remained with Daoxin until his master’s death in 651 CE. It was also said that he was with Daoxin when the master was at Ta-lin Su on Mount Loufu and accompanied him to Mount Shuangfeng, one of the twin peaks of Huangmei. According to a later account, after Daoxin’s death, Hongren decided to move the community of monks towards Dong Shan or the eastern summit of the Twin Peaks. The lineage teachings of Daoxin and especially Hongren became known after this location as East Mountain Teachings (Dong Shan Fa Men).
According to the Annals of the Transmission of the Dharma-Treasure (Chuan Fa Pao Chi of 712 CE), Hongren was described as quiet, withdrawn, diligent with his menial tasks, and sat in meditation throughout the night. He was said to have never looked at the Buddhist scriptures, but understood everything that he learned. After ten years of teaching, the record claims that eight or nine of every ten ordained and lay Buddhist practitioners in the country had studied under him.
A Chan scholar asserts that Hongren was probably from a wealthy and prominent family despite an earlier mention that his father abandoned the family. This conclusion was based on some stories that his residence was eventually converted into a monastery, which meant that it was of considerable size. In addition to that, the mention of Hongren performing menial labor in his biography would only be significant if Hongren was from an upper-class family.
In his teachings, Hongren emphasised meditation and extensively taught that the Pure Mind was obscured by discriminating thought pattern, wrong views, and projections. He taught that Nirvana naturally arose when false thoughts were eliminated, and a constant awareness of one’s natural enlightenment can be maintained through that. The Treatise on the Essentials of Cultivating the Mind is a compilation of his teachings, and is the earliest collection of teachings from a Chan master. After Hongren, Chan Buddhism split into two schools, each led by one of his students. Yuquan Shenxiu (606-706) founded the Northern School and Dajian Huineng (638–713 CE) founded the Southern School. Each of these schools regards their elder as the legitimate sixth patriarch of Chan Buddhism.
Dajian Huineng is the legendary sixth and final Patriarch of Chan Buddhism and successor of Daman Hongren, the fifth Chan patriarch. Huineng’s life seems to reflect the changing fortunes of Chan Buddhism, from a Chinese provincial form of Buddhism to a major cultural and religious force throughout China and East Asia.
According to various sources, Huineng was uneducated and a ‘barbaric’ youth, but because of his deep insight, he surpassed his fellow senior monks who were great scholars to become Hongren’s successor by receiving special transmission of Chan Buddhism.
Huineng’s story began as an illiterate peasant boy from Xinzhou of the Guangdong province, born to the Lu family. His father was a minor official who had been banished and passed away when he was very young. His mother brought him to southern China and they lived in poverty. When he was old enough, he began chopping and selling firewood to make a living to support his family.
One day, while delivering firewood to a shop, he overheard a man reciting a verse from the Diamond Sutra, “Depending upon nothing, you must find your own mind.” Upon hearing this verse, Huineng was said to have gained realisation. The man who recited this line recommended Huineng to meet the Fifth Chan Patriarch, Hongren, at the Tung Chian Monastery in the Huang Mei District of Xinzhou. He spoke to his mother, and gained her permission to leave home in order to enter a religious life.
From then on, Huineng spent the next few years wandering before ending up with a Buddhist nun who was devoted towards the study, recitation and contemplation of the Nirvana Sutra. She would recite passages from the Sutra every day, and one day, she asked him to recite a passage aloud only to discover that he was illiterate. This surprised the nun and she asked how was he going to learn the Buddha’s teachings if he was unable to read the scriptures. The youth replied that the Buddha nature within all beings does not depend on words, so there was actually no need to read texts. This amazed the nun and she suggested that he take up ordination. Huineng declined and went to a meditation master instead.
Huineng spent three years meditating in a mountain cave before travelling to East Mountain (Dongshan) monastery in Hubei, where he met Master Hongren, the Fifth Chan Patriarch. The master glared at the supplicant and asked where he was from and why did he come. Huineng answered that he was from the south and had come to learn the dharma from him. Hongren was quick to retort that Huineng was a mere barbarian as he was from the south. The master then added, “How could you become a Buddha?” Unfazed by the insult, Huineng responded, “Although my barbarian body and yours differ, what difference is there in our Buddha nature?”
Hongren realised that this was a promising student, although he was a diamond in the rough, and decided to test him further. He finally took Huineng in, but assigned him to the chore of threshing grains. Huineng labored for nine months treading the mill in order to separate rice grains from their husks.
However, the most famous story of Huineng’s life came with a contest. One day, the master Hongren decided to put his monks to the test by getting them to compose a verse that distilled their realisation of their original nature. The master said that he would read each verse and would award Bodhidharma’s robes, begging bowl and the title ‘Sixth Patriarch’ to the student who demonstrated true realisation.
Everybody turned towards the head monk, Shenxiu, who was expected to be the Master’s likeliest successor. However, it was said that he was full of doubt and spent a laborious night composing his verse. Finally, he crept out and wrote his verse anonymously on the wall of the new dharma hall as was required by Hongren’s challenge.
Shenxiu’s verse was as follows: –
The body is a Bodhi tree,
The mind a standing mirror bright.
At all times polish it diligently,
And let no dust alight.
This verse was a direct assertion of the necessity for diligent practice and Shenxiu had hoped that this verse would demonstrate to the Master that he had some realisation. Early the next morning, Hongren walked towards the wall and read out the verse and praised it before the jubilant monks. He offered incense before the verse and ordered the monks to recite it before calling Shenxiu for an audience. In private, he praised Shenxiu for his insight but he said that the verse revealed that he had arrived at the gates of wisdom, but he had yet to place his foot in. He then suggested Shenxiu take a few more days to ponder on another verse that would be worthy to be awarded with his robes.
Meanwhile, Huineng was diligently threshing rice grains when he overheard a novice reciting Shenxiu’s verse. Immediately, Huineng realised that the author of the verse lacked deeper insight. Later, he snuck out to the dharma hall and requested a monk to write his verse on the wall next to Shenxiu’s verse.
Bodhi is originally without any tree;
The bright mirror is also not a stand.
Originally there is not a single thing-
Where could any dust be attracted?
Word spread like wildfire throughout the monastery of the new verse and the news eventually reached Hongren’s ears. The Master himself came out to read the verse and immediately he recognised it to be Huineng’s words and recognised his deep insight. The master pondered and knew that passing his robe to a peasant monk would upset the monastic hierarchy. Thereafter, he was quick to dismiss the verse for lacking understanding and left. That night and under the cover of darkness, Hongren secretly summoned Huineng for an audience in which he bestowed upon him further teachings and transmissions. Passing on his robe, the Master told him to flee for his life and predicted that he would eventually transmit the teachings.
Huineng made hasty preparations and fled south. After several months of pursuit, a band of assassins tracked Huineng to a mountain and with the intent of killing him in order to retrieve the robe. Most of the pursuers turned back after climbing halfway except Huiming, who managed to reach the summit. Somehow, instead of killing the master, he was subdued by the master’s incredible wit and wisdom. After receiving his teachings, the assassin became realised. In fulfilment of his master’s prophecy, Huineng dispatched his new disciple to the north in order to spread the Dharma there.
The famous Chan treatise, Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch or Liuzu Tanjing is attributed to Huineng. Scholars analysing the text say that it was constructed over a long period of time, as it contains many layers of writing. It constitutes some of the earliest Chan teachings, and a great collection of essential teachings that form the backbone of the entire tradition stemming up to the second half of the 8th century CE. The central theme of the treatise is the recognition and realisation of one’s Buddha-nature that is similar to texts attributed to Bodhidharma and Hongren, including the idea that our primordial Buddha-nature is made invisible due to our illusions and delusions.
The Platform Sutra cites and expounds on a wide range of Buddhist scriptures like Lankavatara Sutra, Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra, Brahmajala Sutra, Vimalakirti Sutra, Lotus Sutra, Surangama Sutra and Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana. The Platform Sutra became wildly popular in China that some attribute to its paradoxical Taoist’ influence and numerous copies circulated.
Towards the end of 8th century, the ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ schools of Chan Buddhism dominated China. Shenhui (684-758) claimed to having studied under Huineng, and he criticised the legitimacy of ‘Northern’ Chan, which had received imperial patronage during the Tang dynasty (618-907) under the leadership of Shenxiu (ca. 606-706) and his heir, Puji (651-739). Shenhui claimed that his teacher Huineng was the true recipient of transmission from Hongren, and he ridiculed Shenxiu’s ‘gradualist’ approach to awakening. Shenhui insisted that Huineng was the true Sixth Patriarch, and thus claimed the title of Seventh Patriarch for himself.
In the ninth century, the ‘Southern’ school with its ‘sudden awakening’ doctrine was finally accepted as the official line. Ironically, both the ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ schools died out due to political turmoil of the time. It was only later, after Chan Buddhism had survived the imperial persecutions of 841-845 CE, that other Chan schools reasserted their connection to Huineng and propagated his teachings.
Huineng’s legacy continues to impact Chan Buddhism till this day. His teachings span the major themes within Chan Buddhism, and stories of his life continue to provide the archetype of an ideal Chan master.
Huineng was said to have passed away while in meditation and his body became mummified. The mummified remains of Huineng were enshrined in Nanhua Temple in Shaoguan (northern Guangdong) to this day. Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci visited Nanhua Temple in 1589, and he wrote about the life story of Huineng and described him along the lines of a Christian ascetic, calling him Liuzu or Sixth Patriarch in his writings.
For more interesting information:
- Emptiness with a Heart of Compassion
- The Four Exalted Brothers
- The Great Buddha of Kamakura
- Methar of Tengyeling Monastery
- Ji Gong – The Crazy Monk of China
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