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An early Ch'an monk who, while historically obscure, is honoured as the sixth patriarch.the fountainhead of the so-called ‘Southern School’ of Ch'an, and the main character in the classic The Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch (Chin., Liu-tsu t'an ching, 2007, 2008, in the Taishō canon). From a historical perspective, not much is known about Hui-neng. His name appears on lists of the ‘ten great disciples’ of the fifth Ch'an patriarch Hung-jen (601–74). Other than this, sources vary widely as to the details of his life and teaching, rendering a true biography difficult to construct. Whatever the bare facts of his life may have been, he is more important within the tradition as the figure who carried on the true teaching and practice of ‘sudden enlightenment’. In the Platform Sūtra, there is a famous episode where Hui-neng, represented as an illiterate, unordained temple worker, bests Hung-jen's senior disciple Shen-hsiu (606–706) in a poetry contest that Hung-jen had arranged in order to see whose enlightenment was most profound and would thus merit designation as his own successor and sixth patriarch. Shen-hsiu's verse, which speaks of the need to wipe away the dust (representing defilements) that accumulates on the mirror (the mind), is taken as a statement of the ‘gradual enlightenment’ position, while Hui-neng's, dictated to a monk and written on a wall, speaks of the ultimate non-existence of both mind and defilements, a view more compatible with the position of ‘sudden enlightenment’. In the end, due largely to the efforts of his disciple Shen-hui (670–762) championing his cause, the ‘sudden enlightenment’ position came to dominate Ch'an, and the stories of Hui-neng transmitted through the Platform Sūtra and other sources attained quasi-scriptural status. In time, every Ch'an monk came to trace his or her Dharma-lineage back to Hui-neng, giving him the status of paterfamilias or common ancestor within all subsequent Ch'an schools. Hui-neng himself is said to have returned to south China after his training with Hung-jen at his East Mountain Monastery, was finally ordained a monk, and eventually settled in the Ts'ao-hsi Temple in his hometown of Hsin-chou. To this day a body coated in red lacquer is kept there that is said to be Hui-neng's.

Subjects: Buddhism.

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