Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch

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(Chin., Liu-tsu t'an ching).

An early Chinese Ch'an classic containing the traditional biography and teachings of Hui-neng (638–713), a figure revered as the sixth patriarch of the Chinese Ch'an school. The autobiographical sections, though unreliable as historical witness, tell us much about ideological struggles within early Ch'an. Hui-neng is portrayed as an illiterate woodcutter who attains a sudden awakening upon hearing some passages from the Diamond Sūtra chanted aloud from within a Buddhist temple. He travels to the East Mountain monastery to study with the traditional fifth patriach of the Ch'an tradition, Hung-jen (601–74). Hung-jen disparages him as an ignorant southerner, to which Hui-neng replies that ‘in enlightenment there is no north or south’. Hung-jen puts him to work pounding rice in the monastery kitchen, but does not ordain him. Later, when Hung-jen felt it was time to bestow the mantle of sixth patriarch upon one of his followers, he ordered all his disciples to compose a verse to demonstrate the depth of their understanding. All of the disciples decide to let Shen-hsiu (606–706) present a verse without competition, which he does after much hesitation. Hung-jen, upon hearing the verse, publicly praises it and assigns all of the monks to recite it, but in private tells Shen-hsiu it is short of perfect understanding. Later, Hui-neng hears an acolyte reciting the poem, and realizes immediately how to correct it. He asks about it, and the acolyte tells him of the contest. He then asks the acolyte to take him to a hallway where a wall had been cleared and white-washed so that a painter could paint scenes from the Laṇkāvatāra Sūtra upon it, and dictates his own verse to the acolyte. Hung-jen, hearing the verse, publicly disparages it, but dismisses the painter so as to leave the verse on the wall. Later that night, he calls Hui-neng to his room and privately gives him the robe (see cīvara) and bowl (see begging-bowl) of Bodhidharma as a sign that he is the sixth patriarch, and tells him to escape lest the monks of East Mountain, jealous of this unordained stranger, do him harm.

This story appears to involve at least two currents of debate within the nascent Ch'an school. First, prior to that time the school had been known as the ‘Laṇkāvatāra School’, denoting its emphasis on the study of that scripture. Hui-neng's awakening upon hearing passages from the Diamond Sūtra and the manner in which his poem pre-empts the painting of scenes from the Laṇkāvatāra Sūtra appear to be part of an attempt to shift the school's emphasis from the long, disorganized, and eclectic Laṇkāvatāra Sūtra to the brief and clearly focused Diamond Sūtra. Second, the story of the poetry contest pits Hui-neng against Shen-hsiu, two monks who probably did not live at the East Mountain monastery at the same time. Shen-hsiu later became very famous at the imperial court and the paterfamilias of a lineage that came to be known as the ‘Northern School’, while Hui-neng is traditionally identified as the progenitor of the ‘Southern School’, which vied with the Northern School for supremacy in the Northern–Southern School controversy. The story of the contest puts Shen-hsiu in a very unflattering light and purports to show that, despite Hung-jen's public approval of his senior disciple, in private he named Hui-neng as the true inheritor of his teaching and enlightenment.


Subjects: Buddhism.

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