Chinese Buddhism before Hui-neng

While Bodhidharma is usually credited with being the founder of Ch’an Buddhism and rightly so, it was Hui-neng the Sixth Patriarch who gave it more definite character and permanent form that time has tested and approved. Ch’an Buddhism seems to have discerned the essentials of Shakyamuni’s teachings and spirit better than any other sect, and to have developed their deeper implications more faithfully. This development came through its contact with Chinese Taoism under the lead of Bodhidharma and Hui-neng, making it a virile and wholesome influence for all nations thereafter. Hui-yuan yielded to the seduction of the Divine Name and thereby gained the credit of being the founder of the Pure Land sects with all their glamour of “salvation by faith.” Chih-chi (   -597), one of China’s greatest philosophic minds, grew up as an earnest Ch’an Buddhist but yielding to the lure of his profound study of the Scriptures became known as the founder of the Tien-T’ai school of philosophic Buddhism, Shen-shui, the learned Master of the very temple where Hui-neng worked as a laborer in the granary, yielded to the lure of egoism and popularity to become the founder of the passing school of “Gradual Attainment.”

But Hui-neng, more or less illiterate as he was said to be, had the force of personality, insight and common-sense to determine the essentials of the Dharma; and the humble and patient zeal to work out and to apply them in the wisest way. The outstanding features of Hui-neng’s Ch’an were as follows:

  • Distrust of all Scriptures and dogmatic teachings.
  • An enquiring mind and earnest search into the depths of one’s own nature.
  • Humble but positive faith in the possibilities of such an enquiring search, in a sudden self-realisation of enlightenment, Nirvana and Buddahood.
  • Loyal and patient acceptance of such self-realisation in a following life of simplicity, self-restraint, industry, and sympathy with all animate life.

In arriving at these convictions Hui-neng’s inherited and experiential acquaintance with Taoism was very influential. He was said to be illiterate but this could have been only relatively true of one who had mastered the Diamond Sutra and frequently discoursed to his disciples about the other great Sutras of the Mahayana. His study of the Diamond Sutra had convinced him of the truth of “Emptiness” and prepared his mind for the later truth of “Self-realisation of Mind-essence” which the Lankavatara taught him. But it was the conception of the Tao, active, limitless, inscrutably wise and benevolent, universal, eternal, ineffable, that gave depth and substance to his convictions and brought sympathy and patience with himself and with all animate life. It was the blending of all these elements in the mind and spirit of Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch, that through him gave Chinese (Ch’an) and Japanese (Zen) Buddhism their characteristic form and spirit.

Hui-neng was deeply influenced by his inherited and personal acquaintance with Taoism. In his leadership and teachings he made little of the personal Buddha and very much of Prajna, in which he saw the Ultimate Principle of Tao in both its irradiant and integrating forms, as both ‘intellection’ and compassion. The term he used for Ultimate Reality, and made so much of, was Mind-essence. A self-realisation of this was all the Buddha he cared about. It was Dharmakaya and Buddhahood and Nirvana and Tathata and Prajna. It was universal, undifferentiated and inscrutable, but was clouded over and hidden by karma and discriminative thought and desire and grasping. If these clouds could be driven away, and they all might be, then it would shine forth in all its pristine purity and potency. To Hui-neng, perfect enlightenment and self-realisation of Mind-essence and Buddhahood were the same thing. This perfect culmination of life would come suddenly as the result of an earnest and sincere concentration of mind on the search for it with in one’s own mind, and this was the only way it could come. In his mind all scripture and all teachings were subordinate to the self-realisation attained suddenly by earnest Dhyana and Samadhi.

scanned at sacred-texts.com, August 2004. John Bruno Hare, redactor. This text is in the public domain because it was not renewed at the US Copyright Office in a timely fashion, as required by law. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose, provided this notice of attribution is left intact.