Hui-Neng’s Autobiography

Hui-Neng, the Sixth Chinese Patriarch, lived thirteen hundred years ago (637-713), but his kindly and straight-forward insistence on “Self-realisation of your own mind-essence”, regardless of one’s background, class or education places him among the world’s great teachers, and marks him out as one still worthy of attention. This is his autobiographical account as presented in Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible. [the 1932 First Edition’s copyright was not renewed; -now available for public use.]

ONCE WHEN HUI-NENG had come to Pao-lam Monastery, Prefect Wai of Shiu-chow and other officials came there to invite him to deliver public lectures on Buddhism in the hall of Tai-fan Temple in the city (Canton).

When the time came, there were assembled Prefect Wai, government officials and Confucian scholars about thirty each, bhikshu, bhikshuni, Taoists and laymen, nearly a thousand in all. After Hui-Neng had taken his seat, the congregation in a body paid him homage and asked him to speak on the fundamental truths of Buddhism. Whereupon, His Eminence delivered the following address:–

Learned Audience, our self-nature which is the seed or kernel of Bodhi (the Wisdom that comes with enlightenment) is pure by nature and by making right use of it we can reach Buddhahood directly. Let me tell you something about my own life and how I came into possession of this inner teaching of our Ch’an School.

My father, a native of Fan-yang, was dismissed from his official post and banished to become a commoner in Sun-chow in Kwang-tung. My father died when I was quite young leaving my mother poor and miserable, to my great misfortune. We moved to Kwang-chow (now Canton) and lived in very bad circumstances. I was selling firewood in the market one day when one of my customers ordered some to be sent to his shop. Upon delivery and payment for the same as I went outside I found a man reciting a Sutra. No sooner had I heard the text of this Sutra then my mind became at once enlightened. I asked the man the name of the book he was reciting and was told that it was the “Diamond Sutra” (Vajrakkhedika). I asked him where he came from and why he recited this particular Sutra. He replied that he came from the Tung-tsan Monastery in the Wong-mui District of Kee-chow; that the Abbot in charge of this temple was Hwang-yan who was the Fifth Patriarch and had about a thousand disciples under him; and that when he went there to pay homage to the Patriarch, he found him lecturing on this Diamond Sutra. He further told me that his Eminence was in the habit of encouraging the laity as well as his monks to recite this scripture, as by so doing they might realise their own essence-of-mind and thereby reach Buddhahood directly.

It must be due to my good karma accumulated from past lives that I heard about this and that later on I was given ten taels for the maintenance of my mother by a man who advised me to go to Wong-mui to interview the Fifth Patriarch. After arrangements had been made for my mother’s support, I left for Wong-mui which took me about thirty days to reach.

I paid homage to the Patriarch and was asked where I came from and what I expected to get from him. I replied that I was a commoner from Sun-chow in Kwang-tung and had travelled far to pay my respects to him, and then said, “I ask for nothing but Buddhahood.”

The Patriarch replied: “So you are a native of Kwang-tung, are you? You evidently belong to the aborigines; how can you expect to become a Buddha?”

I replied: “Although there are Northern men and Southern men, but North or South make no difference in their Buddha-nature. An aboriginee is different from your Eminence physically, but there is no difference in our Buddha-nature.”