Sutra of Hui Neng — Fast vs. Slow Realization

Basket of Tolerance “Great Tradition” Series

Sutra of Hui Neng: Chapter 8
The Sudden School and the Gradual School

While the Patriarch was living in Bao Lin Monastery, the Grand Master Shen Xiu was preaching in Yu Quan Monastery of Jing Nan. At that time the two Schools, that of Hui Neng of the South and Shen Xiu of the North, flourished side by side. As the two Schools were distinguished from each other by the names “Sudden” (the South) and “Gradual” (the North), the question which sect they should follow baffled certain Buddhist scholars (of that time).

(Seeing this) the Patriarch addressed the assembly as follows:

“So far as the Dharma is concerned, there can be only one School. (If a distinction exists) it exists in the fact that the founder of one school is a northern man, while the other is a Southerner. While there is only one Dharma, some disciples realize it more quickly than others. The reason why the names ‘Sudden’ and ‘Gradual’ are given is that some disciples are superior to others in mental dispositions. So far as the Dharma is concerned, the distinction of ‘Sudden’ and ‘Gradual’ does not exist.”

(In spite of what the Patriarch had said,) the followers of Shen Xiu used to criticize the Patriarch. They discredited him by saying that as he was illiterate he could not distinguish himself in any respect.

Shen Xiu himself, on the other hand, admitted that he was inferior to the Patriarch, that the Patriarch attained wisdom without the aid of a teacher, and that he understood thoroughly the teaching of the Mahayana School. “Moreover,” he added, “my teacher, the Fifth Patriarch, would not have transmitted to him the robe and the bowl without good cause. I regret that, owing to the patronage of the state, which I by no means deserve, I am unable to travel far to receive instructions from him personally. (But) you men should go to Cao Xi to consult him.”

One day he said to his disciple, Zhi Cheng, “You are intelligent and bright. On my behalf, you may go to Cao Xi to attend the lectures there. Try your best to remember what you learn, so that upon your return you may repeat it to me.”

Acting on his teacher’s instruction, Zhi Cheng went to Cao Xi. Without telling whence he came he joined the crowd there to call on the Patriarch.

“Someone has hidden himself here to plagiarize my lecture,” said the Patriarch to the assembly. Thereupon, Zhi Cheng came out, made obeisance, and told the Patriarch what his mission was.

“You come from Yu Quan Monastery, do you?” asked the Patriarch. “You must be a spy.”

“No, I am not,” replied Zhi Cheng.

“Why not?” asked the Patriarch.

“If I had not told you,” said Zhi Cheng, “I would be a spy. Since I have told you all about it, I am not.”

“How does your teacher instruct his disciples?” asked the Patriarch.

“He tells us to meditate on purity, to keep up the sitting position all the time and not to lie down,” replied Zhi Cheng.

“To meditate on purity,” said the Patriarch, “is an infirmity and not Dhyana. To restrict oneself to the sitting position all the time is unprofitable. Listen to my stanza:

“A living man sits and does not lie down (all the time),
While a dead man lies down and does not sit.
On this physical body of ours
Why should we impose the task of squatting?”

Making obeisance a second time, Zhi Cheng remarked, “Though I have studied Buddhism for nine years under the Grand Master Shen Xiu, my mind has not yet been awakened for enlightenment. But as soon as you speak to me my mind is enlightened. As the question of incessant rebirths is a momentous one, please take pity on me and give me further instruction.”

“I understand,” said the Patriarch, “that your teacher gives his disciples instructions on Sila (disciplinary rules), Dhyana (meditation), and Prajna (Wisdom). Please tell me how he defines these terms.”

“According to his teaching,” replied Zhi Cheng, “to refrain from all evil actions is Sila, to practice whatever is good is Prajna, and to purify one’s own mind is Dhyana. This is the way he teaches us. May I know your system?”

“If I tell you,” said the Patriarch, “that I have a system of Law to transmit to others, I am cheating you. What I do to my disciples is to liberate them from their own bondage with such devices as the case may need. To use a name which is nothing but a makeshift, this (state of liberation) may be called Samadhi. The way your master teaches Sila, Dhyana, and Prajna is wonderful; but my exposition is different.”

“How can it be different, Sir,” asked Zhi Cheng, “when there is only one form of Sila, Dhyana and Prajna?”

“The teaching of your master,” replied the Patriarch, “is for the followers of the Mahayana School, while mine is for those of the Supreme School. The fact that some realize the Dharma more quickly and deeply than others accounts for the difference in the interpretation. You may listen, and see if my instruction is the same as his. In expounding the Law, I do not deviate from the authority of the Essence of Mind (i.e., I speak what I realize intuitively). To speak otherwise would indicate that the expositor’s Essence of Mind is under obscuration and that he can touch the phenomenal side of the Law only. The true teaching of Sila, Dhyana and Prajna should be based on the principle that the function of all things derives from the Essence of Mind.

Listen to my stanza:

“To free the mind from all impurity is the Sila of the Essence of Mind.
To free the mind from all disturbance is the Dhyana of the Essence of Mind.
That which neither increases nor decreases is the Vajra
(Diamond, used as a symbol for the Essence of Mind);
 ‘Coming’ and ‘going’ are different phases of Samadhi.”

Having heard this, Zhi Cheng apologized (for having asked a foolish question) and thanked the Patriarch for his instruction. He then submitted the following stanza:

The ‘Self’ is nothing but a phantasm created by the union of five Skandhas,
And a phantasm can have nothing to do with absolute reality. To hold that there is a Tathata (Suchness) for us to aim at or to return to is another example of ‘Impure Dharma’. (Note: For Pure Law is above concept and speech)

Approving what he said in his stanza, the Patriarch said to him again,

“The teaching of your master on Sila, Dhyana and Prajna applies to wise men of the inferior type, while mine to those of the superior type. He who realizes the Essence of Mind may dispense with such doctrines as Bodhi, Nirvana, and ‘Knowledge of Emancipation’. Only those who do not possess a single system of Law can formulate all systems of Law, and only those who can understand the meaning (of this paradox) may use such terms. It makes no difference to those who have realized the Essence of Mind whether they formulate all systems of Law or dispense with all of them. 

They are at liberty to ‘come’ or to ‘go’ (i.e., they may remain in or leave this world at their own free will). They are free from obstacles or impediments. They take appropriate actions as circumstances require. They give suitable answers according to the temperament of the enquirer. They see that all Nirmanakayas are one with the Essence of Mind. They attain liberation, psychic powers (Siddhi) and Samadhi, which enable them to perform the arduous task of universal salvation as easily as if they were only playing. Such are the men who have realized the Essence of Mind!”

“By what principle are we guided in dispensing with all systems of Law?” was Zhi Cheng’s next question.

“When our Essence of Mind is free from impurity, infatuations and disturbances,” replied the Patriarch, “when we introspect our mind from moment to moment with Prajna, and when we do not cling to things and phenomenal objects we are free and liberated. Why should we formulate any system of Law when our goal can be reached no matter whether we turn to the right or to the left? Since it is with our own efforts that we realize the Essence of Mind, and since the realization and the practice of the Law are both done instantaneously, and not gradually or stage by stage, the formulation of any system of Law is unnecessary. As all Dharmas are intrinsically Nirvanic, how can there be gradation in them?”

Zhi Cheng made obeisance and volunteered to be an attendant of the Patriarch. In that capacity, he served both day and night.

Bhikkhu Zhi Che, whose secular name was Zhang Xing Chang, was a native of Kiangxi. As a young man, he was fond of chivalric exploits.

Since the two Dhyana Schools, Hui Neng of the South and Shen Xiu of the North, flourished side by side, a strong sectarian feeling ran high on the part of the disciples, in spite of the tolerant spirit shown by the two masters, who hardly knew what egotism was. Calling their own teacher, Shen Xiu, the Sixth Patriarch on no better authority than their own, the followers of the Northern School were jealous of the rightful owner of that title whose claim, supported by the inherited robe, was too well known to be ignored. (So in order to get rid of the rival teacher) they sent Zhang Xing Chang (who was then a layman) to murder the Patriarch.

With his psychic power of mind-reading the Patriarch was able to know of the plot beforehand. (Making ready for the coming of the murderer), he put ten taels by the side of his own seat. Zhang duly arrived, and one evening entered the Patriarch’s room to carry out the murder. With outstretched neck the Patriarch waited for the fatal blow. Thrice did Zhang cut, (but) not a single wound was thereby inflicted!

The Patriarch then addressed him as follows:

“A straight sword is not crooked,
While a crooked one is not straight.
I owe you money only;
But life I do not owe.”

The surprise was too great for Zhang; he fell into a swoon and did not revive for a considerable time. Remorseful and penitent, he asked for mercy and volunteered to join the Order at once.

Handing him the money, the Patriarch said, “You had better not remain here, lest my followers should do you harm. Come to see me in disguise some other time, and I will take good care of you.”

As directed, Zhang ran away the same night. Subsequently, he joined the Order ubder a certain Bhikkhu. Upon being fully ordained, proved himself to be a very diligent monk.

One day, recollecting what the Patriarch had said, he took the long journey to see him and to tender him homage. “Why do you come so late?” asked the Patriarch. “I have been thinking of you all the time.”

“Since that day you so graciously pardoned my crime,” said Zhang, “I have become a Bhikkhu and have studied Buddhism diligently. Yet I find it difficult to requite you adequately unless I can show my gratitude by spreading the Law for the deliverance of sentient beings. In studying the Maha Parinirvana Sutra, which I read very often, I cannot understand the meaning of ‘Eternal’ and ‘Not Eternal’. Will you, Sir, kindly give me a short explanation.”

“What is not eternal is the Buddha-nature,” replied the Patriarch, “and what is eternal is the discriminating mind together with all meritorious and demeritorious Dharmas.”

“Your explanation, Sir, contradicts the Sutra,” said Zhang.

“I dare not, since I inherit the ‘Heart-Seal’ of Lord Buddha,” replied the Patriarch.

“According to the Sutra,” said Zhang, “the Buddha-nature is eternal, while all meritorious and demeritorious Dharmas, including the Bodhi-citta (the Wisdom-heart) are not eternal. As you hold otherwise, is this not a contradiction? Your explanation has now intensified my doubts and perplexities.”

“On one occasion,” replied the Patriarch, “I had Bhikkhuni Wu jin-Zang recite to me the whole book of the Maha Parinirvana Sutra, so that I could explain it to her. Every word and every meaning I explained on that occasion agreed with the text. As to the explanation I give you now, it likewise differs not from the text.”

“As my capacity for understanding is a poor one,” observed Zhang, “will you kindly explain to me more fully and more clearly.”

“Don’t you understand?” said the Patriarch. “If Buddha-nature is eternal, it would be of no use to talk about meritorious and demeritorious Dharmas; and until the end of a Kalpa no one would arouse the Bodhi-citta. 

“Therefore, when I say ‘Not-Eternal’ it is exactly what Lord Buddha meant for ‘Truly Eternal’. Again, if all Dharmas are not eternal, then every thing or object would have a nature of its own (i.e., positive essence) to suffer death and birth. In that case, it would mean that the Essence of Mind which is truly eternal does not pervade everywhere. Therefore when I say ‘Eternal’ it is exactly what Lord Buddha meant by ‘Truly Not-Eternal’.”

“Because ordinary men and heretics believe in ‘heretical eternalism’ (i.e., they believe in the eternity of soul and of the world), and because Sravakas (aspirants to arhatship) mistake the eternity of Nirvana as something not eternal, eight upside-down notions arise. In order to refute these one-sided views, Lord Buddha preached exoterically in the Maha Parinirvana Sutra the ‘Ultimate Doctrine’ of Buddhist teaching, i.e., true eternity, true happiness, true self and true purity.

“In following slavishly the wording of the Sutra, you have ignored the spirit of the text. In assuming that what perishes is non-eternal and that what is fixed and immutable is eternal, you have misinterpreted Lord Buddha’s dying instruction (contained in the Maha Parinirvana Sutra) which is perfect, profound, and complete. You may read the Sutra a thousand times but you will get no benefit out of it.”

All of a sudden Zhang awoke to full enlightenment, and submitted the following stanza to the Patriarch:

In order to refute the bigoted belief of ‘Non-eternity’,
Lord Buddha preached the ‘Eternal Nature’.
He who does not know that such preaching is only a skillful device
May be likened to the child who picks up pebbles and calls them gems.
Without effort on my part the Buddha-nature manifests itself.
This is due neither to the instruction of my teacher
Nor to any attainment of my own.

“You have now thoroughly realized (the Essence of Mind),” commended the Patriarch, “and hereafter you should name yourself Zhi Che (to realize thoroughly).” Zhi Che thanked the Patriarch, made obeisance, and departed.

(Note. – The Buddha’s object is to get rid of limited belief in any form. He would preach ‘Non-eternity’ to believers of Eternalism; and preach ‘neither Eternity nor Non-eternity’ to those who believe in both.)

A thirteen-year-old boy named Shen Hui, who was born of a Gao family of Xiang Yang, came from Yu Quan Monastery to tender homage to the Patriarch.

“My learned friend,” said the Patriarch, “it must be hard for you to undertake such a long journey. But can you tell me what is the ‘fundamental principle’? If you can, you know the owner (i.e., the Essence of Mind). Try
to say something, please.”

“Non-attachment is the fundamental principle, and to know the owner is to realize (the Essence of Mind),” replied Shen Hui.

“This Samanera (novice) is fit for nothing but to talk loosely,” reproved the Patriarch.

Thereupon Shen Hui asked the Patriarch, “In your meditation, Sir, do you see (your Essence of Mind) or not?”

Striking him three blows with his staff, the Patriarch asked him whether he felt pain or not. “Painful and not painful,” replied Shen Hui. “I see and I see not,” retorted the Patriarch.

“How is it that you see and see not?” asked Shen Hui.

“What I see is my own faults,” replied the Patriarch. “What I do not see is the good, the evil, the merit and the demerit of others. That is why I see and I see not. Now tell me what you mean by ‘painful and not painful’. If you feel no pain, you would be as a piece of wood or stone. On the other hand, should you feel pain, and anger of hatred is thereby aroused, you would be in the same position as an ordinary man.

“The ‘Seeing’ and ‘not Seeing’ you referred to are a pair of opposites; while ‘painful’ and ‘not painful’ belong to that category of Dharma which becomes and ceases (i.e., Samskrita Dharma, conditioned or caused elements). Without having realized your own Essence of Mind, you dare to hoodwink others.”

Shen Hui apologized, made obeisance, and thanked the Patriarch for his instruction.

Addressing him again the Patriarch said, “If you are under delusion and cannot realize your Essence of Mind, you should seek the advice of a pious and learned friend. When your mind is enlightened, you will know the Essence of Mind, and then you may tread the Path the right way. Now you are under delusion, and do not know your Essence of Mind. Yet you dare to ask whether I know my Essence of Mind or not. If I do, I realize it myself, but the fact that I know it cannot help you from being under delusion. Similarly, if you know your Essence of Mind your knowing would be of no use to me. Instead of asking others, why not see it for yourself and know it for yourself?”

Making obeisance more than a hundred times, Shen Hui again expressed regret and asked the Patriarch to forgive him. (Henceforth) he worked diligently as the Patriarch’s attendant.

Addressing the assembly one day, the Patriarch said, “I have an article which has no head, no name nor appellation, no front and no back. Do any of you know it?”

Stepping out from the crowd, Shen Hui replied, “It is the source of all Buddhas, and the Buddha-nature of Shen Hui.”

“I have told you already that it is without name and appellation, and yet you call it ‘Source of Buddhas’ and ‘Buddha-nature’,” reproved the Patriarch. “Even if you confine yourself in a mat shed for further study (as is the wont of the Bhikkhus), you will be a Dhyana scholar of secondhand knowledge only (i.e., knowledge from books and verbal authority instead of Knowledge obtained intuitively).

After the death of the Patriarch, Shen Hui left for Loyang, where he spread widely the teaching of the Sudden School. The popular work entitled ‘An Explicit Treatise on Dhyana Teaching’ was written by him. He is generally known by the name Dhyana Master He Ze (the name of his monastery).

Seeing that many questions were put to him in bad faith by followers of various Schools, and that a great number of such questioners had gathered around him, the Patriarch addressed them out of compassion as follows:–

“A treader of the Path should do away with all thoughts, good as well as evil ones. It is merely as an expedient that the Essence of Mind is so called; it cannot really be named by any name. This ‘non-dual nature’ is called the ‘true nature’, upon which all Dharma systems of teaching are based. One should realize the Essence of Mind as soon as one is spoken to about it.”

Upon hearing this, every one made obeisance and asked the Patriarch to allow them to be his disciples.


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