We would admit that we don't understand...

Extracted from "Awakening from the Dream of Existence"  Ch'an Master Sheng Yen

  With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Ch'an,
  The six paramitas and myriad means are complete within that essence.
  In dreams there are clearly six paths of sentient being;
  Upon awakening the great chiliocosm is completely empty.

If we were utterly truthful we would admit that we dont understand the world around us or even ourselves.  We don't know where we came from, and we don't know where we are going.
We live in dreams - blissful or nightmarish - but still dreams.

The goal of practice is to awaken from this dream of life, and to discover your Buddha nature - the reality that underlies transient existence...

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silent sitting

One of the great Chinese masters of this practice, Hongzhi, describes this silent sitting in this manner:

Your body sits quietly; your mind quiescent, unmoving. This is genuine effort in practice. Body and mind are at complete rest. The mouth is so still that moss grows around it. Grass sprouts from your tongue. Do this without ceasing, cleansing the mind until is gains the clarity of an autumn pool, bright as the moon illuminating the evening sky. for more...the legacy of ch'an


The Northern and Southern Schools of Ch'an

The traditional lineage charts (and Ch’an history) show that Hui-neng was not the sole heir to Master Hung-jen but that the failed verse-writer Shen-hsiu was also appointed Dharma successor and, along with another successor, Chi-shen (609-702), went on to develop his own lineage which became known as the “Northern School.”

Shen-hsiu went on to become one of the most revered and well-known teachers in the China of his day.  Ch’an had moved from essentially a small Buddhist sect located in the rural areas of China to centre stage at the heart of ancient China.

Shen-hsiu’s teachings were “breathtakingly simple”, based as they were on contemplation of the mind in every moment, clearly asking the students “to place emphasis on the enlightened mind at the centre of their being…to penetrate the entire universe and all individual activities.”

Shen-hsiu saw the Buddha’s utterances as metaphors for Buddhist meditation. He reinterpreted the scriptures, constantly using the writings to advocate meditation, spiritual practice and salvation of all beings in the here and now. For example, burning of incense is “the true, unconditioned Dharma, which “perfumes” the tainted and evil karma of ignorance and causes it to disappear”, not simply a fragrance. (McRae, 2003)

One of the methods Ch’an used for asserting its own identity was claiming a direct and unbroken lineage from the Buddha. Another was its emphasis on enlightenment which could not be achieved through the performance of good deeds or good thoughts, as reflected in Bodhidharma’s dismissal of the Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty as having gained no merit from building temples, translating sutras or ordaining priests. The debate over “gradual” versus “sudden” encompassed the debate over whether cultivation of morality, the performance of good deeds and the avoidance of evil, the study of sutras and the role of upaya, expedient means, have in the attainment of enlightenment.

Ch’an denied that these were necessary precursors to enlightenment as all thought was seen as being illusionary. As the eighth century Chinese monk Mo-ho-yen simply stated:
The state of samsara is merely the result of deluded thoughts. Enlightenment is achieved by not grasping at these thoughts and not dwelling on them, by not bringing them to mind, by not inspecting the mind, but by merely being aware of all thoughts as they arise. (Gomez, 1983)

All thoughts, whatever they be, cloud the mind and therefore cultivating ‘good’ thoughts is an impediment to liberation, as they are merely still thoughts.
Furthermore, “all conceptions without exception are false. If one sees conceptions as no conception, then one see the Tathagata.”

 It was teachings such as these that set Ch’an apart from the other Buddhist schools. (And it was teachings such as these that spurred the debate between “sudden” and “gradual” awakening.)

Shen Hui, an avid propagator and hard-line follower of the Southern School of Ch'an -Sudden Enlightenment path - stated in reply to the question whether controlling the mind, settling the mind and concentrating the mind to enter dhyana, were right practice, Shen-hui denied they were right practice:
The sitting I’m talking about means not to give rise to thoughts. The meditation I’m talking about is to see the original nature….Not to give rise to thoughts, emptiness without being, this is the true meditation….The ability to see the non-rising of thoughts, to see emptiness without being, this is the true wisdom (prajna); at the moment there is wisdom, this is the function of meditation. Thus, the moment there is meditation, it is no different from wisdom….by their nature, of themselves, meditation and wisdom are alike.
Wisdom (prajna) cannot be found by “settling the mind to see purity”. What Shen-hui was attacking was what he saw as erroneous “Northern School” meditation practices which supposedly taught concentration to enter dhyana (meditation, ch’an, zen) and thereby attain enlightenment.

Shen Hui was at times strongly criticized for being extreme and intolerant by followers of the Northern School of Ch'an. Regardless of how Shen-hui’s personality is judged over a millennium later, there is no doubt that he was highly influential in the development of Ch’an. Through his unrelenting and sustained criticisms against the Shen-hsiu lineage he created a crisis in Ch’an in ancient China that eventually led to the Zen we know today. However, to say that Shen-hui’s attacks were the cause of the decline of the Northern School would be an oversimplification. Certainly they were a contributing factor, but a host of reasons combined to drive the Northern School into obscurity. And in fact, the Northern School continued to increase in size, peaking in the 770s, about a decade after the death of Shen-hui. (McRae, 1986)
The Northern School was significant in the spread of Ch’an to Tibet, Korea and Japan and died out in the mid-ninth or early tenth centuries. Ironically, Shen-hui’s lineage also faded away, possibly around the time of the Buddhist persecutions of the Hui-ch’ang era (842-845). Other than Tsung-mi (780-841), it produced no particularly notable heirs. (Yampolsky, 1967)

Although the provenance of the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch cannot any longer be firmly established, there is little doubt that this writing was instrumental in promoting Shen-hui’s “Southern School” domination of the Ch’an of ancient China and catapulting Hui-neng into the revered position he has held ever since. The writing single-handedly created one of the most enduring legends of Ch’an and has guided students and teachers for over one thousand years. It continues to be studied in Zen centres around the world. Few writings in Zen Buddhism are as influential and durable.

One of the key criticisms on the Northern School by Shen-hui was the debate over “sudden” versus “gradual” enlightenment. The Platform Sutra addressed the debate by stating:
Good friends, in the Dharma there is no sudden or gradual, but among people some are keen and others dull. The deluded recommend the gradual method, the enlightened practice the sudden teaching. To understand the original mind of yourself is to see into your own original nature. Once enlightened, there is from the outset no distinction between these two methods; those who are not enlightened will for long kalpas be caught in the cycle of transmigration. 

The distinction here between “sudden” and “gradual” is the distinction between the awakened and the still deluded. However, nowhere in the sutra does it say that “sudden” means without effort or easily attained. The contradistinction in the sutra appears to be between directly perceiving one’s Buddha nature (self-nature, original nature, true reality, etc) through meditation and a step-by-step meditation process. How to achieve this “sudden” breakthrough is explained through the concept of “no-thought”. Thoughts are seen as arising continually from the past into the present and through to the future. Cutting off one thought cuts off all thought (by a process that goes beyond conceptual thought) and leads to “no-thought”, the state of enlightenment. (Yampolsky, 1967)

Another attempt is made in settling the “sudden”, “gradual” conflict:
The Dharma is one teaching, but people are from the north and south, so Southern and Northern Schools have been established. What is meant by ‘gradual’ and ‘sudden’? The Dharma itself is the same, but in seeing it there is a slow way and a fast way. Seen slowly, it is the gradual; seen fast it is the sudden. Dharma is without sudden or gradual, but some people are keen and others dull; hence the names ‘sudden’ and gradual’. 
Traditionally, Shen-hsiu’s Dharma-verse has been interpreted as advocating a gradual teaching where the practitioner attempts perfection by steadily eliminating illusions, constantly polishing the mirror of the mind. Hui-neng’s verse, on the other hand, apparently refuses to engage in any duality, stating “Fundamentally there is not a single thing”. One is seen as a superior teaching over the other. However, this may be an overly simplistic interpretation. The two verses could be seen together as a pair rather than individually as Hui-neng’s verse makes little sense on its own and needs Shen-hsiu’s verse to be understood. The first verse, Shen-hsiu’s, maintains that practice must be constant and unending, a position taken in the Platform Sutra when the master on his deathbed directed his students to continue sitting after he was gone.

What Shen-hsiu and the Northern School were advocating was continual practice.  To see the Northern School teaching as “gradualist” is fundamentally simplistic and incorrect, although this is the interpretation that has come down through the centuries. The Northern School teachings were far more complex than the simplistic dichotomy of “gradual” versus “sudden” implies.While Shen-hui’s methods of promoting his school may be controversial, the fact is that he had an enormous influence in the development of Ch’an and Zen through the teachings of the Platform Sutra which took up so many of his teachings.

The Platform Sutra drew extensively upon many of the teachings of the Northern School as well as the writings of Shen-hui — enough that some believe that either he or one of his disciples wrote the Platform Sutra.  It also draws on well-known canonical sources, such as the Diamond Sutra and the Vimalakirti Sutra and the concepts from the Prajnaparamita writings. The teachings expressed in the sutra are by no means original to Hui-neng and he admits this un-originality, stating, “My teaching has been handed down from the sages of the past; it is not my personal knowledge.”

Early Ch’an took great care to trace its teachings back to the Buddhist canon to legitimize its teachings within the broader Buddhist movement.

But the Platform Sutra did more than address the Northern/Southern controversy. In the biography of Hui-neng, we have the story of how an illiterate ‘barbarian’ from the south became a Patriarch even before he became a monk. The meaning of this is quite clear: anyone can attain liberation in Ch’an, regardless of learning or status.

One does not even have to be a monk (a position, by the way, contrary to what Shen-hui preached. He saw lay people as potential converts to monk-hood or as financial assets, not potential enlightened beings in their own right. (McRae, 2003) This made Ch’an Buddhism a universal doctrine and practice open to all who seek an end to suffering.

Adapted from


Hui Neng 6th Patriarch of the Ch'an School

Master Hui Neng, known as the Sixth Patriarch was the founder of the School of Sudden Awakening - The enlightenment is what one awakes to, that which cannot be learned in an orthodox way or earned assimilating theory. It is the Way of direct insight and unmistakable experience.

 Hui Neng was poor and illiterate, with no special education. When Hui Neng overheard the verses of a sacred text - the Diamond Sutra- read in the village one day, he felt suddenly attracted by them and decided to go to study dharma (the way to enlightenment)  inTung Ch'an Abbey, Huang Mei county, where Hung Yen was the master of the order.

Upon hearing the words of the Sutra,

"One should produce that thought which dwells nowhere",

Hui Neng's mind immediately opened to enlightenment.

All people, regardless of their social, cultural or spiritual condition, possess the Buddhahood (Buddha-nature) or natural ability of potential Awakening. Buddha-nature is not the fruit of one's efforts. It cannot be earned by virtue - namely a moral, virtuous life - or by study. It represents the inborn quality of mind, given to all people with no exception. The awakening is not a mediate, but a sudden, instantaneous process.  This is the Way of Ch'an.  Beyond words and expression.  Beyond concepts.

Hui Neng's teachings are fact a non-doctrine, as it asserts nothing, imposes nothing, proposes nothing... yet an unmistakable 'pathless path' leading to supreme Buddhahood.

An educated monk asked Hui Neng, some insights concernig some holy scriptures:

Monk: Please explain to me these scriptures.

Hui Neng: Sorry, but I can't read the words. Read to me these scriptures and I will be able to understand them.

Monk: How can you understand the scriptures if you cannot read the words?

Hui Neng: The truth and the words are two different things. The words can be compared with a finger. We can show the moon with a finger, but the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon means to look over the finger. The words are like a finger pointing towards the truth. Generally speaking, we see only the finger. The truth is beyond the finger.

Hui Neng at the beginning led an anonymous life.  He was fatherless and had to work to support his mother. The living conditions were very hard. One day he noticed a man reading a Buddhist scripture and suddenly felt fascinated by the spiritual works and became interested in the source of the text. He met the Fifth Partriarch, Hung Jen, who found out that he was a common man, an illiterate, but who was endeavoring for Buddha-nature.

5th Patriarch Hung Jen says: "You are a barbarian, how could you hope for becoming a Buddha?"

Hui Neng's short answer vexes our faith that we must respect a spiritual personality: "A barbarian is only apparently different from you, but there is no distinction concerning our Buddha-nature".

Thus the Buddha-nature of this barbarian - Hui Neng - was not different from that of the monastery's Patriarch!

And so, advised by the Patriarch, Hui Neng kept away from the meditation rooms, not drawing attention to himself.  For a while, Hui Neng had to carry out the ordinary household chores of the monastery. Hui Neng's spiritual endowment, which was not a result of the monastery life would proabably draw the hostile reactions of the other monks, if it would have been openly acknowledged.

Soon however, the Patriarch decided he must transmit the spiritual power to a Sixth Patriarch, the next holder of the lineage symbolically referred to as 'passing on the robe and the bowl'.  For this purpose, he examined the monks, the exam consisting of composing a short poem (gatha), on the temple wall, which should certify their deep insight into Dharma, in the correct understanding about "what true nature means".

The most promising monk, Shen-Hsiu, and the one who was assumed to succeed the Patriarch, composed the following lines:

This body is Bodhi tree

And the spirit is like a clean mirror set on a support

Let us clean it untiringly

And allow no grain of dust to fall over it.

The poem was rejected by 5th Patriarch, Hung Jen because it wasn't expressing the genuine illumination. He suspected the monk did not yet possess the true eye to Dharma wisdom.
(Moreover, the metaphor had already been used by Chuang-tzu, one of the masterminds of the philosophical Taoism.)

Hui Neng asked a monk to show him and to read the gatha of the main candidate. After he carefully read Shen-Hsiu's poem, he dictated and composed the following verse:

Wisdom knows no (bodhi) tree to grow

And the mirror leans on nothing

There was nothing from the beginning,

So where could the dust fall over?

The following night Hui Neng was very secretly confirmed to be appointed and left  the Tung Ch'an Monastery in haste and went into hiding. His supporter, the former Patriarch, advised him not to make public his appointment for fear that he could be hunted and killed by the other monks.

So, Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of the Ch'an meditation school had to wander about for 6 years, escaping  from all the dangers which were threatening his life.

Only at the age of 39, Hui Neng decided to go out to teach the dharma.

He settled until the end of his life at the Pao-Lin Monastery from Tsao-Hui region, laying the foundations of the Sudden School or the School of Spontaneous Illumination from the South, which seems to have had many deeply accomplished practioners.

After his death, his body did not decay; only the flesh dried out. It is being kept in Hua Nan Temple in Guangdong.

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