Chapter I. Autobiography
Now let me tell
you something about my own life and how I came
into possession of the esoteric teaching of the
Dhyana (or the Zen) School.
My father, a native of Fan Yang, was dismissed
from his official post and banished to be a
commoner in Xin Zhou in Guangdong. I was unlucky
in that my father died when I was very young,
leaving my mother poor and miserable. We moved
to Guangzhou (Canton) and were then in very bad
I was selling firewood in the market one day,
when one of my customers ordered some to be
brought to his shop. Upon delivery being made
and payment received, I left the shop, outside
of which I found a man reciting a sutra. As soon
as I heard the text of this sutra my mind at
once became enlightened. Thereupon I asked the
man the name of the book he was reciting and was
told that it was the Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedika
or Diamond Cutter). I further enquired whence he
came and why he recited this particular sutra.
He replied that he came from Dong Shan Monastery
in the Huang Mei District of Qi Zhou; that the
Abbot in charge of this temple was Hong Ren, the
Fifth Patriarch; that there were about one
thousand disciples under him; and that when he
went there to pay homage to the Patriarch, he
attended lectures on this sutra. He further told
me that His Holiness used to encourage the laity
as well as the monks to recite this scripture,
as by doing so they might realize their own
Essence of Mind, and thereby reach Buddhahood
It must be due to my good karma in past lives
that I heard about this, and that I was given
ten taels for the maintenance of my mother by a
man who advised me to go to Huang Mei to
interview the Fifth Patriarch. After
arrangements had been made for her, I left for
Huang Mei, which took me less than thirty days
Hui Neng Visits the Patriarch
Hong Ren, the 5th Patriarch
|I then went to pay homage to the Patriarch, and
was asked where I came from and what I expected
to get from him. I replied, "I am a commoner
from Xin Zhou of Guangdong. I have travelled far
to pay you respect and I ask for nothing but
Buddhahood." "You are a native of Guangdong, a
barbarian? How can you expect to be a Buddha?"
asked the Patriarch. I replied, "Although there
are northern men and southern men, north and
south make no difference to their Buddha-nature.
A barbarian is different from Your Holiness
physically, but there is no difference in our
Buddha-nature." He was going to speak further to
me, but the presence of other disciples made him
stop short. He then ordered me to join the crowd
"May I tell Your Holiness," said I, "that Prajna
(transcendental Wisdom) often rises in my mind.
When one does not go astray from one's own
Essence of Mind, one may be called the 'field of
merits'. I do not know what work Your Holiness
would ask me to do."
Hui Neng Splits Firewood
"This barbarian is too bright," he remarked. "Go
to the stable and speak no more." I then
withdrew myself to the back yard and was told by
a lay brother to split firewood and to pound
follows is a description of Hui Neng
becoming the founder of the sudden school of
More than eight months after, the Patriarch saw
me one day and said, "I know your knowledge of
Buddhism is very sound; but I have to refrain
from speaking to you lest evil doers should do
you harm. Do you understand?" "Yes, Sir, I do,"
I replied. "To avoid people taking notice of me,
I dare not go near your hall."
The Patriarch one day assembled all his
disciples and said to them, "The question of
incessant rebirth is a momentous one. Day after
day, instead of trying to free yourselves from
this bitter sea of life and death, you seem to
go after tainted merits only (i.e. merits which
will cause rebirth). Yet merits will be of no
help, if your Essence of Mind is obscured. Go
and seek for Prajna (wisdom) in your own mind
and then write me a stanza (gatha) about it. He
who understands what the Essence of Mind is will
be given the robe (the insignia of the
Patriarchate) and the Dharma (i.e. the esoteric
teaching of the Dhyana school), and I shall make
him the Sixth Patriarch. Go away quickly. Delay
not in writing the stanza, as deliberation is
quite unnecessary and of no use. The man who has
realized the Essence of Mind can speak of it at
once, as soon as he is spoken to about it; and
he cannot lose sight of it, even when engaged in
Having received this instruction, the disciples
withdrew and said to one another, "It is of no
use for us to concentrate our mind to write the
stanza and submit it to His Holiness, since the
Patriarchate is bound to be won by Shen Xiu, our
instructor. And if we write perfunctorily, it
will only be a waste of energy." Upon hearing
this all of them made up their minds not to
write and said, "Why should we take the trouble?
Hereafter, we will simply follow our instructor,
Shen Xiu, wherever he goes, and look to him for
Meanwhile, Shen Xiu reasoned thus with himself.
"Considering that I am their teacher, none of
them will take part in the competition. I wonder
whether I should write a stanza and submit it to
His Holiness. If I do not, how can the Patriarch
know how deep or superficial my knowledge is? If
my object is to get the Dharma, my motive is a
pure one. If I were after the Patriarchate, then
it would be bad. In that case, my mind would be
that of a worldling and my action would amount
to robbing the Patriarch's holy seat. But if I
do not submit the stanza, I shall never have a
chance of getting the Dharma. A very difficult
point to decide, indeed!"
In front of the Patriarch's hall there were
three corridors, the walls of which were to be
painted by a court artist, named Lu Zhen, with
pictures from the Lankavatara (Sutra) depicting
the transfiguration of the assembly, and with
scenes showing the genealogy of the five
Patriarchs for the information and veneration of
When Shen Xiu had composed his stanza he made
several attempts to submit it to the Patriarch;
but as soon as he went near the hall his mind
was so perturbed that he sweated all over. He
could not screw up courage to submit it,
although in the course of four days he made
altogether thirteen attempts to do so.
Then he suggested to himself, "It would be
better for me to write it on the wall of the
corridor and let the Patriarch see it for
himself. If he approves it, I shall come out to
pay homage, and tell him that it is done by me;
but if he disapproves it, then I shall have
wasted several years in this mountain in
receiving homage from others which I by no means
deserve! In that case, what progress have I made
in learning Buddhism?"
At 12 o'clock that night he went secretly with a
lamp to write the stanza on the wall of the
south corridor, so that the Patriarch might know
what spiritual insight he had attained. The
Our body is the Bodhi-tree,
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight.
As soon as he had
written it he left at once for his room; so
nobody knew what he had done. In his room he
again pondered: "When the Patriarch sees my
stanza tomorrow and is pleased with it, I shall
be ready for the Dharma; but if he says that it
is badly done, it will mean that I am unfit for
the Dharma, owing to the misdeeds in previous
lives which thickly becloud my mind. It is
difficult to know what the Patriarch will say
about it!" In this vein he kept on thinking
until dawn, as he could neither sleep nor sit at
Nan Hua Temple where Hui Neng lived for
But the Patriarch knew already that Shen Xiu had
not entered the door of enlightenment, and that
he had not known the Essence of Mind.
In the morning, he sent for Mr. Lu, the court
artist, and went with him to the south corridor
to have the walls there painted with pictures.
By chance, he saw the stanza. "I am sorry to
have troubled you to come so far," he said to
the artist. "The walls need not be painted now,
as the Sutra says, 'All forms or phenomena are
transient and illusive.' It will be better to
leave the stanza here, so that people may study
it and recite it. If they put its teaching into
actual practice, they will be saved from the
misery of being born in these evil realms of
existence (gatis). The merit gained by one who
practices it will be great indeed!"
He then ordered incense to be burnt, and all his
disciples to pay homage to it and to recite it,
so that they might realize the Essence of Mind.
After they had recited it, all of them
exclaimed, "Well done!"
At midnight, the Patriarch sent for Shen Xiu to
come to the hall, and asked him whether the
stanza was written by him or not. "It was, Sir,"
replied Shen Xiu. "I dare not be so vain as to
expect to get the Patriarchate, but I wish Your
Holiness would kindly tell me whether my stanza
shows the least grain of wisdom."
"Your stanza," replied the Patriarch, "shows
that you have not yet realized the Essence of
Mind. So far you have reached the 'door of
enlightenment', but you have not yet entered it.
To seek for supreme enlightenment with such an
understanding as yours can hardly be successful.
"To attain supreme enlightenment, one must be
able to know spontaneously one's own nature or
Essence of Mind, which is neither created nor
can it be annihilated. From ksana to ksana
(thought-moment to thought-moment), one should
be able to realize the Essence of Mind all the
time. All things will then be free from
restraint (i.e., emancipated). Once the Tathata
(Suchness, another name for the Essence of Mind)
is known, one will be free from delusion
forever; and in all circumstances one's mind
will be in a state of 'Thusness'. Such a state
of mind is absolute Truth. If you can see things
in such a frame of mind you will have known the
Essence of Mind, which is supreme enlightenment.
"You had better go back to think it over again
for couple of days, and then submit me another
stanza. If your stanza shows that you have
entered the 'door of enlightenment', I will
transmit you the robe and the Dharma."
Shen Xiu made obeisance to the Patriarch and
left. For several days, he tried in vain to
write another stanza. This upset his mind so
much that he was as ill at ease as if he were in
a nightmare, and he could find comfort neither
in sitting nor in walking.
Recites a Stanza
Two days after, it happened that a young boy who
was passing by the room where I was pounding
rice recited loudly the stanza written by Shen
Xiu. As soon as I heard it, I knew at once that
the composer of it has not yet realized the
Essence of Mind. For although I had not been
taught about it at that time, I already had a
general idea of it.
"What stanza is this?" I asked the boy. "You
barbarian," he replied, "don't you know about
it? The Patriarch told his disciples that the
question of incessant rebirth was a momentous
one, that those who wished to inherit his robe
and Dharma should write him a stanza, and that
the one who had an understanding of the Essence
of Mind would get them and be made the sixth
Patriarch. Elder Shen Xiu wrote this 'Formless'
Stanza on the wall of the south corridor and the
Patriarch told us to recite it. He also said
that those who put its teaching into actual
practice would attain great merit, and be saved
from the misery of being born in the evil realms
I told the boy that I wished to recite the
stanza too, so that I might have an affinity
with its teaching in future life. I also told
him that although I had been pounding rice there
for eight months I had never been to the hall,
and that he would have to show me where the
stanza was to enable me to make obeisance to it.
The boy took me there and I asked him to read it
to me, as I am illiterate. A petty officer of
the Jiang Zhou District named Zhang Ri Yong, who
happened to be there, read it out to me. When he
had finished reading I told him that I also had
composed a stanza and asked him to write it for
me. "Extraordinary indeed," he exclaimed, "that
you also can compose a stanza!"
"Don't despise a beginner," said I, "if you are
a seeker of supreme enlightenment. You should
know that the lowest class may have the sharpest
wit, while the highest may be in want of
intelligence. If you slight others, you commit a
very great sin."
"Dictate your stanza," said he. "I will take it
down for you. But do not forget to deliver me,
should you succeed in getting the Dharma!" My
Calligraphy by April Brazier
There is no
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?
When he had
written this, all disciples and others who were
present were greatly surprised. Filled with
admiration, they said to one another, "How
wonderful! No doubt we should not judge people
by appearance. How can it be that for so long we
have made a Bodhisattva incarnate work for us?"
Seeing that the crowd was overwhelmed with
amazement, the Patriarch rubbed off the stanza
with his shoe, lest jealous ones should do me
injury. He expressed the opinion, which they
took for granted, that the author of this stanza
had also not yet realized the Essence of Mind.
Transmission of the Diamond Sutra
Next day the Patriarch came secretly to the room
where the rice was pounded. Seeing that I was
working there with a stone pestle, he said to
me, "A seeker of the Path risks his life for the
Dharma. Should he not do so?" Then he asked, "Is
the rice ready?" "Ready long ago," I replied,
"only waiting for the sieve." He knocked the
mortar thrice with his stick and left.
Knowing what his message meant, in the third
watch of the night I went to his room. Using the
robe as a screen so that none could see us, he
expounded the Diamond Sutra to me. When he came
to the sentence, "One should use one's mind in
such a way that it will be free from any
I at once became thoroughly enlightened, and
realized that all things in the universe are the
Essence of Mind itself.
"Who would have thought," I said to the
Patriarch, "that the Essence of Mind is
intrinsically pure! Who would have thought that
the Essence of Mind is intrinsically free from
becoming or annihilation! Who would have thought
that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically
self-sufficient! Who would have thought that the
Essence of Mind is intrinsically free from
change! Who would have thought that all things
are the manifestation of the Essence of Mind!"
Knowing that I had realized the Essence of Mind,
the Patriarch said, "For him who does not know
his own mind there is no use learning Buddhism.
On the other hand, if he knows his own mind and
sees intuitively his own nature, he is a Hero, a
'Teacher of gods and men', 'Buddha'."
Thus, to the knowledge of no one, the Dharma was
transmitted to me at midnight, and consequently
I became the inheritor of the teaching of the
'Sudden' School as well as of the robe and the
"You are now the Sixth Patriarch," said he.
"Take good care of yourself, and deliver as many
sentient beings as possible. Spread and preserve
the teaching, and don't let it come to an end.
Take note of my stanza:--
beings who sow the seeds of enlightenment
In the field of Causation will reap the
fruit of Buddhahood.
Inanimate objects void of Buddha-nature
Sow not and reap not.
Hui Neng Inherits a Robe
He further said,
"When the Patriarch Bodhidharma first came to
China, most Chinese had no confidence in him,
and so this robe was handed down as a testimony
from one Patriarch to another. As to the Dharma,
this is transmitted from heart to heart, and the
recipient must realize it by his own efforts.
From time immemorial it has been the practice
for one Buddha to pass to his successor the
quintessence of the Dharma, and for one
Patriarch to transmit to another the esoteric
teaching from heart to heart. As the robe may
give cause for dispute, you are the last one to
inherit it. Should you hand it down to your
successor, your life would be in imminent
danger. Now leave this place as quickly as you
can, lest someone should do you harm."
"Whither should I go?" I asked. "At Huai you
stop and at Hui you seclude yourself," he
Upon receiving the robe and the begging bowl in
the middle of the night, I told the Patriarch
that, being a Southerner, I did not know the
mountain tracks, and that it was impossible for
me to get to the mouth of the river (to catch a
boat). "You need not worry," said he. "I will go
He then accompanied me to Jiu Jiang, and there
ordered me into a boat. As he did the rowing
himself, I asked him to sit down and let me
handle the oar. "It is only right for me to
carry you across," he said (an allusion to the
sea of birth and death which one has to go
across before the shore of Nirvana can be
reached). To this I replied, "While I am under
illusion, it is for you to get me across; but
after enlightenment, I should cross it by
myself. (Although the term 'to go across' is the
same, it is used differently in each case). As I
happen to be born on the frontier, even my
speaking is incorrect in pronunciation, (but in
spite of this) I have had the honor to inherit
the Dharma from you. Since I am now enlightened,
it is only right for me to cross the sea of
birth and death myself by realizing my own
Essence of Mind."
"Quite so, quite so," he agreed. "Beginning from
you, Buddhism (meaning the Dhyana School) will
become very popular. Three years after your
departure from me I shall leave this world. You
may start on your journey now. Go as fast as you
can towards the South. Do not preach too soon,
as Buddhism (of the Dhyana School) is not so
To read the entire sutra
The Sutra of Hui Neng