Altar Sutra: The Story of Hui-neng

This story was told by the Patriarch at Pao Lin Monastery and was transcribed by his students.
This teaching was attended by government officials, Confucian scholars, monks and nun, laymen and laywomen, and Taoist Philosophers.

The congregation asked him to give the most complete teaching he could and he told the story of how he came to be the sixth Patriarch.

“Our true nature is the seed of Enlightenment. It is pure and by making use of it we can Awaken.
Let me tell you about my life and how I came to be in possession of the Mystical teachings of the Ch’an School.
My father died when I was very young and my mother was poor.
We lived in Canton in bad circumstances.
I was selling firewood in the market one day when, outside a shop I heard a man reciting a Sutra.

So, Hui-neng’s mother didn’t have anyone to help her raise him after his father died. They were so poor that he had to go sell wood at the market to help support them. This was not an unusual condition for a poor family in this context.

As soon as I heard this text, I had an experience of Awakening. I asked the man what the name of the book was that he was reciting and he told me that it was the Diamond Sutra.

The Diamond Sutra is one of the most revered texts in all of Mahayana Buddhism. It is a classic of the world’s spiritual literature. It is a short text, around 6,000 words, but it has been interpreted in many different ways. The title in Sanskrit is Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, which translates to ‘the diamond cutting perfection of wisdom Sutra. It’s been said that just hearing one line of the text can bring one to Enlightenment and that is the assertion Hui-neng is claiming.

I asked the man why he was reciting this Sutra and he said that he came from Tung Ch’an Monastery and he was being given lectures on the Sutra by the Abbot of the temple, Hung Yen, the Fifth Patriarch.
He told me that the Patriarch encouraged laity as well as monks to recite this Sutra, as by doing so they might become Enlightened.

I think it was because of good karma from past lives that I came upon this man. He gave me money to leave for my mother so I could go to the monastery and meet the Fifth Patriarch myself.
The journey to the Monastery took me thirty days.

I went to meet the Patriarch.

When I met him he asked where I had come from and what I expected to gain.

I replied, “I am a peasant from Kwangtung. I have travelled to pay you respect and I ask for nothing but Awakening.”

“You are a native of Kwangtung? A barbarian? How can you become Awakened?” asked the Patriarch.

I replied, “Although there are northern and southern men, north and south make no difference to their Buddha nature. A barbarian is different from you physically, but there is no difference in Buddha nature.”
I was given a job pounding rice in the monastery.

Eight months later the Patriarch assembled his students.

He said, “Whatever merits you gain in life are of no help if your Buddha nature remains obscured. Go look for Prajna within your own minds and write a gatha about it.”

Gatha is a Sanskrit word that means song. Students often write gathas when they gain Dharma Transmission.

“Whoever composes a gatha that demonstrates an understanding of their Buddha nature will be given Dharma Transmission and will become the Sixth Patriarch. Go.”

Dharma transmission is a custom in which a person is established as a successor in a spiritual bloodline, an unbroken lineage of teachers and students that is theoretically traced back to the Buddha himself. This system may have been created to reflect the importance of family structures in ancient China to form a symbolic ritual for the establishment of the spiritual family. Bodhidharma brought this lineage to China. He passed it on to Huike. Huike passed it on to Sengcan. Sengcan passed it on to Daoxin. Daoxin passed it on to Hung Yen, the Fifth Patriarch in this story.

The students left. They all thought that it would be Shen Hsiu, the Patriarch’s best student that would write the best gatha. They all believed in him. They decided it was not worth their time to even make an effort when they thought they knew what the outcome would be.

Shen Hsiu took notice. He saw that none of the other students were trying to compete. He was actually not as confident in himself as all of the other students were, but he decided to go ahead and compose a gatha.

He was nervous. He did not believe he was worthy of Dharma Transmission. But, at the same time, he couldn’t possibly pass up the opportunity to try.

In front of the Patriarch’s hall there were pictures from the Lankavatara Sutra as well as pictures of the Five Patriarchs. Across from these there was a blank wall.

The Lankavatara Sutra is another beloved Mahayana text. It takes places in Sri Lanka and involves a deep discussion between the Buddha and a Bodhisattva named Mahamati.

Shen Hsiu couldn’t summon the courage to submit his gatha, so he wrote on the blank wall instead. He thought that if the Patriarch read it and declared it was good, he could reveal that he had written it. And if the Patriarch said it was bad, he did not have to come forward.
At midnight he went with a lamp and wrote his gatha on the wall.
he course of four days he made altogether thirteen attempts to do so. 

The gatha read:
Our body is the Bodhi-tree,
And our mind a mirror bright. 
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight.

The Patriarch saw the gatha and said that it was good. He had all of his students recite it.
Later, he asked Shen Hsiu in private if he had written it.

“I did,” replied Shen Hsiu, “I do not know if I deserve to be the Patriarch. Can you tell me if my gatha shows any sign of wisdom?”

“Your gatha shows that you have not yet unleashed your Buddha nature. So far you have reached the doorway to Enlightenment, but you have not entered.

To become Enlightened, one must know one’s own true nature. Once your true nature is known you will be free from delusion and will dwell in harmony.

Such a state of mind is the Truth. If you see things in such a state of mind, you will be Enlightened.
Go write another gatha and if it shows you have entered the door of Enlightenment, then I will transmit the Dharma to you.”

Shen Hsiu bowed and left.

For a few days he tried to write another gatha, but he could not.

Two days later a boy read the gatha and came to recite it for me.

As soon as I heard it, I knew that he hadn’t realized his true nature.

The boy told me about the Patriarch’s instruction to his students to write a gatha.
I composed a gatha of my own and asked him to write it next to the first one for me.

Hui-neng was raised in poverty. In that era, literacy was not the norm. Because he was raised in poverty he did not know how to read or write. This story gives us the important lesson that anyone can attain Enlightenment, regardless of education or social standing. Because Hui-neng could not read or write, he had to ask for help.

My gatha read:
There is no Bodhi-tree,
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is Void,
Where can the dust alight?

Shen Hsiu’s gatha was wise, but he was still thinking in duality. Hui-neng’s gatha tears through that duality to try to get to the truth.

Everyone that saw this was surprised. They wondered how such a wise and Enlightened individual was working for the monastery. Seeing that the crowd was overwhelmed, the Patriarch declared that I had not yet Awakened.
The next night the Patriarch summoned me to his room.

In his room, he gave teachings from the Diamond Sutra to me. When it came to the line, “One should use one’s mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachment,” I immediately became Enlightened and I realized that the whole universe is one, that when we realize our Buddha nature, we understand that we are one with everything.

“Our true nature is inherently pure. Free from the beginning, perfect. Everything is a manifestation of Buddha nature,” I said.
Knowing that I had Awakened, the Patriarch said, “For one who does not know his own mind, there is no use in learning Buddhism.
One the other hand, if one knows his own mind and intuitively sees their own nature, they are a hero, a teacher, a Buddha.”

So, he transmitted the Dharma to me and I inherited the lineage of the Patriarchs as well as his robe and begging bowl.

“You are now the Sixth Patriarch,” he said, “Take care of yourself and bring as many beings as you can to Enlightenment. Spread and preserve the teaching and don’t let it come to an end. Take note f my gatha:
Those who sow the seeds of Enlightenment will reap the fruit of Buddhahood.
Objects neither sow nor reap.

When the Patriarch Bodhidharma first came to China, most people had no confidence in him and his robe was handed down as testimony from one Patriarch to the next.
The Dharma is transmitted from one mind to another and the recipient must realize it by their own efforts. It has always been the practice for one Awakened being to pass on the teachings and the Dharma to a successor. And for one Patriarch to transmit to another a mystical teaching from one mind to another. This is the teaching of the Ch’an Patriarchs and Masters, which I have transmitted to you.

As there may be dispute among those who are jealous of you, you should leave immediately and preserve and protect this sacred Dharma. Go seclude yourself. You will know when the time is right to give teachings.”
Many jealous students of the Patriarch did pursue me. I went to a remote place to live.
A monk named Hui Ming found me. I thought he was coming to attack, but when he saw me he asked for teachings.
He said, “I haven’t come to take the robe and bowl from you. I have come to receive teachings.”
I replied, “Since you have come here for the Dharma, I will teach you. Clear your mind. When you are thinking of neither good nor evil, in that moment you are dwelling in your true nature, beyond duality.”
As soon as he heard this he became Enlightened. But he asked, “Apart from those mystical teachings and ideas handed down by the Patriarch from generation to generation are the any other secret teachings?”

“What I can tell you is not a secret,” I replied, “If you turn your light inward, you will find the secrets are within you.”
“In all of my time at the monastery I did not Awaken. Now, thanks to your teachings, I have. You are now my teacher.”
As I was not yet ready to teach, I sent him away.

I stayed in hiding for fifteen years, although occasionally I gave teachings to those I found in the wilderness.

One day, I knew it was the right time. I went to the Fa Hsin Temple in Canton.
When I approached two monks were looking at a flag that was blowing in the wind. One said it was the flag that was moving and the other said that it was the wind that was moving.
I declared that they were both wrong and the real motion was in their minds.
They were impressed by this and took me inside to meet Dharma Master Yin Tsung.
He questioned me about the Buddha’s teachings. Seeing that my answers were correct, he said,
“I was told long ago that the successor to the Fifth Patriarch would come here. Is this you?”
I nodded. He immediately bowed and asked me to show the assembled monks my robe and begging bowl.

He further asked what instructions I had when the Fifth Patriarch transmitted the Dharma to me.

“He told me that Buddha nature is all that there is, that duality is an illusion. Buddhism doesn’t really have two ways. From the perspective of the unawakened the component parts of an individual and factors of consciousness are separate, but Enlightened ones understand that they are not really separate. Buddha nature is non-duality.”

Yin Tsung was pleased with my answer.
“Your teachings are more valuable than mine.”

He ordained me as a monk and asked me to accept him as my student.

At this point Hui-neng reminds us that he was not a monk when he received Dharma Transmission. Enlightenment is available to everyone because at our core we all have Buddha nature.

Since then, I gave teachings.
We are fortunate to be here and able to lay the foundation for the successful propagation of the Dharma.
This teaching has been handed down from Patriarchs throughout history and is not my creation. Those who wish to hear it should first purify their minds. After hearing it they should each clear up their doubts in the same way that sages did in the past.”

The assembled students bowed and thanked me for my teaching.


Altar Sutra: The Sudden School and the Gradual School

While the Patriarch was living in Pao Lin Monastery giving teachings there was a competing teacher in the North of China named Shen Hsiu.

Shen Hsiu was a very accomplished and respected student of the Fifth Patriarch. Many people expected Shen Hsiu to receive Dharma Transmission, but it went to Hui-neng instead. Shen Hsiu’s Ch’an lineage died out, so all Ch’an lineages today descend from Hui-neng.

The two schools were sometimes called ‘Sudden’ and ‘Gradual’. Many Ch’an students wondered which school they should follow.

Seeing that many were having this difficulty, the Patriarch gave this teaching:
“The truth is there is only one School. Distinctions are not real. While there is only one Dharma, some students realize it more quickly than others.

As far as the Dharma is concerned, distinctions between Sudden and Gradual do not exist.”
Many of the followers of Shen Hsiu had negative things to say about the Patriarch and his teachings. Shen Hsiu himself, on the other hand, always said that the Patriarch was Enlightened and gave good teachings.

A student of Shen Hsiu named Chi Ch’eng came to learn from the Patriarch. They discussed the differences between the two Schools.

“How does your teacher give instructions?” the Patriarch asked.
“He tells us to meditate on purity, to keep up the sitting position all the time,” replied Chi Ch’eng.
“To meditate on purity and restrict ourselves to just sitting is not helpful,” Hui-neng replied, “Listen to my stanza:
A living man sits and does not lie down all the time
A dead man lies down and does not sit.
Why should we impose this task of just sitting?”

Bowing, Chi Ch’eng said, “Although I have studied Buddhism for nine years under the teachings of Shen Hsiu, my mind was not Awakened. But as soon as you gave this teachings I was Enlightened. Please teach me more.”

“Tell me how your teacher gives instructions in Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom,” Hui-neng replied.

“According to his teaching,” Chi-cheng said, “To refrain from all evil is Morality. To practice whatever is good is Wisdom. To purify one’s own mind is Dhyana. May I know your system of teaching?”

“I am not a teacher. I am an awakener. If I told you I had a system that I transmitted to others, that would not be correct. I liberate my students from suffering with whatever means the situation requires.
The way your master teaches Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom is wonderful, but my explanations are different. The teachings of your master are for followers of the Mahayana School. Mine is for those of the Supreme School. In expounding the Dharma I speak what I realize intuitively. I do not deviate from the Buddha nature that is inherent in all of us.
The true teaching of Morality, Meditation and Wisdom should derive from our Buddha nature.

Listen to my stanza:
To free the mind from impurity is the Morality of Buddha nature.
To free the mind from disturbances is the Meditation of Buddha nature.”

Addressing the assembly of students one day the Patriarch said, “I have an article which has no head or name, no front or back. Do any of you know it?”

A young student named Shen Hui came forward and 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 yet you name it.”

Again, from Taoist philosophy: “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” the truth is beyond words and labels.

Seeing that the students had many questions the Patriarch said, “One who walks the path should do away with all thoughts, good as well as evil. It is merely an expedient that we put a label on Buddha nature. This non-dual nature is our true nature upon which all Dharma systems of teaching are based. One should realize their Buddha nature as soon as they hear of it.”

The Altar Sutra: Temperament and Circumstances

A monk named Fa Hai in his first interview with the Patriarch asked him to explain the meaning of the proverb: “What mind is, Buddha is’.

The Patriarch replied, “Prajna is mind. Samadhi is Buddha. In practicing Prajna and Samadhi, let them be equal. Then our thoughts will be pure. This can only be understood if we practice.
Samadhi functions, but does not become. The teaching is to practice Prajna as well as Samadhi.”

After hearing this Fa Hai was Enlightened.

He said, “Now I know the causes of Prajna and Samadhi, both of which I wll practice to free myself from attachment.”

One day Chih Ch’ang asked the Patriarch, “The Buddha taught about the ‘Three Vehicles’ and also the ‘Supreme Vehicles’. Can you explain this?”

The Patriarch replied, “Look within yourself. The differences between these four vehicles don’t exist in the Dharma, but only in our minds.”

“To see, hear, and recite the sutra is the small vehicle.”
“To know the Dharma and understand it’s meaning is the middle vehicle.”
“To put the Dharma into practice is the great vehicle. To understand thoroughly all Dharmas, to absorb them completely, to be free of attachments, to be above phenomena is the Supreme Vehicle.”

“All depends on practicing things yourself, so you do not need to ask more. But I will remind you at all time that your true nature is Awakened.”

Chih Ch’ang bowed and thanked the Patriarch. He acted as the Patriarch’s assistant until his death.

Things could get confusing here. Branches of Buddhism are divided into ‘yanas’ or vehicles. In the modern world the most common division is Hinayana, Mahayana (of which Hui-neng is a member), and Vajrayana. But, that’s not the division Hui-neng is talking about. The three yanas he is referring to are these:
Sravakayana: For those who attain Enlightenment by listening to or reading the teachings of the Buddha.
Pratyekabuddhayana: Those who achieve liberation by practicing the Dharma but do not teach others. They are said to remain silent and solitary.
Bodhisattvayana: Those who attain Enlightenment in order to help awaken others and lead as many to Enlightenment as possible.

One day the Patriarch was looking for a place to wash the robe he had inherited. He found a stream to wash it behind the monastery and when he was washing it a monk appeared.

“My name is Fang Pien. When I was in South India I met the Patriarch Bodhidharma and he told me to return to China.”

Bodhidharma is the first Chinese Patriarch, the man who brought Dhyana teachings to China. He is the first in the lineage which claims Hui-neng as the sixth. Because he couldn’t still be alive in Hui-neng’s time, it seems that Fang Pien is telling a story about meeting Bodhidharma’s ghost.

“Bodhidharma told me that the lineage had been transmitted to you, so I came to find you. Can you show me the robe and bowl that you have inherited?” Fang Pien said.

“After a long voyage, I have arrived.  May I see the robe and begging bowl you inherited? ”

The Patriarch showed him the robe and bowl.

Fang Pien showed the Patriarch a life-like sculpture he had made of Bodhidharma.

The Patriarch gave Fang Pien a special blessing.

A monk quoted the following stanzed by Dhyana Master Wo Lun: “There are ways and means to protect the mind from all thoughts. When circumstances do not react on the mind, the Tree of Enlightenment will grow steadily.”

Hearing this the Patriarch said, “The writer of this stanza has not realized Awakening. To put it’s teaching into practice would not Awaken you.”

The Patriarch recited his own stanza:
“Hui-neng has no ways and means to protect the mind from all thoughts. Circumstances often react on the mind. How can the Tree of Enlightenment grow?”


The Altar Sutra: On Repentance

The Patriarch gave the following teaching:

Let’s purify our minds at all times, walk the path by our diligent effort, Awaken to our true nature, realize Enlightenment in our minds, and deliver ourselves by observing moral teachings.

There are five kinds of incense in the teachings.
The first is Sila Incense, which means that our minds are free from the taints of misdeeds: jealousy, avarice, anger, and hatred.

The second is Samadhi Incense, whiche means our minds aren’t disturbed in circumstances, whether positive or negative.

The third is Prajna Incense, which means our minds are free of impediments, that we look within for our true nature and refrain from doing evil deeds. That we treat others with respect.

The fourth is the Incense of Liberation, which means that our minds are in a free state, that we cling to nothing and don’t concern ourselves with duality.

The fifth is the Incense of Knowledge, which means we have learned about the Attainment of Liberation. When our minds don’t cling to duality then we attain this knowledge.

We should broaden our knowledge so we know our own minds, thoroughly understand the teachings of Buddhism, be kind to others, let go of the idea of ‘self’ and that of ‘being’ and realize that our true nature is oneness.
This fivefold incense burns within us.

Repeat what I say here:

‘May we, students, be always free from ignorance and delusion. We repent for all of our misdeeds committed because of ignorance and delusion. May we never commit such misdeeds again.

May we be free from the taints of arrogance and dishonesty. We repent for all of our arrogant and dishonest behavior.

May we be free from the taints of envy and jealousy. We repent for all jealous and envious behavior.

This is what we call formless repentance.

Having repented of our sins we will take the following four All-embracing Vows:
Living beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.

Confusions are countless, I vow to cut them all.
The Buddha’s teachings are limitless, I vow to penetrate them all.

The Buddha’s way is highest, I vow to achieve it.

These are called the Four Bodhisattva Vows. They are considered the fundamental vows of the Zen Buddhist path, expressing our resolution to attain Enlightenment in order to help all beings. These are chanted daily in Zen temples and are often chanted at the closing of different kinds of ceremonies.

With the aid of Right Views and Prajna the barriers raised by delusion can be broken. Then we can deliver ourselves by our own efforts to Enlightenment.

Now that we have taken these Four All-embracing vows, let me teach you the ‘Formless Threefold Guidance’:
We take Enlightenment as our guide, because it is the culmination of virtue and wisdom. We take the Dharma as our guide because it is the best way to get rid of desire and delusion. We take Purity as our guide because it is the noblest quality of beings.

These represent the Three Jewels.

The Buddha stands for Enlightenment
The Dharma stands for Devotion to the teachings
The Sangha stands for Purity.

Taking refuge in Enlightenment is the culmination of virtue and wisdom.
Taking refuge in Devotion to the teachings helps us become free of wrong views.
Taking refuge in Purity means that in any circumstance we are not contaminated by delusion.
Practicing the Threefold Guidance in this way really leads to taking refuge in our own Buddha nature.

Taking refuge in the Buddha within yourself doesn’t entail taking refuge in something outside ourselves.
Let us each take refuge in the Three Gems within our minds.

The Altar Sutra: Dhyana

The Patriarch gave this teaching:

In our system of meditation we don’t dwell on the mind nor do we dwell on purity. Also we are active.
As to dwelling on the mind, the mind often leads us to delusion. When we realize this, there is no need to dwell on it.

As to dwelling on purity, our true nature is pure, so there is no reason to dwell on it. Dwelling on purity is to create a problem where none exists.

On another occasion the Patriarch gave this teaching:

What is sitting in meditation?
In our school, to sit means to gain freedom and to be mentally undisturbed by outward circumstances.
To meditate means to sit, dwelling in our Buddha nature.

What are Dhyana and Samadhi?
Dhyana means to be free from attachment to outer objects and Samadhi means to have inner peace. If we are attached to outer objects then our minds will be disturbed.
When we aren’t attached to outer objects, our minds are in peace. Our true nature is pure and the reason we are disurbed is because we allow ourselves to be carried away by circumstances and external objects.

One who is able to keep the mind undisturbed regardless of circumstances dwells in Samadhi.

To be free from attachment to outer objects is Dhyana and to attain inner peace is Samadhi. When we are in a position to relate to the world in Dhyana and to keep our minds in Samadhi, then we have attained Dhyana and Samadhi.

The Bodhisattva Sila Sutra says, “Our Essence of Mind is intrinsically pure.”

Let us realize this for ourselves and train ourselves to practice it and attain Enlightenment.

The Altar Sutra: Samadhi and Prajna

On another occasion the Patriarch gave this teaching:

In my system Samadhi and Prajna are fundamental.

Samadhi means Concentration or Single-Pointedness of Mind. Prajna means Wisdom, our intuitive understanding of things.

But don’t think that Samadhi and Prajna are two separate things. In my system they are inseparably united. Samadhi is the fundamental essence of Prajna. Prajna is the activity of Samadhi.

When we attain Samadhi, Prajna is there. When we engage Prajna, Samadhi is there. If you understand this, then you dwell in Samadhi and Prajna.

A student should not think there is a difference between Samadhi comes from Prajna or Prajna comes from Samadhi.

To hold an opinion that these are separate is to dwell in duality.

For one who speaks good words but has an impure heart, Samadhi and Prajna don’t help because they don’t balance each other.

But when we are good in mind and good in language, when our outward appearance and inner wisdom are in harmony, then we are dwelling in Samadhi and Prajna.

An Enlightened student doesn’t need to debate the importance of Samadhi and Prajna because argument only strengthens the ego and causes us to remain in duality.

Samadhi and Prajna are like a lamp and its light. With the lamp there is light. Without it there would be darkness. In name there are two things, but in substance they are the same. It is the same with Samadhi and Prajna.

There have been some sects in Buddhist history who suggested only cultivating concentration or only cultivating wisdom. Hui-neng is challenging this philosophy. He is saying that both Samadhi and Prajna are of equal importance and we must cultivate them both.

On another occasion the Patriarch gave this teaching:

To practice Samadhi is to make it a rule to be devoted to mindfulness in all occasions.

The Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra say, “Mindfulness is the holy place, the Pure Land.”

Don’t practice mindfulness only in meditation. Practice it in everything that you do.

People are under delusion when they think we only practice on the meditation cushion.
When we free our minds from attachment, the path becomes clear.

On another occasion the Patriarch gave this teaching:

In true Buddhism the distinction between ‘Sudden’ and ‘Gradual’ does not really exist. The only difference is that some have an easy time clearing away their delusion and others have a hard time.
Those who have an easy time, who are very mindful already, realize the truth suddenly. Those who have a difficult time have to train themselves slowly.

But such a difference disappears once we realize our True Nature.
So, these terms, gradual and sudden, aren’t real in any meaningful way. They are just labels.

It has been the tradition of our school to take ‘Idealessness’ as our object, ‘Non-objectivity’ as our basis, and ‘Non-attachment’ as our fundamental principle. ‘Idealessness’ means no to be carried away by any particular idea. ‘Non-objectivity’ means not being absorbed by objects when we come in contact with them. ‘Nonattachment’ is the characteristic of our true nature.

All things, whether good or bad, beautiful or ugly, should be treated as void. Think of friends and enemies as the same because all are one. In thought, let the past be dead. Dwell in the present instead.

Hui-neng is pointing out something that we often do. We put artificial labels on things and then assume those labels are real.

Because of this we take ‘Non-attachment’ as our fundamental principle.
To free ourselves from attachment to external objects is called ‘Non-objectivity’. When we can do this, our true nature is clear.

Keeping our minds free of delusion is called ‘Idea-lessness’.

We should also not let our minds get carried away by circumstances.

We take ‘Idea-lessness’ as our object because there is a ype of individual under delusion who boasts of their great Enlightenment, but is attached to erroneous views.
To say there is attainment and to talk thoughtlessly about it is also a form of duality.

In ‘Idea-lessness’ we should overcome duality.

If we are adept at overcoming duality, then we can be Awakened.

Altar Sutra: Questions and Answers

A government official named Wei host a dinner and asked the Patriarch to give teachings.
Wei said, “I have heard your teachings. Your teachings are so deep that it is beyond me and I have some doubts to ask you about.”

“If you have any doubts, please ask and I will explain,” the Patriarch replied.

A lot of Buddhist texts function this way, as a Q & A session. Many of the Buddha’s morality teachings exist because his followers spent a lot of time asking him what was and was not okay. So, in this section, Hui-neng is following the Buddha’s example as a teacher.

Q: Are you teaching the same philosophy as Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch?
A: Yes

Q: I was told that when Bodhidharma met Emperor Wu he was asked what merits the Emperor would get for the
work of his life supporting the Dharma by building temples and giving to monks. Bodhidharma’s reply was no merits at all. Can you explain this?

A. Bodhidharma is right. Emperor Wu’s mind is in delusion and he didn’t understand the teachings. The work he did in supporting the Dharma is good and helpful, but shouldn’t be mistaken for generating merit. Merits are to be found in the Dharma Realm. Awakening to the nature of our minds is our goal. When our mental activity functions outisde of delusion, then we can truly understand ourselves.

Essentially the Emperor is wishing to buy Enlightenment. He is a very wealthy man and he doesn’t understand that spiritual awakening can’t be bought. Merit refers to the concept of Karma, the concept that if you are virtuous and wise in this life, then even if you don’t attain Enlightenment in this life, you will be reborn in a better one after death. Sometimes this is taken as a metaphor, sometimes it is taken literally.

Within, let’s keep our minds humble. Without, let’s behave according to virtue.

That we are one with all things is the Truth. Having our minds from from idle thoughts is our goal.
Not to stray from our true nature, and not to delude our minds by going deeper into delusion. These are the things that generate merit.

Do not insult others, but treat everyone with respect. Looking down on others is a sign of delusion.
When our thoughts can work without being held by delusion and function in a straightforward manner, then we are Awakened.

Q. I noticed that some Buddhists recite the name of Amitabha with the hope of being born in the Pure Land. Will you please tell me if this is possible?

Pure Land is another Mahayana sect that was of a similar size to Ch’an at the time. It hasn’t quite made itself as well known in the West as many other Buddhist sects, but there are still many many people who practice it today. Instead of meditation, Pure Land Buddhists chant. They believe this chanting generates merit and helps them to be reborn in a better world after death, a world called the Pure Land.

A. According to the Sutra given by the Bhagavat in Shravasti City for leading people to the Pure Land, it is clear that the Pure Land is not far away. To some it is far and to others it is near. Although the Dharma is uniform, individuals vary in their mentality.
Because we have different degrees of delusion, some understand the Dharma more quickly than others.
The Buddha said, “When the mind is pure, the Buddha Land is also pure.”
When we are in delusion, we might seek to be reborn in the Pure Land. But, to the Enlightened, everywhere is the same.

The Buddha said this about the Awakened: “No matter where they happen to be, they are always happy and comfortable.”

If you really want to be in the Pure Land, I have some suggestions.

Do away with the ten evils and the eight errors.

The ten evils are: Killing, Stealing, Sexual Misconduct, Lying, Slander, Coarse Language, Empty Chatter, Covetousness, Angry Speech, and Wrong Views.

The Eight Errors are the reverse of the Eightfold Path. They are: Wrong Views, Wrong Thought, Wrong Speech, Wrong Action, Wrong Livelihood, Wrong Effort, Wrong Mindfulness, and Wrong Meditation.

If, after that, we can realize our true nature, then we are in the Pure Land. The Pure Land is right here.
If we can only practice the ten good deeds, then we don’t need to worry about being reborn in the Pure Land.

The ten good deeds are: Charity, Morality, Mental Cultivation, Respect, Service, Transfering Merits, Rejoicing in the Merits of Others, Teaching the Dharma, Listening to the Dharma, and Straightening one’s own views.

If you understand the teachings, then you are dwelling in the Pure Land now. If you do not understand, then reciting the chants of Amitabha will not help you.

Here right now, we are in the Pure Land.

Work for Awakening diligently and don’t seek it apart from yourself.

If you consistently perform the ten good deeds, then the Pure Land will manifest.
There is a great light in your mind. It is powerful enough to illuminate you.

When it turns inward it eliminates the three poisons.
Those who wish to engage spiritual training may do it at home. The Pure Land is everywhere, not only in temples and monasteries.

Q. How should we train ourselves at home?

A. I will give you a stanza. If you put it into practice, you will be in the same position as those followers who spend all of their time with me.

For a fair mind, observing the precepts isn’t necessary.

For straightforward behavior, practice in contemplation isn’t necessary.

On the principle of forbearance, we do not fight, even in the midst of a hostile crowd.

By making amends for our mistakes, we get wisdom.

By defending our faults, we show that our minds are not sound.

Practice generosity whenever you can, but generosity alone will not bring Awakening.

Enlightenment is within our minds. There is no reason to look for mystical truths outside of ourselves.

Those who hear this and put it into practice will see the Pure Land manifest.
The Dharma waits for no one.

Altar Sutra: On Prajna: Part 2

Since our minds are vast and of the nature of oneness, we should settle them on vast things rather than being distracted by trivial ones.

Don’t talk about Enlightenment all day without practicing it in your mind. To talk about it without practice is like pretending to be a king.

Wisdom can’t be attained by talking about it all the time. Those who think it can are not in the lineage of Patriarch’s and Masters.

There are, and have always been, those who spend a lot of time talking about spirituality while not doing any sort of spiritual practice. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this ‘Spiritual Materialism’. It’s not about how you look or what you say or even who your teacher is. It’s only about how you engage the practice. Buddhism isn’t something you talk about or something you talk about. It’s not even something you are. Buddhism is something you do.

What is Prajna? Prajna is a Sanskirt word that means wisdom.

If we can keep our minds steady and free from attachment to desire and be wise in our actions, then we are practicing Prajna, or wisdom. One foolish idea is enough to block our wisdom, while one good thought will manifest it again.

When we are ignorant or held by delusion we can’t see it. We can talk about it, but we can’t really engage wisdom.
What is Paramita? It is a Sanskrit word that means ‘to the opposite shore’.

The metaphor here is crossing a stream. This shore is the world of clinging and suffering. It sometimes called Samsara. The other shore is the realm of Awakening, where we don’t cling to our attachments so completely, where we can engage the world without illusory duality. This is sometimes called Nirvana.

This shore is the world where we cling to sense objects. The other shore is where we are in a state of non-attachment, a state above existence or non-existence, where we transcend delusion.

To know the Dharma of Mahaprajnaparamita is to know the Dharma of Prajna. If we don’t put it into practice, then we are ordinary. If we direct our minds to practice it, then we are Buddhas.

But when we are ordinary, we are also Buddhas. And the truth is that delusion and Enlightenment are one.
The Mahaprajnaparamita is the most exalted and supreme teaching. It never stays, nor does it come or go.
Through this teaching the Buddhas of the present, past, and future attain Enlightenment. We should use this teaching to break up our delusions about ourselves, to disentangle from our egos. Following this practice ensures the attainment of Enlightenment. Through this practice we can turn the three poisons, greed hatred, and delusion, into morality, concentration, and wisdom.

This echoes the Diamond Sutra which, in many parts, sings it’s own praises and describes itself as the greatest and highest and most important sutra. It’s not surprising that Hui-neng is so devoted to the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutras. It’s said that he attained Enlightenment after hearing just a few words from the Diamond Sutra.

When we are free from delusions, wisdom manifests. Those who understand this aren’t carried away by idle thoughts. To operate from our true nature, to use wisdom for contemplation, to take an attitude of non-attachment toward all things: this is what is meant by realizing our true nature and attaining Enlightenment.
If you want to penetrate the mystery of ultimate reality and the Awakening of Prajna, you should practice by reciting and studying the Diamond Sutra, which will enable you to see your own true nature, which is, as described by the text, immeasurable and unlimited.

This Sutra belongs to the highest School of Buddhism and the Buddha delivered it for the wisest among us.
When followers of the Mahayana hear about the Diamond Sutra, the seed of Enlightenment is awakened in their minds, they know that Prajna is their true nature and they don’t need to turn to scriptural authority to understand this.

The Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, Tradition of Buddhism is the largest of the three main divisions. (the other two are Theravada, which came first, and Vajrayana). Mahayana Buddhism was created as a more accessible school. The different subdivisions of Mahayana are very diverse, but they have in common the notion that Enlightenment is available to everyone, not just monks, and that it can be attained in this life.

Altar Sutra: On Prajna: Part 1

On Prajna (Wisdom)

One day, after reciting the Heart Sutra, the Sixth Patriarch Huineng gave the following teaching:
The great seed of Awakening is within all of us. It is because our minds are under delusion that we fail to realize this. This is why we seek advice and guidance from Masters and Teachers
The truth is there is no difference between an Enlightened being and an ignorant one. The only difference is that an Enlightened being sees their own true nature.

Now, let’s talk about the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra so each of us can engage with wisdom.

Several things going on here. The Master is talking about the concept of Buddha nature. This is a traditional Mahayana Buddhist teaching that we are all awakened already, that Enlightenment isn’t something we are seeking, it’s just that we are trying to see through our delusion to see our Enlightened nature underneath. The Mahaprajnaparaimta Sutra is the Sutra of Great Transcendental Wisdom. We’ll talk more about that a little later.

Those who talk about wisdom all the time don’t know that wisdom is inherent in our nature. Talking about food won’t make you full when you’re hungry. Just so, talking about wisdom will not make you wise. We can sit and talk about Emptiness forever, but talking will not make us realize our fundamental nature. It’s pointless.

This is similar to a line from another famous Chinese spiritual text, the Tao Te Ching. “The way that can be spoken of is not the true way.” That is, once we start speaking, we have probably missed the point. The truth is beyond the language we can use to talk about it. Bodhidharma, the first Chinese Patriarch called it, “Beyond words and letters. Emptiness here means we are without inherent self nature. That is, there is no part of us that is really separate from the world around us. Our nature is oneness.

‘Mahaprajnaparamita’ is a Sanskrit word. It means Great Transcendental Wisdom.
We have to put Transcendental Wisdom into practice.Just reciting the teachings of Mahaprajnaparamita without putting them into practice is like a phantom, a delusion, a flash of lightning.

This reminds me of this quote from Ikkyu: ‘Like vanishing dew, a passing apparition or the sudden flash of lightning– already gone — thus should one regard one’s self,’

When we simply recite the teachings, we aren’t doing much good. We have to embody the teachings. Don’t study the Buddha. Be the Buddha.

The Buddha outside isn’t the true Buddha. The true Buddha is within.

Maha means ‘great’. The abilities of the mind are great. What lies within us is infinite, neither long nor short, neither happy nor sad, neither good nor evil.

Our true nature is Emptiness and there is really nothing to be attained. The Essence of our minds is the absolute void.

When I talk about Emptiness, don’t think in terms of nothingness or annihilation. We shouldn’t fall into this idea because then we could begin to think that nothing matters.

A very common mistake people make when they start learning about Buddhism. Buddhism is not nihilism. I think of Emptiness as being vast and open, like the sky.

The void we are talking about is capable of containing many things of various shape and size. The void
contains the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth.

The void contains all of these. So do we.

This echoes a quote by Rumi, the famous Muslim mystic:
‘You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop’

We call our true nature great because it contains all things. All things are within our nature. When we see the behavior of others, we must not be attached to it, so that our minds can be as void as the sky. In this way, we can say our minds are great. So, we use the word Maha.
The ignorant talk about it and the wise put it into practice.
The mind is great in capacity because it is one with everything.

When our minds work without being clouded by hindrance, to ‘come’ or to ‘go’ then we are dwelling in a state of ‘Prajna’, wisdom.

All wisdom comes from within ourselves.

Once we understand the essence of our minds, we can be free from delusion.

What is the Altar Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch?

The Altar Sutra is a Mahayana Buddhist text by the Sixth Patriarch in the Ch’an Buddhist tradition, Hui-neng.

Hui-neng (638–713) is one of the most respected and revered figures in Buddhist history. He was an illiterate woodcutter who suddenly attained Enlightenment upon hearing the Diamond Sutra. He became the Sixth Patriarch in the Ch’an tradition. All Ch’an/Zen lineages descend from him. He is regarded as the creator of the Sudden Enlightenment philosophy. He embodies the fact that anyone can attain Enlightenment, regardless of education, class, or lineage.

His collection of talks is called the Altar Sutra, Liùzǔ Tánjīng. The title is often translated as either ‘the Platform Sutra’ or simply, ‘The Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch’. I think Altar Sutra is a more accurate title, but it is debatable and has been debated at length. Sometimes it’s simply called the Sutra of Huineng.

It is the only Chinese Buddhist text that has been given the title Sutra.

I’m going to write my own line by line commentary of this Sutra, as time permits.

My version differs from most. I have placed Huineng’s autobiography at the end and his wonderful teachings at the beginning.

It’s not that the Master’s story isn’t important. Of course it is. But, I think, far too often we get caught up in hero worship and we pay attention to the story instead of the teachings. The story matters, but the teachings are what we need to remember.