The Teaching of Huineng

(a version of this article originally appeared on The Tattooed Buddha)

Huineng was the Sixth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism.

Chan is called the Meditation School. It was created as an effort to focus more on the core teachings of Buddhism: the cultivation of mindfulness and awareness. Chan Buddhism is focused on this life, here and now. Our true nature is something that’s always present and not something we have to wait for. We can all dwell in wakefulness right now, in this life, not in some future one.

Huineng’s importance to the tradition cannot be overstated; all of Chan Buddhism comes from what he taught. His teachings are collected in the Platform Sutra, a sacred text of the Chan School. It’s the only text that is recognized as a Sutra in Mahayana Buddhism that isn’t claimed to be directly from the Buddha.

The Sutra is a collection of Dharma talks by Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. It includes a long series of teachings that present Chan philosophy, and it also includes Huineng’s own life story.

Huineng was a poor person, not someone with any connections or any great learning. And it’s said that he attained enlightenment under the Fifth Patriarch Hongren and quickly became a great master. He came from nothing and inherited leadership of the Chan School. His story really tells us that we can succeed on the path too. If he can, anyone can.

The time of Huineng’s life was said to be the Golden Age of Buddhism in China. It was during this time that the different schools were spreading throughout China and growing at an exponential rate.

Huineng is known for his teachings on “Sudden Enlightenment.” The basic idea is that we can become enlightened in this life. In some schools of Buddhism they emphasize a practice where you are trying to get better and better in each life, so hopefully some day you’ll be reborn in a life where you can attain enlightenment (lots of people don’t believe in rebirth at all these days, me included). Huineng taught that we could attain enlightenment in this life. Later, Buddhists in some other sects would work with the same idea, but it seems to have originate from Huineng.

He’s also known for teaching without relying on a lot of words or writing. He did a lot more showing students how to practice than telling them.

During and after Huineng’s life, many great Chan masters became teachers and the Chan School spread. In this time a lot of other schools of Buddhism were founded, and they lived side by side, without conflict. Some even shared the same temples, so you’d see Chan students meditating right alongside Huayan students and Pure Land students. Rather than fighting, as religious sects might do today, these schools benefited from being around each other. They influenced each other a lot too.

It may have been Huineng’s “Sudden Enlightenment” teaching that drew many Buddhists to his school. It was a new idea at that time, and it really inspired a lot of people.

That’s what I believe in. Enlightenment is right here with us. It’s not some far away goal for us to chase.

It’s right here. We just have to turn our minds away from delusion and toward wakefulness. Easier said than done, of course. But the message of Huineng is that we can do it. All of us can.

 


 

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About a Buddha

Sometimes we just come to the Buddha’s story over and over, telling it in different ways.

Gautama was the son of a wealthy king and he lived a sheltered life. It’s said that he didn’t even know about suffering and sickness and death, but that’s almost certainly not true. The story is that his father did everything he possibly could to prevent his son from knowing that life is hard. We should all be so lucky. I think even people today that are born into incredible wealth still do know something about suffering. We all get older, we all get sick, we all die.

So, it’s said that one day Gautama discovered that life is full of suffering. A servant explained the whole thing to him and he just couldn’t stop thinking about it. He dwelled on this information in the same way that we can’t stop thinking about how stressful our jobs or ex-wives are sometimes. And he just had to ask himself, “Is life is full of suffering and (in the scheme of things) short, what’s the point?” This question really bothered him and he couldn’t even enjoy his privileged life anymore.

So he just left.

He left behind this life of luxury to go look for answers, to really try to figure out the meaning of life. At this time, in this part of the world, it wasn’t that rare. There were lots of guys wandering around trying to get spiritual insights in those days. Still, he had so much that he decided to give up and that is hard for us to really think about.

He just wandered around in the woods for years. He learned from various spiritual teachers. He learned a lot from them, but he really didn’t see any of the teachings he was getting as helpful. Nothing could make him stop wondering if life was worth living, what the purpose of life is with all this suffering and transient joy.

And one day, while sitting under a tree, he experienced Enlightenment. He had a great insight that revealed to him the origin, cause, and way out of suffering.

We call this the four noble truths and it’s really the foundation of all of Buddhism.

But this is just about the man. More about the teachings another time.

After that day he was called The Buddha. This means the one who is awake. He taught for over forty years. He taught this path to everyone; rich and poor, men and women, virtuous people and also criminals. His teaching about the cause and liberation from human suffering was and remains something that can be of benefit to anyone. It is open and helpful to anyone who tries it for themselves.

After the Buddha became a spiritual teacher, people asked many questions. One day a man approached him and had this exchange:

“Are you a god?”
“No.”

“Are you a wizard?”

“No.”

“Are you an angel or spirit?”

“No.”
“What are you?”

“I am awake.”

 

I can’t even imagine walking up to someone, no matter how special they appear to be, and saying, “Are you an angel or spirit?” That seems very strange. But this is how the story is told.

The Buddha never called himself anything other than an ordinary human  being, like us. He didn’t claim to be a god or inspired by a god. He didn’t claim to have super powers. He said that everything he achieved was due to normal human capabilities and efforts.

The Buddha isn’t something we pray to or worship. He was just a person who became awake. That is all.

 


 

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Lojong Point 3: Transformation Of Bad Circumstances Into The Path

This group of slogans is connected with the perfection of patience. This represents our forbearance, our ability to face the difficulties of life without letting them carry us away. The opposite of this is the poison of aversion. This is the capacity to experience difficult with strength and endurance.

This section contains six slogans.

11. Transform All Mishaps Into The Path

Whatever occurs in our lives can be transformed into the path to Enlightenment. Whether we have relationship problems, difficulties with our jobs, health problems…all of these can be just part of the path. Life is full of suffering. We can respond to it with wakefulness instead of despair. It probably sounds like trite self help, but, when people are treating us badly we can use that to help us practice patience. When we experience financial difficulty, we can use that to practice generosity, in the sense of letting go of things.

12. Drive All Blames Into One

Drive all blames into one means that our problems and the complications that are around us aren’t somebody else’s fault, especially in relation to our practice. All the blame can start with us. It’s not necessarily that everything is our own fault in a conventional sense, but we’re driving all blames into one so that we can enter the bodhisattva path. When we drive all blames into one we aren’t laying any of our emotional baggage or blame on anyone else. Because passing blame isn’t helpful. The reason we have to drive all blames into one is because we’ve spent our lives cherishing ourselves and reinforcing our egoic minds. Driving blames into one means we are taking full responsibility for our practice and our lives, regardless of who we could blame for our circumstances.

13. Be Grateful To Everyone

Everything is part of our spiritual journey. Without the world being how it is, there would be no opportunities for us to practice. All of our experiences in life are grounded in our relationships with others. So, the obstacles that others might present to us can be used for our awakening. This slogan follows number 12 for a reason. Once we have taken the responsibility for the circumstances of our lives, it’s easier to be grateful to others. Without others we wouldn’t have the chance to practice compassion or patience. So, everyone around is part of the path. This slogan is about cultivating an understanding that we aren’t separate from other beings. We are all one. So, gratitude is the only response that makes sense. Once we cultivate this kind of open hearted gratitude, we come to dwell in this sense of oneness.

 

14. See Confusion As Enlightenment And Dwell In Emptiness

In this slogan we are talking about developing a better understanding of the way we perceive things. We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are. We may not see our minds as Enlightened, but Enlightenment is our true nature and we can engage that. This slogan is founded in using our meditation practices to work with our minds. By practicing diligently we can come to realize that the essence of our being is Emptiness. On the cushion we practice mindfulness and awareness. While we’re practicing confusing thoughts come up and we can come to realize that our thoughts have no real origin, that there is no ‘me’ underneath to cling to. Dwelling in Emptiness is a powerful way to cut through our delusions and emotional baggage. We can perceive our ordinary confusion from a different point of view. We can realize that all of these thoughts and emotions are going to rise and pass away. There’s nothing to hold onto. If we can just pull ourselves away from our baggage and preconceptions for a moment, we can see things as they really are.

 

 

15. The Four Practices Are Great Methods

This slogan refers to specific things we can do in our daily life. They are in four categories: doing good, lay down your evil deeds, offering to demons, offering to spirits.

Doing good refers to relating to right action, the cultivation of virtue. When we cultivate virtue we are dwelling in basic goodness, the state of our true nature. We aren’t talking about doing good to receive some kind of reward, but doing good to establish ourselves as virtuous beings on the path.

Laying down our evil deeds starts with looking back at our pasts and seeing how foolish we’ve been. Everyone has a past, a history full of things that they aren’t proud of. The first step is to recognize what your issues are and get tired of them. The second step is to refrain from making the same mistakes in the future that we’ve made in the past. The third step is taking refuge. We are using the dharma to help us transform ourselves into the best versions of ourselves. The fourth step is developing a kind of openness. We don’t hate ourselves for what we’ve done in the past, but we are proud to be able to refrain from the same actions in the future.

Offering to demons is not something I take literally. This is where we appreciate our weaknesses and flaws. We recognize our weaknesses for what they are and acknowledge them as part of our journey, not as reasons to hate ourselves.

Offering to spirits is also not something I take literally. The spirits represent our basic awareness, our ability to be here and now in this moment. We realize our awareness is something we can cultivate and we appreciate that.

 

16 Whatever You Meet Is The Path

We have the ability to bring the awareness we are cultivating to any situation in life. The concept behind it is that we aren’t going to make enemies out of everything. Whatever comes up isn’t a sudden problem to be overcome or a positive thing to encourage us. Everything just is what it is. Whatever happens, make it part of your spiritual practice.

 

 

Our Empty Nature

Form is Emptiness,
Emptiness is Form.

That’s what the Heart Sutra said. Emptiness is all, from the very beginning.

We have to dig through and penetrate all of our delusions to really get at the truth of things. We have to put down our baggage and habitual thought patterns. We have to let go of who we thought we were. Because that’s not who we are.

Only then can we dwell in our true nature, which is emptiness.

Our true nature isn’t our history; we aren’t what happened to us.

Our true nature isn’t our weaknesses; we aren’t defined by our flaws.

Our true nature isn’t the circumstances of our birth; we aren’t defined by our heritage, status, or nationality.

Our true nature is emptiness, the source of all things, a vast field of boundless possibility that transcends all of the dualistic filters through which we see the world.

When we sit and develop awareness: settling our thoughts, stilling the mind, we can dwell in wonder and wakefulness. We can engage our true nature right now.

 

The Bodhisattva

The Bodhisattva is willing to be authentic, willing to get hurt and be sensitive and have a fully exposed heart. A Bodhisattva cooperates with the world instead of making enemies with everything all the time. Bodhisattvas are sometimes called spiritual warriors, described as daring and fearless. On the Bodhisattva path you have to let go of the lies that you tell yourself all the time. You have to put all of your egocentric bullshit aside and face things as they really are. That’s why it’s fearless. When we put that aside we are free to be more genuine and authentic. This path isn’t so much about manifesting Enlightenment as it is about expanding our openness, gentleness, and compassion. But, I suppose when you get down to it that, in itself, is Enlightenment.

Bodhisattva Road

The Bodhisattva’s Journey

Mahayana Buddhism is sometimes called the Great Vehicle. It’s also called the Bodhisattva Path. Bodhisattva means Enlightenment Being or Awakened Being.

The path that I advocate, the path that I teach about, is the Bodhisattva Path. It’s a powerful and difficult journey. The ideal of the Bodhisattva is what we are trying to live up to.

The Bodhisattva Path is founded on the idea of Buddha Nature. The idea of Buddha Nature is that it’s not “out there” as something we have to go get or some state we have to attain. It’s here and now already. We have some delusions we’re carrying that stop us from realizing it, but it’s always here beneath all the baggage we are carrying. This whole idea turns some of the other ways of looking at Buddhism around. There was a time when most Buddhists thought that Enlightenment was some sacred state we were trying to get to, something in the future, not something that is with us already. Not something you can attain in some future life, if you’re both very virtuous and very lucky. It’s something that’s here with you already, something that you can see and experience right now, in this very life.

What’s the importance of the idea of Buddha nature? To me it points to one thing, above all else. Potential. If we all have Buddha Nature then we all have potential, we all have the seed within us to awaken to our true nature. If we all have that, then there’s no reason to think we can’t attain what the Buddha attained. There’s no reason to think “I’m not good enough” or “I’m not wise enough.” The Bodhisattva’s Journey is something that you can do.

The Bodhisattva’s Journey begins with discovering the heart of awakening. This means the sincere desire to help others. Generally we say it’s about helping others with their journey on the path too, but there are all sorts of ways we can help others.

To me the Bodhisattva’s Journey is reflected in paramita practice, cultivating the six perfections. The cultivation of generosity, virtue, patience, diligence, concentration, and transcendent wisdom is the fundamental action of the Bodhisattva. Cultivating these six things is what brings us to the other shore, from the world of suffering to the world of Enlightenment. That said, we aren’t cultivating these things with Enlightenment or some other goal in mind. We’re really cultivating them because we know that is the best way to live our lives, to walk in the footsteps of the great teachers and masters. We don’t engage paramita practice to attain Enlightenment. We engage paramita practice to engage paramita practice.

Paramita means going beyond. We’re engaging this practice to go beyond the ocean of suffering that we are stuck in, and to help others go beyond it too. It means crossing through the barrier of greed, hatred, and delusion that keeps us from seeing our true nature, our Buddha Nature that is fundamentally good and one with everything around us. Paramita practice is really based on non-duality, getting us to dwell in a place where we realize that we aren’t separate from the world around us, that we don’t have a self in the way we traditionally think of a self. The things guiding us on this journey are our innate senses of wisdom and compassion.

Paramita practice is the way to be a Bodhisattva. As Bodhisattvas we want to walk this journey of helping others to awakening, to challenge the idea that we are separate from the world around us, and to overcome suffering and dwell in Enlightenment.

The first paramita is Generosity. This is in the sense not only of giving, but also of opening ourselves up, of being open with the world around us. It represents not only giving but also not being attached to gain. In the modern world we often think about attaining more and more things. I had a Garfield poster on my wall as a kid that said “he who has the most toys wins.” That kind of attitude is the opposite of Generosity. In Mahayana Buddhism our goal is to be generous, to give, without expectation of some reward. We don’t give to build a good reputation or to generate good karma. We want to cultivate a Generosity that is free of attachment to outcomes or gain. Being generous helps us deal with our great attachment to things.

The second paramita is Virtue. This immediately brings to mind ideas about right and wrong. I don’t think that’s the best way to think about the paramita of Virtue. Virtue is based on being aware of the world around us. When we are aware of the world around us, this can help us to appreciate things and to have proper conduct. This kind of Virtue does mean that we grind our teeth and avoid taking pleasure in things. Rather, it means that we take pleasure mindfully, that we not be carried away by our attachments. Once we begin to notice and manage our lack of discipline, we can being to see that underneath that we are basically good. It’s Virtue that helps us to realize that we have so much to offer.

The third paramita is Patience. Sometimes this is called Forbearance. That might be a better word for it, but I think it’s a word that a lot of people just don’t know. This is essentially equanimity, our ability to weather life’s troubles. It’s the cultivation of our antidote to aggression. It’s our ability to manage our annoyance when we’re stuck in traffic, or when our kids won’t stop shouting, or whatever else comes up. Patience means not flying off the handle and not letting little things ruin our day. Or ruin the day of those around us. How many times do we react badly because something put us in a bad mood? Too often.

The fourth paramita is Diligence. Essentially it means that we’re trying really hard. Some say it’s the most important of the paramitas because if our practice is casual it might not go very far. It means not giving up when things get hard. There are plenty of obstacles on the path and it’s only our diligence that keeps us going. It’s also about having a sense of delight on the path. By that I mean getting excited about the journey. It shouldn’t be a chore to practice. We are walking the path of awakening to become Enlightened, serene and free of suffering. This is something to be excited about.

The fifth paramita is Concentration. This is our mindfulness, our ability to stabilize our minds and manage our thought processes. This is where we cultivate stillness and attention. This consists of watching our thoughts as they enter our minds and cultivating an understanding of how our minds work. This is where we tame our minds from the relentless deluge of distractions and preconceptions that continuously assail us. Generally when people are practicing meditation, cultivating the paramita of Concentration is what they’re doing.

The sixth paramita is Transcendent Wisdom. This is described as the wisdom that cuts through ignorance. This is really where things get deep and serious. It’s in cultivating Transcendent Wisdom that we practice dwelling in our true nature. This is where we can step beyond the delusion of duality and dedicate ourselves truly to compassion. Our understanding of deep Buddhist concepts like Emptiness and Buddha Nature comes from our cultivation of the sixth paramita. This is where we are overcoming our delusions. This is engaged through deeper meditation styles, often on retreat, and a deep study of Buddhist texts. When we dwell in our true nature, we bring a little bit of it back with us every time.

These six perfections are fundamental to the Mahayana Buddhist Path, the Way of the Bodhisattva. Engaging them is a way to catch a glimpse of our true nature and to attain Enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhism is called the Great Vehicle because it was designed to be a path that many people can practice, instead of a select few.

You can take the Bodhisattva’s journey yourself. Take it with me.

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The Power of the Dharma

Power in the Dharma

Practicing the dharma is powerful and it can bring us great benefit. When we are practicing we are engaging in a different way of thinking and seeing the world. I don’t mean to say that we are seeing the world in a magical or supernatural way. We are seeing the world in  a way that’s beyond delusion.

We are engaging the truth, reality as it really is. When we tune in to the dharma, we are entering the stream. The stream represents the Buddha and all of the other people on the path who have come before us, the scholars, masters, noble ones, and renegades who have made the dharma what it is. Getting in touch with the dharma is getting in touch with the real flow of things, reality as it is. Our practice is our way of tuning in to reality as it is. It’s special because the dharma changes us.

In our practice we are working on our minds. We are turning our focus inward to try to deal with fundamental problems that exist in our minds. We want to understand our minds and how they work. This is the power of the dharma. We are capable of discriminating awareness.

In our normal awareness we experience duality, both attachment and aversion. When we engage in our meditation practice our minds become harmonious. Meditation is how we free ourselves from delusion. We see through delusion and we see another way of looking at the world. Our minds can uncover this world of nonduality.

This is the power of dharma practice.

 

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Flashes of Experience

The Tibetan Master Jamgon Kongtrul described various experiences that can come up during our meditation practice. These are temporary experiences that come up sometimes and we can see them as sort of a roadmap for our awakening. If we’re having experiences that are confusing to us, we can look at his list and see if they match.

They are called nyams, which means flashes of experience. Nyams can be experienced both in sitting and in daily life, if we have a regular practice on the cushion and we’re mindful off the cushion. We want to notice these experiences but not really attach to them. They are temporary, but they can be used to keep us in the present. There are 5 nyam and 3 advanced nyam.

They’re described through metaphor. I’m going to list them now.

  1. Brook on a Steep Hill: This is where our thoughts are very fast and busy. Our thoughts are said to be like water flowing downhill. It’s difficult to stop them or even slow them down.
  2. Turbulent River: Our minds are even more chaotic. Thoughts come like a river going through a rocky area, like whitewater rafting. Total chaos. Lots of thoughts that we can’t even begin to manage.
  3. Slow River: Thoughts become calm and familiar, smooth and slow. This is where we start to settle down. Sometimes we have to sit for a long time to get to this point in our sitting because our minds are so frantic.
  4. Ocean Without Waves: This is a space of absolute stillness, when we’re absorbed in our meditation. This is the point where a lot of people lose track of time in their meditation practice. Suddenly the timer goes off and you can’t believe it’s been 30 minutes.
  5. Candle Undisturbed by the Wind: This is a complete stillness. For a moment self and other drop away. There is no meditator, but just the act of meditation.

And the advanced nyam. These are often only experienced on retreat, or at least in longer sitting periods.

6. Bliss: This is when we feel refreshed. We have a sense of well being. There might be tingling sensations and flashes of joy. Sometimes this nyam makes us feel inspired to go create something.

7. Luminosity: We gain a sense of clarity and a feeling of interconnectedness. Separation between ourselves and the world around us drops away. We have a panoramic vision that is beyond duality.

8. Nonthought: No thoughts arrive. There is a stillness and silence. Not only has the individual separation disappeared, the entire universe has disappeared and we are dwelling in the void. This is an experience that many people find terrifying. An intuitive understanding of Emptiness.


These states can and do come up for many of us. All  we can do is notice them and not cling to them. Sometimes people have those 6th or 7th nyam experiences and think they’ve attained Enlightenment. Weird experiences do come up if you practice for a long time. That’s part of the reason it’s important to have a teacher and/or spiritual community, to keep us from getting carried away.

Saving Ourselves

The path of Buddhism is called the Dharma. It is a method for saving ourselves.

I don’t mean that as a trite platitude. The Dharma will save you. Not save your soul from damnation. As Buddhists we don’t believe in that. The Dharma will save you from yourself. It will save you from your own greed and delusion. It will save you from that feeling that you are hopeless or broken or weak.

The Dharma is direct and precise. It can lead us to a state of realization that is beyond the state of delusion in which we spend most of our time. Practicing the Dharma is nothing less than the highest human aspiration. We are trying to attain Enlightenment and transcend our egoic self.
We use mind training to work on our poisons, these are the things that hold up back from our potential. Greed, hatred, and delusion are the things that feed our ignorance and keep us mired in suffering. We also work on transcending our habitual patterns, those old ways of thinking that are with us all the time, the preconceptions and baggage that we all carry that prevent us from seeing things as they really are.
We want to learn how to understand our own minds, how to accept what’s around us instead of rejecting it.

There is a truth about life that the Buddha realized and we need to realize it too. The truth is that life is painful with occasional moments of pleasure. The Dharma shows us that we can have a healthier relationship to that pain. We can experience it without letting it overcome us. We can get out of this ocean of suffering.

Enlightenment is like seeing the sun. It’s something you can do. It’s something we all can do. The most important thing about the Buddha’s life is that he was an ordinary person, like us. He wasn’t some kind of god or spirit. Because of that we can aspire to do what he did. You can do it. In fact, no one else can do it for you. It’s up to you to experience reality as it is.

 

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