Hui Neng

Hui Neng and the Buddha-nature

The story of life and ordaining of Hui Neng is a vivid example of the spiritual atmosphere of the Ch'an philosophy and, generally, of the Taoism.

Robert Linssen, author of the work: "Le Zen, sagesse d'Extreme Orient: un nouvel art de vivre?" writes too: "The peculiar way in which he [Hui Neng] made himself well-known characterizes one of the specific climates of Ch'an and Zen" (1).

Hui Neng was literally the successor of the Fifth Patriarch, Hung Jen, head of the Tung Ch'an Monastery from Huang Mei, which counts up to 1000 monks. Educated, erudite, very eager and ambitious monks...

Hui Neng led at the beginning an anonymous life - fatherless, he had to work to support his mother. The living conditions were very hard. But one day he notices a man reading a Buddhist holly text and he suddenly feels fascinated by the spiritual works and that's why he gets interested in the source of the text.

So, he finds out about the Tung Ch'an Monastery which had at that time Hung Jen as a spiritual leader, the Fifth Patriarch of Ch'an meditation school.

    It must be due to my good karma - relates Hui Neng - 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 to reach. (2).

The conversation with the Patriarch starts the series of surprises.

Learning out that he is a common man, an illiterate, but who is endeavoring for Buddha-nature, Hung Jen says: "You are [...] a barbarian? How can you expect to be a Buddha?" Hui Neng's short answer vexes our faith that we must respect a spiritual personality: "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." (3).

In other words, despite the external cultural differences, of social origin, etc., the Buddha-nature of a barbarian is not different from that of the Patriarch!

Shen Hsiu
Shen Hsiu (606?-706) - the opponent
of Hui Neng
For a while, Hui Neng had to carry out the household works of the monastery in order not to prematurely draw attention on him. His spiritual endowment, which was not a result of his prior hard work of gaining spiritual knowledge, could determine the hostile reactions of the other monks, if it would have been openly acknowledged. And so, advised by the Patriarch, Hui Neng keeps away from the meditation rooms.

But soon the Patriarch decided he must transmit the robe (the insignia of the Patriarchate) and the Dharma (the secret and final learning). For this purpose, he examines the monks, the exam consisting of composing a short poem (gathâ) which should certify the performance in the correct understanding of "the essence of the mind" (4).

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

    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 poem was rejected by Hung Jen because it wasn't expressing the genuine illumination. Moreover, the metaphor had already been used by Chuang-tzu, one of the masters of the philosophical Taoism.

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

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

The following night Hui Neng was very secretly confirmed to be appointed and left in a haste the Tung Ch'an Monastery. His supporter, the former Patriarch, has advised him not to make acquainted his appointment for fear that he could be hunted and killed by the other monks. So, Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of the meditation school Ch'an had to wander about for six years, escaping by the skin of his teeth from all the dangers which were threatening his life.

Only at the age of 39, Hui Neng decides to go out to preach 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 South, which seems to had very many proselytes.


At the beginning of this article, we mentioned that Hui Neng's story "is a vivid example of the spiritual climate of Ch'an Philosophy and of Taoism, in generally". Why? For two reasons:

- First: the way Hui Neng, an illiterate, who the other day was working hard to support his family, talks on equal position with the Patriarch of Ch'an Monastery suggests a frame of mind defined by a favorite term of the Taoist spirit: naturalness, unaffectedness, opposite to artificiality.

On the social level, this represents the mind missing the intellectual, spiritual, racial prejudices, a mind open to the Truth and which hasn't a prefabricated truth which the reality should comply with.

The Fifth Patriarch is himself an open-minded person, although we might believe that from the high rank conferred by his position he remains unapproachable. He could easily and with serenity admit that a barbarian has a complete spiritual knowledge. Moreover, he could give up his position to such a person, proving a commitment and a casualty which set us thinking. This is what we called the facts argument.

- The second one: Hui Neng's preaching of the man's genuine nature has nothing to do with the speculations of the hermetic philosophy, of the esoteric mysticism etc.

Hui Neng speaks straightway about a reality which rejects imagination and philosophy for their own sake. In his poem, he rejects any attempt to represent the spirituality shaped in an intellectual or poetical garment. Nothing from what Shen-Hsiu says as a pledge of his knowledge does really exist. Words as "Bodhi-tree", "mirror bright" or "dust alight" have no coverage in an authentically experience of the essence of the mind or the Buddha-nature.

Finally, the illumination is not a process connected to erudition or an effort towards the storing of knowledge, it is but the result of removing from our mind everything that dulls it and illegitimately imposes restrictions upon it.

1. Robert Linssen: Le Zen sagesse d'Extreme-Orient: un nouvel art de vivre?, Marabout Universite, 1969, p. 37.

2. Hui Neng: On the High Seat of "The Treasure of the Law" - The Sutra of the 6-th Patriarch, Hui Neng, translated by A.F.Price and Wong Mou-Lam.

3. Hui Neng, quoted work.

4. Hui Neng, quoted work.

5-6. Hui Neng, quoted work. 

Paper by Jhian Yang

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