08 Chapter Sudden And Gradual

08 Chapter Sudden And Gradual

THE SIXTH PATRIARCH’S DHARMA JEWEL PLATFORM SUTRA
A Commentary by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua

 

Chapter 8

SUDDEN AND GRADUAL

Commentary:

“Sudden” refers to the immediate understanding of a principle. You may be suddenly enlightened to a principle, but until you have been certified as one who is fully enlightened, you still must cultivate that principle gradually by putting it into practice in everyday life.

Sutra:

While the Patriarch was staying at Pao Lin Temple in Ts’ao Hsi, the Great Master Shen Hsiu was at Yü Ch’üan Temple in Ching Nan. At that time the two schools flourished and everyone called them, “Southern Neng and Northern Hsiu.” So it was that the two schools, northern and southern, were divided into “sudden” and “gradual.”

As the students did not understand the doctrine, the Master said to them, “The Dharma is originally of one school. It is people who think of North and South. The Dharma is of one kind, but people understand it slowly or quickly. Dharma is not sudden or gradual. Rather it is people who are sharp or dull. Hence the terms sudden and gradual.”

Nonetheless, Shen Hsiu’s followers continually ridiculed the southern Patriarch, saying that he couldn’t read a single word and had nothing in his favor.

But Shen Hsiu said, “He has obtained wisdom without the aid of a teacher and understands the Supreme Vehicle deeply. I am inferior to him. Furthermore, my Master, the Fifth Patriarch, personally transmitted the robe and Dharma to him, and not without good reason. I regret that I am unable to make the long journey to visit him, as I unworthily receive state patronage here. But do not let me stop you. Go to Ts’ao Hsi and call on him.”

Commentary:

You all remember Shen Hsiu, the Great Master who was obsessed with the deadly ambition to be a patriarch. He was an intelligent man, and yet he couldn’t cut off his desire for the Patriarchate.

In the south, the Sixth Patriarch taught the “sudden” Dharma to a flourishing assembly of over a thousand people. Shen Hsiu, in Ching Nan, was busy teaching “gradual” Dharma to an even larger crowd of over ten thousand people.

Originally, Shen Hsiu had about two hundred followers, but every day more and more people came. However, everyone knew that the Fifth Patriarch had transmitted the robe and bowl to Hui Neng in the south. In spite of the fact that Shen Hsiu had been teaching master under the Fifth Patriarch and was extremely well-educated, he did not have the transmission. Still, Shen Hsiu’s disciples advertised him as the Sixth Patriarch and finally even sent an assassin to try to kill the Master and seize the robe and bowl.

Because of the division into Northern and Southern schools, students of the Way did not know where to turn. Should they study with the Sixth Patriarch? He was illiterate and sometimes his teachings seemed to contradict the scriptures. On the other hand, Shen Hsiu didn’t have the robe and bowl.

Seeing their dilemma, the Master said, “There is only one Dharma. People may come from the north or south but there is actually only one non-dual Dharma door. Intelligent people understand it all of a sudden and stupid people come to understand it gradually, but the Dharma itself is neither sudden nor gradual.”

Still, Shen Hsiu’s men constantly made fun of the Sixth Patriarch. “Hey, look at him!” they said. “He can’t even read. The Southern School disciples are following an illiterate. That is perfectly ridiculous. What could they possibly learn from him?” Thus they slighted the Patriarch and his disciples, saying that they were ignorant, not having even one doctorate among them.

Shen Hsiu said, “Don’t talk like that! He’s an enlightened man. He has obtained wisdom through his own effort, without the aid of a teacher, and has a thorough grasp of the Supreme Vehicle. Frankly, I’m not as good as he is; I do not possess his enlightened wisdom. Our teacher, the Fifth Patriarch, passed the wonderful mind-seal Dharma on to him, and for a good reason. It was no accident.”

Shen Hsiu was a National Master. He and Masters Lao An, Chih Hsien, and Fa Ju were among the Fifth Patriarch’s ten great disciples. As they had received invitations to the Imperial Palace from Empress Wu Tsai T’ien, they received state patronage. Shen Hsiu told his disciples, “I can’t get away, as I receive state aid here. But don’t let me stop you. You may go to Ts’ao Hsi to call on the Great Master.”

Actually, Shen Hsiu was just testing his disciples to see whether or not they would go. He said that the Sixth Patriarch had more virtue than he, but what he really meant was, “If you believe in me you won’t leave, even though he has more virtue. But if you don’t believe, you’ll go as soon as I tell you to leave. Go!”

No one went.

Sutra:

One day Shen Hsiu told his disciple Chih Ch’eng, “You are intelligent and very wise. You may go to Ts’ao Hsi on my behalf and listen to the Dharma. Remember it all and take careful notes to read to me when you return.”

As ordered, Chih Ch’eng proceeded to Ts’ao Hsi and joined the assembly without saying where he had come from. The Patriarch told the assembly, “Today there is a Dharma thief hidden in this assembly!”

Chih Ch’eng immediately stepped forward, bowed, and explained his mission. The Master said, “You are from Yü Ch’üan; you must be a spy.”

“No,” he replied, “I am not.”

The Master said, “What do you mean?”

He replied, “Before I confessed, I was; but now that I have confessed, I am not.”

The Master said, “How does your Master instruct his followers?”

Chih Ch’eng replied, “He always instructs us to dwell with the mind contemplating stillness and to sit up all the time without lying down.”

The Master said, “To dwell with the mind contemplating stillness is sickness, not Dhyana. Constant sitting restrains the body. How can it be beneficial? Listen to my verse:

When living, sit, don’t lie.
When dead, lie down, don’t sit. 
How can a set of stinking bones
Be used for training?

Chih Ch’eng bowed again and said, “Your disciple studied the Way for nine years at the place of Great Master Hsiu but obtained no enlightenment. Now, hearing one speech from the High Master, I am united with my original mind. Your disciple’s birth and death is a serious matter. Will the High Master be compassionate enough to instruct me further?”

Commentary:

Chih Ch’eng was a good disciple to Shen Hsiu, one of his favorites. “You may represent me at Ts’ao Hsi,” Shen Hsiu said. “I cannot go. If I were to go personally, Hui Neng would surely recognize me and not speak the Dharma. Write down everything he says without getting one word wrong. Then bring back your notes and read them to me.”

When Chih Ch’eng asked for instruction at Ts’ao Hsi, he didn’t say where he was from. “I’ve been here and there,” he said, beating around the bush.

That day there were several thousand people gathered to hear the Dharma. The Sixth Patriarch announced: “Everyone should be careful! There is a Dharma thief hidden in the assembly!”

Chih Ch’eng pushed his way through the crowd, bowed at the Master’s feet and said, “I confess! I’m a spy. Shen Hsiu sent me here.”

The Master explained the Dharma to Chih Cheng. “Contemplating stillness is a kind of occupational disease,” he said, “It is not Dhyana. As to constant sitting in meditation, this is a mere constraint on the body. What is the principle behind it? When you eat, just eat; when you sleep, just sleep. Don’t lock yourself up.”

Shen Hsiu was just working on his stinking skin-bag. He didn’t know how to work in the self-nature. That is sickness. The Sixth Patriarch worked naturally in the self-nature, and he spoke this verse to say,

You sit up when you’re alive, 
You lie down when you’re dead. 
Your body’s a bone-bag composed of four elements: 
Why not work on the self-nature instead?

To dwell with the mind contemplating stillness contradicts the principle of the Diamond Sutra, which tells us to “produce that thought which is nowhere supported.” The Sixth Patriarch spoke this verse to break Chih Ch’eng’s attachment to marks.

Shen Hsiu taught people to dwell with the mind contemplating stillness and the Sixth Patriarch said that that was wrong. Nonetheless, if you can do it, bit by bit, you will gain benefit. If you always sit and do not lie down, although it is not very natural, it will assist your body and mind in cultivation. Then why did the Sixth Patriarch object to these practices? It was because Chih Ch’eng had just come from Shen Hsiu and it was necessary to break his attachments before he could properly receive the genuine Buddhadharma. In cultivation you should not be attached to your work and think, “Look at me! I really work hard, constantly sitting and never lying down!” Such thoughts will obstruct your progress.

If the mind “dwells,” it is attached. In order to be united with the original wisdom of the self-nature, you must “produce that thought which is nowhere supported,” as the Diamond Sutra says. The Sixth Patriarch gave Chih Ch’eng this teaching in order to break his attachments. If you can constantly sit and feel natural and unforced doing so, then go ahead, but do not force yourself. Force is not the way. You should work naturally.

“Good!” you say. “Then I don’t have to follow the rules.”

This does not mean that you can ignore the rules. If you lie down when people sit, and sit when they lie down, you are not in accord with Dharma and are just trying to show that you think you are special. In general, you must follow the rules and be natural with yourself as well. But “being natural” does not mean that you can break the rules. Is this clear?

Chih Ch’eng had studied nine years with Shen Hsiu. How many years have you studied here? One year. And you think that is a very long time. Cultivators may study for ten, twenty, or thirty years with great effort. You can’t graduate in just a few months.

As soon as the Sixth Patriarch spoke, his principles entered Chih Ch’eng’s heart like water flowing into water: “thus, thus,” like milk mixing with milk. There was not the slightest difference between them. “The Patriarch’s heart is my heart,” said Chih Ch’eng, “and my heart is the Patriarch’s heart. I am suddenly united with the original mind because our minds are fundamentally one and the same.”

“But I do not know when I will die,” Chih Ch’eng continued, “and I do not know when I will be born again. This matter of birth and death is most pressing. Please be compassionate and help me understand.”

Sutra:

The Master said, “I have heard that your Master instructs his students in the dharmas of morality, concentration, and wisdom. Please tell me how he defines the terms.”

Chih Ch’eng said, “Great Master Shen Hsiu says that morality is abstaining from doing evil, wisdom is offering up all good conduct, and concentration is purifying one’s own mind. This is how he explains them, but I do not know, High Master, what dharma of instruction you use.”

The Master said, “If I said that I had a dharma to give to others, I would be lying to you. I merely use expedients to untie bonds and falsely call that samadhi. Your master’s explanation of morality, concentration, and wisdom is truly inconceivably good but my conception of morality, concentration, and wisdom is different from his.”

Commentary:

“I don’t have any dharmas at all,” said the Sixth Patriarch. “I’d be cheating you if I said that I did. I have no special dharma to give to people. For each individual I use an appropriate teaching to untie his bonds. To ‘untie bonds’ means to break attachments. The attachments of living beings bind them up. I just untie their bonds and set them free of their attachments. Fundamentally this teaching has no name whatsoever, but it is hypothetically called ‘samadhi.’ Thus, my view of morality, concentration, and wisdom is special; it is not the same as Shen Hsiu’s.”

Sutra:

Chih Ch’eng said, “There can only be one kind of morality, concentration, and wisdom. How can there be a difference?”

The Master said, “Your master’s morality, concentration, and wisdom guide those of the Great Vehicle, whereas my morality, concentration, and wisdom guide those of the Supreme Vehicle. Enlightenment is not the same as understanding; seeing may take place slowly or quickly.

Commentary:

When you become enlightened, in that moment of enlightenment you attain your aim. Understanding, on the other hand, is a gradual process. Thus perception may be sudden or gradual, fast or slow.

Sutra:

“Listen to my explanation. Is it the same as Shen Hsiu’s? The Dharma which I speak does not depart from the self-nature, for to depart from the self-nature in explaining the Dharma is to speak of marks and continually confuse the self-nature. You should know that the functions of the ten thousand dharmas all arise from the self-nature and that this is the true morality, concentration, and wisdom. Listen to my verse:

Mind-ground without wrong:
Self-nature morality. 
Mind-ground without delusion: 
Self-nature wisdom. 
Mind-ground without confusion: 
Self-nature concentration. 
Neither increasing nor decreasing: 
You are vajra. 
Body comes, body goes: 
The original samadhi. 

Commentary: 

“When I speak the Dharma,” said the Sixth Patriarch, “I never stray from the self-nature. When you stray from the selfnature you become attached to marks and confuse the selfnature. All dharmas are composed of the substance of the selfnature and respond with unlimited function. Now, listen to this:

Mind-ground without wrong: 
Self-nature morality.

“The mind is like a piece of ground. Whatever you plant in it grows there. If you plant a good cause, you reap a good result in the future; if you plant a bad cause, you reap a bad result. When the mind-ground contains no thoughts of greed, malice, envy, or selfishness, it is without wrong thoughts, and that is the morality of the self-nature.”

Master Shen Hsiu said that morality is to abstain from evil; that is almost the same as the Sixth Patriarch’s instructions to clear the mind-ground of wrong thoughts. But Shen Hsiu gave morality another name, calling it the abstention from evil, while the Sixth Patriarch spoke of the morality of the mind-ground, the morality of the self-nature.

Mind-ground without delusion: 
Self-nature wisdom. 

When your mind-ground is free of delusion, the conduct you offer can be extremely good, just as Shen Hsiu instructed. But Shen Hsiu merely passed out names. He did not speak of morality, concentration, and wisdom in terms of the self-nature and the mind-ground. Do not plant the causes of stupidity in the mind-ground: that is the self-nature’s wisdom.

Mind-ground without confusion: 
Self-nature concentration. 

When it is without confusion, the mind is purified. Shen Hsiu’s instructions to purify the mind did not relate concentration to the self-nature, whereas the Sixth Patriarch always spoke Dharma from the mind-ground. His Dharma arose from the self-nature and did not come from outside. Shen Hsiu spoke about external dharmas and was attached to marks. In other words, Shen Hsiu spoke from outside the mind; the Sixth Patriarch spoke from within.

Neither increasing nor decreasing: 
You are vajra. 

The brilliant light of the self-nature illuminates everything; it is miraculous, profound, and all-inclusive. The self-nature neither increases nor decreases; it is your very own indestructible vajra.

Body comes, body goes: 
The original samadhi. 

You go away, you come back, and you’re in samadhi all the time: standing, sitting, walking, and lying down.

Sutra:

Hearing this verse, Chih Ch’eng regretted his former mistakes, and he expressed his gratitude by saying this verse:

These five heaps are 
A body of illusion.
And what is illusion,

Ultimately?

If you tend toward 
True suchness 
The Dharma is 
Not yet pure. 

Commentary:

The five skandhas are not real. The body, too, is false–merely a combination of the four elements. Knowing this, you should not attach so much importance to it by looking for good food, good clothes, a nice place to live, or a good wife or husband.

How do the four elements combine to form your body? The earth is the hard part of your body: the skin, nails, bones, and muscles. Tears, mucus, saliva and excrement are the water and your body heat is the fire. The circulatory and respiratory systems are the wind. After you die, the body decomposes and the earth returns to the earth, the water to the water, the fire to the fire, and the wind to the wind. But where do you go? You don’t know, do you? We are studying the Buddhadharma just to understand this question.

The body, then, is nothing but a transformation of the five skandhas and the four elements. And what, ultimately, is this illusion?

If you tend toward true suchness, the Dharma is not pure yet, for you have not arrived at the root-substance and you have not returned to purity. Why? Because you still have the thought, “I’d like to go back to true suchness.” If you have even one thought, you cannot penetrate the basic substance, because the basic substance functions independently and freely, without obstruction. There is no grasping or rejecting it, no thinking of this or that.

Sutra:

The Master approved, and he said further to Chih Ch’eng, “Your Master’s morality, concentration, and wisdom exhort those of lesser faculties and lesser wisdom, while my morality, concentration, and wisdom exhort those of great faculties and great wisdom. If you are enlightened to your self-nature, you do not set up in your mind the notion of Bodhi or of Nirvana or of the liberation of knowledge and vision. When not a single dharma is established in the mind, then the ten thousand dharmas can be established there. To understand this principle is to achieve the Buddha’s body which is also called Bodhi, Nirvana, and the liberation of knowledge and vision as well. Those who see their own nature can establish dharmas in their minds or not establish them as they choose. They come and go freely, without impediments or obstacles. They function correctly and speak appropriately, seeing all transformation bodies as integral with the self-nature. That is precisely the way they obtain independence, spiritual powers, and the samadhi of playfulness. This is what is called seeing the nature.”

Commentary:

“You’re right,” said the Master, “and your verse is not bad at all. You should know that my morality, concentration, and wisdom are not the same as Shen Hsiu’s. His teaching is for people of lesser wisdom.”

Here the Master describes the people of great wisdom for whom his teaching is intended. “They have awakened to the selfnature,” he said, “and they don’t even entertain the notion of Bodhi, Nirvana, or the liberation of knowledge and vision.” None of these dharmas exist for them. Not a single thing remains.

Not one dharma established,
 ten thousand dharmas are empty.

Because such people do not set up the notion of a single dharma, they can set up the ten thousand dharmas. Although not a single dharma exists, the ten thousand dharmas are present all the same.

If you understand this principle, you may become a Buddha on the spot. Then you may call it Bodhi, Nirvana, or the liberation of knowledge and vision. You may call it anything you like. But first you must understand it. If you don’t understand it, you can’t call it anything at all.

People of genuine enlightenment who have understood the mind and seen the nature can establish dharmas or not establish them. They come and go without obstruction. You say, “I’m this way too. If I want to come to the Buddhist Lecture Hall, I come; if I want to go, I go.” You’re wrong. The Sixth Patriarch was speaking of freedom over life and death. With this kind of freedom, if you want to live, you live; if you want to die, you can die any place, any time, like the Third Patriarch Seng Ts’an, who died of his own will, hanging by one hand from a tree. That’s why I often say to you, “Everything’s O.K.” If you are master of this, you hold the power of life and death in your hands. Live or die, as you please. No one can stop you. “Freedom to come and go” is not like your coming and going from the Buddhist Lecture Hall.

People who see the nature “function correctly and speak appropriately, seeing all transformation bodies as integral with the self-nature.” They don’t need to think, they just speak. But they always speak with principle. If someone asks you about the heavens and you reply, “On earth there are mountains and rivers,” or if they ask, “What’s a horse?” and you say, “Oxen have two horns,” you are just confusing the issue and going against common sense.

People who see the nature “obtain independence” just like Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. The “spiritual powers” that they obtain are the six spiritual powers: 1) the heavenly eye; 2) the heavenly ear; 3) the knowledge of others’ thoughts; 4) the knowledge of former lives; 5) the knowledge of the extinction of outflows; 6) psychic power.

One who has obtained the “samadhi of playfulness” sings, but not like other singers; he eats, but not like other people. For example, he may say, “Lunch time! Let’s eat!” and then run to the table and eat every morsel of food in sight. Then he’ll say, “The food is still in the kitchen.” When everyone looks in the kitchen the food is still there. He didn’t really eat it after all. That is a lot of fun.

Sutra:

Chih Ch’eng asked the Master further, “What is meant by ‘not establishing?’”

The Master replied, “When your self-nature is free from error, obstruction, and confusion, when Prajna is present in every thought, contemplating and shedding illumination, and when you are constantly apart from the dharma marks and are free and independent, both horizontally and vertically, then what is there to be established?

“In the self-nature, in self-enlightenment, in sudden enlightenment, and in sudden cultivation there are no degrees. Therefore, not a single dharma is established. All dharmas are still and extinct. How can there be stages?”

Chih Ch’eng made obeisance and attended on the Master day and night without laziness. He was a native of T’ai Ho in Chi Chou.

Commentary:

When there is nothing in your self-nature which is obstructive or confused, what is there to be established? “Confusion” means “upside-down.” You should not think that if your hand points to the earth it is upside-down down and if you raise it above your head it is right-side up. There is actually no such thing as upside-down or right-side up.

“Prajna is present in every thought, contemplating and shedding illumination.” Similarly, the Master said earlier, “You should know that the self-nature constantly generates wisdom.” Further, you should be separate from any attachment to dharma marks, and then you will be free to come and go. Vertically, if you want to jump, jump! Horizontally, if you want to move sideways, go ahead. Ascend into the heavens or plunge into the hells; visit the Western Paradise or the Eastern Crystal Azure World. You can go anywhere and always be in accord with Dharma. So what dharma is there to be established? That is why the Master says that not a single dharma is established.

You should enlighten your self-nature by yourself. If you are enlightened immediately, you will cultivate immediately and there will be no question of sudden and gradual stages of progress. Therefore no dharmas are established: all dharmas are empty–marked with still extinction. How can you arrange them in stages according to number one, number two, and so on?

Hearing the Master’s instruction, the former spy defected and was converted to the Master’s teaching. He changed his mind and reformed his conduct. That is called “going straight.” He did whatever the Patriarch told him to do, no matter how difficult, because he knew that the Sixth Patriarch had become a patriarch by doing bitter work, threshing rice at Huang Mei for over eight months. He thought, “I have an opportunity to serve a Patriarch and I should work diligently.”

Bhikshu Chih Ch’e

Sutra:

Bhikshu Chih Ch’e, a native of Chiang Hsi, had the family name Chang and the personal name Hsing Ch’ang. As a youth he was an itinerant warrior. When the schools split into the Northern and Southern, although the two leaders had lost the notion of self and other, the disciples stirred up love and hate.

The disciples of the Northern School secretly set up Shen Hsiu as the Sixth Patriarch. Fearing that the country would hear of the transmission of the robe, they hired Hsing Ch’ang to assassinate the Master. But the Master had the power of knowing the thoughts of others. He knew of this matter in advance and set ten ounces of gold on his chair. That night Hsing Ch’ang entered his room intending to kill him. The Master just stretched out his neck. Hsing Ch’ang swung the blade three times but could not harm him.

Commentary:

Neither Shen Hsiu nor the Sixth Patriarch had thoughts of “self” or “others.” But their disciples agitated, stirring up thoughts of love and hate in people. More specifically, Shen Hsiu’s disciples did the agitating, denouncing the Southern Patriarch as illiterate and incompetent.

The Sixth Patriarch’s disciples really believed in him. “You can’t talk that way about our teacher!” they said. “He has obtained wisdom without the aid of a master.”

It never occurred to the Sixth Patriarch’s disciples that they should kill Shen Hsiu, but Shen Hsiu’s disciples were jealous and wanted to kill the Sixth Patriarch. They knew that the robe and bowl were in the South. The rumors flew. “That Hui Neng would do anything: homicide, manslaughter. Why, in the old days he was a confidence man and now he’s pretending to be a Patriarch. How absurd.”

Others said, “He used to be a poor firewood gatherer in the mountains. What talent could he have? The people in the south have made him their leader, but it’s only talk.” They did everything they could to ruin him. “At Huang Mei everyone knew that he was a barbarian. He doesn’t know anything at all.” Shen Hsiu had several thousand men behind him, even though he did not have the robe and bowl. They each wanted to be the Seventh Patriarch, and without a father how can there be a son? With Shen Hsiu as the Sixth Patriarch, the Seventh Patriarch would surely be one of them. But they didn’t dare make the news public because it was all too obvious that the position rightly belonged to Hui Neng.

T’ang dynasty Buddhism was extremely complex.

Hsing Ch’ang’s family name had been Chang, but after he left home the Master named him Chih Ch’e. As a boy, he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, always fighting for the underdog. His martial skills were outstanding. Light and limber, he could leap twenty feet in the air in a single bound. They called him “Flying Cat” Chang because he ran so fast and with such agility that he could break into your house without a sound, just like a cat. Not only could this cat walk silently, he could fly. But you won’t find this nickname in any of the history books; you would have to have been there.

Having unsuccessfully tried to capture the Master by burning off the mountain behind Nan Hua Temple, Shen Hsiu’s men decided to hire an assassin to kill the master and steal the robe and bowl.

The Sixth Patriarch could read minds, and so he was expecting his visitor. He put some gold on his chair and waited until midnight, when the sky was black and Hsing Ch’ang came creeping up the stairs, down the hall, and into his room.

Was this a tense situation or not? What do you think the Master did? He just stretched out his neck, and although he didn’t say anything, he thought, “Go ahead and swing your sword. Come on, kill me!” This is called “sticking your neck out.”

Hsing Ch’ang was oblivious to the Master. He was determined to carry out orders and had nothing on his mind but murder. “I don’t care if you’re a Bhikshu, an Arhat, or even a Patriarch, I’m going to kill you!” he said, swinging at the Master’s neck. He swung three times and nothing happened. Now, just what do you think this means?

Sutra:

The Master said,

A straight sword is not bent. 
A bent sword is not straight.
I merely owe you gold. 
I do not owe you life. 

Hsing Ch’ang fell to the ground in fright. After a while he came to and begged for mercy, repenting of his error and vowing to leave home. The Master gave him the gold and said, “Go! I fear that my followers will come to take revenge. Change your appearance and return another day and I will accept you.”

Commentary:

The Master said, “A straight sword is not bent,” that is, the straight sword of the proper Dharma cannot be harmed by deviant dharma. “The deviant cannot defeat the right; the right always overcomes the deviant. You may have a sword, but you can’t harm me with it. I merely owe you the gold which I borrowed in a past life,” the Master said, “I don’t owe you my life because I never killed you.”

It was all too much for Hsing Ch’ang, and he fainted. When he came to, the Master talked with him for a long time, “Why did you want to kill me?” he asked.

“It wasn’t my idea,” said Hsing Ch’ang. “They told me that you were a scoundrel, a thief, and a hunter. They said that you were nothing but a firewood gatherer who was pretending to be a Patriarch. Hearing this, I felt it was my duty to kill you, but now I know that I was wrong. Why? If you had no virtue, my sharp sword would have sliced your head right off. Having met you, I realized that the affairs of the world are of no great interest. Please let me leave home and bow to you as my teacher.”

The Master said, “Here, take this gold and go quickly. My disciples are fond of me and they would kill you if they found out about this. Go somewhere else and leave home. When you return I will teach and transform you.”

Sutra:

Hsing Ch’ang received his orders and disappeared into the night. Later he left home under another Bhikshu, received the complete precepts and was vigorous in practice. One day, remembering the Master’s words, he made the long journey to have an audience. The Master said, “I have thought of you for a long time. What took you so long?”

He replied, “The High Master once favored me by pardoning my crime. Although I have left home and although I practice austerities, I shall never be able to repay his kindness. May I try to repay you by transmitting the Dharma and taking living beings across?

“Your disciple often studies the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, but he has not yet understood the principles of permanence and impermanence. I beg the High Master to be compassionate and explain them for me.

The Master said, “Impermanence is just the Buddha nature and permanence is just the mind discriminating good and evil dharmas.”

“High Master, your explanation contradicts the Sutra text!” Hsing Ch’ang replied.

The Master said, “I transmit the Buddha’s mind-seal. How could I dare to contradict the Buddhas’ Sutras?”

Hsing Ch’ang replied, “The Sutra says that the Buddha nature is permanent and the High Master has just said that it is impermanent; it says that good and evil dharmas, reaching even to the Bodhi Mind, are impermanent and the High Master has just said that they are permanent. This contradiction has merely intensified your student’s doubt and delusion.”

The Master said, “Formerly, I heard Bhikshuni Wu Chin Tsang recite the Nirvana Sutra. When I commented on it, there was not one word or principle which did not accord with the Sutra text. My explanation to you now is not different.”

Hsing Ch’ang replied, “Your student’s capacity for understanding is superficial. Will the High Master please explain further?”

The Master said, “Don’t you understand? If the Buddha nature were permanent, what use would there be in speaking of good and evil dharmas? To the end of an eon not one person would produce the Bodhi Mind. Therefore I explain it as impermanent. That is exactly what the Buddha explained as the meaning of true permanence.”

Commentary:

The Buddha explained the Buddha nature as permanent to those attached to impermanence, and he explained it as impermanent to those attached to permanence. If you say that the Buddha nature is permanent, what good and evil dharmas remain for discussion? Living beings would have all become Buddhas long ago. Why should one bother to speak the Dharma to them in order to take them across? If the Buddha nature is permanent, everyone would be a Buddha and there would be no need to cultivate. “So,” the Master said, “you see that my explanation of the Buddha nature as impermanent is exactly what the Buddha meant when he spoke of permanence.”

Sutra: 

“Furthermore, if all dharmas were impermanent, all things would have a self-nature subject to birth and death, and the true permanent nature would not pervade all places. Therefore, I explain it as permanent. That is exactly what the Buddha explained as the meaning of true impermanence.”

Commentary:

Basically, the Buddha nature is neither permanent nor impermanent. That is the ultimate principle of the middle way. Then why did the Sixth Patriarch say that it was impermanent? Why did he say that the mind which discriminates good and evil was permanent? He did it to cure Hsing Ch’ang of his attachments. Once you are rid of attachment, you do not need the Buddhadharma. The Sixth Patriarch took advantage of an opportunity to heal Hsing Ch’ang, but he wouldn’t necessarily have explained it the same way to every one.

Sutra: 

“It was for the sake of common people and those who belong to other religions who cling to deviant views of permanence, and for all those who follow the two-vehicle way, mistaking permanence for impermanence formulating the eight perverted views, that the Buddha in the ultimate Nirvana teaching destroyed their prejudiced views. He explained true permanence, true bliss, true selfhood, and true purity.”

Commentary:

Common people and non-Buddhists cling to false permanence; Shravakas and Pratyeka Buddhas mistake permanence for impermanence. These two groups each have four perverted views, making eight in all.

Common people and non-Buddhists turn the four marks of conditioned existence upside-down and say:

  1. The suffering of conditioned existence is bliss;
  2. Its impermanence is permanent;
  3. Its impurity is pure; and
  4. Its “no-self” is “self.”

The Shravakas and Pratyeka Buddhas turn the four virtues of Nirvana upside-down and say:

  1. The bliss of Nirvana is suffering;
  2. Its permanence is impermanent;
  3. Its purity is impure; and
  4. Its “self” is “no-self.”

Sutra:

“You now contradict this meaning by relying on the words, taking annihilation to be impermanence and fixing on a lifeless permanence. In this way you misinterpret the last, subtle, complete and wonderful words of the Buddha. Even if you read it a thousand times, what benefit could you derive from it?”

Hsing Ch’ang suddenly achieved the great enlightenment and spoke this verse:

To those who hold impermanence in mind,
The Buddha speaks of the permanent nature; 
Not knowing expedients is like 
Picking up pebbles from a spring pond.

But now without an effort 
The Buddha nature manifests; 
The Master did not transmit it, 
And I did not obtain a thing. 

The Master said, “Now you understand! You should be called ‘Chih Ch’e’ (breadth of understanding).”

Chih Ch’e thanked the Master, bowed, and withdrew.

Commentary:

Unless you understand that the Buddha’s dharmas are expedient devices, you might as well collect rocks from the bottom of a pool: you’re useless.

Hearing the Master’s instruction, Hsing Ch’ang returned to the source and went back home. Suddenly enlightened, he understood his mind and saw his nature. But his enlightenment was not given to him by the Sixth Patriarch, and his attainment was actually no attainment. He simply opened up to his own inherent wisdom.

The Master gave him certification saying, “Now that you are truly enlightened, I’ll give you the name ‘Chih Ch’e.’”

Bhikshu Shen Hui

Sutra: 

A young boy thirteen years old named Shen Hui, who was from a Kao family in Hsiang Yang, came from Yü Ch’üan to pay homage. The Master said, “The Knowing One’s journey must have been difficult. Did you bring the original with you? If you have the original, you should know the owner. Try to explain it to me.”

Shen Hui said, “I take non-dwelling as the original and seeing as the owner.”

The Master said, “This Shramanera imitates the talk of others.”

Shen Hui then asked, “When you sit in Ch’an, High Master, do you see or not?”

The Master hit him three times with his staff and said, “When I hit you, does it hurt or not?”

He replied, “It both hurts and does not hurt.”

The Master said, “I both see and do not see.”

Shen Hui asked, “How can you both see and not see?”

The Master said, “What I see is the transgression and error of my own mind. I do not see the right, wrong, good, or bad of other people. This is my seeing and not seeing. How can you say it both hurts and does not hurt? If it does not hurt you are like a piece of wood or a stone, but if it does hurt you are just like a common person and will give rise to hatred. Your ‘seeing and not seeing’ are two extremes and your ‘hurting and not hurting’ are production and extinction. You have not even seen your own nature and yet you dare to ridicule others.”

Commentary:

Shen Hui was an exceptional child. Precocious and brilliant, he forgot his body for the sake of the Dharma. He could tell at a glance that Shen Hsiu didn’t have the genuine Buddhadharma; he set out for the Sixth Patriarch’s place, eighteen hundred miles distant. His shoes fell apart and the rocks and slivers of glass on the road cut into his feet, but he continued to walk, tearing up his robe to bandage his bleeding feet and acting as if there were no pain at all. When the Great Master saw him he knew that he had undergone much suffering.

“Good Knowing Advisor,” he said, “your journey must have been difficult. Did you bring the original with you? Have you attained your original face or not? Do you recognize your original face? If you have the original, you should know the owner. If you have the original, the Buddha-nature, and if you have understood your mind, seen your nature, you should know the owner. The owner is the Buddha-nature. Tell me about it!”

But this unruly child had a mind of his own. “I take ‘not dwelling anywhere’ as my original face,” he said, “and my seeing nature as the host.”

The Sixth Patriarch said, “You’re just imitating the talk of other people. You pretend to know what you do not know, to understand what you do not understand, and to see what you do not see. This is nothing but verbal zen. It is not an expression of the self-nature.

Shen Hui had a lot of gall. “When the High Master sits in meditation,” he asked, “does he see or not?” This child was wild and difficult to teach. The Patriarch, not being an ordinary person, gave no ordinary answer. He hit Shen Hui with his staff and shouted, “Does that hurt?”

It is not known whether the child was afraid, or whether he cried or not.

Shen Hui said, “It both hurts and does not hurt.”

The Master said, “I both see and do not see.”

“How can this be?” said Shen Hui.

“I see my own mistakes,” said the Master. “I keep an eye on my evil false thinking and immediately put a stop to it. I do not see the faults of others: others’ evils, others’ obsessions, others’ conditions, others’ transgressions.” Students of the Buddhadharma should take note of this. See your own errors, not those of other people. Don’t be like a watchdog watching someone else’s door. The dog doesn’t have anything of its own and so it watches over other people’s things. Don’t be critical and don’t gossip: see and do not see.

“I see and do not see,” said the Master, “but how can you both hurt and not hurt? If you don’t hurt, you are just like a rock. If you do hurt, then you’ll catch fire and get angry and afflicted, just like an unenlightened common person. Seeing and not seeing are two extremes and hurting and not hurting are dharmas of production and extinction. You haven’t even seen your own nature and yet you have the nerve to come here and talk down to me?”

Sutra:

Shen Hui bowed, apologized, and thanked the Master. The Master continued, “If your mind is confused and you do not see, then ask a Good Knowing Advisor to help you find the Way. If your mind is enlightened, then see your own nature and cultivate according to the Dharma. You yourself are confused and do not see your own mind, and yet you come to ask me whether or not I see. If I see, I know it for myself, but is that of any help to you in your confusion? In the same way your seeing is of no use to me. Why don’t you know and see it for yourself, instead of asking me whether or not I see?”

Shen Hui bowed again over one hundred times, seeking forgiveness for his error. He served the Master with diligence, never leaving his side.

Commentary:

The Master said, “Shen Hui, if your mind is unclear and you cannot see the nature, then ask a Good Knowing Advisor to teach you how to work at cultivation. If your mind is enlightened and you have understood the mind and seen the nature, then you should cultivate according to Dharma. You haven’t even seen your original mind, and yet you come to ask me whether or not I have seen it. If I’ve seen it, that’s my own business, of no use to you in your deluded condition. If you’ve seen the nature and obtained the original face, that’s of no use to me. Why not turn the light around and reverse the illumination to find out whether you’ve seen your own mind or not? Isn’t that better than asking me? What difference does it make whether I’ve seen it or not?”

After that, Shen Hui was really sorry. Why had he been so incorrigible? Did he really have no conscience? His questioning of the Patriarch was like trying to sell dime novels to Confucius or going to the home of Lu Pan, China’s first engineer and foremost carpenter, to do remodeling. He begged for forgiveness, saying, “I’m just a kid. I don’t know how high the heavens are or how deep the earth is. Please don’t hold it against me.” From then on, Shen Hui waited on the Master, following along everywhere the Master went to give lectures on the Sutras and speak about the Dharma.

Sutra:

One day the Master addressed the assembly as follows: “I have a thing. It has no head or tail, no name or label, no back or front. Do you all know what it is?”

Shen Hui stepped forward and said, “It is the root source of all Buddhas, Shen Hui’s Buddha nature!”

The Master said, “I just told you that it had no name or label, and you immediately call it the root-source of all Buddhas. Go and build a thatched hut over your head! You’re nothing but a follower who pursues knowledge and interpretation.”

After the Master’s extinction, Shen Hui went to Ching Lo where he propagated the Ts’ao Hsi Sudden Teaching. He wrote the Hsien Tsung Chi which circulated widely throughout the land. He is known as Dhyana Master Ho Che.

Commentary:

Everyone shut their mouths; no one said a word. Some of them didn’t speak because they knew and some didn’t speak because they did not know. Seeing that no one was going to answer, Shen Hui jumped out from the assembly and said, “I know what it is! It’s the origin of all Buddhas: my Buddha nature!”

“In the ranks of the Ch’an School,” said the Master, “you’re nothing but a scholar. You have no genuine understanding.”

In a way the Master’s scolding was a compliment. It isn’t easy to be a Ch’an scholar of the school of those who know and interpret.

When the Sixth Patriarch died, Shen Hui went to the capital at Loyang to spread the Sudden Teaching of the Ch’an School. He later wrote the Hsien Tsung Chi, a treatise on the Northern and Southern Schools, which exposed Shen Hsiu as a false pretender and proclaimed the Southern Patriarch Hui Neng as the real Sixth Patriarch, the recipient of the Buddha’s mind-seal. Had Shen Hui not written this book, Shen Hsiu would have stolen the title of the Sixth Patriarch. Shen Hui came to be known as Ho Che, which is the name of the place where he went to live.

Difficult Questions

Sutra: 

The Master saw many disciples of other schools, all with evil intentions, gathered beneath his seat to ask him difficult questions. Pitying them, he said, “Students of the Way, all thoughts of good or evil should be completely cast away. What cannot be named by any name is called the self-nature. This non-dual nature is the real nature, and it is within the real nature that all teaching doors are established. At these words you should see it for yourselves.”

Hearing this, they all made obeisance and asked him to be their master.

Commentary:

Not only did Shen Hsiu’s party want to murder the Great Master, but those of other sects, such as the Consciousness Only School, came to ask the Master difficult questions. “Which came first,” they would ask, “the Buddha or the Dharma? Where does the Buddhadharma begin?” They had many questions.

The Sixth Patriarch said, “If you can speak the Dharma, then it’s first the Buddha, then the Dharma. If you can listen to the Dharma, then it’s first the Dharma and then the Buddha. The Buddhadharma comes from the minds of living beings.”

On this occasion he saw that the crowd was full of spies and would-be assassins. “Cultivators should not hold thoughts of good or evil,” he said, “What cannot be named by any name is called the self-nature. The self-nature is non-dual; it is also called the real nature, the real mark. Within it all schools and sects are set up. It’s not enough just to talk about it, however. You must understand and immediately give proof to the state of no-mark.”

Hearing these words, the assembly realized that all their thoughts had been bound up in good and evil and they were greatly ashamed. They bowed down before him and said, “From now on we’ll be different. Please, Great Master, be our teacher.”

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