Hung-jen, the fifth patriarch of the Ch'an Buddhist tradition, died in 675 C.E., about four years after the emergence of Shen-hsiu as the sixth patriarch. Sixteen years after Shen-hsiu began his work as the spiritual guide of Northern Ch'an, Hui-neng emerged in the south. Also a disciple of Hung-jen, he enunciated a doctrine of direct insight into reality and challenged the view that enlightenment is a linear result of a long, gradual and steady discipline in dhyana and shila, meditation and right conduct. His work is preserved in the Fa-pao-t'an-ching (Platform Sutra), the only Chinese text which has been elevated to the status of scripture. His followers strongly dissented from the accepted teachings of Northern Ch'an, resisted them and eventually swept them aside, so that Hui-neng has since been considered the sixth patriarch, and his school has been the source and inspiration of subsequent Ch'an and Zen traditions.
According to the Platform Sutra, Hui-neng was born to a high government official in 638. While he was still very young, his father fell from grace and was banished, only to die shortly thereafter. Reduced to extreme poverty, Hui-neng and his mother became wood sellers in South China. Exceptionally intelligent but without the means to obtain an education, Hui-neng learnt from the marketplace, even though he was illiterate. One day he happened to hear a stranger reciting verses from the Diamond Sutra. When he heard the words "Let your mind function freely, without abiding anywhere or in anything", Hui-neng was awakened by a remarkable insight into his own true mind. He asked the stranger about the lines and discovered that the reciter was a disciple of Hung-jen, the fifth Ch'an patriarch, who taught that assimilation of the Diamond Sutra could lead to enlightenment. Hui-neng quickly set about making arrangements for the welfare of his mother so that he could travel to Yellow Plum Mountain, where Hung-jen taught, five hundred miles to the north.
When Hui-neng reached his destination, he presented himself to the fifth patriarch, who asked him whence he came.
"I am a farmer from Hsin-chou," Hui-neng answered, "and I wish to become a Buddha."
"You are a southerner," Hung-jen retorted, "and southerners have no Buddha-nature. How then can you expect to attain it?"
Fearlessly, Hui-neng replied, "There are southerners and northerners, but how can you make a distinction in Buddha- nature?"
Deeply pleased by this cheeky but insightful response, Hung-jen gave no indication of his feelings other than allowing Hui-neng to remain in the monastery as the rice-pounder for the community. For eight months Hui-neng stayed at his task, largely ignored by the other disciples, doing his duty, and secretly watched by the fifth patriarch. Then Hung-jen announced his wish to retire from active guidance of the Ch'an community and invited monks to compose verses expressing understanding of the Teaching. If one demonstrated a truly enlightened insight, its author would be made patriarch. Most of the monks felt unworthy to enter such a strict contest, and the rest believed that Shen-hsiu was their superior. Shen-hsiu quietly composed a verse and posted it near the entrance to the meditation hall:
The fifth patriarch praised the verse, burnt incense before it and instructed the monks to contemplate it. Upon reading the verse, Hui-neng composed another one to be placed beside it:
Whether or not these verses were actually composed by their putative authors, they illustrate the fundamental difference between Northern and Southern Ch'an and between the gradual and sudden approaches to enlightenment. According to the Platform Sutra, Hung-jen recognized the merits of Shen-hsiu's verse publicly, but secretly gave the robe and the law to Hui-neng, warning him to go into hiding in the south until the time was ripe for his public teaching. Hui-neng fled to the south, and it is said that some monks pursued him to capture the robe of the patriarchate. When the most athletic of the monks finally caught up with Hui-neng, he was overwhelmed by the presence of the sixth patriarch. Rather than seize the robe of office, he respectfully requested instruction. Hui-neng said, "Not thinking of good, not thinking of evil, tell me what was your original face before your mother and father were born?" Upon hearing this remarkable query, the pursuer attained enlightenment. This statement became the hallmark of Hui-neng's teaching. Methodologically, it illustrates the pithy utterances which stun the mind by defying logic and yet point to the truth. Philosophically, it declares the fundamental Ch'an teaching that all beings always have the Buddha-nature (the 'original face') and that it needs to be recovered, not created. Ontologically, it asserts that the Buddha-nature is prior to shila and samadhi, ethics and meditation. It is, in fact, equivalent to prajna, wisdom. Psychologically, it teaches the therapy of transcendence or of radically letting go in contrast to adjustment and directed maturation.
After living quietly in the south for sixteen years, Hui-neng made his way to Kuang-chou (now Canton) and visited the famous Fa-hsing Temple. There he found some monks arguing over a banner waving in the breeze. "The pennant is inanimate," one monk said, "and the wind makes it flap."
"But," interjected a second monk, "both wind and banner are inanimate, and the waving is an impossibility."
Yet a third added, "The flapping is due to a coincidence of cause and condition."
And a fourth insisted, "The banner does not flap; only the wind moves by itself."
Realizing that the time to declare himself had come, Hui-neng declared, "Neither wind nor banner but your own mind flaps." Stunned, the monks knew that they stood before a great teacher. He consented to deliver several discourses at Fa-hsing, but soon returned to the Pao-lin Temple at Ts'ao-hsi, where he taught disciples for forty years. Despite the existence of the Platform Sutra, said to have been written down by a disciple while Hui-neng discoursed from a platform, his teachings are not systematic. Several rather different recensions of the text survive and show that much material was added, for it is not in the oldest version found in the Tun-huang Caves. Just as there is reason to believe that Hui-neng departed significantly from his predecessors in method and doctrine, there is equal reason to doubt that he saw himself in competition with Shen-hsiu. Once Shen-hsiu recommended to the imperial court that Hui-neng be invited to the capital to give instruction, but Hui-neng declined. Though their disciples became vigorous opponents, the two patriarchs seem to have maintained distant but warm and respectful relations. Hui-neng was nonetheless convinced that the gradual path to enlightenment, however useful in focussing the mind and ordering one's life, could not lead to enlightenment.
Hui-neng elaborated these ideas when a messenger from Emperor Kao-tsung asked for instruction to be carried back to the imperial court. He rejected formal dhyana practices because they tend to externalize the practice of meditation, while Ch'an unfolds from within. It stands, like the Tathagata, beyond conditionality.
From this standpoint, sitting in meditation takes on new meaning. For Hui-neng, 'sitting' means being free of obstructions, a stilling of the mind so that thoughts cease to distract it. 'Meditation' means seeing one's original nature without confusion. Meditation is, therefore, prajna – wisdom and insight – and enlightenment. If one has successfully sat in meditation, one will be sitting in meditation whatever one does. Given this perspective, it is natural to emphasize the attentive performance of everyday duties and actions rather than formalized practices. Hui-neng wished to expunge every element of drama from the spiritual life.
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Hui-neng's teaching is his elaboration of wu-nien, translated variously as 'no-mind', 'not thinking', 'no thought' and even 'unconscious'. A literal rendering of the Sanskrit asmriti, 'forgetfulness' or 'lack of meaning', Hui-neng held that wu-nien is the original nature of consciousness and the goal of threefold emancipation: shunyata, animitta and apranihita – voidness, formlessness and effortlessness. Wu-nien is both reality and the consciousness which realizes it, because any distinction between them would constitute a subtle duality – the source of all ignorance and suffering. Thus meditation (dhyana) and wisdom (prajna) are one.
For Hui-neng, wu-nien is equivalent to the dharmakaya, the body of truth and reality. Emancipation from the trap of identifying with one or another form is not escape from the world of objects and mental processes. Rather, one is emancipated from forms when one ceases to be attached to them whilst recognizing their presence.
Wu-nien does not abide anywhere, whereas ordinary conscious ness, which is ignorant, deluded and alienated from its original nature, ceaselessly alights here and there, having one thought after another. Consciousness in this condition moves through endless divisions of time, never halting, restlessly passing from thought to thought. Wu-nien is consciousness in a condition of innocence in respect to the operation of the relative mind. Wu-nien is no-thought if contrasted with the thinking of the unenlightened, but it cannot be considered the extinction of consciousness. It is the replacement of involvement with relativities by realization of the Absolute. Wu-nien is pure thought, original consciousness, thought without an object. When a disciple asked the sixth patriarch about meditation and wu-nien, Hui-neng replied:
Since the mind is either moving or wu-nien, prajna cannot be considered incremental. In other words, partial or relative wisdom is not wisdom, even if it is a reflection of it. For Hui-neng and other Chinese Buddhist teachers, prajna is best translated by tun-~u, which means 'immediate understanding'. Hui-neng did not denigrate degrees of insight, but he saw that failure to see clearly the difference between a high level of discipline, training, concentration and abstraction on the one side, and pure wisdom on the other, leads to confusion and a tenacious delusion. No degree of insight, however sublime, has enlightenment as its next step, any more than infinity is the next member of a numerical series. Therefore enlightenment is sudden. Since it is not relative, the distinctions which might be made between truth, enlightenment, wisdom and insight collapse into one reality, pointed to in a variety of ways. Enlightenment is not the addition of anything previously absent in consciousness or the restoration of anything previously lost. It is the unveiling of one's original nature, eternal and ever present, though obscured by relative consciousness.