The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (《六祖壇經》, hereafter referred as “the Platform Sutra”) is representative of the doctrine of Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan School in China. This post attempts to give a brief account of the teachings of the Platform Sutra in the light of how it addresses the three Gems of Buddhism, namely, the Buddha, the Sangha, and the Dharma.  (Readers of this post interested in knowing more about what the Platform Sutra says are invited to look out for the coming posts on this blog, as the blogger is planning to put on his translation of a couple of chapters of the Platform Sutra that he particularly enjoys reading.)

A. The Buddha in the Platform Sutra

A central tenet of Mahayana Buddhology is the doctrine of the three bodies of the Buddha, namely, Nirmānakaya (the Apparitional Body 化身佛), Sambhogakāya (the Enjoyment Body 報身佛), and Dharmakāya (the Cosmic Body 法身佛). In Chapter 6 of the Platform Sutra, before describing what each of the three bodies of the Buddha meant, Hui Neng addressed the issue of how to meet those three bodies. He said, “… our physical body is like an inn, not where we should take refuge in. We should take refuge in the Trikaya Buddha, which is within our self-nature and is always possessed by everybody. When people are deluded by their own mind, they do not see their inner nature. For that reason they seek the Trikaya Buddha from without, and fail to see that there is the Trikaya Buddha within themselves. Listen. I will make you see that in your self-nature there is the Trikaya Buddha in your own self. This Trikaya Buddha generates from your self-nature, not from without.” (「色身是舍宅,不可言歸。向者三身佛,在自性中,世人總有。為自身迷,不見內性,外覓三身如來,不見自身中有三身佛。汝等聽説。令汝等於自身中,見自性有三身佛。此三身佛,從自性生,不從外得。」)

In this Chapter, Hui Neng was speaking to a large group of scholars and commoners from various southern cities including Guangzhou and Shaozhou when he made the above point (「時,大師見廣韶洎四方士庶,駢集山中說法。」). In other words, he was saying that seeing the Trikaya Buddha was not a privilege restricted to Buddhist monks only, and that a layman could so as well.

In Chapter 2 of the Platform Sutra, Hui Neng spoke to a group of government officials and Confucian scholars on a variety of issues and touched upon the conditions for an ordinary person to become Buddha. He said, “Without being enlightened, even a Buddha is just one of the living beings. But when enlightened, even just by one thought, any living being is a Buddha…. If we know how to see our nature with our own mind, then all of us will attain Buddhahood…. If one fails to achieve enlightenment on one’s own, then one should seek help from well-educated people who understand Dharma of the highest quality. If one can achieve enlightening on one’s own, then one has no need to seek other people’s help. There would be no benefits to stick to the idea that one can become enlightened only with the help of the educated ones…. If we know our self-nature, even just a moment of enlightenment would immediately bring ourselves to where the Buddha is. (「不悟即佛是眾生;一念悟時,眾生是佛。……若識自心見性,皆成佛道。……若自不悟,須覓大知識、解上乘法者。……若自悟者,不假外求。若一向執謂須他善知識方得解決者,無有是處。……若識自性,一悟即至佛地。」)

In other words, the Buddha is no mystery figure far away in some unknown place. The Buddha is within us, and everyone can meet the Buddha as long as there is enlightenment, which can be achieved with one’s own efforts. A layman can see the Buddha in its various body forms, without having to become a monk. There are other places in the Platform Sutra where Hui Neng made similar points, but the above excerpts should be adequate to demonstrate the idea of the Buddha in the Platform Sutra.

B. The Dharma in the Platform Sutra

Hui Neng’s presentation of the Dharma to his followers can be summarized into four strands: 1. sudden enlightening, 2. relationships between no-form, no-thought and no-attachment, 3. relationships between Samadhi and Prajna, and 4. the location of the Pure Land. (The Platform Sutra certainly provides a lot more for people to explore. However, this post will limit its elaborations within these four strands.)

(1) Sudden Enlightening

The insistence on ‘sudden enlightening’ as a means to the attainment of Buddhahood is mentioned in almost any book that touches upon Hui Neng’s Buddhist thoughts. With this fact in mind, elaborations on this topic in the Platform Sutra appear to be relatively sparing, a fact which may suggest that the Platform Sutra does not emphasize ‘sudden enlightening’ as a means to the attainment of Buddhahood as much as people have attributed to it.

In Chapter Two, Hui Neng said, “When hearing this ‘Sudden’ teaching, people of limited faculties are like grass and trees with shallow roots, which would all fall in heavy rains and would not grow. Nevertheless, the Prajna wisdom possessed by this kind of people is no different from that by people of great wisdom…. Among people, there are those who are slow-witted and who are wise. The slow-witted people are the inferior ones, and the wise people are the superior ones. The former ask the latter to teach them, and the latter preach Dharma to the former. If the slow-witted people instantly attain enlightenment and their minds become illuminated, then they are no different from the wise people anymore…. People in future generations who have learned my teachings should make this doctrine of Sudden Enlightenment known to people with similar views and practice and should vow to uphold it in the way they would serve the Buddha. Those who persist in this way throughout their lives will definitely acquire a holy position…. (「小根之人,聞此頓教,猶如草木根性小者,若被大雨,悉皆自倒,不能增長。小根之人,亦復如是。元有般若之智,與大智人更無差别。……人中有愚有智。愚為小人,智為大人。愚者問於智人,智者與愚人说法。愚人忽然悟解心開,即與智人無别。……後代得吾法者,將此頓教法門,於同見同行,發願受持,如事佛故。終身而不退者。定入聖位。」)

In Chapter Three, Hui Neng spoke about the importance of sudden enlightenment as a means to achieving Buddhahood: “If you are enlightened with this sudden Dharma of non-birth, then you shall see the West in an instant. (「若悟無生頓法,見西方只在刹那。」)

In Chapter Four, Hui Neng emphasized that sudden enlightenment is not incompatible with gradual enlightenment, that the two paths both lead to the revelation of one’s original nature: “There is no distinction between ‘sudden’ and ‘gradual’ in orthodox Buddhism. Some humans are quick-witted, and some are slow-witted. A deluded person practises gradual enlightenment, while the enlightened one understands truth in an instant. It makes no difference as long as both get to know their original mind and get to see their original nature. For that reason, we should see that ‘sudden’ and ‘gradual’ are merely formal terms. (「本來正教,無有頓漸。人性自有利頓。迷人漸修,悟人頓契。自識本心,自見本性,即無差别。所以立頓漸之假名。」)

2. Relationships between No-Form, No-Thought and No-Attachment

The ideas of No-Form, No-Thought and No-Attachment (無相, 無念 and 無住) are also important ones in the Platform Sutra. In Chapter Two, Hui Neng ended his lecture with a stanza, which he named ‘No-Form Stanza’, and demanded his audience, whether laity or monks, to recite it in addition to remembering what he said in that lecture, and made the point that merely remembering what he said in the lecture would not be beneficial to them. (「吾有一無相頌,各須誦取。在家出家,但依此修。若不自修,惟記吾言,亦無有益。」) And he did the same thing in Chapter Three, although it was a different stanza. He even made the point that whoever failed to put the teaching in the stanza into practice would not benefit in their path to Buddhahood even if they shave their head and become monks. (「吾與大眾說無相頌,但依此修,常與吾同處無别。若不依此修,剃髮出家,於道何益。」) However, detailed elaborations on the relationships between the three concepts first appear in Chapter Three: “Learned Audience, this gate to Dharma of mine has a long tradition of establishing No-Thought as the objective, No-Form as the basis, and No-Attachment as the root. No-Form means to be in form and at the same time independent of form. No-Thought means to be in thought but at the same time devoid of thought. No-attachment is the original nature of human beings…. (「我此法門,從上以来,先立無念為宗,無相為體,無住為本。無相者,於相而離相。無念者,於念而無念。無住者,人之本性。」)

3. Relationships between Samadhi and Prajna

The Platform Sutra expounds much of this strand in Chapter Four. Although the title of this Chapter is ‘Chapter Four Samadhi and Prajna’ (「定慧第四」), only the first quarter of this Chapter was devoted to elaborating the relationships between Samadhi and Prajna. In this part, Hui Neng said: “Learned audience, this gateway to Dharma of mine sees Samadhi and Prajna as its root. Everyone should not be deluded to consider Samadhi and Prajna as different. Samadhi and Prajna are one entity, not two. Samadhi is the substance of Prajna, and Prajna is the function of Samadhi. When we are in the state of Prajna, then Samadhi is within Prajna. When we are in the state of Samadhi, then Prajna is within Samadhi. If you understand the meaning of this, you understand the principle of Samadhi-Prajna equivalence. Do not say that there is a difference between ‘attain Samadhi to beget Prajna’ and ‘attain Prajna to beget Samadhi’. Those who hold such a view are implying that the dharma has two forms. When one says good things with an evil heart, then there is no point in attaining Samadhi and Prajna, because one is treating Samadhi and Prajna differently. When one has both good words and a good heart, his inner feelings being identical with his outward appearance, then he is treating Samadhi and Prajna equally…. What are Samadhi and Prajna like? They are like a lamp and its light. When there is a lamp, there is light. Without the lamp there would be darkness. The lamp is the substance of light, and light is the function of the lamp. Although they have two names, their substance and root are the same. The same applies to Samadhi and Prajna. (「我此法門,以定慧為本。大眾勿迷言定慧别。定慧一體,不是二。定是慧體,慧是定用。即慧之時定在慧,即定之時慧在定。若識此義,即是定慧等學。諸學道人,莫言先定發慧,先慧發定各别。作此見者,法有二相。口說善語,心中不善,空有定慧,定慧不等。若心口俱善,内外一如,定慧即等。……善知識,定慧猶如何等?猶如燈光,有燈即光,無燈即闇。燈是光之體,光是燈之用。名雖有二,體本同一。此定慧法,亦復如是。」)

4. Location of the Pure Land

With regard to how one can access the Pure Land of the West where allegedly resides Amitabha, the Platform Sutra offers a view radically different from the prevailing view of the time. Nowadays as well as during Hui Neng’s time, many Buddhists believed in the existence of a far-away Pure Land in the West and one could access it after death by continuously reciting Amitabha’s name. It also implies that the Pure Land in the West is a distant place that one cannot access during one’s life time. As far as the Platform Sutra is concerned, however, the Pure Land would be no further away than one’s heart is away from oneself, and that any person can access this Pure Land simply by purifying one’s mind. Chapter Three touches upon this issue: “Deluded people recite Amitabha’s name hoping to be reborn in the Pure Land. Enlightened people, however, purify their own mind. That is why the Buddha said, “The Buddha Land is pure whenever the mind is pure”…. Even though you are an Easterner, you are clear of sins as long as your mind is pure. Even if you are a Westerner, you are erroneous if your mind is impure. When an Easterner commits a sin, he recites the Buddha’s name in order to be reborn in the West. Where can a Westerner ask to be reborn when he commits a sin then? Ordinary and slow-witted people do not see their self-nature and do not know the Pure Land in their own self, and so wish to be born in the East or in the West. But enlightened people place no importance on where they are. That is why the Buddha said, “If your heart bears no ill will, then you are not far from the West. If your heart carries ill will, then it will be difficult for you to be reborn in the West even if you recite the Buddha’s name.” …. Seek to attain Buddhahood by working on your nature, and not on anything from without. He whose self-nature is deluded is an ordinary being, whereas he whose self-nature is enlightened is a Buddha. (「迷人唸佛求生於彼,悟人自淨其心。所以佛言:隨其心淨即佛土淨。使君東方人,但心淨即無罪。雖西方人,心不淨亦有愆。東方人造罪,唸佛求生西方。西方人造罪,唸佛求生何國?凡愚不了自性,不識身中淨土,願东願西;悟人在處一般。所以佛言:隨所住處恒安樂。使君心地但無不善,西方去此不遥;若懷不善之心,唸佛往生難到。……佛向性中作,莫向身外求。自性迷即是眾生,自性覺即是佛。」)

The account above gives an overview of how the Platform Sutra elaborates on the Dharma. It can be seen that it emphasizes on the seeing of one’s self-nature through a series of practices that can be carried out anywhere, not necessarily in a monastery. This leads us to the next section, i.e. Hui Neng’s teachings in relation to the sangha.

C. The Sangha in the Platform Sutra

Issues related to the Sangha could include: regulations and rules for proper behaviour, relationships between the monks and the secular world (including the laity Buddhists and especially the government authorities), monks’ attitude of humility and of acceptance of their positions in the hierarchy of the sangha, etc. It is hard to find direct elaborations on such issues in the Platform Sutra. However, if we see that the most important occupation of the sangha is practising the Buddha’s teachings (修行), then it is possible to find comments on this aspect in the Platform Sutra. In other words, the Platform Sutra still throws some light on how unique it sees the Sangha with respect to the laity and other people in Chinese society at the time.

As far as practising the Buddha’s teachings is concerned, we can see the following remarks made by Hui Neng in Chapter Three of the Platform Sutra: “If one wants to practise the Buddha’s teachings, one can do so at home as well. Not only those in the monastery can do that. If one can do that at home, then he is like an Easterner with a good mind. If one does not practise the Buddha’s teachings when in a monastery, then he is like a Westerner with an evil mind. As long as one’s mind is pure and calm, then one’s self-nature is that of the West. (「若欲修行,在家亦得,不由在寺。在家能行,如東方人心善。在寺不修,如西方人心惡。但心清淨,即是自性西方。」)

When a magistrate asked Hui Neng how he could practise the Buddha’s teachings at home, Hui Neng offered him and his audience a ‘No-Form Stanza’ and advised them to practise the Buddha’s teachings in accordance with what was in the stanza. He further pointed out that it would not help a person’s path to Buddhahood if he did not practise in accordance with what was in the stanza even if the person shaved his hair and become a monk. (「吾與大眾說無相頌,但依此修,常與吾同處無别。若不依此修,剃髮出家,於道何益?」) We can infer from this remark that the sangha does not monopolize the opportunity for attainment of Buddhahood, and that anyone willing to practise the Buddha’s teachings will be able to achieve Buddhahood even if she remains a laity throughout her life, especially if she follows the guidelines Hui Neng offered in the stanzas. That should really be encouraging for sympathizers of Buddhism for whom joining the sangha and leading a monastic life was, for various reasons, not feasible.

(Note: The English translation of the Chinese text of the Platform Sutra is mine, and any mistake in the translation due to misinterpretation of the Chinese original as well as other reasons is my own responsibility.)