The Platform Sutra, a classic of Zen Buddhism attributed to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, tells the story of the aftermath of the religion’s split into two schools: Northern and Southern. In this selection, the Northern Master Shenxiu sends a spy to gather teachings from the Southern Master Huineng. But the reconnaissance does not go as planned.—Ed.
While the Patriarch [Huineng] was living at Jewel-Wood Monastery in Caoxi, the Venerable Master Shenxiu resided at Jade Spring Monastery in Jingnan. Both teachers’ schools flourished in their time, and everyone called them “Southern Neng” and “Northern Xiu.” So it was that there came a division into two schools, “northern” and “southern,” “direct” and “gradual.” Their students, however, did not understand the meaning of this distinction.
The Master [Shenxiu] said to the assembly,
The dharma is originally a single school; it is people who think ‘north’ and ‘south.’ The dharma is of one kind; but the understanding of it may be ‘direct’ or ‘gradual.’ So why the terms ‘direct’ and ‘gradual’? Dharma itself is neither ‘direct’ nor ‘gradual.’ Rather it is people who are sharp or dull. Hence the terms ‘direct’ and ‘gradual.’
The followers of Shenxiu, nevertheless, often criticized the southern Patriarch for being illiterate, and questioned his achievement. But Shenxiu himself said, “He has reached awakening without the benefit of a teacher and deeply understands the supreme vehicle; I am not his equal. Furthermore, my master, the Fifth Patriarch, personally bequeathed the robe and teaching to him—how could that have been in error? I regret that I cannot make the long journey to be close to him, yet I receive state patronage without deserving it. You should not linger here; go to Caoxi and resolve your doubts.”
One day Shenxiu instructed his close disciple, Zhicheng, “You are bright and very knowledgeable; go to Caoxi for me and listen to his teaching. Remember and record everything you hear, so you can tell me all of it when you come back.”
As ordered, Zhicheng went to Caoxi; there he joined the assembly without saying where he had come from. At that time, the Patriarch [Huineng] announced to the assembly, “Today there is a thief hiding among you who has come to steal the teaching.” Zhicheng immediately stepped forward, bowed, and told the whole story behind his mission. The Master said, “You are from Jade Spring; you must be a spy.” “Not so,” he replied. The Master asked, “How can you not be?” He answered, “Before I confessed, I was; but now that I have admitted to it, I am not.”
The Master asked, “How does your master [Shenxiu] instruct his followers?” Zhicheng replied, “He always instructs his students to stop the mind and contemplate stillness; and to sit upright at all times without lying down.”
The Master said:
To stop the mind and contemplate stillness is a sickness, not Chan meditation. Constant sitting restricts the body—how could it help towards discovering truth? Listen to my verse:
You can sit without lying down from the moment you’re born,
But when you die, you’ll lie down, never again to sit.
How could you build a solid practice
On a set of stinking bones?!
Zhicheng bowed again and said, “This disciple studied the Way for nine years with Master Shenxiu without realizing any awakening. Now, hearing a single explanation from the High Master [Huineng], I am reunited with my original mind. For me, the matter of birth and death is a serious concern. Would the Master please be compassionate and teach me more?”
The Master said, “I have heard that your master teaches students about morality, concentration, and wisdom. Please tell me, how does he say to practice them?” Zhicheng replied, “Great Master, Shenxiu says, ‘doing no evil’ is morality; that ‘doing good’ is wisdom; and, that purifying one’s own mind is concentration. This is how he explains them. I wonder, High Master, what teaching do you give?”
The Master said, “If l said I had a teaching to give others, I would be deceiving you. Depending on the situation, I merely use expedients to untie people’s bonds, and provisionally call it ‘samadhi.’ Your master’s explanations of morality, concentration, and wisdom are truly wonderful; I see morality, concentration, and wisdom somewhat differently.” Zhicheng 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 are meant for Great Vehicle practitioners; my morality, concentration, and wisdom are meant for those of the Supreme Vehicle. Awakening and understanding are not the same; seeing may come slowly or immediately. Listen to my explanation, and see if it’s the same as his.
My teaching never departs from the essential nature; to depart from the essential nature in explaining the dharma is teaching superficially, and this only leads to confusion. You should realize that the ten thousand dharmas all flow from our own essential nature. This is the true teaching of morality, concentration, and wisdom. Listen to my verse:
Mind-ground free from error: essential nature’s morality.
Mind-ground free from delusion: essential nature’s wisdom.
Mind-ground undisturbed: essential nature’s concentration.
It never increases or decreases: indestructible as vajra.
The body comes and goes, [yet] you’re rooted in samadhi.
Hearing this verse, Zhicheng apologized, and in gratitude offered a verse of his own:
The five heaps, an illusory body—
And how could an illusion be ultimate?
Even wanting to reach the ‘truly so’
Means the method is not yet pure.
The Master approved, and further said to Zhicheng:
Your master’s morality, concentration, and wisdom exhorts those with lesser capacities for wisdom; my morality, concentration, and wisdom motivates those with a greater capacity for wisdom. If you awaken to your essential nature, you do not set up [ideas of] ‘bodhi’ or ‘nirvana,’ or ‘liberated knowing and seeing.’ Only when you understand there is nothing to attain, can you set up all the myriad teachings. If you understand this, you are ‘embodying the Buddha’; it is also called ‘bodhi’ and ‘nirvana,’ and ‘liberated knowing and seeing.’ Those who see their essential nature can set these up or not as they choose. They can come and go freely, unhindered and spontaneous. Everything they do and all their words are appropriate, timely, and according to need. Wherever and however they appear, they never depart from the inherent nature. They are just ‘realizing the spiritual powers of self-mastery,’ and ‘the samadhi of playfulness.’ This is called ‘seeing the nature.’
Zhicheng further asked the Master, ‘What is the meaning of ‘not setting up’?”
The Master replied:
When your essential nature is free from error, unobstructed, undisturbed, and unconfused, when prajna [wisdom] oversees and illuminates your every thought, and you are far removed from the superficial appearances of things, independent and free absolutely everywhere and anywhere—what is there to ‘set up?’
Awaken by yourself to your own essential nature; awaken directly by cultivating directly. There are no gradual stages; nor anything to set up. All things are ‘still and empty’—how could they be arranged in a sequence?
Zhicheng bowed, and vowed to attend on the Master morning and night without fail.
The Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra with commentary by Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua, edited by Martin Verhoeven and Rev. Heng Sure. Published with permission of the Buddhist Text Translation Society.
The Buddhist Text Translation Society (BTTS) is dedicated to making the principles of the buddhadharma available to Western readers in a form that can be directly applied to practice. Since 1972, the Society has been publishing English translations of sutras, instructional handbooks on meditation and moral conduct, and biographies.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.