This edition of The Platform Sutra is another translation and close reading by Bill Porter, b.k.a. Red Pine. Clark Strand turned me onto his Heart Sutra. The Platform Sutra does not purport to be spoken by the Buddha, but rather is spoken by a buddha, Hui-neng, known as the Sixth patriarch of Zen or Chan Buddhism (and also called Huineng and in Japanese, Yeno or Eno.)

The basic narrative that begins it is very well known, and runs something like this:

The 5th Patriarch Hung-jen (or Hongren in a slightly newer anglicization) is growing old and asks his disciples to compose poems to demonstrate their understanding. Shen-hsiu, his best student, writes

The body is a bodhi tree
The mind is like a standing mirror
always try to keep it clean
don’t let it gather dust.

Hung-jen praises this but secretly does not think it shows full understanding. Hui-neng, who has been off somewhere in the monastery milling rice (as Tilopa pounded sesame seeds) and is illiterate, has the poem read to him then dictates his own:

Bodhi doesn’t have any trees
this mirror doesn’t have a stand
our buddha nature is forever pure
where do you get this dust?

Hung-jen sees that Hui-neng has the proper understanding and transmits to him the robe and bowl of the patriarchs. The rest of the sutra is Hui-neng being the 6th Patriarch, lecturing in a style that most readers of classic Zen tales wouldn’t recognize. But the sutra does contain koans in embryo, the kind of exchanges we usually associate with Zen:

“Master, your disciple has come from Yuchuan Temple. At Shen-hsiu’s place, I didn’t experience any realization. But as soon as I heard the Master speak, I grasped my original mind. I hope the Master will be compassionate enough to instruct me.”
Master Hui-neng said, “If that’s where you’re from, you must be a spy.”
Chih-ch’eng said, “I’m not a spy.”
The Sixth Patriarch said, “And why not?”
Chih-ch’eng said, “Before I spoke, I was. But now that I’ve spoken, I’m not.”
The Sixth Patriarch said, “It’s the same with ‘affliction is enlightenment.'”

The problem with the poem story and the robe-and-bowl stuff is that of course it’s not true. (It doesn’t have to be a problem just because it’s not true.) John McRae in “The Story of Early Ch’an” (which you can find in Kenneth Kraft’s Zen: Tradition and Transition) and others have pointed out that this story is only true in an allegorical sense. (About that robe and bowl… no one argues they were exchanged with the 28 Indian patriarchs, and Bodhidharma probably didn’t give them to Hui-ke, and Hui-neng ends the tradition anyway, but still everyone knows about that robe and bowl!…) Shen-hui, not to be confused with Shen-hsiu, spread around Hui-neng’s legend and was very successful in establishing him as the Sixth Patriarch through the Platform Sutra and polemical talks and writings. Shen-hsiu, in our time reduced to a boring bad guy, was in his own time a very dynamic and influential figure, while Hui-neng was ignored and obscure. (Biographies in The Transmission of the Lamp of the students that followed them bear more accurate witness to their respective influence.)

Red Pine addresses all this but treats it very lightly, which is proper. This is a text for practitioners, not scholars. He also indulges in use of the term Hinayana and shows Zen chauvanism in other ways, but if you’re a Zennie and/or interested in looking closely at a very important sutra, you may not mind. I prefer his Heart Sutra (and, I imagine, his Diamond Sutra) but that may speak more to my own prejudices than to any quality of his work. Red Pine’s Platform Sutra is published by Counterpoint.