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A Formless Stanza of Hui-neng
On the Teaching of the Sudden Way

After attaining enlightenment as a young man through transmission from the fifth patriarch Hung-jen, Hui-neng was pursued relentlessly by jealous monks who would have killed him to take the robe and bowl handed down to him by Hung-jen. He lived with a party of hunters for fifteen years, until the day when he realized it was time for him to begin teaching. So he went to a temple in the city of Canton (Guangzhou), where he was recognized by his words as the successor of the fifth patriarch.

The next day the Prefect of Canton invited Hui-neng to deliver a public lecture. Government officials and Confucian scholars, about thirty each, and about one thousand monks, Taoists, and laymen assembled to hear him speak. He began with these words:

Learned Audience, our essence of mind, which is the seed or kernel of enlightenment, is pure by nature, and by making use of this mind alone we can reach buddhahood directly. Now let me tell you something about my own life and how I came into possession of the esoteric teaching of the Dhyana school.

During this talk, Hui-neng offered the following "formless stanza," which he encouraged the laity and monks to put into practice:

A master of the Buddhist canons as well as of the teaching of the Dhyana school
May be likened unto the blazing sun sitting high in his meridian tower.
Such a man would teach nothing but the dharma for realizing the essence of mind,
And his object in coming to this world would be to vanquish heretical sects.

We can hardly classify the dharmas into "sudden" and "gradual"
But some men will attain enlightenment much quicker than others.
For example, this system for realizing the essence of mind
Is above the comprehension of the ignorant.

We may explain it in ten thousand ways,
But all those explanations may be traced back to one principle.
To illumine our gloomy tabernacle, which is stained by defilement,
We should constantly set up the light of wisdom.

Erroneous views keep us in defilement
While right views remove us from it,
But when we are in a position to discard both of them
We are then absolutely pure.

Bodhi is immanent in our essence of mind,
An attempt to look for it elsewhere is erroneous.
Within our impure mind the pure one is to be found,
And once our mind is set right, we are free from the three kinds of beclouding [hatred, lust, and illusion].

If we are treading the path of enlightenment
We need not be worried about stumbling blocks.
Provided we keep a constant eye on our own faults
We cannot go astray from the right path.

Since every species of life has its own way of salvation
They will not interfere with or be antagonistic to one another.
But if we leave our own path and seek some other way of salvation
We shall not find it,
And though we plod on till death overtakes us
We shall find only penitence in the end.

If you wish to find the true way
Right action will lead you to it directly;
But if you do not strive for buddhahood
You will grope in the dark and never find it.

He who treads the path in earnest
Sees not the mistakes of the world;
If we find fault with others
We ourselves are also in the wrong.

When other people are in the wrong, we should ignore it,
For it is wrong for us to find fault.
By getting rid of the habit of faultfinding
We cut off a source of defilement.

When neither hatred nor love disturbs our mind
Serenely we sleep.

Those who intend to be the teachers of others
Should themselves be skilled in the various expedients which lead others to enlightenment.
When the disciple is free from all doubts
It indicates that his essence of mind has been found.

The kingdom of buddha is in this world,
Within which enlightenment is to be sought.
To seek enlightenment by separating from this world
Is as absurd as to search for a rabbit's horn.

Right views are called transcendental;
Erroneous views are called worldly.
When all views, right or erroneous, are discarded
Then the essence of bodhi appears.

This stanza is for the Sudden school.
It is also called the Great Ship of Dharma [for sailing across the ocean of existence].
Kalpa after kalpa a man may be under delusion,
But once enlightened it takes him only a moment to attain buddhahood.

Hui-neng concluded by saying: Now, in this Ta-fan temple, I have addressed you on the teaching of the Sudden school. May all sentient beings of the dharmadhatu [manifestation of the Absolute] instantly understand the law and attain buddhahood.


From The Sutra of Hui-neng (also known as The Platform Sutra), translated by AF Price and Wong Mou-lam, which is published in one volume together with The Diamond Sutra. The Sutra of Hui-neng, with Hui-neng's Commentary on the Diamond Sutra, translated by Thomas Cleary, is back in print by Shambhala.

Books: The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng translated by Wong and Price
The Sutra of Hui-neng, Grand Master of Zen: With Hui-neng's Commentary on the Diamond Sutra translated by Thomas Cleary

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