The Platform Sutra: Setting the Stage

The Platform Sutra of Hui-neng is quite unlike any other; usually a sutra has as its basis a teaching directly from the Tathagata, i.e., speaking Ex Tathata. Here we have elements, directly at the beginning, of a formalized autobiographical account with subsequent sermons from a human agency in the guise of Hui-neng. His name was actually fashioned by a 8th century Ch’an monk, Shen-hui (670-762). Breaking it down, Hui=bestowing beneficence on sentient beings, and neng=having the capacity to carry out the affairs of the Buddhadharma. In point of fact, it is Shen-hui who carries the most historical weight as to the origins and early development of this sutra. The story behind the iconic-figure Hui-neng is actually a hagiography—meaning a roughly imaginative account of someone bearing the stature of a saint. Hence, it was all a manufactured history, procured for political reasons at the time. This “political component” makes the origins of this sutra all the more fascinating; indeed, the early development of Ch’an Buddhism itself hinged on political catalysts. The classic-framework for this element of intrigue concerns the Northern School of Ch’an vs. the Southern School.

Shen-hui vs. Shen-hsiu

This Northern vs. Southern thing is also another manufactured event. Shen-hsiu advocated his “East Mountain Teachings”, not some de facto “Northern School”. It was Shen-hui who challenged Shen-hsiu and his school early on. Shen-hsiu’s school followed more classical Ch’an approaches and was considered at the time to “be-in” with the ruling political regimes. As this political history continued to unfold, Shen-hui came out on top as the more resourcefully charismatic and dominant one; his famous denunciations of Shen-hsiu from his preachy-political “platform” cemented forever in the annals of Ch’an Buddhism the whole notion of Northern vs Southern Schools. Hence, the Northern schema was labeled as a “gradualist approach” while Shen-hui’s Southern, “Sudden” Branch was considered to be the Prime Factor in Authentic Enlightenment. Early on in the Platform Sutra, Shen-hui’s “school” created the classic scenario wherein Shen-hsiu’s poem about Bodhi becomes outclassed by Hui-neng’s refrain of “no-thing whatsoever clingth or exists” that constituted the True Mind of Bodhi. Truth be told, this is an unfair account and assessment of Shen-hsiu’s notions about enlightenment; he firmly held that Enlightenment in itself is “sudden”, whereas the ongoing “cultivation” of this rare gift from the Tathagatas is gradual. But, as the centuries passed, Shen-hui’s School won the day.


When once asked what the significance behind sitting meditation was, Shen hui responded with the following:

“If I taught people to do these things [sitting], it would be a hindrance to attaining enlightenment. The sitting (tso) I’m talking about means not to give rise to thoughts. The meditation (ch’an) I’m talking about is to see the original nature.” (Yampolsky, the text of the Tun-Huang Platform Sutra, pg. 33).

This passage helps to shed light on Hui-neng’s own downplaying of the value of sitting-meditation. Yet, as I read it, sitting (zazen) in itself is not held to be anathema, but rather the “intent” behind the sitting that is attacked. When the methodology is intended to be exclusively “pure-sitting” in order to induce enlightenment, then the true meditation (Biguan) is lost by placing the full import on sitting on one’s rump vs. the need to turn-about and focusing with one-pointedness of mind away from all formal devices that hinder Mind’s True Awakening (Bodhi). The full effects of this insight within the sutra did not go-by unnoticed, as expressed in a later century by none-other than Dogen himself:

“in his essay Shizen-Biku, Dogen appears to attack the Platform Sutra, saying: “The Sixth Patriarch’s Platform Sutra contains the words seeing the nature, but that text is a fake text; it is not the writing of one to whom the Dharma-treasury was transmitted…It is a text upon which descendants of the Buddhist Patriarch absolutely never rely.” (Nishijima & Cross, 1999. pg:201)

The Lankavatara vs. Diamond Sutra

In my mind there’s one salient outcome from the Northern vs Southern Affair that has led to undue and exclusive dominance of the Diamond Sutra over the Lankavatara Sutra in later and contemporary Ch’an Buddhism as perpetrated by Shen-hui. There’s no doubt that whoever his inspiration was behind the creation of Hui-neng (I suspect that it was some unknown Dharma-teacher who once deeply influenced him), the source indelibly stressed the significance of the Diamond Sutra as the One-Exclusive-Text for the root-foundation and further advancement of Ch’an Buddhism. In light of this, Shen-hui denounced the import of the Lanka. This is clearly revealed early on (will be focusing more on this in depth when the passages themselves are covered) in the Platform Sutra. It’s interesting, however, that later on in the Sutra it becomes very apparent that the reference and import behind “True-Suchness” tells a much different story from Shen-hui’s own assessment; indeed, the actual “text” of the Platform Sutra is comprised of abundantly nuanced redactions, some apparently from latter Ch’an adepts in Shen-hui’s own school who have clearly eclipsed their teacher. The following in-depth insights from Alan Gregory Wonderwheel ( help to further advance this hypothesis:

[from the Platform Sutra] “A thoughtful person thinks of the original nature of True Suchness. True Suchness, as it is, is the essence of thought; thought, as it is, is the function of True Suchness. One’s nature of True Suchness gives rise to thinking; neither the eye, ear, nose, or tongue is able to think. True Suchness is present as nature, therefore it can give rise to thinking. If one is without True Suchness, what is regarded as seeing and hearing, color and sound, as they are at that time are destroyed.”

“The English term “True Suchness” is the translation of the Chinese term 真如 which is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit Bhūtatathatā. Other possible translations could be “Actual Thusness”, “Real Suchness”, “Genuine Thusness,” etc.

The English term “characeristics of things” is the translation of the Chinese term 法相 which is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit dharmalaksana.

“I remembered this section of the Platform Sutra from several translations including Wong Moulam, Charles Luk, and Fung and Fung, and each of course has different nuances and interpretations of the text, so I’ve now done my own translation to zero in on this most important section. As I see it, this section is one of the core expressions of the variations on the central theme of Huineng’s teaching…

“Awareness flows as the function of True Suchness and becomes thinking. As thinking awareness flows into the senses the objectivity and appearance of a world is formed. In meditation, the function of the koan is to direct attention and awareness to “turn around” to the essence of thinking as it arises directly from True Suchness. This turning around is the paravritti referred to in the Lankavatara Sutra.”

“It should be understood that the term for “thinking,” as a technical term, is inclusive of all mental formations including remembrance and thus memory. In this context D.T. Suzuki wrote in his Studies In the Lankavatara Sutra:

In short, the world starts from memory, memory in itself as retained in the Alaya universal is no evil, and when we are removed from the influence of false discrimination the whole Vijnana system woven around the Alaya as sentre experiences a revulsion toward true perception (paravritti). This is the gist of the teaching of the Lankavatara.”(p. 184)

“From this we should understand that Huineng’s teaching about directing awareness to that which gives rise to thinking is exactly the teaching of Bodhidharma and the Lankavatara Sutra and not be under any delusions that Huineng did not accept the teachings of the Lankavatara and in some way preferred the Diamond Cutter Sutra.”


The Impact of Shen-hui

While Shen-hui, for obvious political advantage, sought to thoroughly dismantle his concoction of the purported Northern School, his success was not without its merits. At the time, forces within Shen-hsiu’s School in alliance with the Chinese Throne were attempting to unilaterally crown him as the vaunted Sixth Patriarch. As a brilliant countermeasure, Shen-hui created the legend of Hui-neng thus appointing him as the Sixth Patriarch, perhaps with high-hopes of himself falling into line as the Seventh. There were abuses within Classical Ch’an schools at the time, like bestowing extraordinary spiritual and healing faculties upon the status quo Heads of State, who in reality had very little, or absolutely nothing at all to do with the Buddhadharma. Also, the truly extraordinary Tsung-mi (780-841) was a Dharma-heir of Shen-hui; it is reported that he most likely had some hand in a later edition of the Platform Sutra (perhaps the references dealing with True Suchness were his handiwork; indeed, he far eclipsed his master.) By and large, one can deduce from historical events that Shen-hui was the true man and pivotal driving force behind Hui-neng and the Platform Sutra; one is almost tempted to re-label it as, The Platform Sutra of the Shen-hui School of Sudden Enlightenment.

Assessment of the Historical Significance behind the Sutra

It’s apparent that Shen-hui was the man for his time and especially for Ch’an Buddhism as well. Shen-hsiu’s Classical Ch’an School eventually went the way of the dinosaur after the collapse of those Royal Chinese kingdoms. Ch’an Buddhism later flowered as Zen in Japan and Korea; in our own age Ch’an Buddhism is experiencing a true Renaissance. What matters above all, then and now, is the Spiritual Import of Ch’an Buddhism. Hui-neng’s spiritual-import is alive and well; it has withstood the test of time and the lasting impact on Ch’an as well as on Zen and Tibetan Buddhism is still vibrantly making its presence known. There are parallels in other spiritual traditions, most notably within Christianity. As The Platform Sutra was redacted time and time again, so it went with the earliest extant sources behind the significance of Jesus the Christ. For the gospel accounts, Mark, along with a source known as Q, were the earliest sources; these later became redacted through the Lucan Communities as well as those bearing the Rabbinic-qualities of Matthew’s gospel; later, the Gnostic Johannine Christology made its lasting impact as well. The truth is in the pudding as they say, not necessarily the historicity behind the Right Actions.

Resources utilized for this series

My main resources for this series on the Platform Sutra are as follows:

The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (The Text of the Tun-Huang Manuscript; Philip B. Yampolsky, Columbia University Press, 2012

Readings of the Platform Sutra; edited by Morten Schlutter, Stephen F. Teiser, Columbia University Press, 2012

The Sutra of Hui-neng; Wong Mou-Lam, A F Price, Shambhala Dragon Edition, 1974

The text discovered at Dunhuang is the early surviving manuscript of The Platform Sutra and Yampolsky’s translation is presently considered to be the definitive text; yet it covers primarily the essential foundation and is lacking some later redacted refinements. I will be using his edition as well as the A F Price-Wong Mou-Lam translation; their added subtleties, in particular the nature behind the discourses, are more akin to the Lankavatarian Spirit. Indeed, it puts some more noteworthy meat on the bare-bones of the Dunhuang text.

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