A Spiritual Affair

Part 1: Autobiography 

(Wong Mou-Lam)

Once, when the Patriarch had arrived at Pao Lin Monastery, Prefect Wei of Shao Chou and other officials went there to ask him to deliver public lectures on Buddhism in the hall of Ta Fan Temple in the City of Canton. In due course, there were assembled in the lecture hall Prefect Wei, government officials and Confucian scholars, about thirty each, and bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, Taoists and laymen to the number of about one thousand. After the Patriarch had taken his seat, the congregation in a body paid him homage and asked him to preach on the fundamental laws of Buddhism. Whereupon, His Holiness delivered the following address: Learned Audience, our Essence of Mind (literally, self-nature) which is the seed or kernel of enlightenment (Bodhi) is pure by nature, and by making use of this mind alone we can reach Buddhahood directly.

The sutra begins with the traditional Six Prerequisites:

Time: Once, or at one time

Location: The Monastery grounds at Pao Lin Mountain

The One Expounding the Dharma: Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch

The Assembly: Officials, scholars, male and female monks, laypeople

Homage paid to the One Expounding the Dharma: Full congregation paying Hui-neng homage; in other sutras, when the Tathagata is about to expound, the assembly circumambulates about him.

Request to Hear the Dharma: In this instance, requesting Hui-neng to preach on the Dharma of the Great Perfection of Wisdom.

I have chosen Wong Mou-Lam’s translation for the opening verses since it conveys the core-teaching of the Sutra: the crucial component of awakening to Pure Mind via the cracking-open of the kernel of enlightenment, the Bodhi-Seed. It is exclusively via this Transcendent Route (Mind-Only) that the direct-path to full Bodhisattvahood, as well as the awakening of the Tathagatakaya Itself is Self-Realized.


The Master stopped speaking and quieted his own mind. Then after a good while he said: “Good friends, listen quietly. My father was originally an official at Fan-yang. He was [later] dismissed from his post and banished as a commoner to Hsin-chou in Ling-nan.

While I was still a child, my father died and my old mother and I, a solitary child, moved to Nan-hai. We suffered extreme poverty and here I sold firewood in the market place. By chance a certain man bought some firewood and then took me with him to the lodging house for officials. He took the firewood and left. Having received my money and turning towards the front gate, I happened to see another man who was reciting the Diamond Sutra. Upon hearing it my mind became clear and I was awakened.

“I asked him: ‘Where do you come from that you have brought this sutra with you?’

“He answered: ‘I have made obeisance to the Fifth Patriarch, Hungjen, at the East Mountain, Feng-mu shan, in Huang-mei hsien in Ch’i-chou. At present there are over a thousand disciples there. While I was there I heard the Master encourage the monks and lay followers, saying that if they recited just the one volume, the Diamond Sutra, they could see into their own natures and with direct apprehension become Buddhas.’

”Hearing what he said, I realized that I was predestined to have heard him. Then I took leave of my mother and went to Feng-mu shan in Huang-mei and made obeisance to the Fifth Patriarch, the priest Hung-jen.

The stage has been set by Shen-hui’s school (see opening blog on this series) portraying Hui-neng as a simple commoner, as opposed to those of more noble births and status, especially those with high privileges within the High Chinese Court, like Shen-hsiu. The Diamond Sutra is first portrayed here as the dominant sutra used in exclusive Ch’an circles, via the medium of the story wherein Hui-neng hears a verse of the Sutra being spoken, the actual verse was “They should give rise to an intention with their minds not dwelling anywhere.” This also sets the stage for how Hui-neng was inspired to meet the Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen. Wong Mou-Lam’s translation heightens this motif even further:

He further told me that His Holiness (Hung-jen) used to encourage the laity as well as the monks to recite this scripture, as by doing so they might realize their own Essence of Mind, and thereby reach Buddhahood directly. It must be due to my good karma in past lives that I heard about this, and that I was given tentaels for the maintenance of my mother by a man who advised me to go to Huang Mei to interview the Fifth Patriarch. After arrangements had been made for her, I left for Huang Mei, which took me less than thirty days to reach.


“The priest Hung-jen asked me: ‘Where are you from that you come to this mountain to make obeisance to me? Just what is it that you are looking for from me?’

“I replied: ‘I am from Ling-nan, a commoner from Hsin-chou. I have come this long distance only to make obeisance to you. I am seeking no particular thing, but only the Buddhadharma.’

“The Master then reproved me, saying: ‘If you’re from Ling-nan then you’re a barbarian. How can you become a Buddha?’

“I replied: ‘Although people from the south and people from the north differ, there is no north and south in Buddha nature. Although my barbarian’s body and your body are not the same, what difference is there in our Buddha nature?’

“The Master wished to continue his discussion with me; however, seeing that there were other people nearby, he said no more. Then he sent me to work with the assembly. Later a lay disciple had me go to the threshing room where I spent over eight months treading the pestle.”

Classic take on Buddha-nature wherein Hui-neng challenges the Fifth Patriarch’s “external assessment” of his stature. Once again, an indirect reference to prejudices inherent at the time concerning that only certain personages from locations (in sync with political favoritism) were worthy (and capable) of discerning one’s inherent Buddha-nature. Hui-neng becomes the symbolic mouthpiece here for the greater realization that one’s Buddha-nature is an internal vs. external-formal/materialistic affair; one can also see parallels here that strike at the heart of exoteric elitism at the expense of esoteric-spiritual genuineness. Hence, it’s A Spiritual Affair. It’s apparent that the Master sensed something genuine in Hui-neng, but to appease the status-quo of the monastery consigns him for a determinate time to the threshing-room floor pounding-out rice. (This is also a reference to “manualism”, wherein the letter of the Monastic Rules is adhered to tooth and nail.)

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