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Mummy of Huineng
School Chan Buddhism
Born 638
Guangzhou, China
Died 713 (aged 75)
Senior posting
Title Chan master
6th Chán Patriarch
Predecessor Daman Hongren
Successor Caodong/Sōtō School: Qingyuan Xingsi
Linji/Rinzai School: Nanyue Huairang
Religious career
Teacher Daman Hongren
Students Nanyue Huairang
Qingyuan Xingsi
Nanyang Huizhong
Yongjia Xuanjue
Chinese name
Chinese 惠能
Japanese name
Kanji 惠能
Kana えのう

Huineng (Chinese: 惠能; pinyin: Huìnéng, 638–713) was a Buddhist monk who is one of the most important figures in Chan Buddhism according to standard hagiographies. Huineng has been traditionally viewed as the Sixth and Last Patriarch of Chan Buddhism.

His posthumous name is Dajian (Chinese: ; pinyin: Dàjiàn; Wade–Giles: Ta4-chien4).


Most modern scholars doubt the historicity of traditional biographies and works written about Huineng. The two primary sources for Huineng's life are the preface to the Platform Sutra[1] and the Transmission of the Lamp.[2]

Huineng was born into the Lu family in 638 A.D. in Xinzhou (present-day Xinxing County) in Guangdong province. His father died when he was young and his family was poor. As a consequence, Huineng had no opportunity to learn to read or write and is said to have remained illiterate his entire life.

The Platform Sutra

The Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch[3] is attributed to Huineng. It was constructed over a longer period of time, and contains different layers of writing.[4] It is...

...a wonderful melange of early Chan teachings, a virtual repository of the entire tradition up to the second half of the eighth century. At the heart of the sermon is the same understanding of the Buddha-nature that we have seen in texts attributed to Bodhidharma and Hongren, including the idea that the fundamental Buddha-nature is only made invisible to ordinary humans by their illusions".[5]

Citation of Buddhist Scriptures

The Platform Sūtra cites and explains a wide range of Buddhist scriptures listed here in the order of appearance:[6]

Diamond Sutra

According to the Platform Sutra, one day while delivering firewood to a store, Huineng heard a customer reciting the Diamond Sutra and had an awakening. He immediately inquired about the sutra, and decided to seek out the Fifth Patriarch, Daman Hongren, at his monastery on Huang Mei Mountain. Some later versions of the story have the customer giving him 10 or 100 taels of silver to provide for his aged mother. After travelling for thirty days on foot, he arrived at Huangmei Mountain, where the Fifth Patriarch was presiding.

Introduction to Hongren

The first chapter of the Ming canon version of the Platform Sutra describes the introduction of Huineng to Hongren as follows;

The Patriarch asked me, "Who are you and what do you seek?"
I replied, "Your disciple is a commoner from Xinzhou of Lingnan. I have travelled far to pay homage to you and seek nothing other than Buddhahood."
"So you're from Lingnan, and a barbarian! How can you expect to become a Buddha?" asked the Patriarch.
I replied, "Although people exist as northerners and southerners, in the Buddha-nature there is neither north nor south. A barbarian differs from Your Holiness physically, but what difference is there in our Buddha-nature?[citation needed]

Huineng became a labourer in the monastery, doing chores in the rice mill, chopping wood and pounding rice at the monastery for the next eight months.

Succession of Hongren

The Platform Sutra contains the well-known story of the contest for the succession of Hongren. According to the text, Huineng won this contest, but had to flee the monastery to avoid the rage of the supporters of Shenxiu. The story is not a factual account, but an 8th-century construction, probably by the so-called Oxhead School.[4]

Becoming the Sixth Patriarch

The Sixth Patriarch Cutting the Bamboo, Liang Kai (梁楷, c.1140-1210)

The first chapter of the Platform Sutra tells the well-known apocryphal story of the Dharma-transmission from Hongren to Hui-neng. Hongren asked his students to...

... write me a stanza (gatha) [...] He who understands what the Essence of Mind is will be given the robe (the insignia of the Patriarchate) and the Dharma (the ultimate teaching of the Chan school), and I shall make him the Sixth Patriarch.

Only Shenxiu wrote a poem, anonymously on the wall in the middle of the night.[7] It stated:[8]

身是菩提樹, The body is a Bodhi tree,
心如明鏡臺。 The mind a standing mirror bright.
時時勤拂拭, At all times polish it diligently,
勿使惹塵埃。 And let no dust alight.[citation needed]

After having read this poem aloud to him, Hui-neng asked an officer to write another gatha on the wall for him, next to Shenxiu's, which stated:[9]

菩提本無樹, Bodhi is originally without any tree;
明鏡亦非臺。 The bright mirror is also not a stand.
本來無一物, Originally there is not a single thing —
何處惹塵埃。 Where could any dust be attracted?[citation needed]

Nanhua Temple, where Huineng taught and lived.

Hongren read the stanza, and received Huineng in his abode, where he expounded the Diamond Sutra to him. When he came to the passage, "to use the mind yet be free from any attachment," Huineng came to great awakening. He exclaimed,

How amazing that the self nature is originally pure! How amazing that the self nature is unborn and undying! How amazing that the self nature is inherently complete! How amazing that the self nature neither moves nor stays! How amazing that all dharmas come from this self nature![citation needed]

Hongren then passed the robe and begging bowl as a symbol of the Dharma Seal of Sudden Enlightenment to Huineng.

Interpretation of the verses

According to the traditional interpretation, which is based on Guifeng Zongmi, the fifth-generation successor of Shenhui, the two verses represent respectively the gradual and the sudden approach. According to McRae, this is an incorrect understanding:

[T]he verse attributed to Shenxiu does not in fact refer to gradual or progressive endeavor, but to a constant practice of cleaning the mirror [...] [H]is basic message was that of the constant and perfect teaching, the endless personal manifestation of the bodhisattva ideal.[10]

Huineng's verse does not stand alone, but forms a pair with Shenxiu's verse:

Huineng's verse(s) apply the rhetoric of emptiness to undercut the substantiality of the terms of that formulation. However, the basic meaning of the first proposition still remains".[11]

McRae notes a similarity in reasoning with the Oxhead School, which used a threefold structure of "absolute, relative and middle", or "thesis-antithesis-synthesis".[12] According to McRae, the Platform Sutra itself is the synthesis in this threefold structure, giving a balance between the need of constant practice and the insight into the absolute.[11]


Sudden Enlightenment

Doctrinally the Southern School is associated with the teaching that enlightenment is sudden, while the Northern School is associated with the teaching that enlightenment is gradual. This was a polemical exaggeration, since both schools were derived from the same tradition, and the so-called Southern School incorporated many teachings of the more influential Northern School.[4] Eventually both schools died out, but the influence of Shenhui was so immense that all later Chan schools traced their origin to Huineng, and "sudden enlightenment" became a standard doctrine of Chan.[4]

No-thought and meditation

According to tradition Huineng taught "no-thought", the "pure and unattached mind" which "comes and goes freely and functions fluently without any hindrance".[13] The alleged Northern schools emphasis on quiet contemplation was criticised by Huineng:

When alive, one keeps sitting without lying down.
When dead, one lies without sitting up.
In both cases, a set of stinking bones!
What has it to do with the great lesson of life?[13][lower-alpha 1]

Historical impact

According to modern historiography, Huineng was a marginal and obscure historical figure. Modern scholarship has questioned this hagiography. Historic research reveals that this story was created around the middle of the 8th century, beginning in 731 by Shenhui, a successor to Huineng, to win influence at the Imperial Court. He claimed Huineng to be successor to Hongren, instead of the then publicly recognized successor Shenxiu:[14][4]

It was through the propaganda of Shen-hui (684-758) that Huineng (d. 710) became the also today still towering figure of sixth patriarch of Ch’an/Zen Buddhism, and accepted as the ancestor or founder of all subsequent Ch’an lineages ... using the life of Confucius as a template for its structure, Shen-hui invented a hagiography for the then highly obscure Huineng. At the same time, Shen-hui forged a lineage of patriarchs of Ch’an back to the Buddha using ideas from Indian Buddhism and Chinese ancestor worship.[14]

In 745 Shenhui was invited to take up residence in the Heze temple in Luoyang. In 753 he fell out of grace, and had to leave the capital to go into exile. The most prominent of the successors of his lineage was Guifeng Zongmi[15] According to Zongmi, Shenhui's approach was officially sanctioned in 796, when "an imperial commission determined that the Southern line of Ch'an represented the orthodox transmission and established Shen-hui as the seventh patriarch, placing an inscription to that effect in the Shen-lung temple".[16]


The mummified body of Huineng is kept in Nanhua Temple in Shaoguan (northern Guangdong).[17]

Huineng's body was seen by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci who visited Nanhua Temple in 1589. Ricci told the European readers the story of Huineng (in a somewhat edited form), describing him as akin to a Christian ascetic. Ricci names him Liùzǔ (i.e. 六祖, "The Sixth Patriarch").[18]

See also


  1. It's an irony that his body was mummified after his death, keeping sitting up. See also [1] Justin Ritzinger and Marcus Bingenheimer (2006), Whole-body relics in Chinese Buddhism – Previous Research and Historical Overview and Buddhist mummies


  1. Pine 2006
  2. 释道原, ed. (宋·景德). "卷五·慧能". 景德传灯录. Beijing, China: 北京国学时代文化传播有限公司. Retrieved 25 March 2009. Check date values in: |date= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. McRae 2000.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 McRae 2003.
  5. McRae 2003, p. 65-66.
  6. Wong 1990.
  7. Watts 1962, pp.111-113
  8. McRae, John. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. 2000. p. 31
  9. McRae, John. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. 2000. p. 33
  10. McRae 2003, p. 63-65.
  11. 11.0 11.1 McRae 2003, p. 65.
  12. McRae 2003, p. 60, 65.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Wu 2004, p. 73.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Jorgesen 2005.
  15. Yampolski 2003-A, p. 9.
  16. Gregory 1991, p. 279.
  17. Images of Huineng's temple and Mummy
  18. De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas, Book Three, Chapter 1. Pages 222-224 in the English translation: Louis J. Gallagher (1953). "China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matthew Ricci", Random House, New York, 1953.Latin original text: De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas suscepta ab Societate Jesu


  • Gregory, Peter N. (1991), Sudden Enlightenment Followed by Gradual Cultivation: Tsung-mi's Analysis of mind. In: Peter N. Gregory (editor)(1991), Sudden and Gradual. Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Jorgensen, John (2005), Inventing Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch Hagiography and Biography in Early Ch'an, Leiden: Brill<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • McRae, John (2000), The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. Translated from the Chinese of Zongbao (PDF), Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • McRae, John (2003), Seeing Through Zen (PDF), The University Press Group Ltd<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Pine, Red. The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-Neng. (2006) Counterpoint. ISBN 1-59376-177-5.
  • Watts, Alan W. The Way of Zen (1962) Great Britain: Pelican books. ISBN 0-14-020547-0
  • Price, A.F.; Wong, Mou-lam (1990). The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui-neng. Boston: Shambhala Dragon Editions.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Wu, John C. H. (2004), The Golden Age of Zen: Zen Masters of the T'ang Dynasty, World Wisdom, ISBN 0-941532-44-5<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Yampolski, Philip (2003), Chan. A Historical Sketch. In: Buddhist Spirituality. Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World; edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Kuiken, Cornelis, Jan (2002), The other Neng (PDF), Groningen: PhD Thesis, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Buddhist titles
Preceded by
Daman Hongren
Zen patriarch (Shénhuì lineage) Succeeded by
Sōtō Zen patriarch Succeeded by
Qingyuan Xingsi
Rinzai Zen patriarch Succeeded by
Nanyue Huairang