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Chapter VII

Sudden Enlightenment and Gradual Attainment 



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CONTEMPORANEOUS WITH the Patriarch when he was living at Po-lam Monastery was Grand Master Shin-shau who was preaching in Yuk-chuen Monastery of King-nam. At that time the two schools of Hui-neng in the South and of Shin-shau in the North were both flourishing. As the two schools were distinguished from each other by the names, Sudden, and Gradual, some Buddhist scholars were troubled as to which school to follow.

One day the Patriarch addressed his assembly as follows:--

"So far as the Dharma is concerned, there can be only one school. If a distinction is made, it exists in

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the fact that the founder of one school was a Northern man, and the founder of the other was a Southern man. While there is only one system of Dharma, some disciples realise it quicker than others but the reason why the names, 'Sudden' and 'Gradual,' are given is because some disciples are superior to others in their mental dispositions. So far as the Dharma is concerned, the distinction of Sudden and Gradual does not exist."

(Between the two leaders there was mutual respect but) the followers of Shin-shau often criticised the Patriarch. They discredited him by saying that he was illiterate and could not distinguish himself in any respect. Shin-shau, on the other hand, admitted that he was inferior to the Patriarch in one respect, namely, that Hui-neng thoroughly understood the teachings of the Mahayana, even if he had attained that wisdom without the aid of a teacher. "Moreover," he added, "my Master, the Fifth Patriarch, would not have personally transmitted the robe and bowl to him without good cause: I regret that, owing to the patronage of the

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[paragraph continues] Court, which I by no means deserve, I am unable to travel far to receive instruction from him personally. You should go to Tso-kai to consult him. Do not tarry."

One day, Shin-shau said to his disciple, Chi-shing, "You are clever and witty; I wish you would go to Tso-kai and attend the lectures there. Try your best to keep in mind what you hear, so that on your return you may repeat it to me."

Acting on his teacher's instruction, Chi-shing arrived at Tso-kai. Without saying anything about where he came from, he joined the company attending the Patriarch's lectures. When the Patriarch came to address the assembly, he said, "Some one has come here secretly to learn my teaching and later to plagiarise it." Chi-shing at once came forward, made obeisance, and told the Patriarch what his mission was.

"You come from Yuk-chuen Monastery, do you?" said the Patriarch. "Then you must be a spy."

"No, I am not," replied Chi-shing. "Why not?" asked the Patriarch. "If I had not told you, I would have been a spy," said Chi-shing. "Since I have told you who I am, I am no spy."

"Tell me, how does your teacher instruct his disciples?" asked the Patriarch.

"He often tells them to concentrate their minds in a meditation on 'purity'; to keep up the dhyana position constantly, and not to lie down."

Said the Patriarch, "To concentrate the mind on a meditation on 'purity' is an infirmity and is not Dhyana. To restrict oneself to the cross-legged position all the time is logically unprofitable. Listen to this stanza:--

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"A living man sits and does not lie down;
But a dead man lies down and does not sit.
On this physical body of ours, why should we impose the task of sitting crosslegged

*        *        *

Making obeisance a second time, Chi-shing remarked, "Though I have studied Buddhism for nine years under Grand Master Shin-shau, my mind was not awakened for enlightenment, but as soon as you speak to me, my mind is enlightened. As the question of continuous re-birth is an important one, I wish you would take pity on me and give me instruction as to that question."

The Patriarch said, "I understand that your Master gives his disciples instruction as to 'disciplinary rules' (sila), meditation (dhyana), and Wisdom (Prajna). Will you please, tell me how he defines these terms?"

"According to his teaching," replied Chi-shing, "to refrain from all evil action, is Sila; to practise whatever is good, is Prajna; and to purify one's mind, is Dhyana. This is the way he teaches us. May I ask what your system is?"

The Patriarch replied, "If I should tell you that I had a system of Dhyana to transmit to others, I would be deceiving you. What I try to do to my disciples, is to liberate them from their own bondage, by such device as each case requires. To use a name, which after all is nothing but a makeshift, it may be called 'Samadhi.' The way your Master teaches Sila, Dhyana, Prajna, is wonderful; but my way is different."

"How can it be different, Sir, when there is only one form of Sila, Dhyana and Prajna?"

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"The teaching of your Master," replied the Patriarch, "is for the guidance of the general followers of the Mahayana; my teaching is for the more advanced followers. It is because some realise the Dharma quicker and deeper than others, that there is a difference of interpretation. Listen while I explain and see if you think my instruction is the same as his. In expounding the Dharma, I do not deviate from the authority of my intuitive mind. To do otherwise would indicate that the expositor's Mind-essence was obscured, and that he was competent to teach only the phenomenal side of the Dharma (but not its essence). The true teaching of Sila, Dhyana and Prajna, should be based on the principle that the function of all things derives its virtue from its essence. Listen to this stanza:--

"To free the mind from all improprieties is the Sila of Mind-essence;
To free the mind from all perturbations is the Dhyana of Mind-essence.
That which neither increases nor decreases is the 'diamond' of Mind-essence.
'Going' and 'coming' are only phases of Samadhi

Having heard this instruction, Chi-shing felt humiliated and thanked the Patriarch for the instruction.

The Patriarch continued: "The teaching of your Master on Sila, Dhyana and Prajna, is fitted for minds of wise men, it is true, but my teaching is intended for minds of a more advanced type. He who has realised Mind-essence, himself, may dispense with such doctrines as Bodhi, Nirvana, and Knowledge of Emancipation.

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[paragraph continues] It is only those who do not possess a single system of Dhyana, who can formulate all systems of Dhyana; these who understand what this means, may rightly use such terms as Buddhakaya, Bodhi, Nirvana, Knowledge of Emancipation. To those who have realised Mind-essence, it makes no difference whether they formulate all systems of Dhyana, or dispense with all of them. (Because of this non-attachment) they are at liberty to come or to go; they are free from all obstacles and impediments. As circumstances arise, they take appropriate action; they give suitable answers according to the varying temperament of their questioner. They see with a comprehensive glance that all 'Bodies of Transformation' are inseparable from Essence of Mind. They attain liberation, psychic powers, and Samadhi, which enables them to perform the arduous task of universal salvation as easily as if they were only playing. Such are the men who have realised Mind-essence.

*        *        *

"By what principle are we guided in dispensing with all systems of Dhyana?" was Chi-shing's next question.

The Patriarch replied:--"When our Mind-essence is free from improprieties, infatuations and perturbations; when we look inward from each momentary sensation to another, with Prajna; and when we no longer cherish attachment to objects, or to words, or to ideas; then are we forever emancipated. Why should we formulate any system of Dhyana when our goal may be reached no matter whether we turn to the right or to

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the left? Since it is by our own effort that we realise Mind-essence, and since the realisation and practise of Dhyana are both spontaneous and instantaneous, the formulation of any system of Dhyana is unnecessary. All Dharmas are intrinsically Nirvanic, how can there be gradation in them?"

Chi-shing made obeisance and volunteered to be an attendant of the Patriarch, in which capacity he served faithfully.

*        *        *

SINCE THE Two Dhyana Schools, that of Hui-neng in the South and Shin-shau in the North, were flourishing at the same time, in spite of the tolerant spirit shown by both Masters who hardly knew what egotism was, there naturally developed a strong sectarian feeling among the disciples. Calling their own Master, Shin-shau, the Sixth Patriarch on no better authority than their own wishes, the followers of the Northern School were jealous of the rightful owner of that title whose claim was supported by the possession of the insignia, the robe etc., and was generally acknowledged. (In order to get rid of the rightful Patriarch) they sent a lay member of the order whose secular name was Chang Hang-chong, a native of Kiang-si, and who as a young man had been fond of adventure, to get rid of him.

With his psychic power of mind-reading, the Patriarch was able to know of the plot. One evening Chang entered the Patriarch's room intending to carry out his instructions. The Patriarch, after placing ten taels near his side, bent his neck forward and waited the

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blow. Chang made three attempts, but strange to say no wound was made. Then the Patriarch spoke to him, saying,

"A straight sword is not crooked;
A crooked sword is not straight.
I owe you money only, but life I do not owe you

Chang -was taken by surprise and, remorseful and penitent, he asked for mercy and volunteered to join the order at once, but the Patriarch handed him the money and said; "If my followers should learn of it, they would harm you; you must not remain here. Some other time come to see me in disguise and I will take good care of you." As directed, Chang ran away that night and subsequently joined the order under another Master. Upon being fully ordained, he proved himself to be a very diligent monk.

One day recollecting what the Patriarch had said, he made the long journey to see him and to pay him homage. "Why have you waited so long?" said the Patriarch, "I have been expecting you all the time."

Said Chang, "Since that night you so graciously pardoned my crime, I have become a monk and have studied Buddhism diligently. I can only show my gratitude adequately by spreading the Dharma for the deliverance of all sentient beings." Then he asked a question as to the meaning of "eternal and non-eternal," which the Patriarch answered and then said, "You have now thoroughly realised Mind-essence; hereafter you may call yourself, Chi-chai."

Chi-chai made obeisance and departed.


297:1 NOTE By EDITOR. When Hui-neng, who afterward became the Sixth Patriarch, came to Wong-mui to interview the Fifth Patriarch, he was a comparatively uneducated country boy and not yet a member of the order of monks. He did not remain there very long but before be left his insight into the Dharma had been recognised by the Patriarch and he was initiated into the Patriarchate and given the insignia of the robe and begging bowl. While he remained at the Monastery he served as a lay-helper in the granary, hulling rice. At the same time he was there, the Master (or Dean as we would call him) of the Monastery was Shin-shau, a notably learned monk of the Dhyana School. After Hui-neng left Ung-mui he lived in retirement for a number of years, but Shin-shau, in disappointment at not receiving the appointment of Sixth Patriarch, returned to his home in the North and founded his own School which later, under Imperial patronage, came into great prominence. But after the death of Shin-shau, the School steadily lost prestige and later dropped out of p. 298 importance. But the different principles of the two schools, "Sudden Enlightenment- of the Sixth Patriarch's Southern School and "Gradual Attainment" of Shin-shau's Northern School, have continued to divide Buddhism and do so to-day. The principle in dispute is as to whether enlightenment comes as a "gradual attainment" through study of the scriptures and the practice of dhyana, or whether it comes suddenly in some ecstatic samadhi, or, as the Japanese say, in some sudden and convincing and life-enhancing "satori." It is not a question of quickness or slowness in arriving at it: "gradual attainment" may arrive sooner than "sudden enlightenment." It is the question whether enlightenment comes as the culmination of a gradual process of mental growth, or whether it is a sudden "turning" at the seat of consciousness from an habitual reliance on the thinking faculty (a looking outward), to a new use of a higher intuitive faculty (a looking inward).


Next: Chapter VIII. Royal Patronage


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Sutra of the sixth patriarch


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A Buddhist Bible (1st ed.), by Dwight Goddard, Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: Preface at


A Buddhist Bible (1st ed.), by Dwight Goddard, Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: Chapter I at

A Buddhist Bible (1st ed.), by Dwight Goddard, Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: Chapter II at

A Buddhist Bible (1st ed.), by Dwight Goddard, Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: Chapter III at

A Buddhist Bible (1st ed.), by Dwight Goddard, Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: Chapter IV at

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A Buddhist Bible (1st ed.), by Dwight Goddard, Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: Chapter V at

A Buddhist Bible (1st ed.), by Dwight Goddard, Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: Chapter VI at

A Buddhist Bible (1st ed.), by Dwight Goddard, Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: Chapter VII at

A Buddhist Bible (1st ed.), by Dwight Goddard, Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: Chapter VIII at

A Buddhist Bible (1st ed.), by Dwight Goddard, Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: Chapter IX at






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