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Significance of the Platform Sūtra

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The Platform Sūtra presents the life and work of Hui-neng, the controversial sixth Patriarch of Zen. It is based on his understanding of spiritual and practical life. However, due to lack of historical evidence, some modern scholars seriously doubt the authenticity of the claim that Hui-neng was the author of this text. Evidences suggest that the status of the text had changed over
the years. It had transformed from that of an esoteric document into a popular religious treatise. The content of this Sūtra is centered on non-dualistic teachings of wisdom.

Key words:

Sūtra, Hui-neng, Patriarch, Non-duality

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Introduction The Platform Sūtra, regarded as one of the influential texts in the Ch'an / Seon / Zen schools, is centered on the discourse given to the sixth Ch'an patriarch Hui-neng at the Shao zhou temple. Due to lack of historical evidence, modern scholars seriously doubt the authenticity of the claim that Hui-neng was the author of this text.1,2 The most important topics of the discourse of the Platform Sūtra are sudden enlightenment, the direct perception of one's true nature and the unity in essence of non-duality on śīla, samādhi and prajñā. This important and popular sūtra of the Southern school of Chinese Buddhism was later translated into English by Philip Yampolsky.1,2,3

Background History of textual Transmission of Platform Sūtra The T'an ching or Platform Sūtra had gained immense popularity among the Ch'an Buddhists of East Asia for many centuries. Regarded as the teaching of the Sixth Patriarch of the Southern School of Ch'an, it has achieved the highest status possible for a Buddhist text by being awarded the title of ching (sūtra). This places it on equal grounds with the original discourses of the Buddha.1,2,3

For the past 500 years the T'an ching has been a version of the text included in the Ming dynasty edition of the Buddhist canon (1440).2,3 This version represents the

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work of a Yuan dynasty monk named Tsung-pao, who produced a new edition of the text in 1291 on the basis of three different manuscripts. In 1900 another version of the text was discovered in the famous Buddhist cave library at Tun-huang. 2,3 The exact date of this manuscript is unknown but it is considered by scholars to be a work of the last years of the T'ang dynasty. Thus, it is the earliest extant copy of the T'an ching, dating back perhaps to within a century-and-a-half of the death of the Sixth Patriarch (713). The Tun-huang manuscript, however, is by no means a perfect copy of the original. It contains a number of obvious corruptions of various sorts. Consequently, the text cannot be read without considerable editing.2,3,4

Fortunately, two other early copies related to the Tun-huang manuscript were discovered in Japan in the 1930s. One is known as the Koshoji text, a Northern Sung printed copy probably derived from an edition done in 967. The other, known as the Daijoji text, is a handwritten manuscript traditionally attributed to the Japanese Soto Zen patriarch Dogen (1200-1253). The exact historical relationship between these two is not clear. However, they are quite similar and appear to represent a textual tradition not too different from the Tun-huang text.2,5,6

A comparison of the text discovered at Tun-huang with the version published in the Ming canon reveals the extent to which the T'an ching Ch’anged over the course of more than four centuries. The Ming canon edition is almost twice the length of the earlier work. There was addition of much new material and omission of certain sections. There was also considerable rearrangement in the order of the content and this refines and elaborates the text. These changes do not necessarily originate in the Ming canon text itself; some can be traced to earlier versions. 3,4 Moreover, the

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possibility remains open that there were other versions of the T'an ching in circulation even at the time when the Tun-huang text was copied. This means that the precise historical relationship between the earliest and latest versions of the work now known to us cannot be determined exactly. However, the discovery of the other early texts such as the Koshoji and Daijoji has made it clear that the Ming canon edition represents the final stage in a long and gradual process of textual development.2,3,5,6

Despite their many differences, the Tun-huang and Ming canon versions do not seriously in conflict regarding the basic doctrinal content. However, the differences are also significant in a way that they reflect the changing attitudes towards the text and its messages. Evidences suggest that the status of the text had changed over the years. It had transformed from that of an esoteric document, designed to be handed down from master to disciple, into a popular religious treatise. It now included the true understanding of the doctrine which was made available to all those who were interested.2,3,4 Ambiguity on the textual origin of Platform Sūtra Scholars often doubt that the T'an ching existed in some form prior to the version discovered at Tun-huang. A great deal of research work has been done in an attempt to determine the nature and authorship of the earliest form of the text. Three major theories have been advanced on this issue. The first theory was advocated by the renowned Japanese scholar Ui Hakuju, who believed that the earliest T'an ching was made up of Hui-neng's sermon, including the biographical sections, as recorded by his disciple Fa-hai. To this was added material from the latter half of the Sixth Patriarch's life, probably by Fa-hai himself. Subsequently, the

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book fell into the hands of the Shen-hui school, was reworked, and a text similar to the Tun-huang versions resulted. This theory was also supported by the late D. T. Suzuki and many other scholars in Japan.5,6

A second theory on the original text was advanced by the famous Chinese scholar Hu Shih, who had devoted much of his career to the study of Shen-hui. He came to the conclusion that it was Shen-hui, who had almost singlehandedly created the Southern school of Ch'an. Thus, the similarities between Shen-hui's teachings and those of the T'an ching could easily be explained. This theory is also supported and favored by the Ch'an historian Sekiguchi Shindai in Japan even today.2,3

However, the most recent and boldest theory was proposed by Yanagida Seizan of Hanazono University. A careful comparison of the Tun-huang text with the sayings of Shen-hui clearly revealed that, though much of these two teachings were identical, but certain doctrinal conflicts were also evident. On the basis of these evidences and arguments put forward by the earlier scholars, Yanagida constructed a new theory which states that the earliest version of the T'an ching probably taught the Formless Precepts and the doctrine of the prajñā -samādhi, as well as the thirtythree patriarchs. All of these could be traced to the Niu-t'ou school. 2,5 Sometime around the death of Shen-hui (762) the work was taken up by his school and attributed to Hui-neng. Hence, Fa-hai was made Hui-neng's disciple, and the biography of the Sixth Patriarch of the Southern school was added, along with the material from Shen-hui's teachings. The Tun-huang version was then attaining its final form sometime during the last two decades of the eighth century as a result of a continuous process of assimilation and borrowing.2,5,6,7

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Though we cannot verify which of these theories is correct, but because of their different interpretations of the background of the T'an ching, these are of considerable interest even today. Hu Shih was the first to introduce the teachings of Shen-hui to modern scholarship. Thus, the early history of Ch'an Buddhism has been rewritten, with Shen-hui at the very center as the true founder of the school of sudden enlightenment and the creator of the legend of the Sixth Patriarch. Now, we find that Hui-neng himself has slipped into the background, becoming a barely perceptible figure about whom virtually nothing is known, either of his life or his teachings.2,5,7

Conclusion The main drawback of all translational activities from the original text was the lack of evaluation and analysis of the content and message of the T'an ching. None of the translators had provided any significant overview of the thought content or ever made any attempt towards comparison and analysis.2,3 If a detailed and careful study is conducted by integrating both the primary sources and the researches by early Japanese scholars,2,3 then we can bring the Ch'an and Zen traditions into proper perspective and undertake serious in-depth studies on their core teachings.

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References 1. Yampolsky, P. 1967. The Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch. New York: Columbia University Press. 2. Bielefeldt, C., Lancaster, L. 1975. T'an Ching (Platform Scripture). Philosophy East and West 25(2): 197- 212. 3. Garcia, D.D. 1997. The "Lankavatara" and "Platform Sutras": Contraries apart and polarities together. Manoa: University of Hawai'I Press. 4. Hua, H. 1971. The Sixth Patriarch's Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra. San Francisco: Sine-American Buddhist Association. 5. Suzuki, D.T. 1951. Zen shiso shi kenkyuu [ah], II. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten. 6. App, Urs. 1993. Rokuso dangyō ichiji sakuin / Concordance to the Platform Sutra / by Urs App. Kyōto-shi: Hanazono Daigaku Kokusai Zengaku Kenkyūjo. 7. Lam, Harry C.S. 2008. The Zen in modern cosmology. Hackensack, N.J.: World Scientific.

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