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AN EXAMINATION OF MEDITATION AND SUDDEN AWAKENING IN

HUI-NENGS ZEN BUDDHISM.

By Greg Arsenault

Hui-neng (638-713C.E.) was the sixth and last patriarch of Ch’an Buddhism. The lineage

of the patriarch is very important in Ch’an and Zen Buddhism. It looks at the important

concept of enlightenment or Satori being passed from teacher to disciple by direct

transmission. In the words of Bhodidharma, (1)

“A special transmission outside the scriptures,

Not founded on words and letters.

By pointing directly to the mind,

It allows us to penetrate the nature of things and attain Buddha-nature.”

It is a wordless transmission, referring also to the transfer of authority from patriarch to

patriarch. Bhodidharma was said to be the 28th patriarch in the line from Buddha and the

first patriarch of Ch’an and Zen Buddhism. Bodhidharma was a monk who left India in

517 C.E. to spread Buddhism in China. He eventually landed at the Shaolin temple in the

northern Chinese kingdom of Wei. He took note of the physical conditions of the monks

and taught them a series of exercises that would become the basis for Shaolin Lohan

boxing. Bodhidharma’s successors would combine elements of Taoist philosophy and the

Buddhist practices to develop Ch’an and Zen. (Chaline 2003)

The story of Hui-neng’s succession is an interesting moment in Ch’an and Zen history.

Hui-neng was an illiterate woodsman who one day heard a recitation of the Diamond
Sutra and experienced a deep spiritual awakening. He wished to learn more and sought a

teacher. He arrived in the north and presented himself to the fifth patriarch, Hung-jen;

though Hung-jen was impressed with the depth of Hui-neng’s understanding he could not

take an illiterate peasant and allow him to become a monk, so he allowed him to work in

the kitchen. When the time arrived for Hung-jen to pick a successor he asked the monks

to summarize their knowledge of Ch’an in a poem. All the monks expected the most

senior monk, Shen-hsiu (667-730C.E.) to be the obvious choice, so only he wrote a

poem. It read. (1)

The body is the tree of enlightenment,

The mind is a clear mirror,

At all times we must polish it

That no dust may sully it.

When Hui-neng heard the poem and recited one of his own in reply.

The mind is not like the tree of enlightenment,

There is no clear mirror.

From the beginning nothing exists.

What then, can the dust sully?

Hung-jen immediately named Hui-neng as his successor and sixth patriarch. This caused

a split between supporters of Shen-hsiu and Hui-neng. Hui-neng returned to the South

and began his own ministry there. This produced the two schools, the Sudden South of

Hui-neng and the Gradual North of Shen-hsiu. The main difference of the schools was in

the way they sought and achieved Satori or enlightenment. As the above names imply the
southern school of Hui-neng advocated a sudden instantaneous enlightenment and the

gradual school of Shen-hsiu pursued the gradual meditative approach.

This paper will examine Hui-neng’s school of Buddhism, which would eventually evolve

into the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. We will look at the concepts of meditation and

the meaning of sudden awakening and how both are attained in practice and theory.

The thoughts on gradual enlightenment through zazen meditation are expressed best by a

story of the third generation leader of Hui-nengs southern school, Ma-tsu Tao-I, who

would become the model for later Zen masters. One day when Ma-tsu was a pupil of

Nan-yueh, (677-744) he decided to practice zazen meditation. (1)

Nan-yueh asked him what he was doing.

“I wish to become a Buddha,” was Ma-tsu’s reply.

Nan-yueh began to rub a tile and a stone together. When Ma-tsu asked him what he was

doing, he replied: “I am making a mirror from this tile.”

Ma-tsu asked, “How can you make a mirror from a tile?”

Nan-yueh replied, “How can you become a Buddha through zazen?”

“Apart from the mind there is no Buddha, apart from the Buddha there is no mind.”

“Enlightenment is not the fruit of years of meditation and study, but the realization of an

instant.” (Chaline 2003) The concepts of knowledge and knowing can help to illustrate

this. Knowledge is something attained through study and learning, its place in time is

both the future and the past, both constructions of the ego, which make knowledge a

construction of the ego. Knowing has its place in the present. The present, this moment,

is the only measure of time that is eternal, it constantly flows and changes but it is always

the present. We are always in the present. The present is where you will find
enlightenment, not in the past and, not in the future. When the Buddha finally collapsed

under the Bhodi tree in defeat, when he finally let go of his desire for enlightenment, he

slept a dreamless sleep and when he awoke to the light of a star in the sky he achieved

enlightenment in that instant. Zen places a lot of emphasis on living in the moment, in

doing everyday activities, seeking to be totally present, to live life to the fullest but to

perfect the no-self. (Chaline 2003)

The story of Lin-chi’s, the founder of Rinzai Zen and a master in the line of Hui-neng,

enlightenment helps to illustrate the extraordinary and colourful style of teaching used by

the Rinzai school of Zen. (1)

The head monk noticed that Lin-chi was lacking in pride and self-interest and sent him to

see the abbot, Huang-po. He told Lin-chi to ask the question, “What is the meaning of

Bhodidharma coming from the west?” On asking his question the abbot hit him on the

head with his stick. Despondent and confused, he sought the advice of another Ch’an

teacher, Ta-yu. When Ta-yu heard the story his reply was “ How kind of Huang-po. He is

only trying to help you.” At these words, Lin-chi experienced a profound awakening,

jumping for joy. On his return to the abbot, who questioned and tested his newly found

understanding Lin-chi hit the abbot and let out a great shout of “Ho”!! The abbot

pretending to be angry accepted Lin-chi as a disciple. Rinzai-shu Zen is known for the

dynamic, sometimes violent style of teaching used in its practice. The blows are used to

shock and bring the student back to the present, back from the distractions of the koan

and the trappings of the ego. This is done in hopes of producing the enlightened state,

which is found in the instant, the present. (Chaline 2003)


The Rinzai (Lin-chi) school of Buddhism uses koans, shouts (Ho, kwatz in Japanese) and

strikes to help disciples achieve instant sudden enlightenment. The koans are paradoxical

questions and statements used to derail rational thought processes. These methods are

designed to bring the student to a mental crisis. At this moment the master can push the

student into the experience of enlightenment. This moment of realization is referred to as

the “Great Death” or the “Great Doubt.”(1) If we look at Buddhist concepts of emptiness

(sunyata, ku, wu,) and formlessness as it relates to the western concept of ego we can see

a relationship to the Great Death or the Great Doubt. The ego like all forms is empty and

impermanent. We as humans are always changing from moment to moment but we cling

to the idea of a permanent immortal soul or personality (ego). In the Heart Sutra the

Buddha Avalokitesharva (Kannon in Japanese) sees that the five conditions or skandas

that constitute all human beings (form, sensation, mental activity, perception and

consciousness) are equally empty and impermanent. Enlightenment can be viewed as the

death of the ego or a doubt of who the self is. The birth of the no-self. (anatman)

We look to the conversation between Bodhidharma and the emperor Wu, (2)

“Who is standing before me?”

The monk replied, “I do not know.”

Without the trappings of an ego, “who are we?”

The Rinzai school of Zen uses meditation but it is in combination with the Koans.

The koan is not a puzzle to be solved but a barrier that the student has to overcome. They

can be questions, phrases or single words. There is no clever answer to a koan and for

some students there is no answer at all. When they sit zazen or do daily activities they use

the koan to focus their thoughts and stop the mind from wandering. The koan has been
compared to the grain of dust that irritates the oyster and makes it create a pearl. It helps

to break down the student’s reliance on knowledge and logical thought. It defies all

metaphorical associations until exhausted, the student grasps the response that will show

his teacher that he or she has realized the truth the koan was designed to teach. The first

koan given most often to beginning students is the one informally known as “Joshu’s

dog” A monk asked Joshu. “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” Joshu exclaimed,

“Mu!”(in Chinese this means nothing or no) (3) The Rinzai-shu use Koans as the bulk of

their training. Rinzai master and reformer Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768) formalized and

devised a method of teaching with koans and divided them into five categories,

(Chaline 2003)

Hosshin koan (ultimate reality)

These are intended to create an awareness of ultimate reality, or Buddha nature.

Kikan koan (support)

Although Buddha nature is undifferentiated, these help give the student the ability to

discern distinction within non-distinction.

Gonsen koan (considering words)

These consist of the difficult sayings of the patriarchs, and create an awareness of their

deep meaning.

Nanto koan (difficult)

These are the most difficult koans to pass through.

Goi koan (five ranks)

The final series of koan, when the other four have been worked out, these test and deepen

individual insight.
Koans are provocative; they encourage the student to explain material that is often

paradoxical and nonsensical. When the student finally admits that rational ways of

thinking are fruitless the koan will start to have an impact.

From Hui-neng through the lineage to Lin-chi (Rinzai) on to the founder of the first

Rinzai-shu monastery in Japan, Eisai (1141-1215) the practices of meditation, the kwatz

or ho and the use of koans have all been refined throughout the generations to better help

achieve enlightenment. (Allen 2002) Rinzai and Zen Buddhism in general are exercises

in the existential. Zen is a spiritual practice grounded in the experiential but at the same

time appealing to the intellectual and philosophical person. The more you chase satori,

The more you desire enlightenment, the more it slips through your fingers, let go of that

desire and it springs up into your view. The realization of the no-mind and the no-self is

the release of all desire. It is the death of the ego and the nature of Buddhahood. I would

like to leave you with some quotes from Zen teachers.

“Sitting peacefully on a cushion day and night seeking to attain Buddhahood, rejecting

life and death in hopes of realizing enlightenment, is all like a monkey grasping at the

moon reflected in the water.” Shoitsu (4)

“Plunge boldly into the beyond, then be free everywhere.” Shoitsu (4)

“The great cause of the Buddhas is not apart from your daily affairs.” Daio (4)

“Our lives are only here for now.” Dogen (4)

“What is coming from nowhere? It means not depending on any practices.

What is going nowhere? It means not grasping any doctrine.

What is detachment from past existence? It means not dwelling on traces of the past,

Detaching from labels, and not intellectualizing anything.


What is detachment from present existence? It means the present mind is unaffected by

The duality of being and nonbeing.

What is detachment from future existence? It means the mind does not grasp the future,

but realizes the naturalness of things.” Fu Shan-hui (4)

References

Allen, Robert (2002). Zen Questions. 4520 Main Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111

MQ Publications Limited

Chaline, Eric (2003). The Book of Zen: The Path to Inner Peace. 250 Wireless Boulevard

Hauppuage, New York, 11788. Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.

Cleary, Thomas (Ed. Trans.). (1999). The Pocket Zen Reader. Horticultural Hall, 300,

Massachusetts avenue. Boston, MA 02115. Shambala Publications Inc.

Fadiman, James, Robert Frager. (1994) Zen and The Buddhist Tradition. (3rd),

Personality and Personal Growth 3rd Edition (541-578) 10 East 53rd street,

New York, NY 10022. HarperCollins College Publishers.

Munenori, Yagyu (2005). Martial Arts: The Book of Family Traditions.

(Thomas Cleary, Trans.). 364 Innovation Drive, North Clarendon, VT.


05759-9436 (Original work published between 1571-1646)

Takuan, Zen Master (2005). The Inscrutable Subtlety of Immovable Wisdom.

(Thomas Cleary, Trans.). 364 Innovation Drive, North Clarendon, VT.

05759-9436 (Original work published between 1573-1645)

Foot note/Endnotes

1. Chaline, Eric (2003). The Book of Zen: The Path to Inner Peace. 250 Wireless

Boulevard, Hauppuage, New York, 11788. Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.

2. Fadiman, James, Robert Frager. (1994) Zen and The Buddhist Tradition. (3rd),

Personality and Personal Growth 3rd Edition (541-578) 10 East 53rd street,

New York, NY 10022. HarperCollins College Publishers.

3. Allen, Robert (2002). Zen Questions. 4520 Main Street, Kansas City, Missouri,

64111. MQ Publications Limited

4. Cleary, Thomas (Ed. Trans.). (1999). The Pocket Zen Reader. Horticultural Hall, 300,

Massachusetts avenue. Boston, MA 02115. Shambala Publications Inc.