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Manual Encounter with Enlightenment: A Study of Japanese Ethics

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Very soon word of this new verse spread and eventually the news reached Hongren. The Master came to read it and immediately recognized it as the work of Huineng and that this unknown prodigy was truly enlightened. However, he knew that passing his robe to an uncouth peasant would upset the monastic hierarchy.

Passing on his robe, the Master admonished him to flee for his life, predicting, however, that eventually he would transmit the teachings. With that, Huineng fled south. After some months, Huineng was traced to a mountain by a band of pursuers intent on killing him and stealing the robe. Most of the pursuers turned back after climbing only halfway but one, Huiming a former general reached him on the summit. There, rather than slay the young master, he received the teaching and became enlightened. Thus being recognized as a true Chan Master, Huineng dispatched his new disciple to the north to spread the dharma and convert the populace.

One of the most colorful episodes in Huineng lore concerns his confrontation with a dragon that lived in a pond in front of Baolin temple. The dragon was particularly large and fierce, emerging regularly from the watery depths to create havoc and instill fear in the populace. Fearlessly, the Master taunted the beast for its weakness at only being unable to appear in a large as opposed to smaller form. At once the dragon disappeared only to re-emerge in small form and so show the monk his powers.

Unimpressed, the Master challenged the monster to show its courage by entering his bowl. When it did so, the Master quickly scooped the dragon up, took him into the Buddha Hall, and preached dharma to it until it shed its body and departed. The Platform Sutra gives a confused account that may combine several different versions. I shall give you a verse, the verse of the true-false moving-quiet. All of you recite it, and if you understand the meaning, you will be the same as I. If you practice with it, you will not lose the essence of the teaching.

Other traditions, however, have Huineng dying in deep meditation after finishing his last meal. His passing was marked by all manner of cosmic signs: a strange perfume pervading the temple for days, mysterious bright lights, a miraculous rainbow in the sky etc. The sun and moon ceased to shine and the wind and clouds lost their colors. Several posthumous stories of Huineng attest to the powerful spell he cast on later generations. Some decades after his passing the emperor sent an envoy to ask for his robe and bowl so that the court might pay them homage.

These were sent back with great ceremony a few years later by the succeeding emperor, who purportedly dreamt Huineng asked that they be returned. To this day there is a mummy reputed to be Huineng in the Nanhua monastery located in Caoxi. For centuries it was the focus of intense devotion, and at times was brought to the nearby city of Shanzhou to promote prosperity or ward off plagues and droughts. Certainly the traditional account is replete with symbolism and allusion.

As a boy Huineng is the quintessential simpleton cf. His assignment to hard labor for nine months in seclusion suggests a type of spiritual gestation. Along the way he is aided by various helpers the anonymous man who recited the Diamond Sutra , the nun devoted to the Nirvana Sutra , his first meditation teacher. After various adventures he meets a true mentor, the Wise Old Man Hongren , who recognizes his worth and proceeds to train and test him until he is ready.

Then the Wise Old Man passes on the secret knowledge he will need to face all obstacles. His encounter with the dragon, of course, is the stereotypical battle with the monster cf. George and the Dragon, Beowulf and Grendel through which the Hero saves society from the threat of evil and chaos, while his refusal of imperial status demonstrates his humility and desire to avoid self-glorification.

When assessing the life of Huineng and his place in Chan lore, it is vital to bear in mind the centrality of lineage in Chinese culture. Lineage is a primary marker of group identity and solidarity, as well as social recognition. The concern for lineage is most evident in sections of the Platform Sutra , where Huineng traces the transmission of his teachings back through various masters to Bodhidharma.

Such an impressive pedigree no doubt brought much prestige to those within the Chan line. The importance of lineage continued through the succeeding generations and was carried over when Chan went to Japan. To this day, Chan teachers trace their lineage back to Huineng. Essentially, Huineng has become the Primary Ancestor of the Chan line, receiving the reverence and devotion typical of ancestral cults throughout East Asia.

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Metaphorically speaking, Huineng is Chan, and remains so even today. Such critical analysis of the Platform Sutra and the body of lore surrounding Huineng is not intended to dismiss Chan tradition particularly in regards to the matter of lineage as fraudulent. Rather, it helps us understand the concerns of early Chan and the vital role that a charismatic hero such as Huineng plays in rhetorically establishing a distinctive Chan identity.

For an analogy we can look to the way in which the great Song scholar Zhu Xi constructs a lineage for his school of Neo-Confucianism , with Confucius taking the place of Huineng and Master Zhu serving as the Confucian version of Shenhui. Nonetheless, Huineng does introduce several important ideas and initiates the peculiar style of teaching that comes to be enshrined in later Chan tradition. These teachings tend to overlap and interlock with each other, thereby suggesting the unity- cum -diversity that is one of the hallmarks of Chan thought.

Although a complex notion, essentially this teaching comes down to a positive articulation of basic Buddhist views on emptiness shunyata and the thoroughly interrelated nature of existence. According to tathagata-garbha teachings, although all beings are mired in ignorance and suffering, our true natures are always pure and luminous — defilements are merely adventitious.

Awakening occurs when we pierce through the defilements and allow our original purity to shine forth. The tathagata-garbha is not a substantive essence but an indication of the innate positive tendency towards awakening that is always directly at hand. Together such ideas sketch out a distinctive worldview of dynamic, interactive relationships that unfold in the natural course of things.

Huineng drives this point home in a number of places, often quite explicitly. If you are deluded in your own nature, Buddha is then a sentient being; if you are awakened in your own natures, sentient beings are then Buddhas. By rhetorically taking his stand on this inherent enlightenment, Huineng challenges his audience to understand this truth and realize their original natures where they are at this very moment.

This, too, is prone to be misunderstood. His target is the self-conscious sense of separation that tends to arise out of deliberative thinking and living. Rather, we are truth, immediately and directly. The vision Huineng seeks to impart is one of integrity within our larger context.

It is an evocation of wholeness, interrelatedness and participation rather than separation and distinction. Later, the Patriarch explains their relationship through the analogy of a lamp and its light: just as the lamp and its illuminating are essentially one, so meditation and wisdom are one. To be unstained in all environments is called no-thought. If on the basis of your own thoughts you separate from environment, then, in regard to things, thoughts are not produced. If you stop thinking of the myriad things, and cast aside all thoughts, as soon as one instant of thought is cut off, you will be reborn in another realm.

Rooted in earlier Buddhist and Daoist teachings, it primarily referred to statements of truth a sage made in relationship to specific audiences. Seen slowly, it is the gradual; seen fast it is the sudden [teaching]. Huineng repeatedly emphasizes that Chan life, awakening, is not attained through study or careful deliberation but live action. To achieve Buddhahood one must be Buddha, that which, paradoxically, one always already is.

Such awakened living cannot be adequately explained through words so much as demonstrated and acted upon. In this sense, one learns it directly by conforming to an already established pattern, internalizing it, and then acting this out in any given situation.

An analogy might be learning to play a musical instrument or another activity such as riding a bicycle. Ironically, despite his constant injunctions to wise action, Huineng provides little detail on the specifics of practice. As a result, scholars are unsure what sorts of actual practices were taught in early Chan communities. By no means, of course, is Huineng the inventor of such discourse it is very common in Buddhist and Daoist texts but in the Platform Sutra Huineng uses it with uncanny skill. As such, it warrants close examination. Such a literary form calls for one to shift perspective back and forth.

Like normal conversation, so a dialogue also tends to lead one beyond the immediate horizon, inviting listeners and readers to come along.

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The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras , the primary scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, are all extended dialogues between the Buddha and his disciples, while most of the Analects and the Zhuangzi are dialogues as well. The dialogue is a powerful rhetorical form, dramatic and challenging, one that demands a response from its audience. One of the more common rhetorical forms in Buddhism is paradox, and Huineng certainly makes use of this in his teaching.

The point of a paradox, of course, is that such absurdity is only apparent for the paradox masks a higher truth that we must divine ourselves. As such, paradox is a highly suggestive form of rhetoric, one that presents us with a basic tension, leaving it for us to resolve. Huineng also engages in a great deal of polemics in the Platform Sutra. While a polemical style may have negative connotations it also serves several rhetorical purposes.

To begin, it sets the Master and his audience apart from others, thereby emphasizing that this teaching is different or special. It also underscores the challenging nature of the teaching, and no doubt directly counters various preconceived ideas in the audience. Indeed, it may even put his disciples and audience on the defensive, thus setting them up psychologically for a deeper breakthrough. At times it is highly provocative, even maddening. He does not lay his subjects out neatly so that his audience can absorb what he says with ease but jars his listeners to elicit a reaction from them.


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His words, thus, are inherently unstable and elusive, pouring forth quixotically. As noted above, Huineng himself claims that nothing in his teachings originates with him, much as Confucius does in Analects Clearly, what he iterates in the Platform Sutra derives from earlier works and there are many times when he makes explicit references to other texts, notably the Diamond , Vimalakirti , and Lotus Sutras.

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The influences, however, go far beyond this short list. In addition, at certain points he reveals a basic familiarity with Pure Land doctrine sec. Other scholars have even suggested that portions of the Platform Sutra may have been compiled under the influence of the Yijing.

In the Platform Sutra Huineng proves rather erudite, if not bookish. His familiarity with so much of his Buddhist and Chinese heritage challenges stereotypes of Chan as denigrating and even ignoring written texts. Indeed, scholars of Buddhism often point out the ironic fact that Chan, so often known for its dismissal of texts, has the largest body of written work of any East Asian Buddhist tradition. Furthermore, many great Chan masters for example, Dogen, were brilliant scholars and original thinkers.

This paradoxical aspect of Chan, rather than being the product of centuries of institutionalization as some might claim, seems to have been there from the very beginning. Chan has a reputation for irrationality, allegedly insisting that practitioners cut off thinking entirely. There is some basis for such views, and in Chan history we do find examples where this seems to have been encouraged, as, for example, in the case of the Baotang school of Chan that developed in Sichuan during eighth century.

Huineng and most Chan masters, however, do not advocate a disorderly or irrational lifestyle. Their concern, instead, seems to be on the predominance of ratio deliberative, analytic thinking and the discursive reasoning that severs aspects of reality into discrete bits, usually from an egocentric standpoint. Such an approach cannot be countered with rational, objective arguments because such reasoning is itself a product of such a mode of understanding. By breaking the grip of such processes on humanity, Huineng and his later followers seek to free us for a fuller, more natural life, and hence a truer life.

Is there a place for reason in all this? Not in the ordinary sense. In reality it is not really so simple, but the contrast points to an instable dynamic that lies at the heart of Buddhism and perhaps all spiritual practice. The deluded recommend the gradual method, the enlightened practice the sudden teaching. Yet can one move from delusion to enlightenment, from gradual to sudden? Later Chan thinkers such as Zongmi a. The reputation of Chan as eschewing textual study has long been a source of controversy and great appeal. But does this mean that texts have no place? This would hardly seem to be warranted given what we find in the Platform Sutra.

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Like Sakyamuni before his passing, Huineng promises that that the master will remain with his students in the form of his teachings. There is an interesting parallel here to the view of the Neo-Confucian master Zhu Xi, who, in outlining the regimen of study for his disciples, emphasizes the importance of texts as a coming into the very presence of the Sages themselves.

Encounter with Enlightenment: A Study of Japanese Ethics

The conclusion seems to be that Huineng does not denigrate texts per se, for they were instrumental in his own awakening and play a central role in his sermons. Instead, he and later Chan tradition attacks the tendency to treat them objectively, as material to be mastered rather than dharma gates leading to awakening. Ego, cutting off from full involvement in the world. The words of dharma are Buddha in that they allow us to perceive truth.

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Despite his often-cryptic comments, the Master shares the decidedly practical focus that runs through much of Chinese philosophic culture. Time and time again, Huineng exhorts us to a life of Chan action and practice, a life of Buddhahood, rather than quietistic withdrawal. In fact, Huineng and Chan in general refuses to distinguish between these two concepts, arguing essentially that true knowing is practical action. Since we are already Buddha, we must realize this through Buddha living.

Only then are we awakened to the truth of our original Buddha nature. Perhaps the most obvious analogy, however, can be found in the work of Wang Yangming Wang Shouren, Also contributing to Western thought, in ancient times and then in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance onwards, a tradition of rationalism in various spheres of life, developed by Hellenistic philosophy, Scholasticism, humanism, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Values of Western culture have, throughout history, been derived from political thought, widespread employment of rational argument favouring freethought, assimilation of human rights, the need for equality, and democracy.

Western culture continued to develop with Christianization during the Middle Ages, the reform and modernization triggered by the Renaissance, and with globalization by successive European empires, that spread European ways of life and European educational methods around the world between the 16th and 20th centuries. European culture developed with a complex range of philosophy, medieval scholasticism and mysticism, and Christian and secular humanism.

Rational thinking developed through a long age of change and formation, with the experiments of the Enlightenment, and breakthroughs in the sciences. With its global connection, European culture grew with an all-inclusive urge to adopt, adapt, and ultimately influence other cultural trends around the world. Tendencies that have come to define modern Western societies include the existence of political pluralism, prominent subcultures or countercultures such as New Age movements , and increasing cultural syncretism -- resulting from globalization and human migration. Reference Terms.

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