Sunday, September 1, 2013

Putting the Platform Sutra on a Pedestal

“Thus have I heard...” starts virtually every Sutra of the Buddhist Canon. By that very introduction alone, it is apparent that in turn, all Sutras are hearsay, that is, not the transcribed words of the speaker as the words were being spoken a la stenography, but a recounting by a witness at some later date. Except that the word witness implies that the re-teller was present when the words were initially spoken, which in the instance of even the Pali Canon, is not the case. So if the Sutras are purported to be a faithful retelling of Shakyamuni Buddha's actual words and teachings, it is virtually impossible for this to be true. Sutras as such were only recorded in written form at a much later date than when the historical Buddha lived, so over the course of many generations of oral history, even the most ardent of Theravadins would most likely allow that there may have been some alteration in the words, although not necessarily in terms of the teachings themselves.
Post-Pali Canon writings/teachings of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism also tended to start with the phrase, “Thus have I heard, when the Bhagavan was at...” regardless of whether anyone had any notion that these Sutras were also the direct teaching of the Buddha. The Diamond Sutra is at times said to have come from Nagarjuna, other times as having been started in the 1st Century CE and compiled/added to/edited over the course of a few hundred years until it was actually set down in the 4th Century CE. The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, for example, is widely acknowledged to be of Chinese origin of approximately the 8th Century CE, despite it beginning with the phrase, “Thus have I heard...” Different versions of the Prajnaparamita Hrdya Sutra (Heart Sutra) start with or without the traditional “Thus have I heard...” are of various lengths and are worded differently.
This brings in another issue with authenticity, that of translation. The Buddha was not a Pali speaker, but the most “authentic” Buddhist texts were initially written in that language, then translated into Sanskrit, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc. until we have the versions in English that we have now. But in many cases especially in the Prajnaparamita writings, there are multiple Chinese versions, written at various times, with different phrasing and vocabulary, which in turn cause various English-speaking translators to base their original translations upon different sources, resulting in different vocabulary choices of their own, and so on to the point where in the case of the Platform Sutra, the Wong Mou-lam version was changed over time to better reflect a more precise Chinese to English translation, at times to use use phraseology more era-appropriate, and so on. In the current editions of the Platform Sutra, the phrase of translator Wong Mou-Lam, “Learned Audience” is used, where Red Pine's version uses “Good Friends.” Not so different, but a change enough that a difference in respect and familiarity levels could be inferred. So this all elicits the questions whether any of these differences matter and whether any of the differences result in either inaccurate renditions of the Buddha's teachings or explicitly changes any of these teachings.
Bringing in my own biases, my contention is that so long as the Three Dharma Seals are maintained and that the end goal of any “Buddhist” writing is to end suffering, then variations on the theme matter very little. The Buddha himself taught the End of Suffering in many ways and with many different means depending on his audience, their questions, their attachments and so on, so a “What the Buddha Said” attachment is hardly something that the teachings support or even point to. Given the Buddha-Nature inherent in all beings, and the fact that Shakyamuni was not a god handing down the “Law From Which No Variance May Be Made,” there is every opportunity for any of us to further expound upon faithfully and potentially add to, the Buddhist Canon.
Such is the case with “The Platform Sutra,” the only text from China to be accorded Sutra status without any implication that the “author” was the Buddha himself. The typical Sutra structure is adhered to in certain ways, recounting who attended the assemblies, under whose auspices, on what occasion, etc., but nowhere is it implied that the words are any other than Huineng's alone. The transcription is attributed to one of his followers, the monk Fa-Hai, and even this attribution is open to some debate. And of course there are the obligatory various versions from across the centuries, all of which were compiled after-the-fact. Still, it is most notable that a text without even any pretensions of beings the Buddha's words would be referred to as a Sutra.
Why would Huineng (638-713CE) and not Nagarjuna or Bodhidharma be accorded authorship of a Sutra? Part of this may be attributed to the somewhat contentious status of Zen Patriarchs among various followers (both disciples and chronological followers) needing to supply a validation to the teacher and teachings to which they adhered. Hongren is acknowledged as the Fifth Patriarch, but his successor as Sixth Patriarch was somewhat controversial, as Huineng's biography in the Platform Sutra bears out. A wood cutter, a rice-pounder, an illiterate are not the typical resume for someone to be held in high regard, yet Huineng is. Hongren awarded Huineng the Patriarchate over Shenxiu, arguably better equipped in terms of formal education than Huineng to assume of role of such importance. But the various elements of Huineng's biography such as his humble status, his having attained initial enlightenment upon only hearing the Diamond Sutra, the understanding of the Dharma as exemplified in his gatha response to that of Shenxiu's, the very fact that he was not a monk until well after enlightenment and Patriarchy establish the Buddha-Nature of all beings. Was some of this the result of some extra politicking on the part of Fa-Hai and Shenhui, trying perhaps a little too hard to establish Huineng's legitimacy and thereby their own legitimate lineage claims? Perhaps. And if the story be believed, perhaps also Huineng's not passing the robe and bowl of Bodhidharma to a Seventh Patriarch was to avoid future sectarian division within the Ch'an school. And perhaps he intuitively knew that attachment to lineage, “legitimacy,” and so on were hindrances, resulting from conceptual thought and the inevitable dualism that it so often brings.
Huineng obviously has an intuitive understanding of the various Sutras attributed to the Buddha, but he explains them in such a way that the monks and laymen of his day would glean the same understanding of their message. He also speaks in terms that continue, and refine to some extent, Bodhidharma's “transmission outside the texts” teaching that so typifies Zen today. Where Bodhidharma taught that seeing one's True Nature was enlightenment in and of itself without any real reference to a time frame in the instant/sudden or gradual sense, “Sudden Enlightenment” is possibly the most important emphasis of Huineng's teachings.
Huineng himself received his initial enlightenment upon hearing the Diamond Sutra, Hongren taught the students he had to chant that Sutra so that they may gain enlightenment and see their true natures. But in neither case was the chanting/hearing/reading a direct means to enlightenment, it was a tool to aid in that development. Likewise meditation in and of itself was not a means to that end, although in no way did Huineng advocate its abandonment. His audience was often monastic (although not exclusively so), so regular, probably very formal meditation was part of the day-to-day goings-on at the temple. Meditation was a given; the result of it, if any, was where Huineng set himself apart from other Buddhist teachers of the day (as not all teachers were of the Ch'an school), in that one did not practice meditation in order to become a Buddha, one meditated because one already was a buddha. Huineng also taught that the gradual approach that meditation would lead into wisdom was mistaken; Dhyana, Prajna, and Samadhi were all simultaneous manifestations of one's Buddha-Nature, not a linear path to be followed consecutively. These were the actions of an enlightened being, both a means to enlightenment and not-a means to enlightenment. They were enlightenment itself, and not-enlightenment itself. The truest enlightenment was seeing one's True Nature, which depended on nothing, was conditioned by nothing, and ultimately the attainment of nothing that one didn't already have. That the practice and Dharma are non-dualistic, Huineng states:
A disciple should not think that there is a distinction between "Samadhi begets Prajna" and "Prajna begets Samadhi".To hold such an opinion would imply that there are two characteristics in the Dharma.”
The precepts, for example, were a way to cultivate Buddha-Knowledge, but the precepts being followed didn't result in Buddha-Knowledge. Sutra reading and chanting likewise did no harm, unless they were necessarily attached to, or mistakenly believed to ultimately have enlightenment as a result of the chanting or reading. In the chapter on Temperament and Circumstances, Huineng states “The correct way to recite the Sutra is without holding any arbitrary belief; Otherwise it is wrong. He who is above affirmative and negative rides permanently on the [Buddha-Vehicle].” This passage echoes the traditional Buddhist teaching of one turning the wheel of Dharma vs. being turned by the wheel of Dharma. Additionally, in the chapter entitled, “His Final Instructions,” he directly addresses what would become a stereotypical criticism of Zen practice, namely that it is all outside the scriptures, as well as showing the dangers of dualism and attachment to either form or emptiness:
In the functioning of the Essence of Mind and in conversation with others, outwardly we should free ourselves from attachment to objects, and inwardly, we should free ourselves from attachment to the idea of the Void. To believe in the reality of objects or in Nihilism results in fallacious views or intensified ignorance respectively. A bigoted believer in Nihilism blasphemes against the Sutras on the ground that literature (i.e., the Buddhist Scriptures) is unnecessary (for the study of Buddhism). If that were so, then neither would it be right for us to speak, since speech forms the substance of literature. He would also argue that in the direct method (literally, the straight Path) literature is discarded. But does he appreciate that the two words ‘is discarded’ are also literature? Upon hearing others recite the Sutras such a man would criticize the speakers as ‘addicted to scriptural authority’. It is bad enough for him to confine this mistaken notion to himself, but in addition, he blasphemes against the Buddhist scriptures.”
Contrarily, Huineng also promoted the non-traditional. Bhiksu Hsing-ssu (eventually known as Hungchi), purportedly a Dhyana master, came to Huineng because he heard that Huineng had enlightened a great number of people (the fact that Huineng didn't do the enlightening himself was probably lost on Hsing-ssu at the time). Hsing-ssu was such an iconoclast that despite his being a practitioner of the Way, he was unattached even to the Buddha's teachings of the Four Noble Truths. Huineng made him leader of the assembly.
One of Huineng's Dharma heirs is introduced in the “The Sudden School and the Gradual School” chapter, namely the thirteen year-old Shenhui. Shenhui in the case of this translations is called “Sin Hae.” Among his Dharma heirs was Zongmi, of both Ch'an and Huayan schools of Chinese Buddhism. This particular citation is from the website:
and is notable for two reasons: it is yet another translation with different vocabulary and phraseology, and it uses the phrase “Don't know [mind].”
Hui Neng said, "You should not think of good and of bad; cut all thinking and all speech. Right now, what is your Master?''
Sin Hae bowed, saying, "I don't know.''
The Zen Master said, "Keep this 'don't know' mind at all times, and you will understand your Master.''
One day sometime later, Huineng addressed the assembly:
I have an article which has no head, no name nor appellation, no front and no back. Do any of you know it?”
Stepping out from the crowd, Shenhui replied, “It is the source of all Buddhas, and the Buddha–nature of Shenhui.”
I have told you already that it is without name and appellation, and yet you call it ‘Source of Buddhas’ and ‘Buddha–Nature’,” reproved the Patriarch. “Even if you confine yourself in a mat shed for further study, you will be a Dhyana scholar of secondhand knowledge only (i.e., knowledge from books and verbal authority instead of Knowledge obtained intuitively).”
Obviously at this point, Shenhui had yet to realize his True Nature/Essence of Mind in a Sudden of Gradual sense.
What is interesting about the interactions between Huineng and Shenhui is that Shenhui became a major (and combative) proponent of the Sudden School, even to the point of traveling to the capital of Luoyang, where Shenxiu's Northern school enjoyed imperial patronage. Modern critics have stated that the whole notion of lineage and its inherent claims to legitimacy were the result of Shenhui's efforts to promote the Southern “Sudden” School as the true Ch'an, and that the Northern “Gradual” School amounted to nothing more than misguided heresy. Despite the imperial patronage the Northern School enjoyed for a time, eventually the Sudden School proved to be the more resilient and long-lasting. Modern Zen lineages all include not only Bodhidharma but Huineng as well in their lineage charts. This includes modern-day Japanese Soto, which by all accounts would fall into the Gradual approach rather than Sudden.
Shenhui's work at promoting the Sudden School and the Huineng lineage, and indeed the Platform Sutra itself have stood up to the rigors of time where others have faded away. This may in part be due to Shenhui's politicking, but the fact remains that however misguided, dualistic, and even cruel his criticisms of the Gradual School were, the teachings of Huineng as recorded in the Platform Sutra form the basis for much of what modern Zen is today. Shenhui's placing the Platform Sutra on a pedestal has given us a valuable and useful means to practice and spread the Dharma in a practical and down-to-earth way. This practicality may be due in no small part to Huineng's having been a lay practitioner and Master long before he was even ordained as a monk.
One of the major factors of Zen in the West today is that lay practice is not considered inferior to that of monastics. Whereas many Zen clergy in the West take vows as “home-leavers,” the reality of the situation is that many (if not most) of the Western clergy are still actually householders with careers and families, which in the past or in more traditional settings today, would not be the case. For Huineng, the ability to receive and spread the Dharma was not limited to monk or lay practitioner; the Dharma itself would recognize such a dualistic split. Following Bodhidharma's teaching that enlightenment was realizing one's True Nature only (which the translator of the Platform Sutra refers to as the Essence of Mind), and in the Platform Sutra as realizing one's Buddha-Nature, restrictions on who may thus realize enlightenment or upon how this realization must come are non-existent in the Ch'an of Bodhidharma and Huineng, and consequently in the Zen practiced today.
Huineng's Final Instructions set out very clearly and succinctly how his dharma heirs should spread the Dharma, and what the Dharma to be spread actually is:
The Essence of Mind or Tathata (Suchness) is the real Buddha...He who seeks the Buddha (from without) by practicing certain doctrines Knows not where the real Buddha is to be found, he who is able to realize the Truth within his own mind has sown the seed of Buddhahood...I have hereby left to posterity the teaching of the Sudden School for the salvation of all sentient beings who care to practice it. Hear me, ye future disciples! Your time will have been badly wasted if you neglect to put this teaching into practice.”
What is Huineng's legacy? He was in many ways an orthodox Buddhist monk with great respect for the Sutras and the teachings of those who preceded him. He also taught the Middle Path, and that non-attachment and non-dualism also applied to the Sutras and the teachings of those who preceded him. For his teaching to have any value, it had to be put into practice, not just emptily repeated as the words of a Sutra with no understanding. That his followers elevated his teachings to the status of a Sutra, that they indeed “put it on a pedestal” would most likely be met with chagrin by Huineng, based on the words of the Platform Sutra. Huineng preached the Dharma for the benefit of all beings, to relieve them of their suffering, and to give them the opportunity to realize their “Essence of Mind.” Given that, and by virtue of the fact that the teachings have survived for many centuries, I believe he would approve of the result, but most likely castigate his Dharma heirs for their obvious dualism in their method of spreading the Dharma themselves.
A great Bodhisattva need not be elevated, he need only be allowed to do the work of saving all sentient beings. Intuitive understanding of the Dharma is what is important, not whether one can read it, write it, or eloquently preach it; enlightenment's only purpose is to help others reach enlightenment as well. That is Huineng's greatest legacy, and even that is nothing special, and need not be put on a pedestal. The fact that it is nothing special makes it all the more important that it be put into practice and realized.