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Religion Library: Zen


Written by: Julia Hardy

A very popular toy in Japan is The Daruma doll. It has no legs and a round base, and always rights itself when one tries to tip it over. The Daruma doll signifies good luck, safety, and prosperity. Paintings of Daruma by Zen painters are also well-known; in these he always has an intimidating appearance—prominent eyes with no lids, a scraggly beard and eyebrows, a huge bald head, and a fierce expression.

As is the case with Bodhidharma, little is known about the historical person Huineng. Even Shenhui, who was responsible for the argument that Huineng was Hongren's one legitimate successor, was unable to provide any biographical details for Huineng's epitaph. The few known facts are these: Huineng's name appeared on a list of the most important students of Hongren, the fifth patriarch of Chan. After his death, his family home in the far south of China was donated to the sangha for use as a temple.

Again, as with Bodhidharma, it is the legend of Huineng that is more important to the tradition. Whereas the legend of Bodhidharma developed over centuries, most of the legend of Huineng can be found in the Platform Sutra, which contains an account of his life and ascent to the position of sixth patriarch. The earliest known version of the sutra dates to around 780, approximately seventy years after his death. The Platform Sutra established Huineng's position as patriarch and also synthesized various teachings of the different groups that were precursors to Chan into a coherent Chan tradition.

Several core Chan ideas are expressed in the Platform Sutra's story of Huineng. One is that enlightenment can be transmitted directly, from one person to another, in an instant. The long and complex textual tradition of Buddhism was judged inferior to this "special transmission" of enlightenment. Another core idea is that anyone can become enlightened, regardless of education or training. Subsequently, Chan would continue to develop these ideas and express them in a variety of ways.

Study Questions:
1.     Who was Bodhidharma?
2.     Why is the fictive history of Bodhidharma more valuable to Zen practitioners than a scholarly biography?
3.     How did Bodhidharma's meditation practices influence Zen?
4.     What does the Platform Sutra offer to our understanding of Zen's origins?


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