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Religion Library: Zen

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Julia Hardy

Everyone admired this verse, but when the patriarch saw it he erased it immediately to protect Huineng from jealous pupils.

Later that night, he sent for Huineng and taught him about the essence of mind, and Huineng was instantly enlightened. Then the fifth patriarch told Huineng that he was his official spiritual heir, and gave him his robe and begging bowl, which signified Huineng's status as the sixth patriarch. The fifth patriarch then told Huineng to leave immediately, as some might wish to harm him for "stealing" the spot they felt rightfully belonged to Shenxiu.

After two months of travel, Huineng realized that several hundred men were following him to take the succession away from him. When the first pursuer had almost caught up with him, Huineng threw the robe and begging bowl down on a rock, saying that they were only symbols anyway, but the man was unable to lift them. At this, he said to Huineng, "I came for the dharma, not the robe." Huineng taught him, and he was instantly enlightened.

Afterward, Huineng hid for many years before deciding to go to a temple in Guangdong. After the monks there questioned him on the dharma, they quickly realized that he must be the heir to the fifth patriarch. At this temple he launched his work as a teacher, and he continued to teach for the rest of his life. Thereafter, whenever he taught, all who heard him immediately became enlightened.

When it came time for Huineng to appoint a successor, he declared that all of his students were his successors, and that the tradition of passing the robe would be discontinued. This did not, in fact, occur, and the practice of naming successors within various lineages of Chan has continued throughout its history. The practice of confirming that succession by passing the robe and begging bowl, or giving the successor a painting of the master, or a certificate of succession has also persisted. There are however, many different schools with different lineages within Chan and Zen, and also cases in which more than one successor has been named.

The idea of "dharma transmission," or direct passing of enlightenment from teacher to student, is an enduring legacy of the story. A teacher may have a number of "dharma heirs," only one of whom is normally the official successor for purposes of administering a monastic complex.

Other elements of the story that have been central to Chan and Zen include instantaneous enlightenment; that no special status or abilities are required to become enlightened; and that all monks should work, and work can be a means to enlightenment. Finally, the debate has persisted between those who argue that there is a special essence to be revealed through "polishing" the mind versus those who argue that there is no such essence distinct from the rest of existence.

Study Questions:
1.     What does the Platform Sutra reveal about Zen's succession?
2.     How did Huineng become the sixth patriarch?
3.     Why did Huineng want to discontinue the tradition of the robe and bowl?


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