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As human beings, everyone must find meaning in their lives. This applies even for ordained monks. For us ordained monks, the meaning of our lives is ‘seeing the nature and achieving buddhahood.’ For some, this aspiration is merely a desire, but for others it is their firm belief, which they cultivate wholeheartedly. Our purpose now in studying the Platform Sutra is to re-affirm once again our faith in ‘seeing the nature and achieving buddhahood.’ I begin this lecture with the sincere wish that it may offer at least a little help to you in fulfilling your aspiration of ‘seeing the nature and achieving buddhahood.’
There is a clear distinction between the Buddha’s views of himself and the world, which derive from his enlightenment, and our ordinary views on ourselves and the world. In other words, there are vast discrepancies in the way the Buddha perceives this world with his wisdom-eye after having attained the Way and the way we see things with our physical eyes. We must clearly admit this fact.
‘Leaving home’ (ch’ulga, 출가, 出家) means ordaining and committing oneself to learning the Buddha’s way of seeing, which perceives clearly the world and himself with his wisdom-eye. How wonderful it would be if we could experience his vision all at once and become like the Buddha himself! Since that is so difficult, though, let us learn from the Platform Sutra what the Buddha’s correct perceptions are regarding himself and the world, which derive from his attainment of the Way, as well as the views that we need to adopt so that we may perceive ourselves and our world correctly and experience them through our practice. The Buddha’s correct view of himself may be called his ‘views on human life’ and his view of the world as his ‘views on the world.’ We must first learn the Buddha’s view on human life and the world. Hence, cultivation practice means to exert ourselves in cultivating the vision of the Buddha.
There are many types of meditation techniques beyond the Son practice that involves keeping one’s attention on a hwadu (“keyword”). There must be many of you who are reading the Platform Sutra who are not Son meditation monks, but who are instead abbots or who are actively involved in monastic service duties. What is important to understand is that, regardless of which sector one is actively involved in or which duty one performs, one’s activities must be related to one’s cultivation practice in order for them to be helpful to both oneself and others.
I plan to talk candidly about these things while we study the Platform Sutra. After ordaining and living the life of a monk, I am sure there are some of you who feel that your practice has not been going particularly well and who are harboring many doubts. As we study the Platform Sutra together, I hope that even those monks will gain a sense of reward and pride in their practice and their activities. I also hope that you will understand the value and meaning of your own duties, so that you may truly gain the confidence to say, “It is great that I shaved my head and became a monk!” I therefore begin my lecture with the sincere wish that I may be able to offer you at least a modicum of support, so that you will be able to practice this vocation with much confidence.
You may find the language of the Platform Sutra to be relatively straightforward as compared to such discourse-records as the Essentials of Chan or the Letters of Dahui. To be sure, there are some difficult sections in the Platform Sutra, but on the whole it is relatively simple. It is true that Chan masters of the later Chan school often used difficult words; but in earlier periods the language was quite simple. Though one can find some difficult statements that are beyond the ken (격외구, 格外句) in the works of such successors of the Six Patriarch as the Chan masters Mazu Daoyi and Baizhang Huihai, they still offer practical explanations with rich detail, so their language is much simpler than that of their later counterparts.
The Platform Sutra, too, is comparatively easier than the discourse records found in later Chan literature. In the sutra, one can find stories of those who attained awakening right then and there while having an audience with the Six Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. As the text states, “Through his teaching, he had a sudden awakening.” Hence, even if my lectures are inadequate, you may still be able to attain a great awakening while listening to my lecture if you maintain the right attitude. If you can practice with such a state of mind, then I am sure these lectures will be a great help to you.
Of the five different recensions of the Platform Sutra that have been transmitted down to today, the Dunhuang recension is the oldest. I have decided to base my lecture on the Dunhuang version, which, because of its antiquity, has the most chance of being authentic. The rest of the versions are later copies and thus may have been subject to either revision or alteration.
Since the composition of the Platform Sutra, the text has had a tremendous influence throughout the various Chan schools that developed after the Sixth Patriarch; but its affects on politics and economics, as well as on such cultural arts as calligraphy, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, etc., have been even greater in China and throughout East Asia. Though we do not always recognize its influence directly in our daily experience, our lives have been deeply affected by Patriarchal Son ever since the appearance of the Platform Sutra. In one of the books I read, it mentioned that Mao Zidong, who led the socialist movement in China, liked the Platform Sutra so much so that he always kept it close to him. In another source, it included the Platform Sutra among the five greatest works of East Asian culture along with the Confucian Analects, the Book of Mencius, the Daodejing, and so forth. The Platform Sutra is that important a text! But perhaps the greatest influence the Platform Sutra has had is that its teachings have become a compass that points out how to live our lives. You might say that the sutra is a compass needle that points to the correct path for living our lives, and not just for ordained monks but for all individuals. There is a famous remark by the Chinese Chan master Yunmen Wenyan, who said that, if one achieves awakening through either the Platform Sutra or Patriarchal Son, then “every day is a good day.” The Platform Sutra is truly of indescribable value!
Ultimately, the teachings of the Platform Sutra are intended to help one attain happiness, peace of mind, and freedom. When we are in the process of receiving these teachings, however, we will have a hard time accepting them if we seek these conditions outside of ourselves. What then does the sutra tell us about how to gain happiness? It is the same as what the Buddha said: Do not seek outside yourselves but instead look within. We first must clearly understand this before we start to study the sutra. In the sutra, it never mentions any condition existing outside of ourselves that will help us gain happiness. Instead, it only iterates that those conditions must be sought within oneself.
If we understand this correctly, it would be a grave error for us still to seek the path to happiness through some external conditions that are outside of ourselves. Never seek outside yourselves; just look within. The sutra conveys this point perfectly well and with great precision. We must also understand that Huineng speaks from his own experience in finding happiness through seeking the conditions within himself.