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Studying the Platform Sutra, Lecture 3

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The great master Huineng said, “Spiritual friends, contemplate the Mahaprajnaparamita Dharma with a pure mind.” The great master, without saying anything further, made his own mind and spirit clear. He kept silent for a good while, then spoke again: “My spiritual friends, listen quietly. The ancestral origin [sic; this actually means ‘originally an official’], of my father is in Fanyang, but he later was dismissed [from his post] and lived as a commoner in Xinzhou in Lingnan. My father passed away while I was still a boy. So my aged mother and I, an only child, moved to Nanhai, where we suffered extreme poverty while I tried to make a living by selling firewood in the marketplace. One day, a man bought some firewood from me and had it delivered to the inn where he was staying. As I was stepping out of the gate of the inn, after delivering the firewood and being paid, I heard another guest reciting the Diamond Sutra. Upon hearing it once, my mind became clear and suddenly awakened. So, I asked the guest right away, “Where do you come from that you are reciting this sutra?” He answered, “I have made obeisance to the Fifth Patriarch Hongren at Fengmu shan, in the east of the Huangmei district of Chizhou. At present there are over a thousand disciples there. While I was there, I heard the master encouraging the monks and lay followers, saying that merely by reciting just one sutra, the Diamond Sutra, they will perceive their own self-natures and become buddhas.” Upon hearing this I went straight home to bid farewell to my mother with whom I had karmic affinities from my previous life, then traveled to Fengmu shan in Huangmei district and paid obeisance to the Fifth Patriarch Hongren.”

“Spiritual friends, contemplate the Mahaprajnaparamita Dharma with a pure mind.”

What does ‘pure mind’ mean in this passage? This is the principal tenet of the sutra. When referring to ‘pure mind,’ it is easy for us to think of the pure mind in terms of purity and impurity. We often think in terms of this dichotomy, as when we say ‘pure,’ we think in terms of it being opposite of ‘impure,’ and when we say ‘impure,’ we think in terms of it being opposite of ‘pure.’ However, if we think in terms of such dualities, we cannot attain pure mind. Then what really is meant by ‘pure mind’? In reality, the word ‘pure mind’ contains all of Buddhism. Pure mind is the mind that transcends all dualistic thinking, such as pure vs. impure, I vs. you, right vs. wrong, and existence vs. non-existence. The purity that is the opposite of impurity is not true purity.

What then is the mind that has transcended dualities? This is a sensible question. Manifesting such a mind of nonduality in ourselves is exactly what is meant by “seeing the nature and achieving buddhahood.” The Sixth Patriarch is a person who has attained the Way, so he simply instructed others to “contemplate the Mahaprajnaparamita Dharma with a pure mind.” However, that is tremendously difficult. This comes up later in the sutra, but this pure mind is our original form, which can never be manufactured of our own volition. It is the inherent purity from which we are originally made manifest. However, by failing to see our original form of purity, we instead fall into delusion and become attached to dualistic thinking. We then live our lives completely controlled by these dichotomous states.

Let me give an example here. This is a limited case, but some monks who take the precepts very seriously have a tendency to look down and treat their dharma colleagues as ‘impure people’ for failing to keep the precepts. Those monks are attached to the delusion of ‘purity,’ but in actuality they have not perceived true purity. This is what early Buddhism calls the attachment to rites and rituals (silavrataparamarsa). The pure mind is our original form; hence, we are studying the Platform Sutra in order to restore this mind. The preceding passage told us that the purpose of having the Platform Sutra recorded as it was being expounded by the Sixth Patriarch was to make it available so that its tenets could be transmitted. Only by having our mind pure will we be able to transmit its tenets. What we must understand, however, is that ‘pure mind’ is not the mind that stands in distinction to impure mind. I am going to emphasize this continuously, but ultimately, in order to understand the pure mind, one must understand such Buddhist terms as conditioned origination and the middle way.

I am expecting to be criticized, but I am going to try and explain the lofty world of Huineng’s Platform Sutra simply and easily in this lecture series. My motivation is to help people understand and establish right view through learning the Platform Sutra. Hence, I am emphasizing once again that you must first understand ‘pure mind’ correctly. It never means the ‘pure mind’ that derives from our dualistic concepts of pure mind vs. impure mind. Rather, Huineng instructs his students to contemplate the Mahaprajnaparamita Dharma with the pure mind that has transcended dualistic thinking. What is more, his instruction contains both the dharma of what the Buddha discovered and what Patriarchal Son declares.

“The great master, without saying anything further, made his own mind and spirit clear. He kept silent for a good while, then spoke again: “Spiritual friends, listen quietly.”

In this passage, the worlds ‘pure’ and ‘quietly’ are again mentioned. Actually, they will be mentioned continuously throughout the sutra. Here, the word ‘quietly’ is also not the quiet that is contrary to noisy, but we persistently think in terms of duality, as in quiet vs. noisy, pure vs. impure, I vs. you, and good vs. evil. This is the problem. Because we think in terms of duality, we compare ourselves to others, which in turn bring us much suffering.

It would be easy to think of the Sixth Patriarch’s instruction, “listen quietly,” here as meaning listening without making any sound. That wouldn’t be right. Even if one is standing in the middle of a noisy marketplace, one’s mind can still remain quiet. On the other hand, even if one is sitting on a quiet spot on top of a mountain, where one cannot hear either the sound of the wind or a falling leaf, one’s mind can still be unsettled. Why is that so? A person who thinks only in terms of dichotomies, such as quiet vs. noisy, will only hear noise wherever he goes. On the other hand, a person who has extinguished dichotomies transcends time and space, so he always remains quiet wherever he is, twenty-four hours a day, even if he is standing in the middle of a noisy marketplace. Hence, such words as ‘pure’ and ‘quiet’ are extremely important. Though the Sixth Patriarch did not instruct his audience to understand and listen to his teaching with a nondualistic mind, we must understand that such a meaning is implicit here. Hence, such instructions as “contemplate the Mahapajnaparamita Dharma with a pure mind” and listen quietly” must be understood as referring to a state of mind that transcends all dichotomies.

The ancestral origin [sic; this actually means ‘originally an official’], of my father is in Fanyang, but he later was dismissed [from his post] and lived as a commoner in Xinzhou in Lingnan. My father passed away while I was still a boy. So my aged mother and I, an only child, moved to Nanhai, where we suffered extreme poverty while I tried to make a living by selling firewood in the marketplace. One day, a man bought some firewood from me and had it delivered to the inn where he was staying. As I was stepping out of the gate of the inn, after delivering the firewood and being paid, I heard another guest reciting the Diamond Sutra. Upon hearing it once, my mind became clear and suddenly awakened. So, I asked the guest right away, “Where do you come from that you are reciting this sutra?”

It is said that Huineng’s father was originally a citizen of Fanyang near Peijing, China. His father, however, made some sort of an error and was dismissed to Xinzhou in Lingnan, which is in Guangdong province in the south of China. When you visit the Chinese pilgrimage sites associated with the Sixth Patriarch, there is a Buddhist monastery named Guo’ensi, where you can find the graves of Huineng’s parents. This Guo’ensi is located in Xinzhou. The Sixth Patriarch lost his father when he was still very young, so he had to take care of his mother by selling firewood in the marketplace. One day he sold some firewood to a man. After the man had paid him, Huineng was about to walk out the door, when he happened to hear someone reciting the Diamond Sutra. His mind suddenly became clear and attained some sort of awakening. Until then, the Sixth Patriarch had not had any exposure to Buddhism.

He answered, “I have made obeisance to the Fifth Patriarch Hongren at Fengmu shan, in the east of the Huangmei district of Chizhou. At present there are over a thousand disciples there. While I was there, I heard the master encouraging the monks and lay followers, saying that merely by reciting just one sutra, the Diamond Sutra, they will perceive their own self-natures and become buddhas.”

The man came from Fengmu shan, in the east of the Huangmei district, where he had learned the Buddhadharma from the Fifth Patriarch Hongren. Fengmu shan in Huangmei district is in the vicinity of the Yangtze river, but the name has been changed to Shuangfeng shan. To the west of Shuangfeng shan, there is a Buddhist temple called the Fourth Patriarch Monastery, and in the south there is the Fifth Patriarch Monastery. This Fifth Patriarch Monastery is what the man is referring to in this passage. The Fourth Patriarch Monastery is also quite large. When you look into the records of the Fifth Patriarch Monastery, it refers to the Sixth Patriarch where it says, “Six-hundred and ninety-nine persons understood the Buddhadharma; only one person did not understand the Buddhadharma.” Reading this line, it is obvious that the numbers were mistakenly reversed, but it still indicates that there were seven-hundred disciples residing at the monastery. When I visited the monastery, however, I noticed that the campus was not very large. I am not sure if before there may have been more temple buildings extending down to the village below, but the current site is not so large. In that monastery, there is a memorial lamp for the Fifth Patriarch. It wasn’t until I visited the monastery in China that I learned there was such a memorial lamp for him.

According to the guest at the inn, he had witnessed the Fifth Patriarch encouraging the great assembly by saying, “By reciting just this Diamond Sutra, you may perceive your own self-nature.” Before the Fifth Patriarch, the Lankavatara Sutra had been transmitted by Bodhidharma. The Diamond Sutra gives the teaching on emptiness, Lankavatara Sutra the teaching on Tathagatagarbha (embryo of buddhahood). We can safely presume, then, that it was during the Fifth Patriarch’s time that the philosophy of emptiness came to be seriously treated. In another version of the Platform Sutra, it mentions that the man heard the famous line from the Diamond Sutra: “You should give rise to a mind that does not arise anywhere.” However, in the Dunhuang version, it just says that the man heard a recitation of the Diamond Sutra.

Upon hearing this I went straight home to bid farewell to my mother with whom I had karmic affinities from my previous life, then traveled to Fengmu shan in Huangmei district and paid obeisance to the Fifth Patriarch Hongren.”

The most critical feature of this passage, obviously, is the story of Huineng’s extreme poverty following his father’s death and his attempt to support his mother by selling firewood in the marketplace. Since China was a Confucian society at that time, Huineng must have thought that filial piety was the most important virtue. Without any second thoughts, he made sure he kept his mother’s room warm and cooked her nice meals. Since he was performing the duties of a filial son, he was able to work diligently without feeling tired, for he was fulfilling a valuable duty. Unlike many people today, he didn’t have any ulterior motives for being filial, such as keeping up appearances or receiving compliments. Because she was his mother and the woman has given birth to him, and since filial piety was the most important virtue in a Confucian society, Huineng was able to remain filial toward his mother out of complete sincerity.

In Buddhism as well, the common teaching of the seven buddhas of antiquity is:
Not committing any evil deeds,
Cultivating all that is good,
Purifying your own mind:
This is the teaching of all the buddhas.
Being filial is also a good deed. Because he was sincere, he was able to keep his own intentions pure and thus “purify his own mind.” Since his foundation was already so pure, he was able to awaken the instant he heard the Diamond Sutra being recited.

It is important, however, to understand clearly what “awakening” means in this passage. Before his ordination, what the Sixth Patriarch attained by hearing the Diamond Sutra was not the penetrating, great awakening (hwach’al taeo; 확철대오, 廓徹大悟) that leads to ‘seeing the nature and achieving buddhahood,’ but was instead correct understanding (lit. knowledge and vision, jñanadarsana; 지견, 知見 ). Even though at that point he didn’t yet know anything about Buddhism, because he had been filial toward his mother, he was able to attain correct understanding with his pure mind when he heard the line “you should give rise to a mind that does not abide anywhere.” And once he attained correct understanding, his actions and thoughts were utterly different than before.

Even though they are both called “awakening,” there is a huge difference between a penetrating, great awakening and the awakening of correct understanding. In Buddhism, penetrating, great awakening refers to the Buddha’s awakening, which is also called right enlightenment, unsurpassed, right, perfect enlightenment (samyaksambodhi) and ultimate enlightenment. In Son Buddhism, it is called the ‘seeing the nature and achieving buddhahood’ that derives from penetrating, great awakening. I would say that the middle way between penetrating, great awakening and intellectual knowledge is correct understanding.

However, correct understanding also has numerous levels. If one attains correct understanding, he “purifies his own mind” as his actions and speech come into conformity with one another. Before he knew anything about Buddhism, the Sixth Patriarch attained awakening after hearing the Diamond Sutra being recited; but this awakening just meant the opening up of his understanding. After subsequently ordaining and cultivating his practice by treading the pestle for eight months, the Fifth Patriarch summoned Huineng and privately expounded the Diamond Sutra to him. When Huineng heard the Diamond Sutra for the second time, he was able to attain the right enlightenment that is the penetrating, great awakening.

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