C H A P T E R V I I I
SUDDEN AND GRADUAL
“Sudden” refers to the immediate understanding of a principle. You may be suddenly enlightened to a principle, but until you have been certified as one who is fully enlightened, you still must cultivate that principle gradually by putting it into practice in everyday life.
While the Patriarch was staying at Pao Lin Temple in Ts’ao Hsi, the Great Master Shen Hsiu was at Yü Ch’üan Temple in Ching Nan. At that time the two schools flourished and everyone called them, “Southern Neng and Northern Hsiu.” So it was that the two schools, northern and southern, were divided into “sudden” and “gradual.” As the students did not understand the doctrine, the Master said to them, “The Dharma is originally of one school. It is people who think of North and South. The Dharma is of one kind, but people understand it slowly or quickly. Dharma is not sudden or gradual. Rather it is people who are sharp or dull. Hence the terms sudden and gradual.”
Nonetheless, Shen Hsiu’s followers continually ridiculed the southern Patriarch, saying that he couldn’t read a single word and had nothing in his favor. But Shen Hsiu said, “He has obtained wisdom without the aid of a teacher and understands the Supreme Vehicle deeply. I am inferior to him. Furthermore, my Master, the Fifth Patriarch, personally transmitted the robe and Dharma to him, and not without good reason. I regret that I am unable to make the long journey to visit him, as I unworthily receive state patronage here. But do not let me stop you. Go to Ts’ao Hsi and call on him.”
You all remember Shen Hsiu, the Great Master who was obsessed with the deadly ambition to be a patriarch. He was an intelligent man, and yet he couldn’t cut off his desire for the Patriarchate.
In the south, the Sixth Patriarch taught the “sudden” Dharma to a flourishing assembly of over a thousand people. Shen Hsiu, in Ching Nan, was busy teaching “gradual” Dharma to an even larger crowd of over ten thousand people. Originally, Shen Hsiu had about two hundred followers, but every day more and more people came. However, everyone knew that the Fifth Patriarch had transmitted the robe and bowl to Hui Neng in the south. In spite of the fact that Shen Hsiu had been teaching master under the Fifth Patriarch and was extremely well-educated, he did not have the transmission. Still, Shen Hsiu’s disciples advertised him as the Sixth Patriarch and finally even sent an assassin to try to kill the Master and seize the robe and bowl.
Because of the division into Northern and Southern schools, students of the Way did not know where to turn. Should they study with the Sixth Patriarch? He was illiterate and sometimes his teachings seemed to contradict the scriptures. On the other hand, Shen Hsiu didn’t have the robe and bowl.
Seeing their dilemma, the Master said, “There is only one Dharma. People may come from the north or south but there is actually only one non-dual Dharma door. Intelligent people understand it all of a sudden and stupid people come to understand it gradually, but the Dharma itself is neither sudden nor gradual.”
Still, Shen Hsiu’s men constantly made fun of the Sixth Patriarch. “Hey, look at him!” they said. “He can’t even read. The Southern School disciples are following an illiterate. That is perfectly ridiculous. What could they possibly learn from him?” Thus they slighted the Patriarch and his disciples, saying that they were ignorant, not having even one doctorate among them.
Shen Hsiu said, “Don’t talk like that! He’s an enlightened man. He has obtained wisdom through his own effort, without the aid of a teacher, and has a thorough grasp of the Supreme Vehicle. Frankly, I’m not as good as he is; I do not possess his enlightened wisdom. Our teacher, the Fifth Patriarch, passed the wonderful mind-seal Dharma on to him, and for a good reason. It was no accident.”
Shen Hsiu was a National Master. He and Masters Lao An, Chih Hsien, and Fa Ju were among the Fifth Patriarch’s ten great disciples. As they had received invitations to the Imperial Palace from Empress Wu Tsai T’ien, they received state patronage. Shen Hsiu told his disciples, “I can’t get away, as I receive state aid here. But don’t let me stop you. You may go to Ts’ao Hsi to call on the Great Master.”
Actually, Shen Hsiu was just testing his disciples to see whether or not they would go. He said that the Sixth Patriarch had more virtue than he, but what he really meant was, “If you believe in me you won’t leave, even though he has more virtue. But if you don’t believe, you’ll go as soon as I tell you to leave. Go!”
No one went.
One day Shen Hsiu told his disciple Chih Ch’eng, “You are intelligent and very wise. You may go to Ts’ao Hsi on my behalf and listen to the Dharma. Remember it all and take careful notes to read to me when you return.”
As ordered, Chih Ch’eng proceeded to Ts’ao Hsi and joined the assembly without saying where he had come from. The Patriarch told the assembly, “Today there is a Dharma thief hidden in this assembly!”
Chih Ch’eng immediately stepped forward, bowed, and explained his mission. The Master said, “You are from Yü Ch’üan; you must be a spy.”
“No,” he replied, “I am not.”
The Master said, “What do you mean?”
He replied, “Before I confessed, I was; but now that I have confessed, I am not.”
The Master said, “How does your Master instruct his followers?”
Chih Ch’eng replied, “He always instructs us to dwell with the mind contemplating stillness and to sit up all the time without lying down.”
The Master said, “To dwell with the mind contemplating stillness is sickness, not Dhyana. Constant sitting restrains the body. How can it be beneficial? Listen to my verse:
When living, sit, don’t lie.
When dead, lie down, don’t sit.
How can a set of stinking bones
Be used for training?
Chih Ch’eng bowed again and said, “Your disciple studied the Way for nine years at the place of Great Master Hsiu but obtained no enlightenment. Now, hearing one speech from the High Master, I am united with my original mind. Your disciple’s birth and death is a serious matter. Will the High Master be compassionate enough to instruct me further?”
Chih Ch’eng was a good disciple to Shen Hsiu, one of his favorites. “You may represent me at Ts’ao Hsi,” Shen Hsiu said. “I cannot go. If I were to go personally, Hui Neng would surely recognize me and not speak the Dharma. Write down everything he says without getting one word wrong. Then bring back your notes and read them to me.”
When Chih Ch’eng asked for instruction at Ts’ao Hsi, he didn’t say where he was from. “I’ve been here and there,” he said, beating around the bush.
That day there were several thousand people gathered to hear the Dharma. The Sixth Patriarch announced: “Everyone should be careful! There is a Dharma thief hidden in the assembly!”
Chih Ch’eng pushed his way through the crowd, bowed at the Master’s feet and said, “I confess! I’m a spy. Shen Hsiu sent me here.”
The Master explained the Dharma to Chih Cheng. “Contemplating stillness is a kind of occupational disease,” he said, “It is not Dhyana. As to constant sitting in meditation, this is a mere constraint on the body. What is the principle behind it? When you eat, just eat; when you sleep, just sleep. Don’t lock yourself up.”
Shen Hsiu was just working on his stinking skin-bag. He didn’t know how to work in the self-nature. That is sickness. The Sixth Patriarch worked naturally in the self-nature, and he spoke this verse to say,
You sit up when you’re alive,
You lie down when you’re dead.
Your body’s a bone-bag composed of four elements:
Why not work on the self-nature instead?
To dwell with the mind contemplating stillness contradicts the principle of the Diamond Sutra, which tells us to “produce that thought which is nowhere supported.” The Sixth Patriarch spoke this verse to break Chih Ch’eng’s attachment to marks.
Shen Hsiu taught people to dwell with the mind contemplating stillness and the Sixth Patriarch said that that was wrong. Nonetheless, if you can do it, bit by bit, you will gain benefit. If you always sit and do not lie down, although it is not very natural, it will assist your body and mind in cultivation. Then why did the Sixth Patriarch object to these practices? It was because Chih Ch’eng had just come from Shen Hsiu and it was necessary to break his attachments before he could properly receive the genuine Buddhadharma. In cultivation you should not be attached to your work and think, “Look at me! I really work hard, constantly sitting and never lying down!” Such thoughts will obstruct your progress.
If the mind “dwells,” it is attached. In order to be united with the original wisdom of the self-nature, you must “produce that thought which is nowhere supported,” as the Diamond Sutra says. The Sixth Patriarch gave Chih Ch’eng this teaching in order to break his attachments. If you can constantly sit and feel natural and unforced doing so, then go ahead, but do not force yourself. Force is not the way. You should work naturally.
“Good!” you say. “Then I don’t have to follow the rules.”
This does not mean that you can ignore the rules. If you lie down when people sit, and sit when they lie down, you are not in accord with Dharma and are just trying to show that you think you are special. In general, you must follow the rules and be natural with yourself as well. But “being natural” does not mean that you can break the rules. Is this clear?
Chih Ch’eng had studied nine years with Shen Hsiu. How many years have you studied here? One year. And you think that is a very long time. Cultivators may study for ten, twenty, or thirty years with great effort. You can’t graduate in just a few months.
As soon as the Sixth Patriarch spoke, his principles entered Chih Ch’eng’s heart like water flowing into water: “thus, thus,” like milk mixing with milk. There was not the slightest difference between them. “The Patriarch’s heart is my heart,” said Chih Ch’eng, “and my heart is the Patriarch’s heart. I am suddenly united with the original mind because our minds are fundamentally one and the same.”
“But I do not know when I will die,” Chih Ch’eng continued, “and I do not know when I will be born again. This matter of birth and death is most pressing. Please be compassionate and help me understand.”
The Master said, “I have heard that your Master instructs his students in the dharmas of morality, concentration, and wisdom. Please tell me how he defines the terms.”
Chih Ch’eng said, “Great Master Shen Hsiu says that morality is abstaining from doing evil, wisdom is offering up all good conduct, and concentration is purifying one’s own mind. This is how he explains them, but I do not know, High Master, what dharma of instruction you use.”
The Master said, “If I said that I had a dharma to give to others, I would be lying to you. I merely use expedients to untie bonds and falsely call that samadhi. Your master’s explanation of morality, concentration, and wisdom is truly inconceivably good but my conception of morality, concentration, and wisdom is different from his.”
“I don’t have any dharmas at all,” said the Sixth Patriarch. “I’d be cheating you if I said that I did. I have no special dharma to give to people. For each individual I use an appropriate teaching to untie his bonds. To ‘untie bonds’ means to break attachments. The attachments of living beings bind them up. I just untie their bonds and set them free of their attachments. Fundamentally this teaching has no name whatsoever, but it is hypothetically called ‘samadhi.’ Thus, my view of morality, concentration, and wisdom is special; it is not the same as Shen Hsiu’s.”
Chih Ch’eng said, “There can only be one kind of morality, concentration, and wisdom. How can there be a difference?”
The Master said, “Your master’s morality, concentration, and wisdom guide those of the Great Vehicle, whereas my morality, concentration, and wisdom guide those of the Supreme Vehicle. Enlightenment is not the same as understanding; seeing may take place slowly or quickly.
When you become enlightened, in that moment of enlightenment you attain your aim. Understanding, on the other hand, is a gradual process. Thus perception may be sudden or gradual, fast or slow.
“Listen to my explanation. Is it the same as Shen Hsiu’s? The Dharma which I speak does not depart from the self-nature, for to depart from the self-nature in explaining the Dharma is to speak of marks and continually confuse the self-nature. You should know that the functions of the ten thousand dharmas all arise from the self-nature and that this is the true morality, concentration, and wisdom. Listen to my verse:
Mind-ground without wrong:
Mind-ground without delusion:
Mind-ground without confusion:
Neither increasing nor decreasing:
You are vajra.
Body comes, body goes:
The original samadhi.
“When I speak the Dharma,” said the Sixth Patriarch, “I never stray from the self-nature. When you stray from the selfnature you become attached to marks and confuse the selfnature. All dharmas are composed of the substance of the selfnature and respond with unlimited function. Now, listen to this:
Mind-ground without wrong:
“The mind is like a piece of ground. Whatever you plant in it grows there. If you plant a good cause, you reap a good result in the future; if you plant a bad cause, you reap a bad result. When the mind-ground contains no thoughts of greed, malice, envy, or selfishness, it is without wrong thoughts, and that is the morality of the self-nature.”
Master Shen Hsiu said that morality is to abstain from evil; that is almost the same as the Sixth Patriarch’s instructions to clear the mind-ground of wrong thoughts. But Shen Hsiu gave morality another name, calling it the abstention from evil, while the Sixth Patriarch spoke of the morality of the mind-ground, the morality of the self-nature.
Mind-ground without delusion:
When your mind-ground is free of delusion, the conduct you offer can be extremely good, just as Shen Hsiu instructed. But Shen Hsiu merely passed out names. He did not speak of morality, concentration, and wisdom in terms of the self-nature and the mind-ground. Do not plant the causes of stupidity in the mind-ground: that is the self-nature’s wisdom.
Mind-ground without confusion:
When it is without confusion, the mind is purified. Shen Hsiu’s instructions to purify the mind did not relate concentration to the self-nature, whereas the Sixth Patriarch always spoke Dharma from the mind-ground. His Dharma arose from the self-nature and did not come from outside. Shen Hsiu spoke about external dharmas and was attached to marks. In other words, Shen Hsiu spoke from outside the mind; the Sixth Patriarch spoke from within.
Neither increasing nor decreasing:
You are vajra.
The brilliant light of the self-nature illuminates everything; it is miraculous, profound, and all-inclusive. The self-nature neither increases nor decreases; it is your very own indestructible vajra.
Body comes, body goes:
The original samadhi.
You go away, you come back, and you’re in samadhi all the time: standing, sitting, walking, and lying down.
Hearing this verse, Chih Ch’eng regretted his former mistakes, and he expressed his gratitude by saying this verse:
These five heaps are
A body of illusion.
And what is illusion,
If you tend toward
The Dharma is
Not yet pure.
The five skandhas are not real. The body, too, is false–merely a combination of the four elements. Knowing this, you should not attach so much importance to it by looking for good food, good clothes, a nice place to live, or a good wife or husband.
How do the four elements combine to form your body? The earth is the hard part of your body: the skin, nails, bones, and muscles. Tears, mucus, saliva and excrement are the water and your body heat is the fire. The circulatory and respiratory systems are the wind. After you die, the body decomposes and the earth returns to the earth, the water to the water, the fire to the fire, and the wind to the wind. But where do you go? You don’t know, do you? We are studying the Buddhadharma just to understand this question.
The body, then, is nothing but a transformation of the five skandhas and the four elements. And what, ultimately, is this illusion?
If you tend toward true suchness, the Dharma is not pure yet, for you have not arrived at the root-substance and you have not returned to purity. Why? Because you still have the thought, “I’d like to go back to true suchness.” If you have even one thought, you cannot penetrate the basic substance, because the basic substance functions independently and freely, without obstruction. There is no grasping or rejecting it, no thinking of this or that.
The Master approved, and he said further to Chih Ch’eng, “Your Master’s morality, concentration, and wisdom exhort those of lesser faculties and lesser wisdom, while my morality, concentration, and wisdom exhort those of great faculties and great wisdom. If you are enlightened to your self-nature, you do not set up in your mind the notion of Bodhi or of Nirvana or of the liberation of knowledge and vision. When not a single dharma is established in the mind, then the ten thousand dharmas can be established there. To understand this principle is to achieve the Buddha’s body which is also called Bodhi, Nirvana, and the liberation of knowledge and vision as well. Those who see their own nature can establish dharmas in their minds or not establish them as they choose. They come and go freely, without impediments or obstacles. They function correctly and speak appropriately, seeing all transformation bodies as integral with the self-nature. That is precisely the way they obtain independence, spiritual powers, and the samadhi of playfulness. This is what is called seeing the nature.”
“You’re right,” said the Master, “and your verse is not bad at all. You should know that my morality, concentration, and wisdom are not the same as Shen Hsiu’s. His teaching is for people of lesser wisdom.”
Here the Master describes the people of great wisdom for whom his teaching is intended. “They have awakened to the selfnature,” he said, “and they don’t even entertain the notion of Bodhi, Nirvana, or the liberation of knowledge and vision.” None of these dharmas exist for them. Not a single thing remains.
Not one dharma established,
ten thousand dharmas are empty.
Because such people do not set up the notion of a single dharma, they can set up the ten thousand dharmas. Although not a single dharma exists, the ten thousand dharmas are present all the same.
If you understand this principle, you may become a Buddha on the spot. Then you may call it Bodhi, Nirvana, or the liberation of knowledge and vision. You may call it anything you like. But first you must understand it. If you don’t understand it, you can’t call it anything at all.
People of genuine enlightenment who have understood the mind and seen the nature can establish dharmas or not establish them. They come and go without obstruction. You say, “I’m this way too. If I want to come to the Buddhist Lecture Hall, I come; if I want to go, I go.” You’re wrong. The Sixth Patriarch was speaking of freedom over life and death. With this kind of freedom, if you want to live, you live; if you want to die, you can die any place, any time, like the Third Patriarch Seng Ts’an, who died of his own will, hanging by one hand from a tree. That’s why I often say to you, “Everything’s O.K.” If you are master of this, you hold the power of life and death in your hands. Live or die, as you please. No one can stop you. “Freedom to come and go” is not like your coming and going from the Buddhist Lecture Hall.
People who see the nature “function correctly and speak appropriately, seeing all transformation bodies as integral with the self-nature.” They don’t need to think, they just speak. But they always speak with principle. If someone asks you about the heavens and you reply, “On earth there are mountains and rivers,” or if they ask, “What’s a horse?” and you say, “Oxen have two horns,” you are just confusing the issue and going against common sense.
People who see the nature “obtain independence” just like Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. The “spiritual powers” that they obtain are the six spiritual powers: 1) the heavenly eye; 2) the heavenly ear; 3) the knowledge of others’ thoughts; 4) the knowledge of former lives; 5) the knowledge of the extinction of outflows; 6) psychic power.
One who has obtained the “samadhi of playfulness” sings, but not like other singers; he eats, but not like other people. For example, he may say, “Lunch time! Let’s eat!” and then run to the table and eat every morsel of food in sight. Then he’ll say, “The food is still in the kitchen.” When everyone looks in the kitchen the food is still there. He didn’t really eat it after all. That is a lot of fun.
Chih Ch’eng asked the Master further, “What is meant by ‘not establishing?’”
The Master replied, “When your self-nature is free from error, obstruction, and confusion, when Prajna is present in every thought, contemplating and shedding illumination, and when you are constantly apart from the dharma marks and are free and independent, both horizontally and vertically, then what is there to be established?
“In the self-nature, in self-enlightenment, in sudden enlightenment, and in sudden cultivation there are no degrees. Therefore, not a single dharma is established. All dharmas are still and extinct. How can there be stages?”
Chih Ch’eng made obeisance and attended on the Master day and night without laziness. He was a native of T’ai Ho in Chi Chou.
When there is nothing in your self-nature which is obstructive or confused, what is there to be established? “Confusion” means “upside-down.” You should not think that if your hand points to the earth it is upside-down down and if you raise it above your head it is right-side up. There is actually no such thing as upside-down or right-side up.
“Prajna is present in every thought, contemplating and shedding illumination.” Similarly, the Master said earlier, “You should know that the self-nature constantly generates wisdom.” Further, you should be separate from any attachment to dharma marks, and then you will be free to come and go. Vertically, if you want to jump, jump! Horizontally, if you want to move sideways, go ahead. Ascend into the heavens or plunge into the hells; visit the Western Paradise or the Eastern Crystal Azure World. You can go anywhere and always be in accord with Dharma. So what dharma is there to be established? That is why the Master says that not a single dharma is established.
You should enlighten your self-nature by yourself. If you are enlightened immediately, you will cultivate immediately and there will be no question of sudden and gradual stages of progress. Therefore no dharmas are established: all dharmas are empty–marked with still extinction. How can you arrange them in stages according to number one, number two, and so on?
Hearing the Master’s instruction, the former spy defected and was converted to the Master’s teaching. He changed his mind and reformed his conduct. That is called “going straight.” He did whatever the Patriarch told him to do, no matter how difficult, because he knew that the Sixth Patriarch had become a patriarch by doing bitter work, threshing rice at Huang Mei for over eight months. He thought, “I have an opportunity to serve a Patriarch and I should work diligently.”
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