Immaculate Self-Nature


The Thought of Chan: Immaculate Self-Nature

— Discourse on the Platform Sutra

            The content of the “Platform Sutra” in the commonly known edited version is rich with some later additions. The hand-copied version recently discovered in the caves at Dunhuang, Gansu province of China, is a much more simple version compared to the traditionally collected in the Tripitaka. Studies have discovered that, so far, this Dunhuang version is the earliest edition available even though it is not the most original version. There are possibly two more versions prior to this hand-copied version. Although there are added texts in this Dunhuang version, the content is very close to the original with only a small part having been added. For the Dharma discourses on this classic text in our twenty-one day retreat, we use the edition being revised by the late Venerable Master Yin Shun. During his study and revision, Master Yin Shun found that a small part of the text had been added on, maybe just a few sentences or paragraphs, about which he did make some simple comments. If we read this edition by Master Yin Shun, we can basically see the most original version of the Platform Sutra.

            The fact that the earlier version is a relatively simple version is common in most studies on culture and religion, where recorded teachings of the founders were usually simple and straightforward, but later versions often have additions, some being explanations or just notes. For example, between the earlier or original version and the later version of Agama Sutra, there are differences in content. This is because in earlier times books are hand copied and some notes were probably written on the side. Later when people copied them by hand, these notes were incorporated and became the content of the original work. Therefore, it is typical that later versions have some added content.

            In the autobiography of the Sixth Patriarch, Master Hui Neng, in addition to the stories he himself mentioned in the Platform Sutra, there are also editions that other people wrote for him (because he is a historical figure and people wrote his autobiography). After he passed away, according to Chinese tradition, people wrote about what happened in his life, sometimes including inscriptions found in other places, and carved them on stone. Later on in the compiling of books, people tended to include all of these descriptions, which makes the subsequent versions much richer, containing stories or parts of the stories in more detail. This is a common way of handling classic texts. As we study these, we can understand the commonalities and differences between earlier and later versions as well as recognize continuity in their contents.

         In this retreat, we will use the earlier version (Dunhuang version), trying to get back to the original meaning of the Sixth Patriarch’s teaching. Also, this version is simpler. The so-called “Zong Bao” version is very rich and vast in content. If we would use that version in the Dharma talks, it would require much more time than we have in this retreat. Although we will be using the simple version, we are not going to go over the text word-by-word or paragraph-by-paragraph. Rather, we will only talk about the key points of the teachings.

The Central Thought of Mahayana Buddhism

            The first key point we are going to talk about is on the “Thoughts of Chan”. Since the Platform Sutra is the most important in all Chan lineages after the Sixth Patriarch, we will begin our understanding from this point. The thoughts of Chan are originated from the principles of Chan practice. This means when we talk about Chan, these are the underlining principles or theory we talk about, as we do when we speak of Buddhism being based on the Noble Truths.

            On this key point, we must go back to Mahayana Buddhism since Mahayana Buddhism has a central thought which is “All sentient beings have Buddha-Nature”. The Platform Sutra also talks about this idea. It is the core of this sutra. Also, the Sixth Patriarch directly stated that this Buddha-Nature is the nature of each individual, called “self-nature”, and that this self-nature is clear and pure. This is very important because only with this idea will our entire practice have the so-called goal. This idea clarifies why we practice. Moreover, this thought is a key thought of Mahayana Buddhism. Those who study Mahayana Buddhism believe that all sentient beings have Buddha-Nature. Actually, all Buddhism or Mahayana Buddhism identifies with this idea. However, only part of the classic texts in Mahayana Buddhism particularly emphasizes it and some schools of Mahayana Buddhism do not agree with this. This requires a more detailed explanation because different schools have different emphasis, but we will not get into it now.

            As Mahayana Buddhism appeared in China, people usually consider that there are two main systems of thoughts — one is the ”Middle Way” or Mādhyamika School, the other is “Consciousness-Only” School. In the spreading of the Buddha’s teachings, there is another important thought system in Mahayana Buddhism, which is “Tathagathagarbha” School. Why are the Mādhyamika and Consciousness-Only considered to be the two major systems? Because in India these two schools have volumes upon volumes of treaties, and there are countless discussions or debates between the two schools which demonstrated their scholarly importance. On the other hand, the system of Tathagatagarbha was mainly taught in the classic texts, and they put more emphasis on actual practice. Originally the systems of Mādhyamika and Consciousness-Only were also associated with practice, but later on, with the debate, they became more scholastically oriented. Scholars can easily see the thoughts of these two schools while Tathagatagarbha system was overlooked or considered not so important.

         From the standpoint of practice, the thoughts of Tathagatagarbha is closer to or more directly related to Chan. The idea of “All sentient beings have Buddha-Nature” is from the thoughts of Tathagatagarbha. People may find it unusual that Consciousness-Only school does not consider that “all sentient beings have Buddha-Nature”. Mādhyamika School’s emphasis is not on Buddha-Nature either but rather on “Emptiness”. We should be aware of these differences and understand the importance of Tathagatagarbha system to Chan practice. In addition, after being transmitted to China, the thoughts of Tathagatagarbha became a major aspect of Chinese Buddhism. Chinese Buddhism is largely based on these teachings. 

Dharma-Nature, Buddha-Nature, Self-Nature — Emptiness

       Earlier we mentioned that thoughts of both Mādhyamika and Consciousness-Only schools were brought to China, but these two traditions developed and completed their system in a very short period of time and then declined. However, the tradition that is grounded in the thoughts of Tathagatagarbha became widespread and flourished in China. This is different from the development of Mahayana Buddhism in India. The fact of the system of Tathagatagarbha’s being so welcome in China and becoming so incorporated perhaps has something to do with the idea of “All sentient beings have Buddha Nature”, for this idea is similar to the original idea of Confucianism which believes that every person is endowed with the potential of becoming a sage because the original nature of people is essentially good and kind. The thought of Tathagatagarbha is closer to the popular thoughts of the Chinese who can easily connect with it, and it is totally accepted in China.

            In Buddhist vocabulary, we say that the nature of all phenomena is “dharma”, which includes sentient beings and non-sentient beings. All existence and everything are within the sphere of this dharma. The nature of sentient beings is also “dharma”, but when sentient beings’ ability to awaken is particularly emphasized, we call the nature of all sentient beings “Buddha-Nature”. It is called “self-nature” in China or in the Chan tradition. The use of term “self-nature” turns our attention inward to the nature of each individual, which is Buddha-nature but more individualized. Buddha Nature is common to all beings, but each individual must undertake practice. Chan practice particularly emphasizes each individual’s endeavor. This is why the word “self-nature” is employed. Although this word can have different meanings in its usage by scholars, in Chinese Chan it particularly refers to the essential nature of each individual. Regardless, the nature of phenomena — “dharma”, or the nature of sentient beings — “Buddha-Nature”, or the nature of each individual — “self nature”, is the original nature, and from the perspective of totality, this nature is Emptiness. The Chan school especially emphasizes this innermost nature, which is at the individual level, because practice is each individual’s own work, not something done by others. This is saying that, although all sentient beings have Buddha-Nature, if one does not practice, even when all sentient beings have become Buddha, one’s self is still not a buddha. Therefore each individual is being emphasized here.

           Talking about “Emptiness”, it is universal — no matter what phenomena it is, its nature is empty. This is emphasized by the Mādhyamika system, and is also why it is referred to as the Mādhyamika sect, for it stresses the concept of “Emptiness”. This was affirmed in their discussions about sentient beings. In the early development of Mahayana Buddhism, when Mādhyamika appeared, Buddhism basically distinguished the vehicles or paths for practice into three categories — The path of the “voice-hearers”, the path of Pratyeka-Buddha, and the path of Bodhisattvas. Upon enlightenment, those who practice the path of voice-hearing (listening to the Buddha’s teachings) attain arhatship, those who practiced on their own become Pratyeka-Buddha, and those who follow the path of Bodhisattvas attain Buddhahood. During earlier times, a common belief was that the Buddha himself practiced the Bodhisattva path (though there are distinctions in concept and practice regarding the Bodhisattva path of earlier time from later development of Mahayana Buddhism, which will not be discussed here due to our time limit). The vehicle of Pratyeka-Buddha is the path of self-awakening, which includes those who hear the Buddha speaking about “Dependent Origination” and become enlightened thus becoming a Pratyeka-Buddha. At times when there is no Buddha present, some solitary practitioners independently realize the Buddha-Dharma of Impermanence and Non-self or Selflessness and are liberated from worldly bondage.

            When the Mādhyamika School appeared, it was the time of early development of Buddhism; naturally, Mādhyamika School spoke about these three vehicles or paths to liberation. They believed that the nature which all three paths realizes is the same, which is Emptiness. Why, then, did the Buddha realize the true nature and become the Buddha, the Pratyeka-Buddha realize and become Pratyeka-Buddha, and the voice-hearers realize and become arhats? What is the difference between them? There is an analogy that uses the sky as the object, and it goes like this — an arhat sees the sky through the window, a Pratyeka-buddha sees the sky at the door, and the Buddha sees the sky outside in the open field. The sky that they all see is the same sky, but the scope or range they each see from their place or angle differs. The Mādhyamika School believes that as long as one sees the sky, that is realization or enlightenment; and therefore, in essence, all three vehicles are ultimate regardless of whether one becomes Buddha or not. The Mādhyamika School does not claim “all sentient beings have Buddha-nature” but they acknowledge that all sentient beings can realize “Emptiness”, and it is a correct path to practice.

          As to the system of the “Consciousness-Only” school, we find that there is something unique. They also speak about the three vehicles and Buddha-nature, but they believe that there is one type of sentient being who definitely cannot learn or practice the Buddha-Dharma, and therefore cannot be liberated. Those who are on the voice-hearing path must unquestionably practice towards arhatship, those who have the root for self-awakening are without doubt to practice the Pratyeka-Buddha path, and those who aspire to the Bodhisattvas path will follow the Bodhisattva path and eventually become buddhas. In their system of thoughts, there are five types of sentient beings — the four of these “definite” types and another one being “undetermined”. The undetermined type has no certainty as to which direction they are going. Sentient beings in this category are the main target for delivering the Buddha’s teachings.

        The school of “Consciousness-Only” also considers themselves Mahayana Buddhism, and they praise the Buddha as perfect and the greatest in merit and virtue. However, maybe due to their closer connection with traditional Buddhism, they believe that some people, such as those who have attained the status of arhat or Pratyeka-Buddha, are certain to achieve the ultimate goal of liberation, and it does not matter whether they become Buddha or not. Also, those who follow the Bodhisattva path are certain in going in the direction of Bodhisattvas. While those of the “definite” types are already determined and will not change directions, sentient beings in the “undetermined” type must be many — Who will deliver them to the other shore of liberation? In order to help these sentient beings and make it easier for them to follow the Mahayana Bodhisattva path, they maintain that all sentient beings have Buddha-Nature. So, the idea that “all sentient beings have Buddha-nature” is not about the ultimate goal since not all sentient beings will attain Buddhahood — one can become Pratyeka-Buddha or arhat. While there are sentient beings called “icchantikas” who have no chance to study the Buddha-Dharma, those who are undetermined have a choice. To encourage them to study Mahayana Buddhism, the idea that “all sentient beings have Buddha-nature” is highlighted in calling them to enter the gateway of Buddha-Dharma.

All Sentient Beings Have Buddha-Nature

            It seems that the above-mentioned classification is a bit away from what the Buddha-Dharma taught on equality. In the circle of scholars in Buddhism, such questions would arise as soon as this idea were mentioned. In my opinion, this seeming deviation may be related to the cultural and social situations in India. In the Indian society, there are four castes with the additional “outcaste” made of people of lowest class. The four castes are — Bramins, (religious teachers), Kashatrias (the noble class), Vaishyas (general officers or merchants), and Shudras (the low class). Although the fourth caste is the lowest in the caste system, it is still within the classes. There are those who do not have any class — possibly those native residents whose land became colony of foreign intruders. These four castes, plus the “outcaste”, are basically defined and unchangeable, and this is the structure of their culture and entire society. It is my guess that categorizing five types of “roots” or conditions in Buddhism may be related to this situation, particularly related to the Sangha system at the time of the Buddha. Because in the Sangha system, regardless of which caste people belonged, as soon as they were ordained as a monk and became a member of the monastic Sangha, they were equal with everyone else in the Sangha. So, as soon as an “undetermined” person became a monk and joined the Sangha, it was the same as entering the “definite” type of Mahayana Buddhism. In this way, it encouraged these “undetermined” people to study the Dharma. In that society, the status of the monastics is the highest, belonging to the class of Bramins. Anyway, this guessing of mine is without any evidence to back it up.

     Now back to the subject of Buddha-nature. The Tathagathagarbha School is very straightforward in saying that all sentient beings have Buddha-Nature. When this idea was brought to China, a Buddhist Dharma teacher, Venerable Dao Sheng, even insisted on this idea at a huge cost. At that time the volumes of Buddhist texts brought to China were not yet complete, and in some texts it mentioned a category of sentient beings, called “icchantika”, which are absolutely incapable of attaining Buddhahood. However, this venerable Dharma teacher believed that even these people chould have the potential to be awakened and become a buddha. He affirmed this even though the rest of the sutra texts had not yet been brought to China. Because the available scriptures did not say so, his own statement is considered to be against the teachings of Buddha and therefore he was expelled from the Sangha. When he was leaving, he said, “If what I said is correct, my death will take place on the lion seat” (the teaching platform), which meant he would pass away as he gives Dharma discourse. After leaving the Sangha, he continued to teach the Dharma. Since he was forced to leave the monastery and was now without any followers, to whom does he teach the Dharma? — To the stones! He tells the stones that everyone has Buddha-Nature and can eventually become a buddha. The story says that the stones would agree with him and nod. This is a famous Gong-an story (public case, or koan) in Chinese Buddhism. Later when the rest of the texts became available, people found that he was right. He was invited back to the Sangha and continued to teach until one day, after giving a discourse, he passed away on the teaching seat.

       What this story particularly underlines is that a very important Mahayana sutra, The Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, states that “All sentient beings have Buddha-Nature”. This venerable Dharma teacher was a Chinese monk. Even though the Buddhist scriptures had not been completely brought to China, he already firmly believed this idea. It informs us that this idea is quite important in Mahayana Buddhism, and also in Chinese Buddhism. The endeavors of Venerable Dao Sheng is very important in Chinese Buddhism because he was confident that the Buddha taught that all sentient beings have awakened nature; even those whose good root was cut still have the same awakened nature and can attain Buddhahood. The influence of this idea is profound for Chinese Buddhism. Venerable Dao Sheng also advocated “Sudden Awakening”. There is a well-known story saying that, as he was teaching the Dharma, the stones would be happily nodding. From this we can appreciate the central thought of Chinese Buddhism.

Immaculate Self-Nature

      We know that the Sixth Patriarch also promoted this idea. However, he particularly emphasized the term “self-nature” because Buddha-Nature is a generality while self-nature is realized through individual practice. Thus in the Platform Sutra, he talked especially about “self-nature” as immaculate, which is our Buddha-Nature. Many people think that this teaching of his belongs to the Tathagathagabha system. However, we find that when he talks about it, in addition to the fact that all Buddhist sects established in China emphasize this idea in Mahayana Buddhism, he also marvelously integrated the thoughts of both Mādhyamika School and Consciousness-Only School. When people study about Tathagathgarbha system, often there are discussions regarding the question, “The nature of all sentient beings is pure and immaculate, but why do we suffer and transmigrate?” The explanations are that “this Buddha-Nature is covered by defilements and therefore Buddha-Nature cannot manifest”. In traditional teachings, we often hear that our practice is to realize our original nature, or if we constantly clean our vexations, at the end, our Buddha-Nature will become apparent. Our understanding about Buddha-Nature has the two opposing aspects of pure and impure. But in the thoughts of the Sixth Patriarch, it is not that there is a “pure nature” being covered and unable to manifest. Rather, he said that the commonly believed “pure” or “impure” nature is only in a thought of clarity or delusion — When one is awakened and enlightened, one’s self-nature is pure; when one is deluded, it is impure. Thus, enlightenment and ignorance are the manifestation of pure or impure functions.

            If we recall the Heart Sutra, it says that all dharmas are empty — not arising, nor ceasing; neither impure, nor pure; not increasing, nor decreasing. The self-nature is immaculate since originally the nature itself is neither pure nor impure. When one is deluded, it is impure. When one is enlightened, it is pure. This is the thought of Mādhyamika School. It is in line with the concept of “Emptiness”, for emptiness itself does not distinguish pure or impure. Pure or impure is one and the same function. When we talk about the functions of greed, anger and delusion, the opposite is no-greed, non-anger, and non-delusion. Actually, there is no opposite of non-greed, non-anger, non-delusion — it is in the mind that one determines whether or not one wants greed, anger and delusion. Greed, anger, and delusion are ignorance; non-greed, non-anger, and non-delusion are enlightenment. Hence, just within a thought of enlightenment or ignorance, purity or impurity is manifested. Now we are being ignorant; so what we see is impure. As our true nature is seen in an instant, all phenomena appear pure and immaculate.

         This teaching of the Sixth Patriarch is unique and special, for it went beyond the system of the Tathagathagarbha School. The Sixth Patriarch also adapted the concept of “Transforming delusions into enlightenment” from the Consciousness-Only School. In the state of delusion, as we practice, our mind can be transformed and become enlightened. Practice is for the purpose of such transformation, and it is not adding anything, nor deducting anything — it is as simply as that! As we thoroughly comprehend this idea, practice becomes simple — one is on the right track as long as one is in awakening or enlightenment! This is why in Chan teachings there is the concept of “Sudden Enlightenment”.

            In the Mādhyamika system, there are two levels in the practice of the Bodhisattva path. First, “Bodhi” is opposed to “vexations”. In practice, we discard vexations and move towards Bodhi. This is the understanding in a general sense. A deeper aspect of the practice of the Bodhisattva path is to transform vexations into Bodhi. Yet, another deeper aspect of it is that vexation itself is Bodhi, which means they are not two but one and same — within a single thought, it can be delusion or enlightenment; and once awakened to the truth, all is pure and immaculate, and all is Bodhi — This is the practice.

            So, the idea of Buddha-nature taught by the Sixth Patriarch is slightly different from the concept in the Tathagathagarbha system. Because of this, he was able to simplify such a complex and vast system into a simple idea. The central thoughts of the three schools — Mādhyamika, Consciousness-Only, and Tathagathagarbha — are all contained and integrated within it, and it turns the core thought into a simple approach of practice, which is — as long as one is enlightened, within a single thought, one is Buddha!

         Now we see that the essential teaching or core thought of the Platform Sutra by the Sixth Patriarch is truly outstanding and remarkable.

(Dharma discourse given in Chan hall at the 21-day retreat in Poland on August 10th, 2015. Translated and edited by Kongzhu Shi from the Chinese transcription. Chinese transcribed from audio recording by Ying-Ying Wang. Copyright © 2015 Master Chi Chern)


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