Dharma for life
The Intra-Buddhist Dialog
Professor Chen-huang Chang, recorded speech in the 8th International Buddhist Research Seminar, on 25th May 2017, at Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives (BiA)
Most Venerables, and dear friends in the dhamma:
It is a great honor for me to present my keynote speech here on the topic of “Intra-Buddhist Dialog”. We come from different corners of the world, and we follow the different traditions of Buddhism. To further the mutual understanding among Buddhists, we need to undertake intra-Buddhist dialog. In terms of religious dialog, we have the interfaith dialog, and the intra-faith dialog. I want to take the example of Patriarch Hui Neng’s Concept of Non-thinking and Bhikkhu Buddhadasa’s Concept of Suññatā to describe how we can communicate with each other.
These two figures are giants in the Buddhist world. Hui Neng was the thinker of renaissance movement in China in the seventh century while Buddhadasa was the thinker of renaissance movement in Thailand in the twentieth century. They are quite remarkable. They are down-to-earth practitioners of Buddhism in daily life, not only of thought in brain, but the practice of dhamma in speech, in actions and in one’s daily life.
Abstract of my paper:
Gift of dhamma excels all gifts because dhamma can solve the root of sufferings and saṃsāra. Among the various Buddha dhammas, anattā or Suññatā is the gist which underlines the three learnings of sila, samadhi, and pañña.
Master Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chinese Ch’an School, based on the idea of self-nature to promote the practice methodology of non-thinking, non-phenomenon, and non-abiding. His followers developed his idea into the so-called Ch’an School which flourished until today for more than 1300 years, and influenced greatly China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and even the world culture today.
On the other hand, the Thai Bhikkhu Buddhadasa was regarded as one of the greatest thinkers on earth, and the greatest figure since Buddhaghosa of the fifth century in Theravadin world. He delved into the Tipitaka, and interpreted Buddha dhamma with plain modern language. He unveiled the renaissance movement in modern Thailand. His unparalleled concept of Suññatā renders the only amrita to all human problems. People of all lives and ranks can be freed of sufferings by applying this idea at all moments including daily life, work, family, interpersonal relation, emergency, and even at the time of dying.
These two great masters were the milestones in the history of Chinese and Theravadin Buddhism with a time lag of twelve and half centuries, and a spatial distance of thousand miles. Their thoughts and practice still guided people today.
Although they didn’t know each other and could not have dialog between them, I’ll try to bridge them to have the dialog from the viewpoints of their concepts.
Key words of this paper: Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng, Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, self-nature, non-thinking, Suññatā.
I’ll try to present the similarities and diversities of their ideas on non-thinking and Suññatā. Future further researches are recommended.
From the viewpoints of Master Hui Neng, seeing self-nature means attaining Buddhahood. As we know well, in Mahāyāna Buddhism, the attainment of the Buddhahood is to become a Buddha, the ultimate enlightenment.
According to the First Chapter of Life Stories in “The Platform Sūtra”, the Sixth Patriarch, upon invitation, left Bao Lin Temple, and entered Shaozhou City to give dhamma talks at Da Fan Temple. At the very beginning, he told the audience: “The bodhi self-nature is originally pure. One can become a Buddha by just making use of this Mind.” Here, the meaning of self-nature could not be understood from the viewpoint of the original or sectarian Buddhism, or the older stage of Mahāyāna Buddhism. On the other hand, it should be understood from the viewpoint of tathāgata-garbha, otherwise we’ll misunderstand the meaning of self-nature. These two sentences are the fundamental view of “the Platform Sūtra” as well as the key point of the instantaneous practice and instantaneous enlightenment. Instantaneous practice and instantaneous enlightenment are contradictory to the so-called gradual practice and gradual enlightenment in Chinese Buddhism.
Who, when, and where are they?
Hui Neng was the real founder and the 6th patriarch of Chinese Ch’an School. He was the reformist and promoter of earthly Buddhism in 7th century China. At that time, the Buddhist monks spent most of their time in the study of Tipitaka. They were rich in their brains, but they might neglect some points of the real practice in daily life. In this context, Hui Neng gave a very real perspective to the practice of Buddha dhamma.
Bhuddhadasa bhikkhu can be regarded as the first monk after Buddhaghosa of 5th century. He was the world thinker of 20th century. He was also the initiator of modern Thai renaissance movement.
Their legacy?
Hui Neng was illiterate. He knew nothing from the book but he got enlightenment from his understanding of the bodhi of self-nature. He has only one analects: The Dharma Treasures Platform Sūtra of the 6th Patriarch. This Sūtra is the only Sūtra regarded by Chinese people as Sūtra, although many other Chinese monks wrote very wonderful commentaries on Buddha Dhamma, his teaching was collected and compiled and regarded as a Sūtra.
Bhikkhu Buddhadasa was quite different. He was a learned scholar monk. His analects have booming number in different languages, in English, in Spain, in Germany, in Russian, in Chinese and so on. New books for him are coming up in the future. He was quite wonderful. He also translated Chinese commentaries into Thai language. One is the Platform Sūtra. The second book was the Ch’an Master Huang Bo’s Dhamma Essence of Transmitting the Mind. The third title was a Mahāyāna Sūtra: the Lankavatara Sūtra which talks about the vijñāpti-matratā, a very deep philosophy in Buddhist psychology.
How did they practice and teach?
Hui Neng got enlightenment in three stages: The first stage is called sentimental enlightenment, just on listening to the reading of the Diamond Sūtra. The second stage is intellectual enlightenment, which refers to his very famous gāthā: “Bodhi has no tree originally, mirror is not a stand; actually all things are empty in self-nature, where can they get dusted?” The last third stage is the thorough enlightenment upon hearing his teacher, the Fifth Patriarch’s explanation of the sentence “Arise the mind by abiding nowhere” in the Diamond Sūtra. He taught the audience only by oral speech. In his time, there was no modern technology.
But Buddhadasa Bhikkhu was quite different. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu spent 14 years’ solitary meditation in southern Thailand jungle. He then spent 60 years in teaching meditation and Buddha dhamma in tropical rain forest. He studied the Theravādin Pāli Tipitaka mostly by himself. He taught students of different backgrounds by oral teaching, and also by means of modern technology.
What are their main concepts?
Hui Neng promoted the idea of self-nature. He explained the qualities of self-nature with five elements:
1. Self-nature is originally pure, and all sentient beings have this originally pure self-nature.
2. Self-nature is originally neither born nor extinguished.
3. Self-nature is originally possessed by all livings, so the self-nature is inherent in all living beings. If they can realize their self-nature, they attain their Buddhahood.
4. Self-nature has no movement, it remains peaceful all the time.
5. Self-nature is able to produce all dharmas. Because self-nature is pure all the time, if there are convergent factors, then the dependent co-arising will bring out different phenomena.
As to Buddhadasa, his main concept was Emptiness. He said in the book “The Heart-Wood from the Bodhi Tree”: “Emptiness is the core teaching of the Buddha. All different Buddha’s teachings can be summarized in one word: Suññatā or Sunyatā which means voidness.” Voidness means non-clinging or non-attachment to any phenomenon, even the concept of me and mine.
In conclusion, we can understand that Hui Neng’s main concept is Self-nature, and Buddhadasa’s main concept is Emptiness.
How did they use skillful means to practice and teach students to practice?
Hui Neng promoted the idea of pañña-pāramitā which means the transcendental wisdom to know that all things are non-dualistic and thus equal. There is neither suffering nor happiness, neither existence nor non-existence, etc. This is the transcendental wisdom. He also promoted the idea of non-thinking, non-phenomena, and non-abiding. Non-thinking doesn’t mean no thinking, but you think without clinging, without the idea or concept of me or mine in the words of Buddhadasa. Non-phenomena don’t mean there is no phenomenon, but all phenomena are dependent co-originated, therefore all phenomena are void in their self-nature. Non-abiding doesn’t mean that we need not follow the triple gems to practice, but we should not abide in any concept. We should be free from the attachment to any idea, even the idea of the Buddhas, if we want to be fully enlightened.
He also explained the so-called Five-factor dharmakāya fragrance of the self-nature. This means that the self-nature itself has the five factors of Buddhahood. What are these five factors? They are the śīla or precept, samādhi or concentration, pañña or transcendental wisdom, vimokkha or liberation, and the view and knowledge of vimokkha or liberation. From the viewpoint of Master Hui Neng, all these five factors are inter-penetrated and inter-being, one is five and five is one. There is no difference among them, they are actually one, although we can describe them from five perspectives. In the last chapter of the Platform Sūtra, Hui Neng asked his followers to assemble and told them: “After I died, if somebody asks you any answer, how should you answer? You should apply the concepts of five skandhas, 12 entrants, 18 elements, and the very important 36 relative dharmas.” What are relative dharmas? For example, if somebody raises the question of sky, you must answer earth becaise sky and earth are relative but actually one. If somebody asks you the concept of daytime, you must answer nighttime because daytime and nighttime are the two parts of one day. If somebody asks you the question of birth and life, you must answer not only birth and life but also death, because death is a part of our whole life. This is the idea of non-dualism. He also promoted the idea of Ultimate Reality. The Ultimate Reality is purely free from any concept. We have to understand the Ultimate Reality from different angles, for example, phenomenon, essence, nature, force, function, cause, conditions, effect and equality. All of them make up one reality, the so-called Ultimate Reality. For example, in this auditorium, all of us, including the tables, the chairs, and other equipment , make up of this auditorium. Nothing can be left over. This is the so-called Ultimate Reality. We have to realize the Ultimate Reality that we are one. Although we are different, yet we are one and we make up of one unity.
Buddhadasa applied the skillful means of Nibbāna. He mentioned in the book “The Heart-Wood from the Bodhi Tree”: “We should abide in emptiness.” How to apply the idea of emptiness? He said: “The Buddha only taught the concept of emptiness. He didn’t teach other dhammas. He only taught emptiness or anattā in Theravādin Buddhism.” How can we make progress in emptiness? He said there are three occasions we can apply the concept of emptiness in ordinary life.
Firstly, at time of the arising of touch and sensation. For example, when our eyes contact with a visual object, we have to be aware of the eye-consciousness which is dependent co-arising, and consider that the eye-consciousness is not the truth! We have to be free from the sensation of graving, or emotion and any other sensation. We should not arise any illusory thought at time of touching and sensation.
Secondly, at time of practicing calm and insight meditation. Calm down our turbulent thoughts, then use the peaceful mind to examine the impermanence of all objects. In this way, we can gradually abide in emptiness.
The third occasion is at time of dying. At time of dying, we can abide in emptiness, just realizing that all phenomena are ever-changing and empty in nature.
Both Hui Neng and Buddhadasa believed that all beings can attain Nirodha without much intellectual knowledge. From the viewpoint of Buddhadasa, we can attain Nirodha by just realizing the concept of non-dualism through non-clinging, and non-attachment. And the Master Hui Neng said, we can attain Nirodha through the understanding of the concept of self-nature. In this sense, they are quite same in being naturalistic. They promoted the practice of dhamma in nature. However, they also have diversities. The diversities come from the Mahāyāna theory of self-nature and the Theravādin concept of anattā.