Chapter VIII. The Sudden School and the Gradual School
While the Patriarch was living in Pao Lin Monastery, the Grand
Master Shen Hsiu was preaching in Yu Chuan Monastery of Ching Nan.
At that time the two Schools, that of Hui Neng of the South and Shen Hsiu of the North, flourished side by side. As the two Schools were
distinguished from each other by the names "Sudden" (the South) and "Gradual" (the North), the question which sect th ey should follow baffled
certain Buddhist scholars (of that time).
(Seeing this), the Patriarch addressed the assembly as follows:
"So far as the Dharma is concerned, there can be only one School.
(If a distinction exists) it exists in the fact that the founder of one school is a northern man, while the other is a Southerner. While there is only
one Dharma, some disciples realize it more quickly than others. The reason why the names 'Sudden' and 'Gradual' are given is that some disciples
are superior to others in mental dispositions.
So far as the Dharma is concerned, the distinction of 'Sudden' and 'Gradual' does not exist."
(In spite of what the Patriarch had said,) the followers of Shen
Hsiu used to criticize the Patriarch. They discredited him by saying that as he was illiterate he could not distinguish himself in any respect.
Shen Hsiu himself, on the other hand, admitted that he was inferior to the Patriarch, that the Patriarch attained wisdom without the aid of a
teacher, and that he understood thoroughly the teaching of the Mahayana School. "Moreover," he added, "my t eacher, the Fifth Patriarch, would
not have transmitted to him the robe and the bowl without good cause. I regret that, owing to the patronage of the state, which I by no means
deserve, I am unable to travel far to receive instructions from him personall y. (But) you men should go to Ts'ao Ch'i to consult him."
One day he said to his disciple, Chi Ch'eng, "You are intelligent
and bright. On my behalf, you may go to Ts'ao Ch'i to attend the lectures there. Try your best to remember what you learn, so that upon your
return you may repeat it to me."
Acting on his teacher's instruction, Chi Ch'eng went to Ts'ao Ch'i. Without telling whence he came he joined the crowd there to call on the
"Someone has hidden himself here to plagiarize my lecture," said the Patriarch to the assembly. Thereupon, Chi Ch'eng came out, made obeisance,
and told the Patriarch what his mission was.
"You come from Yu Ch'uan Monastery, do you?" asked the Patriarch. "You must be a spy."
"No, I am not," replied Chi Ch'eng.
"Why not?" asked the Patriarch.
"If I had not told you," said Chi Ch'eng, "I would be a spy. Since
I have told you all about it, I am not."
"How does your teacher instruct his disciples?" asked the Patriarch.
"He tells us to meditate on purity, to keep up the sitting position all the time and not to lie down," replied Chi Ch'eng.
"To meditate on purity," said the Patriarch, "is an infirmity and
not Dhyana. To restrict oneself to the sitting position all the time is unprofitable. Listen to my stanza:
A living man sits and does not lie down (all the time), While a dead man lies down and does not sit.
On this physical body of ours
Why should we impose the task of sitting?"
Making obeisance a second time, Chi Ch'eng remarked, "Though I have studied Buddhism for nine years under the Grand Master Shen Hsiu, my
mind has not yet been awakened for enlightenment. But as soon as you speak to me my mind is enlightened. As the question of incessant rebirths is
a momentous one, please take pity on me and give me further instruction."
"I understand," said the Patriarch, "that your teacher gives his disciples instructions on Sila (disciplinary rules), Dhyana (meditation), and Prajna
(Wisdom). Please tell me how he defines these terms."
"According to his teaching," replied Chi Ch'eng, "to refrain from all evil actions is Sila, to practice whatever is good is Prajna, and to purify
one's own mind is Dhyana. This is the way he teaches us. May I know your system?"
"If I tell you," said the Patriarch, "that I have a system of Law to transmit to others, I am cheating you. What I do to my disciples is to liberate
them from their own bondage with such devices as the case may need. To use a name which is nothing but a makeshift, this (state of liberation)
may be called Samadhi. The way your master teaches Sila, Dhyana, and Prajna is wonderful; but my exposition is different."
"How can it be different, Sir," asked Chi Ch'eng, "when there is only one form of Sila, Dhyana and Prajna?"
"The teaching of your master," replied the Patriarch, "is for the followers of the Mahayana School, while mine is for those of the Supreme
School. The fact that some realize the Dharma more quickly and deeply than others accounts for the difference in the interpretation. You may
listen, and see if my instruction is the same as his. In expounding the Law, I do not deviate from the authority of the Essence of Mind (i.e., I
speak what I realize intuitively). To speak otherwise would indicate that th e speaker's Essence of Mind is under obscuration and that he can
touch the phenomenal side of the Law only. The true teaching of Sila, Dhyana and Prajna should be based on the principle that the function of all
things derives from the Essence of Mind. L isten to my stanza:
To free the mind from all impurity is the Sila of the Essence of
To free the mind from all disturbance is the Dhyana of the Essence of
That which neither increases nor decreases is the Diamond (used as a
symbol for the Essence of Mind);
'Coming' and 'going' are different phases of Samadhi."
Having heard this, Chi Ch'eng apologized (for having asked a foolish question) and thanked the Patriarch for his instruction.
He then submitted the following stanza:
The 'self' is nothing but a phantasm created by the union of five
And a phantasm can have nothing to do with absolute reality.
To hold that there is a Tathata (Suchness) for us to aim at or to
Is another example of 'Impure Dharma'.
Approving what he said in his stanza, the Patriarch said to him again, "The teaching of your master on Sila, Dhyana and Prajna applies to wise men
of the inferior type, while mine [applies] to those of the superior type. He who realizes the Essence of Mind may dispense with such doctrines as
Bodhi, Nirvana, and 'Knowledge of Emancipation'. Only those who do not possess a single system of Law can formulate all systems of Law, and
only those who can understand the meaning (of this paradox) may use su ch terms. It makes no difference to those who have realized the Essence
of Mind whether they formulate all systems of Law or dispense with all of them. They are at liberty to 'come' or to 'go' (i.e., they may remain in
or leave this world at their own f ree will). They are free from obstacles or impediments. They take appropriate actions as circumstances require.
They give suitable answers according to the temperament of the enquirer. They see that all Nirmanakayas are one with the Essence of Mind. They
attain liberation, psychic powers and Samadhi, which enable them to perform the arduous task of universal salvation as easily as if they were
only playing. Such are the men who have realized the Essence of Mind!"
"By what principle are we guided in dispensing with all systems of Law?" was Chi Ch'eng's next question.
"When our Essence of Mind is free from impurity, infatuations and disturbances," replied the Patriarch, "when we introspect our mind from
moment to moment with Prajna, and when we do not cling to things and phenomenal objects we are free and liberate d. Why should we formulate
any system of Law when our goal can be reached no matter whether we turn to the right or to the left? Since it is with our own efforts that we
realize the Essence of Mind, and since the realization and the practice of the Law are both done instantaneously, and not gradually or stage by
stage, the formulation of any system of Law is unnecessary. As all Dharmas are intrinsically Nirvanic, how can there be gradation in them?"
Chi Ch'eng made obeisance and volunteered to be an attendant of the Patriarch. In that capacity, he served both day and night.
Bhikkhu Chih Ch'e, whose secular name was Chang Hsing-Ch'ang, was a native of Kiangsi. As a young man, he was fond of chivalric exploits.
Since the two Dhyana Schools, Hui Neng of the South and Shen Hsiu of the North, flourished side by side, a strong sectarian feeling ran high on
the part of the disciples, in spite of the tolerant spirit shown by the two masters. As they called their own teacher, Shen Hsiu, the Sixth Patriarch
on no better authority than their own, the followers of the Northern School were jealous of the rightful owner of that title whose claim,
supported by the inherited robe, was too well known to be ignored. (So in order to get rid of the rival teacher) they sent Chang Hsing-Ch'ang
(who was then a layman) to murder the Patriarch.
With his psychic power of mind-reading the Patriarch was able to know of the plot beforehand. (Making ready for the coming of the murderer),
he put ten taels by the side of his own seat. Chang duly arrived, and one evening entered the Patriarch's r oom to carry out the murder. With
outstretched neck the Patriarch waited for the fatal blow. Thrice did Chang cut, (but) not a single wound was thereby inflicted! The Patriarch
then addressed him as follows:
A straight sword is not crooked, While a crooked one is not straight. I owe you money only;
But life I do not owe."
The surprise was too great for Chang; he fell into a swoon and did not revive for a considerable time. Remorseful and penitent, he asked for
mercy and volunteered to join the Order at once. Handing him the money, the Patriarch said, "You had better not remain here, lest my followers
should do you harm. Come to see me in disguise some other time, and I will take good care of you."
As directed, Chang ran away the same night. Subsequently, he joined the Order and, when fully ordained, proved himself to be a very diligent
One day, recollecting what the Patriarch has said, he took the long journey to see him and to tender him homage. "Why do you come so late?"
asked the Patriarch. "I have been thinking of you all the time."
"Since that day you so graciously pardoned my crime," said Chang, "I have become a bhikkhu and have studied Buddhism diligently. Yet I find it
difficult to requite you adequately unless I can show my gratitude by spreading the Law for the deliveranc e of sentient beings. In studying the
Maha Parinirvana Sutra, which I read very often, I cannot understand the meaning of 'eternal' and 'not eternal'. Will you, Sir, kindly give me a
"What is not eternal is the Buddha-nature," replied the Patriarch, "and what is eternal is the discriminating mind together with all meritorious and
"Your explanation, Sir, contradicts the Sutra," said Chang.
"I dare not, since I inherit the 'Heart-Seal' of Lord Buddha," replied the Patriarch.
"According to the Sutra," said Chang, "the Buddha-nature is eternal, while all meritorious and demeritorious Dharmas, including the Bodhi-citta
(the Wisdom-heart) are not eternal. As you hold otherwise, is this not a contradiction? Your explanation has now intensified my doubts and
"On one occasion," replied the Patriarch, "I had Bhikkhuni Wu Ching-Ts'ang recite to me the whole book of the Maha Parinirvana Sutra, so that I
could explain it to her. Every word and every meaning I explained on that occasion agreed with the text. As to the explanation I give you now, it
likewise differs not from the text."
"As my capacity for understanding is a poor one," observed Chang, "will you kindly explain to me more fully and more clearly."
"Don't you understand?" said the Patriarch. "If Buddha-nature is eternal, it would be of no use to talk about meritorious and demeritorious
Dharmas; and until the end of a kalpa no one would arouse the Bodhi-citta. Therefore, when I say 'not-eterna l' it is exactly what Lord Buddha
meant for 'eternal'. Again, if all Dharmas are not eternal, then every thing or object would have a nature of its own (i.e., positive essence) to
suffer death and birth. In that case, it would mean that the Essence of M ind which is truly eternal does not pervade everywhere. Therefore
when I say 'eternal' it is exactly what Lord Buddha meant by 'not-eternal'.
"Because ordinary men and heretics believe in 'heretical eternalism' (i.e., they believe in the eternity of soul and of the world), and because
sravakas (aspirants to arhatship) mistake the eternity of Nirvana as something not eternal, eight upside-d own notions arise. [Ordinary men and
heretics mistake the non-eternity, non-happiness, non-egoism and non-purity of mundane existence for eternity, happiness, egoism and purity;
while Sravakas mistake the Eternity, Happiness, Egoism and Purity of Nirvana for Non-eternity, Non-happiness, Non-egoism and Non-purity.] In
order to refute these one-sided views, Lord Buddha preached in the Maha Parinirvana Sutra the 'Ultimate Doctrine' of Buddhist teaching, i.e.,
true eternity, true happiness, true self and tru e purity.
"In following slavishly the wording of the Sutra, you have ignored the spirit of the text. In assuming that what perishes is non-eternal and that
what is fixed and immutable is eternal, you have misinterpreted Lord Buddha's dying instruction (contai ned in the Maha Parinirvana Sutra) which
is perfect, profound, and complete. You may read the Sutra a thousand times but you will get no benefit out of it."
All of a sudden Chang awoke to full enlightenment, and submitted the following stanza to the Patriarch:
In order to refute the bigoted belief of 'Non-eternity'
Lord Buddha preached the 'Eternal Nature'.
He who does not know that such preaching is only a skilful device
May be likened to the child who picks up pebbles and calls them gems. Without effort on my part
The Buddha-nature manifests itself.
This is due neither to the instruction of my teacher
Nor to any attainment of my own.
"You have now thoroughly realized (the Essence of Mind)," commended the Patriarch, "and hereafter you should name yourself Chih Ch'e (to
realize thoroughly)." Chih Ch'e thanked the Patriarch, made obeisance, and departed.
Note. - The Buddha's object is to get rid of bigoted belief in any form. He would preach 'Non-eternity' to believers of Eternalism; and preach
'neither Eternity nor Non-eternity' to those who believe in both.
A thirteen-year-old boy named Shen Hui, who was born of a Kao family of Hsiang Yang, came from Yu Chuan Monastery to tender homage to the
"My learned friend," said the Patriarch, "it must be hard for you to undertake such a long journey. But can you tell me what is the 'fundamental
principle'? If you can, you know the owner (i.e., the Essence of Mind). Try to say something, please."
"Non-attachment is the fundamental principle, and to know the owner is to realize (the Essence of Mind)," replied Shen Hui.
"This novice is fit for nothing but to talk loosely," reproved the Patriarch.
Thereupon Shen Hui asked the Patriarch, "In your meditation, Sir, do you see (your Essence of Mind) or not?"
Striking him three blows with his staff, the Patriarch asked him whether he felt pain or not. "Painful and not painful," replied Shen Hui. "I see
and I see not," retorted the Patriarch.
"How is it that you see and see not?" asked Shen Hui.
"What I see is my own faults," replied the Patriarch. "What I do not see is the good, the evil, the merit and the demerit of others. That is why I
see and I see not. Now tell me what you mean by 'painful and not painful'. If you feel no pain, you would be as a piece of wood or stone. On the
other hand, should you feel pain, and anger of hatred is thereby aroused, you would be in the same position as an ordinary man.
"The 'seeing' and 'not-seeing' you referred to are a pair of opposites; while 'painful' and 'not painful' belong to conditioned Dharma which
becomes and ceases. Without having realized your own Essence of Mind, you dare to hoodwink others."
Shen Hui apologized, made obeisance, and thanked the Patriarch for his instruction.
Addressing him again the Patriarch said, "If you are under delusion and cannot realize your Essence of Mind, you should seek the advice of a
pious and learned friend. When your mind is enlightened, you will know the Essence of Mind, and then you may tread the Path the right way. Now
you are under delusion, and do not know your Essence of Mind. Yet you dare to ask whether I know my Essence of Mind or not. If I do, I realize
it myself, but the fact that I know it cannot help you from being under de lusion. Similarly, if you know your Essence of Mind your knowing
would be of no use to me. Instead of asking others, why not see it for yourself and know it for yourself?"
Making obeisance more than a hundred times, Shen Hui again expressed regret and asked the Patriarch to forgive him. (Henceforth) he worked
diligently as the Patriarch's attendant.
Addressing the assembly one day, the Patriarch said, "I have an article which has no head, no name nor appellation, no front and no back. Do any
of you know it?"
Stepping out from the crowd, Shen Hui replied, "It is the source of all Buddhas, and the Buddha-nature of Shen Hui."
"I have told you already that it is without name and appellation, and yet you call it 'Source of Buddhas' and 'Buddha-nature'," reproved the
Patriarch. "Even if you confine yourself in a mat shed for further study, you will be a Dhyana scholar of se condhand knowledge only (i.e.,
knowledge from books and verbal authority instead of Knowledge obtained intuitively).
After the death of the Patriarch, Shen Hui left for Loyang, where he spread widely the teaching of the Sudden School. The popular work
entitled 'An Explicit Treatise on Dhyana Teaching' was written by him. He is generally known by the name Dhyana M aster Ho Tse (the name of
Seeing that many questions were put to him in bad faith by followers of various Schools, and that a great number of such questioners had
gathered around him, the Patriarch addressed them out of compassion as follows:
"A treader of the Path should do away with all thoughts, good as well as evil ones. It is merely as an expedient that the Essence of Mind is so
called; it cannot really be named by any name. This 'non-dual nature' is called the 'true nature', upon which all Dharma systems of teaching are
based. One should realize the Essence of Mind as soon as one hears of it."
Upon hearing this, every one made obeisance and asked the Patriarch to allow them to be his disciples.
Sudden Gradual School
- Written by: Fa Hui