The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (based on the Tun-Huang manuscript and translated by Phillip Yampolsky) is one of the earliest Buddhist sacred texts written (supposedly by the monk Shen-hui) in the 8th century AD. It is, in essence, a collection of different theological and quasi-philosophical teachings by the Sixth Patriarch Hui-Neng. Nowadays, it is commonly assumed that the Platform Sutra did contribute rather substantially towards the popularization of Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism in China and many other parts of the world through the later centuries. The validity of this assumption can be illustrated regarding the strong phenomenological/absurdist quality of most ideas promoted throughout the sutra’s entirety. The most discursively prominent of them (in the sense of having had a strong effect on the subsequential rise of Ch’an Buddhism as a separate Buddhist doctrine) can be formulated as follows:
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- Meditation (abstract thinking) is the source of true wisdom. According to Hui-Neng, while indulging in abstract thinking people can strengthen their intuitive awareness of the fact that there is so much more to the surrounding physical reality than one’s eye may meet, and that the “metaphysical” realm is just as real as the physical one. In its turn, this implies that meditation and wisdom are, in fact, two sides of the same coin, “Meditation and wisdom… are a unity, not two things. Meditation itself is the substance of wisdom; wisdom itself is the function of meditation”.1
- Desire leads people astray from being able to attain bodhi (enlightenment). Throughout the sutra, Hui-Neng encourages readers to remain unemotional when interacting with the surrounding natural and social environment. In his eyes, such a course of action is justified by the fact that the notion of emotion is innately inconsistent with the notion of dharma (divinely inspired order of things in the universe), “When (emotional) delusions are cast aside you are self-enlightened, achieve the Buddha Way”.2
- Just about any Buddhist practitioner can become instantaneously (as opposed to gradually) enlightened as to the ways of dharma, “The Dharma itself is the same, but in seeing it there is a slow way and a fast way”.3 This particular provision, contained in the Platform Sutra, represents one of the most distinctive theological peculiarities in the ‘Southern’ branch of Ch’an Buddhism.
There can be only a few doubts that the Platform Sutra did exert some powerful influence on the conceptualization of Zen Buddhism, as we know it today. In particular, it helped to substantiate the validity of the Zen Buddhist outlook on the dialectical relationship between causes and effects as such that originate in each other. This puts the Platform Sutra in the same line with other prominent Buddhist writings.
Introduction by Phillip Yampolsky
Structurally speaking, Yampolsky’s Introduction to the Platform Sutra consists of four sub-chapters. In the sub-chapter 1, the author expounds on the history of Ch’an in China while outlining the qualitative specifics of how this particular school of Buddhism continued to aspire for dominance within the country’s religious domain through the 8th-13th centuries AD. The following sub-chapter provides the extended biographic account of Hui-Neng – the Sixth Patriarch. In the sub-chapter 3, Yampolsky discusses the historical and cultural givens of how the Platform Sutra came into being. In the Introduction’s closing sub-chapter, the author comes up with several interpretative insights into what should be deemed the overall discursive significance of the sutra in question.
Among the Introduction’s foremost strengths can be mentioned the fact that throughout its entirety, the author never ceases to take into account the evolutionary logic of historical events – especially the ones concerned with the rise of a particular religion. In its turn, this helps to ensure the commonsensical soundness of most argumentative claims, on the author’s part. The following quotation can be seen perfectly illustrative in this respect, “They (Ch’an affiliates) not only perpetuated some of the old legends but also devised new ones, which were repeated continuously until they were accepted as fact”.4 Yampolsky must also be given credit for having provided many explanatory notes (with references to the external sources) in support of most of his opinionated suggestions.
There are, however, many weaknesses to the discussed Introduction as well. The most easily identifiable of them has to do with the fact that despite the logical integrity of the author’s claims, most of them appear highly speculative. Yampolsky proved himself an intellectually honest writer by admitting that there were indeed many objective reasons for this to be the case, “Owing to the fragmentary condition of the literary remains of the period… and to the absence of supporting historical evidence, it is virtually impossible to determine the actual process whereby Ch’an developed”.5 The concerned Introduction could have also benefited from being less reflective of the author’s perceptual biasness.
Nevertheless, it can hardly be doubted that Yampolsky’s Introduction (and the Platform Sutra) do deserve to be recommended for reading by just about anyone interested in learning more about the origins of Zen Buddhism. The reason for this is apparent – both texts are filled with factual data in this respect.
Yampolsky, Phillip. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
- Phillip Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 135.
- Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra, 144.
- Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra, 163.
- Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra, 4.
- Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra, 5.