The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch is one of the most notable books1 in the history of Chinese Buddhism. This work was created between the VIII and the XIII centuries in China. Its main text is based on the teachings of the sixth Chan patriarch Huineng that include the knowledge about nature and how does each human fit into its order. The primary concepts featured in the book are the perceptions of good conduct, meditation, and wisdom.
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The book consists of ten chapters, each revealing either one of the primary concepts that Huineng wanted his followers to learn or the facts from his personal and professional life. The first story features a contest for power over Hongren. Even though Huineng won that contest, he had to find shelter in a monastery to protect himself from an opposing party. The second chapter is a lecture about the importance of wisdom, otherwise called prajna. According to the author, having a clear mind without any thoughts is one of the best states a person could be in to enjoy the true sense of wisdom. The next chapter focuses on the answers that Huineng gives to his followers. The main idea is that the inner side of a human is more important than his physical appearance or geographical position. The fourth and fifth chapters feature the importance of meditation and its association with wisdom. Chapter six determines the ritual of repentance. The following three chapters tell stories from Huineng’s life and the dialogues that he had with different people. There is an interesting detail of when the Patriarch was invited to visit an emperor and declined this offer. The final chapter includes the instructions of Huineng that are based on the fundamental concepts of Buddhist teaching.
The Work of Yampolsky
The book features the Introduction by Philip Yampolsky that analyzes the work and features some of the principles of Zen Buddhism. This translator became one of the most prominent researchers of Asian religious studies. The Introduction by Yampolsky starts with an overview of the history of Buddhism in China and its influence on the local tradition. This part is followed by the biography of Huineng and the story of the book creation. The final part of the introduction has content analysis.
Yampolsky explicitly uses sources that support his overview of Buddhist history in China. Many pages are filled with references by half, which usually contain a detailed overview of the source value, its credibility, and parts where information was taken from. For instance, the first part of the introduction mentions that most sources used for it are very old, belonging to the Medieval era in China, and their authors usually cannot be identified. Although the footnotes contain valuable information, they are hard to follow, and additional knowledge is required to understand them.
The logic of Yampolsky’s Introduction makes sense when it is built the history of Zen Buddhism. All events are represented in a structured order, one piece of evidence supporting or explaining the other. The translator discusses the events from the book and finds evidence in other sources that support the model of Buddhism spreading across the Chinese nation.
The constant referral to the sources and many details that surround each fact or discussion make the text almost impossible to read. Of course, the information presented in the Introduction helps understand the book, yet the style of it does not allow readers to read the pages fast. A detailed description of all the contradictions in sources puts the Introduction far from popular history articles.
The main argument of Yampolsky regarding the content of the book is based on the perception that it does not feature a history of Zen Buddhism in China, but rather focuses on the story of one man and describes some fundamental concepts of this religion. Although all the points mentioned by the translator are hard to follow, they make perfect sense in picturing the path of this religious thought in China.
The Tun-Huang manuscript features information about all sides of human life including politics, religion, agriculture, etc. The language of this document has many dialects that were used in ancient China. It is not surprising that Yampolsky decided to take this source as the base for his translation. The manuscript was created when Zen Buddhism was developing in the country, making its evidence valuable for comparison.
Although the Introduction has been possibly created for a wide range of people to better understand the text of the original book, it can be easily read-only by historians specialized in Chinese studies. The detailed overview of the sources is valuable for research works, but it does not serve to support the easy reading.
The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch is not a book that should be read for entertainment. It is a solid scholarly work that is supported by an analysis of ancient manuscripts that contain facts about Chinese culture and religion starting before the X century. Although the book itself is a masterpiece of Asian philosophic literature, a long time should be dedicated to its understanding.
Yampolsky, Philip B. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: The Text of the Tun-Huang Manuscript. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.
- Philip B. Yampolsky, trans., The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: The Text of the Tun-Huang Manuscript (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).