Buddhism Huineng
John M. Thompson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0178


Huineng (also Hui-Neng or Hui Neng; Jpn. Enō; b. 638–d. 713), the legendary “Sixth Patriarch” of Chan (Jpn. Zen), is a seminal figure in Buddhist history. The focus of an immense body of lore, Huineng’s life mirrors the fortunes of Chan itself—a provincial Chinese version of Buddhism that rose to become a major cultural force throughout East Asia. Tradition holds that Huineng was an uncouth “barbarian” youth (possibly of Hmong or Miao descent) who, by dint of his innate intuitive insight, surpassed his more cultured fellow monks to earn the official Dharma seal and a lasting place in history. Huineng is intimately associated with the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (Liuzi tanjing), one of the most influential of all Chinese Buddhist texts. Alleged to be a sermon from the lips of Huineng himself, this text provides a gripping first-person account of the Master’s life, while its cryptic discussion of Chan practice lays out the central concerns of Chan cultivation: “inherent enlightenment” (ben jue), “sudden awakening” (dun wu), “no thought” (wu nian), and the inseparability of “wisdom” (prajna) and “meditation” (dhyana). Traditions concerning Huineng, the history of early Chan, and the actual text and teachings of the Platform Sutra are so intertwined as to be virtually impossible to disentangle. Thus, while this bibliographic overview separates sources into distinct categories, the reader is advised to bear in mind that criteria for sorting works into these categories are not hard and fast. The author has taken pains to list both popular and scholarly sources, and to identify specific sections or pages focusing on Huineng in more general sources wherever possible.

General Overviews

Chan derives its name from the Chinese term channa, a transcription of the Sanskrit dhyāna (meditation, concentration). When Buddhism entered China, missionaries brought these dhyāna techniques with them, and they proved popular in some circles. By the 6th century, certain monasteries in the mountainous areas of central and southwestern China became known as places reserved for intense meditation training, where masters taught methods so powerful that those willing to persevere could awaken in this very life. It was out of this context that Chan as a distinct school (zong, “lineage”) and the legend of its most famous master arose. Of the works listed here, McRae 1988 (cited under Reference Works) is the most authoritative; Fung Yu-lan 1953 is a classic; and Liu 2006 brings a solid analytic perspective to the discussion. Dumoulin 1988 remains a must-read, although some of Dumoulin’s discussion has been brought into question by recent scholarship. Ford 2006 is good for undergraduates, while Ferguson 2011 and Wu 2003 provide more traditional accounts. The website Way of Perfect Emptiness is accessible, good for students and the merely curious. In addition, The Zen Site is a treasure trove of information, both popular and scholarly.

  • Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Buddhism: A History. Vol. 1, India and China. New York: Macmillan, 1988.

    The first in a two-volume treatment of the history of Chan/Zen. Chapter 8 (pp. 123–154) focuses on Huineng, and the Platform Sutra in particular, although he is also discussed in chapter 7, in the section titled “The Claim of the Southern School” (pp. 111–114). Accessible and detailed, this is a fine scholarly overview for both beginners and experts.

  • Ferguson, Andrew. Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings. Expanded ed. Somerville, MA: Wisdom, 2011.

    Profiles twenty-five generations of Chan teachers, drawing mainly on the Wudeng huiyuan (Compendium of Five Lamps), a collection of patriarch tales compiled in the 12th century. The chapter on Huineng (pp. 43–47) is a short summary, noting historical and hagiographical issues.

  • Ford, James Ishmael. Zen Master Who? A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen. Boston: Wisdom, 2006.

    An accessible and entertaining book, more popular than scholarly. A good overview of the basics of Zen, especially as it has unfolded in America. Ford’s insightful reading of Huineng’s story—a real “Dharma talk”—is a fine example of contemporary Zen exegesis. Pages 14 through 20 focus on Huineng.

  • Fung Yu-lan. “The Ch’an School.” In A History of Chinese Philosophy. Volume II, The Period of Classical Learning (from the Second Century B.C. to the Twentieth Century A.D.). Translated by Derk Bodde, 386–406. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953.

    Although dated, this magisterial overview of Chinese intellectual history remains a “must-read” for anyone interested in East Asian thought. The author (pinyin: Feng Youlan) discusses various Chan figures and incidents in addition to Huineng, but his presentation is clearly informed by the legends surrounding the Sixth Patriarch.

  • Liu, JeeLoo. “The Chan School (Zen Buddhism).” In An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy: From Ancient Philosophy to Chinese Buddhism. By JeeLoo Liu, 304–331. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

    Thoughtful presentation of Chan ideas and doctrines, placing them in the larger context of Chinese intellectual and cultural history. Good for undergraduates. Liu’s presentation is informed by her critical engagement with Huineng and the text of the Platform Sutra.

  • Way of Perfect Emptiness.

    Very accessible webpage devoted to Huineng, maintained by a nonprofit Daoist organization. Includes links to Huineng’s biography, excerpts from the Price-Wong translation of the Platform Sutra (Price and Wong Mou-lam 1990, cited under The Platform Sutra: Translations), several apocryphal anecdotes, and a paper entitled “Huineng and the Buddha Nature.”

  • Wu, John C. H. The Golden Age of Zen: Zen Masters of the T’ang Dynasty. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2003.

    Readable overview of the early masters of Chan/Zen, more hagiographic than historical. Includes an introduction by Thomas Merton (reprint also has an introduction by Kenneth Kraft), as well as chapters on Huineng’s life (pp. 51–66) and his teachings (pp. 67–80). Wu’s presentation of Huineng reflects a romanticized “Suzuki Zen” perspective, but his comparisons remain suggestive and intriguing. Originally published in 1967.

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