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The Story of the Sixth Patriarch: Hui Neng/Eno Daikan


The Sixth Chinese patriarch is called Hui Neng in Chinese and Eno Daikan in Japanese. He lived 638-713 C.E. originating from Southern China and lived through the ‘flowering’ of Zen during the Tang dynasty.

The Sixth Chinese patriarch is called Hui Neng in Chinese and Eno Daikan in Japanese. He lived 638-713 C.E. originating from Southern China and lived through the ‘flowering’ of Zen during the Tang dynasty.

What makes Eno stand out in importance for the Zen tradition is his teaching is considered equal to the narratives of the Buddha himself, at least in the Zen school.

Indeed the story of his life and his collected sermons are the only canonical texts to have the title ‘sutra’ just as the Buddha’s own sermons are called.

In translation, Eno’s Platform Sutra is often coupled with a translation of the Diamond sutra as the latter played such an important role in initiating the spiritual journey for the former.

His teaching centres on ‘Prajnaparamita’ or the Wisdom-gone-beyond, which is the sixth of the Six Paramitas, the practice of the Bodhisattva path to the Full and Perfect Enlightenment of the Buddha himself.

Prajnaparamita, is the teaching expounded in the collection of sutras of the same name, the most famous being the rendition in 8,000 lines, the Diamond sutra and also the distillation of the essence of this teaching in the ‘HANNYA HARAMITA’ or Heart sutra.


Image: Woodblock print from Diamond sutra

This last one is chanted in all Chan/Zen and also Tibetan lineages, such is its potency culminating in the mantra embedded at the end:

“Gone, gone, gone beyond, altogether beyond over to the other shore. Enlightenment Supreme!”

Iconographically, Prajnaparamita is shown in female form and is called ‘Mother of all the Buddhas”.

The traditional story of Eno Daikan says he is both illiterate and from humble beginnings.

His father, an exiled court official, died when he was young and the boy looked after his aging mother. He would earn his living by collecting firewood and selling it in the marketplace.

One day, on his way from making a delivery of wood, he overheard a monk reciting a passage from the Diamond sutra, Eno instantly saw into the meaning of the verse and had a profound awakening to the truth of ‘sunyata’ or the emptiness of self-nature in all things.

Having enquired as to the name of the sutra he then asked where the monk came from?

The monk replied that he was from the monastery of the Fifth Patriarch who was called Gunin Daiman (jp) (ch. Hung jen ) which was based in the North of China.

Eno made up his mind to go visit the monastery and pay his respects to the patriarch.

Having arrived he gained an audience with the patriarch who enquired where he had come from?

Eno replied that he had come from the South, was a simple commoner and wished for nothing more than to realise the Buddha nature. 


Gunin retorted: You are from the barbarian south, how can you become a Buddha!

Eno replied: A man may be from the north or from the south but the Buddha nature has no north or south in it.

We might be puzzled by this exchange, why would the fifth patriarch make the mistake of saying that where you come from means whether or not someone may attain Buddhahood?

In the Mahaparinirvana sutra the Buddha declared on his awakening:

“How wonderful, how miraculous, all beings, but all beings are fully and completely endowed with the Buddha nature.”

The fifth patriarch knew this however he was testing the young man before him.

Just as Rinzai was tested by Obaku who slapped him when the former enquired ‘What is the essence of Buddhism?” and Bodhidharma ignored Eka who stood outside the cave where Bodhidharma sat leaving him standing out in the snow all night.

This initial testing still goes on today when a monk comes to a training monastery he is generally refused entry several times.

After this he is allowed into the entrance hall where he takes up a position of supplication, kneeling with his hands folded on top of his knapsack and his forehead bowed down touching his hands.

He may be left here for days.

This may seem rather extreme but this testing is very important. The Zen training, traditionally is very tough and the monk will be pushed to his or her limits. If the resolve is weak then it can be disastrous and disturbing for all concerned so better find out early on if sufficient inner determination is present.

It can also be a time for the monk to find out if s/he is sufficiently motivated.

Eno (Hui Neng), was taken into the monastery and put to work in the rice-hulling shed.

As he was only of slight build this was a task that required a lot of energy. There is a wooden treadle where the operator uses his body weight to press down which operates the mechanism to hull the rice from its husks.

Being so light-weight Eno had to tie a rock around him to make himself sufficiently heavy.


Such hard manual labour is a common feature in traditional Zen training places; its purpose, above and beyond getting the necessary jobs done, is to bring the students out of their heads and into their bodies.

The Buddha said that in this fathom long body, lies the world, the beginning of the world, the end of the world and the way that leads to the end of the world.

It starts and ends here.

In Zen terms many of us live too much in our heads with our thoughts and opinions, our convictions, likes and dislikes. We are deeply attached to this thought bundle where the notion of ‘I’ plays a central role.

The physical labour is to direct energy away from those clinging thoughts and back into the body putting it to good use.

A good remedy for a bad mood can be some hard digging in the garden or a thorough spring-clean in the house!

Master Gunin was looking for a successor and announced that all the monks should compose a verse expressing their insight and submit it to him.

But the monks assumed that the ‘who?’ question of the succession was a forgone conclusion that the head monk was the obvious choice.

The Head Monk was called Jinshu (ch. Shen-hsiu), and he was not so certain of the clarity of his own insight.

One part of the monastery was undergoing re-decorating, and feeling uncertain, rather than openly presenting his verse he instead wrote it up on a wall that was due to be painted.

His verse ran:

The body is like the Bodhi Tree
The Heart is a bright mirror on a stand.
Everyday wipe clean the mirror,
So that no dust may alight.

The following day Gunin’s attention was drawn to the verse and upon reading it realised who had written it and also that his Head Monk had not yet penetrated through into the realisation of Buddha nature.

However he said:

“Light incense before this verse, learn it off by heart and recite it. Whomsoever can truly practice it will avoid the error of other ways, and in time will realise Buddha nature.”

If we know how this story will end we might again wonder what the old patriarch is really up to?

This question arises from an error in our own thinking.

Knowing that Eno becomes the 6th Patriarch we assume that Jinshu’s verse must be wrong, particularly as we know that Gunin though the Head Monk had not yet penetrated through to his own Buddha nature.

However Jinshu’s poem expresses beautifully our daily life practice and the practice of sitting meditation (zazen).

On the cushion, when the heart is carried away by thoughts, as soon as this is realised it is swiftly brought back to the object of meditation.

In daily life practice, it is the same, when what is just now being done is lost because of daydreams and thoughts, as soon as realised to once again give myself back into what is just now being done anyway.

This gradual practice approach is not denied in Zen although insight when it arises is sudden. What is needed is a solid foundation, a monkey trap, to catch the monkey of insight into Buddha nature!

Eventually Eno got to hear the poem.

When he did, he too realised that the Head Monk had not yet penetrated through. In response he composed his own verse and had to persuade another to write his verse alongside the first. It ran:

There is no Bodhi Tree,
The Heart has no stand.
When there is nothing whatsoever,
What dust can alight where?


The Bodhi Tree refers to the ‘Tree of Enlightenment’ under which the ascetic Gautama attained Buddhahood. It was the culmination of all those years with his two teachers and his hard training with the five ascetics almost starving himself to death.

The early teachings lay great emphasis on laying down ‘good roots’ for a favourable incarnation so as to attain liberation. Looking at the story of the Buddha it would seem that Buddhahood and the attainment under the tree was the culmination of all that went before.

But that would be to make Buddha nature contingent and subject to causes and conditions.

The Great Indian Sage, Nagajuna, taught that the True Nature or Buddha nature is empty of all marks and signs, of anything at all – including causes and conditions.

This would spark a controversy among some monks about whether Enlightenment is attained gradually or suddenly, an argument that still goes on today among some here in the West too.

There is a resonance here with the Buddha’s teaching of the Two Truths – that there is a relative truth, that is causally conditioned and an absolute truth that is not.

There is a story about a province in China that suffered a bad drought. Everything that could be done was done to remedy the problem.

Sacrifices to the gods, spells and charms were made all to no avail.

In the end one official sent for a rainmaker from a distant province. When he arrived he was greeted by the official who implored him to save them from the impending famine that would result if the rains failed to come.


The rainmaker looked around and said that he would see what he could do. He noticed a cottage up on a hill and asked if he could stay there for three days whilst he pondered the problem.

The official made the arrangements and for three days nothing happened.

On the third day the storm clouds gathered and there was a torrential downpour.

Everyone rejoiced – they had been saved!

A large procession of people made their way up to the cottage and the official knocked on the door.

When the rainmaker opened the door they began thanking him profusely for what he had done for them!

The rainmaker replied that he had done nothing.

“But you have made it rain, look” they responded.

“This isn’t my doing at all.”

He went onto explain that in his province everything happens when it is supposed to happen. People do what they are supposed to do and the rains fall when they are supposed to. “But in this province as soon as I stepped down from the carriage I realised that everything is out of sorts, including the people!

Of course, being here too meant that my own heart was also now out of sorts and I thought that the best thing I can do is to sort out my own Heart, and that is all I have been doing for the past three days.”

We might ask would the rains have come if he had not arrived and entered the cottage? The point may be better expressed by saying that he did enter the cottage and the rains came.

Causality says there is no connection; however there is a traditional way of seeing in China that sees connections between things that occur at the same time.

This is reflected in the Hindu notion of Indra’s net. The Great god Indra has a net that stretches across the universe; it runs in the three directions of length, breadth and along. Where three threads touch there is a jewel that holds them in place. Each jewel reflects itself and every other jewel in that net.

If you move a single jewel it is simultaneously reflected in each and every jewel.

When we read the stories of sudden awakening, that this one smelled the peach blossom or that one heard a pebble click against a bamboo and had profound awakening – we should remember Indra’s net.

When Gunin saw the verse he know too that the one who composed it had clearly seen and also knew who that was.

Later on he went to the rice hulling shed and rapped three times on the door jamb then walked away.

Eno knew that was a message to go to the Patriarch’s quarters at the third watch of the night.

This he did and the Patriarch questioned him further to test and deepen Eno’s insight before transmitting the Buddha’s robe and bowl and conferring upon him the status of Sixth Patriarch.


The Buddha’s robe and begging bowl were the outward signs of the transmission of True Dharma from heir to heir going back to Mahakasyapa who was given it by Buddha Shakyamuni himself.

In Buddhism there is no organised ‘church’ or supreme hierophant who decides what is true and what is not. When we come to a teacher we find out what is her or his lineage?

So lineage is used as a sign of authenticity, because it is possible to trace back a teaching to its roots we can check whether or not this is really a teaching of Buddha.

Gunin then instructed Eno to go south immediately as he feared for his safety if Eno stayed.

We may wonder about this instruction? Surely in a Buddhist monastery no one would dare raise a hand to him?

But jealousy runs deep and just because a man wear monks robes does not mean his heart is not that of a sneaky fox or an irritated bear!

The following day when Gunin failed to give the usual mid-day sermon the monks realised that something had happened. Finally Gunin told them the ‘canon of teaching’ had gone. The monks thought it meant that something material (robe and bowl), had been stolen and set out to pursue the one person who was missing.

The story goes that after a long search one monk called Myo, who was an old soldier, finally caught up with Eno in the mountains.

As Eno head someone coming he laid down the Buddha’s robe and bowl on a rock and hid himself. When Myo approached Eno called out to him saying:

“If you have come for the robe and bowl, here it is lift it up for yourself.”

Myo seized hold of them but could not lift it.

Why could he not lift it, they are just a robe and old bowl after all?

This forms the basis for a koan which is sometimes used in the interview room (sanzen).

Then Myo had a change of heart and called out to Eno, realising that if he could lift them he indeed must be truly the Sixth Patriarch.

“No, I have come for the Dharma, please say a turning phrase.”

This ‘turning phrase’ is one that often appears in the Zen stories when a student faces the master and is ripe for opening up. It is likened to the chick that is fully-formed but inside the egg. The inner surface is too smooth for the egg tooth and it cannot get out. So the mother hen pecks once to create an edge for the egg tooth to work on.

This peck is like the ‘turning phrase’.


The Sixth Patriach faced Myo and said:

“Before thinking of good and bad, what is the True Face of the Elder Myo, before father and mother were born?”

This is the famous koan of ‘The True Face’ of the Sixth Patriarch.

It appears as number 23 in the collection known as the Mumonkan or the Gateless Gate of Master Mumon.

Mumon comments upon this koan saying that we should remember that Eno was in a tough spot and that he behaved with grandmotherly kindness. It is as if he peeled a lychee removed the stone and popped it into the mouth of Elder Myo; all he has to do is swallow!

‘Grandmotherly kindness’ is used as a form of rebuke in Zen but as usual we must never take anything at face value without looking carefully into it.

Suffice to say that Eno Daikan, the Sixth Patriarch spent 15 years maturing before teaching.
He became head of what is known as the Southern school of Zen Buddhism often referred to as the ‘Sudden School’. Jinshu, the Head Monk, went on to head up the Northern School known as the ‘Gradual School’. In time the latter school died out.

Even today his sermons in the Platform Sutra as carefully studied by Zen students.

Text copyright to The Zen Gateway

Text image: "Huineng". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Huineng.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Huineng.jpg

Images: "Huineng Cut Bamboo" by Original uploader was Tang Zu-Ming at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Podzemnik using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Huineng_Cut_Bamboo.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Huineng_Cut_Bamboo.jpg

"Nanhua Temple gate" by CenkX - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nanhua_Temple_gate.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Nanhua_Temple_gate.JPG

Header Image: http://history.cultural-china.com/en/49History8272.html

Pen and Ink image: "Huineng Cut Bamboo" by Original uploader was Tang Zu-Ming at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Podzemnik using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Huineng_Cut_Bamboo.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Huineng_Cut_Bamboo.jpg

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