Ep. 021: The Refuge Rock of the Sixth Zen Patriarch

Or how the Master ran from the Mob

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Master Huineng is touted as the Sixth Patriarch of the Zen (Chan ) tradition. But that doesn't mean he had it easy! Let's take a quick look at this fascinating character, and visit the place where his enemies nearly roasted him--literally--on this episode of--


Note: With the exception of the first one, the photos throughout this episode were taken on a short hike I took near Shaoguan, Guangdong, on July 24, 2012.


A statue of Huineng at Mei An in Zhaoqing, between his parents' village and the temple where he was abbot for over four decades

A humble, illiterate charcoal seller has had more impact on the course of Buddhism than most people who have ever lived.

Huineng was born in 638 with the surname Lu, and Huineng ("Wise/Able") seems to have been the name given at his birth, albeit under legendary circumstances: two mysterious monks supposedly visited his home the night he was born and bestowed the name upon him.

His family lived in rural Guangdong Province, after a reversal of his father's fortunes resulted in banishment from the North. The father died when the boy was very young, so he did his best to support his widowed mother, and never had time to gain an education.

And yet, he grew up to become the Sixth Patriarch of Chan (what we call Zen). He was the last master of a unified tradition; after him, the school splintered into numerous subsects.

The bridge across "Cao's Creek," where I started my nearly-four-mile round trip

He is also the purported author of The Platform Sutra, the only Chinese Buddhist text to be called a sutra, a designation usually reserved for the words of the Buddha or his immediate disciples. In fact, the "sutra" was more likely the product of several generations of students, and perhaps even members of various Zen schools, adding onto a core that may have come from the lips of the Master himself. (Nevertheless, tiny, truncated Dajian Temple in Shaoguan, Guangdong, claims to be the very site--or perhaps a relocation thereof--where the sermon was delivered.) The "platform" of the title, by the way, refers to the raised dais from which a teacher would speak.

In Huineng's Footsteps

I passed a whole village of farm houses along the way.

I have been to all of the major sites in the journey of Huineng's life (and a few minor ones). I have visited the village where he was born, called today "Sixth Patriarch Village"; the temple where the Fifth Patriarch recognized him as successor, called today "Fifth Patriarch Temple"; Guangxiao Temple in Guangzhou, where he shaved and formally became a monk (and where the pagoda stands under which his hair is said to be buried); as mentioned, the site of his sermon; and the temple where he died, Guo-en Temple, a short walk from the village of his birth.

I have also been several times to Nanhua Temple, where he was abbot for over 40 years, and where an effigy believed to be his mummy sits on an altar.

But today's visit commemorates, not these grand moments in his life, but something that happened in between them.

Trouble's A-Brewin'

A folk shrine had been set up in the hollow base of a massive old tree.

When Huineng was named Sixth Patriarch, it was the result of a competition with the Fifth Patriarch's prize pupil. In Huineng's telling, the Fifth (named Hongren) transmitted his robe and his dharma in secret. It seems Hongren understood that, given Huineng's lowly status, the more sophisticated monks would be outraged at his promotion, and perhaps even harm or kill him out of jealousy. He said Huineng's life would "hang by a thread."

So Huineng, the newly-minted Sixth Patriarch (or at least heir apparent), who was still a layperson--he had not yet been formally ordained--fled in the night with the Fifth Patriarch's robe and (perhaps) bowl, which had been brought from India by the First Patriarch, Bodhidharma, who had allegedly received it in a chain of transmission from the Buddha himself. (Uh-huh.)

The Fifth Patriarch instructed the new one to wait three years before he started teaching publicly, to avoid conflict (and perhaps because he knew he would pass away by then). And the Fifth was truly wise, because Huineng says several hundred people had been chasing him, attempting to take away the robe. The significance of this detail will become apparent in a moment.

How Huineng Got a Piece of the Rock

This is allegedly where Huineng hid.

There are numerous versions of the Platform Sutra, adapted to local situations as the needs arose. So the timeline is unclear, but it seems to go like this: After traveling back south from the Fifth Patriarch's Temple, Huineng reached Shaoguan, where he was to teach for many years. But, still being pursued, he lived in the wilderness for fifteen years, working with hunters. Stories say that the hunters would leave him to watch their nets, and he would release any trapped animals--true or not, a rather heavy-handed metaphor. At last, he journeyed to Guangzhou, where he was recognized as the Sixth Patriarch, shaved his head, and took his place at Nanhua Temple in Shaoguan.

At some point in this narrative--perhaps before fleeing to the wilderness, perhaps on his way to Guangzhou, or maybe even after his return to Nanhua Temple--he was again beset by evildoers, and fled into the mountains just south of the temple. The recreants, in an attempt to flush him out, set fire to the mountain, and he was only saved by hiding in a cleft of a rock, which bears the imprint of his robe to this day.

So, trying not to hum "Rock of Ages," let's go take a look at that niche.

I Find the the Refuge Rock

The Refuge Rock. The color on the back is supposedly the mark of his robe.

In writing about the Sixth Patriarch's life, I have depended largely on the version given in the translation by Bill Porter (Red Pine) of The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng. And it was Brother Porter whose writings--especially in Zen Baggage--sent me off the well-traveled path of my pilgrimage's major sites into some pretty intriguing side-trips.

One of these started on a hot summer day, when I set out from Nanhua Temple's front gate to find the rock where Huineng (allegedly) took refuge. Crossing the bridge over the sluggish stream called Caoxi, which gives the area its name, I walked along a country lane past old farm houses and an enormous tree with a folk shrine in its hollow base.

After about a mile, I came to a fork in the road. That wise man Yogi Berra once said, "If you come to a fork in the road, take it!" With about that much precision, I took it--exactly the wrong way.

My path took me past a small settlement and then turned left, toward a mountain. Starting up, I spied a small farmhouse, and had the presence of mind to brave the dogs and stop to ask directions. There was a high school girl there, who had just enough English to send me up an overgrown trail which turned out--to my relief--to actually lead to my destination.

Overgrown--and wet. It was raining, and the rocks under me were slippery. The bushes made it so I couldn't see my feet, and soaked me up to my waist. Although the site was not that remote--less than two miles off the main road to the temple, and practically within sight of a new expressway less than a half-mile to the south--it was isolated, so much so that it was only rediscovered in 1978!

Entrance to the compound (but where I exited, having entered from the back way)

But I made it. At last a gate showed up in a plaster wall, and I walked down a few steps into a small compound, slightly lower than the surrounding terrain, and less than 20 x 20 feet. One wall was formed by the large-ish rock bearing the niche in question. A concrete "stage" had been built up against the rock, with a bucket-sized pot of incense sticks right in front of it, and an inexplicable stack of sawhorses practically leaning against the rock. Several plaques with Chinese writing had been set up in front of both the stage and the rock itself. (I have yet to have them translated. Any volunteers?)

Behind me as I faced the rock, a small altar had been assembled, with a statue resembling the Sixth Patriarch's "mummy" at Nanhua Temple, maybe a foot-and-a-half high, in a Plexiglas case. Some plastic flowers, a fresh peach and apple, and a rotten--something--sat on the broken wooden box meant to receive donations, with a few desultorily-placed incense sticks in front of it.

Bill Porter says there was a nun/caretaker a few years before I visited, but there was no longer a place for one; the small wooden building just outside the compound had burned. Google Satellite View today shows a large area cleared behind the rock, on the side I approached from. I imagine there'll be a temple there ere long, if there isn't already. Nanhua certainly has the dough to make it happen. (There's plenty of construction activity next to the creek where I started out, too.)

As I was sitting contemplating the rock, and what may have made the colorful striations attributed to the Master's robe, one of those charming things took place that makes all the hassle of travel worth it. A dog came running in through the gate where I had entered, and a voice called out, "Uncle? Are you okay?" It was the girl from the farm, Ms Huang Guishi, whose given name could be translated "Precious Messenger"--which she certainly was!

I was touched when the girl from the farmhouse (with her dog, pictured) came through the back gateway calling: "Uncle! Are you okay?"

Her family had been concerned about me, and sent her up to check (with the dog for protection?). We chatted a bit--as best we could--and I gave her a jade-looking plastic Buddha that had hung on the back of my pack for ages. I also gave her a business card with my particulars on it.

This was July of 2012. In September of 2013--shortly after the school year began--she wrote and told me that she had started college (hence the internet access?) and said, "You are welcome in our Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, a happy Mid-Autumn Festival! And we Dramas moon in the sky, then talk about wine, family reunion, happy!"

I wrote back, sending her a picture of the compound with her dog entering (I hadn't even seen it until she called out), and she wrote again, "Thanks for sending me the yu.I love it." Since this was clearly run through an auto-translator, I can only guess at her meaning, but as yu can mean "jade," I think she was thanking me for the Buddha. ("Send" and "give" can be expressed by one word, so "Thanks for giving me the jade [Buddha].") Then she said, "You are very outgoing!" By this I think she meant "friendly."

She has no idea how grateful I was to see her, and her (not-so)-little dog, too!

Going Home

This is pretty much the whole compound.

The trip back down the mountain was much easier than the trip up. Though this almost always seems to be the case, it was literally true here: a straight shot down a trail with stairs--and no bushes to wade through--and a left turn onto a road. I even saw a few people on their way up, and their cars were parked at the bottom of the trail.

With time on my hands--it was not quite three when I left the compound--I headed home for a leisurely dinner and preparations for the next day's expedition.


Well, that's about it for this adventure. We'll talk more about the very important figure of Huineng in future episodes.

Until then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: We'll take a quick look at Mahayana Buddhism's "Six (and more) Perfections," and meet an elephant with six tusks!