The Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an (638-713CE) was born in the Yunfu (云浮) area of Western Guangdong province. This area of Guangdong province borders the province of Guangxi. Hui Neng – the Sixth Patriarch was born during the end of the second decade of the Tang Dynasty (618-907CE). The name ‘Yunfu’ literally translates as ‘Cloud Float’ and probably refers to idea of ‘Floating Clouds’. The area today is renowned for the fact of its dominant ethic group known as the Hakka – or ‘Guest People’. There presence of the Hakka population in this area, however, is not new and is thought to have been presents since ancient times following migrations into the area from the Central Plains of China.
Hakka people are generally thought to be Chinese people of northern cultural descent. The Hakka speak a northern dialect of Chinese language, follow northern Chinese cultural patterns of behaviour, and are known to be deeply spiritual in nature. Hakka architecture is unique in China (particularly their round houses which have been likened to Western castles in both design and function) and the martial arts they practice, in their original form, are known to be variants northern Longfist design.
Hakka religious culture often involves the integration of the practice of Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. There is a practical engagement with the outer world, whilst the facilities exist within Hakka spiritual culture that allows for the inner development of the mind. A contemporary Chinese language text offers the following description of Hui Neng’s early life:
This translates as:
‘Huineng was born into a state poverty in 618CE, in the area known as ‘Xinzhou’ (贫寒) – but which is now known as ‘Yunfu’ – an area of Xinxing County. At the age of 24, he left home in search of spiritual certainty, and travelled to Hubei province to train under the Fifth Patriarch of Ch’an who lived at the Dongshan Temple situated in Huangmei County. Hui Neng confirmed his enlightenment with the following Gatha:
‘There is no Bodhi tree, Nor stand of a mirror bright, Since all is void, Where can the dust alight?’
After hearing his, the Fifth Patriarch passed on the Ch’an Lineage to Hui Neng – making him the Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an. Ch’an Buddhism spread from India to China, and integrated with Confucianism and Daoism – this is why it is said that the ‘East has Three Sages.’ Such is his reputation that a European thinker has stated that Hui Neng should be included as being one of the top ten thinker that humanity has ever produced. In 713CE (of the Tang Dynasty) Hui Neng returned to Yunfu – where he passed away on the 3rd day of the 8th month. Hui Neng passed away whilst sat in the cross-legged, seated meditation posture (and his body still exists today). Yunfu is a very important place for spiritual visitors (and its vegetarian food), so much so that the local government renamed the area ‘Sixth Patriarch’ (六祖 – Liu Zu).’
The old name for Yunfu was ‘Xinzhou’ or ‘New State’, and the County named Xinxing means ‘New Prosperity’. This suggests that these locations were founded after Chinese people migrated into the area and this idea fits-in with the known habit of northern Hakka people migrating into the southern areas. The entire area of Yunfu appears to have been ‘added’ at a later date, following the previous establishment of Chinese imperial rule in other areas of (primarily northern) China. Furthermore, Hui Neng’s father is recorded as being a local government official who had been dismissed from his post and subsequently passed away – leaving Hui Neng and his mother in a state of abject poverty when Hui Neng was very young. This meant that Hui Neng was not educated as an official’s son should have been. In fact, Hui Neng was an illiterate layman when he gained full enlightenment and this seems to have been the case throughout his life. Like a Hakka person, Hui Neng did not allow his circumstances to hold him back. Although he couldn’t read or write, he would have others read sutras to him which he would then explain with his enlightened wisdom. It is an interesting speculation to consider that Hui Neng could well have been a man of Hakka origination, and that this fact may well have been the deciding factor in his ability to interpret and successfully convey the Ch’an teaching to future generations. The Yunfu area today, as a centre for Buddhist pilgrimage, has become associated with its Hakka vegetarian food legacy – as devout Chinese Buddhist do not eat meat.
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2016.