Monday, August 20, 2012

The Truth of The Platform Sutra

I would like to summarise what I have read recently. It is concerning The Sixth Patriarch Platform Sutra or sometimes called The Altar Sutra. It is one of the few classical Buddhist texts elevated to a "sutra" level although these are not the words or teachings of the Buddha. However, it is based on the teachings of the Buddha. A common perception is that it is written by Hui Neng. According to modern scholars, this was the work of one of the successors of Hui Neng, called Shen Hui. There was also modern discovery (via research) that in fact Hui Neng was not the sixth patriarch succeeding Hung Jen. It was Shen Hsiu that succeeded Hung Jen and Hui Neng was almost an obscure figure.  Through some scheming of Shen Hui, he allegedly created stories of the animosity between Shen Hsiu and Hui Neng vis-a-vis the Northern vs Southern Schools conflict. These scholars found that there was not much difference in philosophy between Shen Hsiu and Hui Neng. Through involvement with the Chinese Imperial Palace, Shen Hui got himself appointed as the Seventh Patriarch and thus the actual history of Zen had been changed. You can refer to and its references for further details. I am not a scholar, so please judge for yourself the papers written by these modern scholars. But it is not just one or two persons, but several scholars have written that The Platform Sutra is the creative work of one monk called Shen Hui.  

My personal thoughts on this is that our Buddha Dharma is not dependent on originality of the Buddhist scriptures. Rather it is on the principles that lies within the scripture. In this case, even though the stories in the Platform Sutra may not be true, there are still some principles relating to the Sudden and Gradual Enlightenment that one could learn. I interpret that Sudden vs Gradual Enlightenment in a different perspective. I see these two opposing approaches to enlightenment as actually akin to the Ultimate and Conventional Truths talked about by both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. So, for me, I need not have to pick whether it is gradual or sudden enlightenment that is the better truth (is there such a thing?). Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen described the two truths as two sides of the same hand. Yes, gradual and sudden enlightenment is not for us to pick and choose which one is the more true. There is no Tom, Dick and Harry that can suddenly gain Enlightenment without any prior practice. And yet, any Tom, Dick and Harry is fundamentally enlightened by nature.

The Northern and Southern Schools of Chan Buddhism soon vanish and instead there is Rinzai and Soto (Lin Chi and Tsao Tung) schools now. But the Northern Chan thoughts are said to spread over to Tibet, Korea and Japan before it ceased to be a school by identity. In Tun-Huang, China (the site of the famous Tun-Huang caves), Tibetan Buddhism and Chan met and there was much exchange of ideas and debates/discussions resulting in the famous Samye debate, where Kamalashila is said to have won over the Chan counterpart. The Chinese Buddhism that we have today is probably in some ways due to the exchanges that happened there at Tun-Huang. For example, the Chinese Buddhists probably learned the famous Om Mani Padme Hum and other mantras from the Tibetan lamas there. That's probably how a little of the mantric tradition and teachings got into the Chinese Mahayana tradition. In my blog-post, on "How Ho-Shan Mahayana lost the debate", that blog gave  mostly the Tibetan Buddhist side of the story but I ended it saying that there was probably much misunderstanding on both sides. After reading these scholarly papers, I am more certain that there was indeed much misunderstanding. The truth is modern scholars themselves are uncertain who actually won. There is also much doubt as to whether they understood each other during the debate due to language barriers. They only argue to the other based on secondary or third level hand-down knowledge they obtained from others. For example, when Zen talks about "no thought" it is not the completely no thought as explained by Tibetan Masters. It is not the dhyana (or Jhana) of non-thought. Some Theravadian masters have no issues with their disciples going into Jhanas, but the Tibetan Buddhist and Zen Masters certainly have issues with going into Jhana levels. So, for me, I think there are more similarities than differences in philosophy. Hence some of the perceived superiority of Zen over Tibetan Buddhism or vice-versa is really only based on "perception". Of course, there are philosophical points that one have and the other does not. But I see those as unique points or "skillful means" that are catering to specific types of sentient beings.  If you are more suitable for Zen, then take up Zen. If you are more suitable for Tibetan Buddhism, then follow a good Lama.

To round up, after reading those scholarly papers on Zen, I think there is much respect one has to give to Ho Shang Mahayana. The paper described him as probably an intelligent monk. Tibetan Buddhist texts may somewhat cast him in a negative light but I am sure we can forgive them due to their misunderstanding. Sometimes we too hear one side of the story and not the other. If you are not interested in Zen, there is only so much you know. And vice-versa for Tibetan Buddhism. But it's okay. You walk your own path.   

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