Satyalila’s Notes on the Retreat on the Sutra of Hui Neng

‘This retreat has been a long time coming,’ was one of the reflections shared on our first morning together.  Fifteen of us had gathered to begin a week of study, meditation, discussion, ritual, and pariyaya (hearing the sutra – and its companion, the Diamond Sutra – read aloud).

Although the Sutra of Hui Neng is one of two foundational Dharma texts which Bhante Sangharakshita read aged 16, it has never received a lot of attention.  There was a seminar in 1974 and in 1988 Bhante began a year’s one-to-one study of the text with Paramartha, who went on to become his friend and companion for over 3 decades.  Paramartha’s notes of these study sessions were shared with friends at the time and he subsequently typed them up and augmented them with his own careful study of other sources and scholars.  But all this material was dormant until the Adhisthana Teaching Kula came into being in 2020, and Subhuti suggested that Paramartha lead a retreat on it.

I’d originally booked onto the retreat as a retreatant, keen to explore this early Ch’an/Zen text, with its resonances with the Hsin Hsin Ming (an even earlier Ch’an text which I’d been introduced to as a Mitra by Varakhanti in the Croydon Wholefood Shop.)  Paramartha then asked me to give him a hand with running the retreat, partly because of my inclination and experience in coming at things ‘poetry-wise’ (rather than ‘scholar-wise’).

Thus we set off on our journey of exploration into this remarkable work which tells the story of Hui Neng, an illiterate wood-cutter whose spontaneous insight upon hearing the Diamond Sutra eventually led to his becoming the Sixth Zen Patriarch.  We explored the first four chapters of the sutra which cover Hui Neng’s autobiography, repentance, prajna and samadhi & prajna.

The latter chapter is probably the one most familiar to us in the movement as Bhante speaks of it in the last lecture of his series on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path – ‘Perfect Samadhi’.  There he reminds us that Hui Neng describes the non-difference of samadhi and prajna, likening them to a lamp and its light.

Major themes in the sutra include the ‘nature of mind’ (or ‘essence of mind’), transmission, Going for Refuge, ‘sudden’ and ‘gradual’ awakening and how ‘the whole of the Buddhist life is not in merely seeing into the truth, but in living it, experiencing it, so that there will be no dualism in one’s life of seeing and living: seeing must be living, and living seeing, with no hiatus between them except in language.’ The latter is a quote from The Eternal Legacy where Sangharakshita is summarising the Lankavatara Sutra, a major influence on early Ch’an.  On this retreat, I was fascinated to learn of the integral relationship between this sutra, The Awakening of Faith in Mahayana and the Sutra of Hui Neng.  Too much to unpack here! 

A lovely moment was when Paramartha produced – from a white silk offering scarf – the actual notebook in which Bhante had copied by hand the whole of The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana.  The occasion of the acquisition of the notebook is described in The Rainbow Road.

Paramartha asked me to contribute a talk about poetry, which formed part of a more ‘right-brained’ day around the middle of the retreat.  Tracing the lineage of poetry back from Basho (in the C17th), via Saigyo (C12th), Kukai (C8-9th) to Huigo (born a few decades after Hui Neng’s death) the talk was an opportunity to explore things more imaginatively from the point of view of ‘eternity’ (in the Blakean sense in which Bhante uses the term in ‘The Buddha & Bodhisattva, Eternity and Time’).

Although we were really only able to ‘scratch the surface’ of this great sutra in our week together, we shared a strong sense that Bhante was ‘with us’.  Paramartha’s unique experience of Bhante, together with his careful unpacking of Bhante’s perspective on the sutra shone a fascinating light deep into the foundations of his vision and presentation of the Dharma. On the last morning, it was very moving also to hear Paramartha share some personal reflections on his ‘teacher-disciple’ with Bhante and how that evolved over time.

One of the important themes in the Sutra (as I mentioned above) is pariyaya – ‘revolving’ or repeating a Sutra in one’s heart mind’.  The idea is that we don’t just hear/read a Sutra once or twice and move on, but return to it again and let its meaning gradually permeate us on all levels, not just the rational level.  We did a certain amount of pariyaya on this retreat, but there were requests at the end that a further retreat on The Sutra of Hui Neng be run at some point.  So watch this space…

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