Ch'an Masters: Hui Hai

Hui Hai

On Sudden Illumination

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Awakening to the Way | Blofeld's Commentary on the Treatise | Buddha, Dharma, Sangha | Confucianism, Taoism & Buddhism | Deliverance | Deliverance: How Long? | Can a Despised Man Find Enlightenment? | Diamond Sutra | Doubt of Absolute | Effectual Answers | Envy | Hound of Heaven | Interview with Ma Tsu | What is the Middle Way? | Not Dwelling on Anything | Refraining from Thinking | The Six Heretics | Tao

Interview with Ma Tsu

Hui Hai as a young man traveled to the monastery of the renowned Ch'an Master Ma Tsu (d. 788) and had the following first interview:

Ma Tsu: What do you hope to gain by coming here?
Hui Hai: I have come seeking the Buddha-Dharma [the way to Truth].
Ma Tsu: Instead of looking to the treasure house which is your very own, you have left home and gone wandering far away. What for?....
Hui Hai: Please tell me to what you alluded when you spoke of a treasure house of my own.
Ma Tsu: That which asked the question is your treasure house. It contains absolutely everything you need and lacks nothing at all. It is there for you to use freely, so why this vain search for something outside yourself?

From Blofeld's commentary on the Hui Hai Treatise:

"An important technique aimed at that perfect mind-control by which the achievementless achievement is achieved is that of dhyana (here meaning ch'an-ting or sazen [sitting meditation]), whereby the mind is turned inward upon itself and the innermost recesses of our being are so well explored that we at last come face to face with that unsullied Mind which is neither yours nor mine, nor anybody else's, and yet discoverable in all of us."

The Hound of Heaven

The Buddha does not flee from men, it is men who flee the Buddha.

The Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra says: "If their minds grasp the Dharma, they will still cling to the notion of an ego (a being and a life); if their minds grasp the Non-Dharma, they will still cling to the notion of an ego. Therefore we should not grasp at and hold onto the notions either of Dharma or Non-Dharma." This is holding the true Dharma. If you understand this doctrine, that is true deliverance. That, indeed, is reaching the gate of nonduality. [Hui Hai's treatise is packed with quotes. In addition to being named the Great Pearl, he could be called the Great Quoter - another similarity to Yours Truly!]

What is Awakening to the Way?

The nature of the Absolute is void and yet not void.... A sutra says: "Understand that one point and a thousand others will accordingly grow clear; misunderstand that one and ten thousand delusions will encompass you. He who holds to that one has no more problems to solve." This is the great marvelous awakening to the Way (Truth).

Can a Despised Man Find Enlightenment?

Bodhi is attainable at the very moment we make up our minds to achieve it....

Q: Do Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism really amount to one doctrine or to three?

A: Employed by men of great capacity, they are the same.... all of them spring forth from the functioning of the one self-nature.... Whether a man remains deluded or gains Illumination depends upon himself, not upon differences or similarity of doctrine.

Once a commentator on the Vimalakirti Sutra said, It is written in our sutra: "You should regard the six heretics as your teachers. After you have joined the Order, you should be misled by them and take part in their fall.... You should vilify the Buddha and destroy the Dharma. You should not belong to the Sangha and you should not attain deliverance. If you can behave like this, you may take my food."

When Subhuti, one of Buddha's disciples, knocked at Vimalakirti's door and asked for food, the Upasaka [meditator] spoke the above words. The development of a universal mind, which alone can enable them to reach their goal, is above such dualities as avoiding heretics, revering the Buddha, protecting the Dharma, joining the Order, and so forth. The six heretics are the six senses; though they constantly mislead us, we cannot get away from them to find the Absolute elsewhere. In other words, we should realize the Absolute from the very midst of relativities and contraries.

Q: Please tell us how to achieve deliverance.

A: Never having been bound, you have no need to seek deliverance. Straightforward functioning and straightforward conduct cannot be surpassed.

Q: Does this apply even to those who have yet to perceive their own nature?

A: Your not having perceived your own nature does not imply that you lack that nature. Why so? Because perception itself IS that nature....

John Blofeld, the translator of The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai: On Sudden Illumination, tells us that Hui Hai [Ta-chu Hui-hai; 8th century A.D.; pronounced wee hi] entered a monastery in his home town as a child. Later he journeyed to the monastery of Ma Tsu, a disciple of the sixth patriarch Hui-neng. Hui Hai recorded his initial interview with Ma Tsu (see left column), which shows the humor, confrontational style and ability to go directly to the heart of the problem typical of the enlightened man who is also a teacher.

Hui Hai said that during the interview he realized his mind, becoming enlightened. He stayed with Ma Tsu for six years then returned to his home monastery to care for its aging master. There he composed his famous sastra [scripture], A Treatise on the Essential Gateway to Truth by Means of Instantaneous Awakening.

The manuscript was taken by another monk to Ma Tsu, who read it and declared, "In Yuëh Chou there is now a great pearl; its lustre penetrates everywhere and freely without obstruction." Hui Hai thus became known as the Great Pearl - pearl also being a play on words with his lay surname (Chu), which has the same sound as the Chinese word for pearl.

Several items of the story don't add up for me. One is that after his supposed enlightenment upon his first interview with Ma Tsu he stayed there for six years. Having had an enlightened teacher, I can't see that happening. I think he would have felt the need to go out on his own and find others to help, which seems to be part of the awakening to our true nature. Another is that he didn't compose his treatise until six years later, and this before he had any pupils. A third is that Ma Tsu supposedly gave his seal of approval after reading the treatise but not while Hui Hai was with him. I had the feeling that Hui Hai's mentality was much like my own, and I (therefore?) found myself suspicious of his reliability when I first read his treatise! There are obvious parallels with Hui-neng's autobiography, which I assume was well-known to Ma Tsu and his disciples, so the idea of instant enlightenment upon first contact with a teacher or his words, followed later by a full realization of one's essential nature and then a long hiatus before beginning to teach, may have been copied by Hui Hai or his biographer - or it may represent the repetition of an actual pattern.

In any case, upon review I find his treatise impressive and inspiring, and Blofeld was a serious seeker and student of "the way" who respected Hui Hai's teaching (see left column for his specific comment), so let's take a look at some of the items in the treatise, which was done in question and answer form.

What is the Middle Way?

A: It signifies the extremes.
Q: I inquired about the middle way; why do you say it signifies the extremes?
A: Extremes are only valid in contradistinction to the middle way. If at first you do not postulate extremes, from what can you derive the concept of a middle way? This middle you are talking about was first used in relation to extremes. Hence we should realize that the middle and extremes owe their existence to their mutual dependence and that all of them are transient.

Q: A little while ago you spoke of refraining from thinking (nien), but you did not finish your explanation.

A: It means not fixing your mind upon anything, anywhere, but totally withdrawing it from the phenomena surrounding you, so that even the thought (szu) of seeking for something does not remain; it means that your mind, confronted by all the forms composing your environment, remains placid and motionless. This abstaining from all thought whatever is called REAL thought.... If you do not employ the method of Sudden Illumination, you will be like a jackal following and imitating a lion but unable to become a lion even after hundreds and thousands of aeons.

colorful plumage


Do not vaunt your own virtues nor envy the ability of others. Examine your own actions; do not hold up the faults of others. Thus nowhere will you encounter obstruction, and you will naturally enjoy happiness. I will summarize all this in the form of a gatha:

Forbearance is the best of ways;
But first dismiss both 'self' and 'other.'
When things occur, make no response -
And thus achieve true Bodhikaya.

Q: What are the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha? What are the Three Jewels in One Substance? We beg you, Master, to explain.

A: Mind is the Buddha, and it is needless to use this Buddha to seek the Buddha. Mind is the Dharma, and it is needless to use this Dharma to seek the Dharma. Buddha and Dharma are not separate entities, and their togetherness forms the Sangha. Such is the meaning of the Three Jewels in One Substance.... Our Nature, which is intrinsically pure, does not rely on any practice in order to achieve its own state. Only the arrogant claim that there are practice and realization. The real world is without obstruction and its function is, under all circumstances, inexhaustible. It is without beginning or end. A man of high spirituality is capable of sudden Illumination....

A monk, doubting the existence of Mind [Absolute], demanded that, if Hui Hai maintained its existence, then bring it forth and show him.

Do you believe there will be a morrow? Hui Hai asked.

Yes, certainly.

Bring it forth and show it to me!.... You personally do not perceive your own nature, but this does not mean that your nature does not exist.... Yours is a case of not seeing the sun, not of there being no sun.

Q: I am always hearing talk of The Way (Tao), but I do not know who can perceive it.
A: Those possessing the Wisdom Eye can perceive it.
Q: I am very fond of the Mahayana, but how shall I study it with success?
A: He who awakens (to Mind) can achieve success; he who is not awakened to it cannot.
Q: What shall I do to be awakened to it?
A: It comes only by true intuition.
Q: What is it like?
A: It resembles nothing.
Q: If so, it should be ultimately non-existent.
A: That which is non-existent is not ultimate.
Q: Then it must exist.
A: It does exist, but it is formless.
Q: If I do not awaken to it, what shall I do?
A: It is of your own accord that Your Reverence [a visiting Dharma Master] fails to awaken to it; nobody is preventing you.

Effectual Answers

Sutras are made of paper covered with words printed in ink, but printed words, paper and ink are without self-nature; so from whence will those divine responses capable of fulfilling your wishes come? Effectual answers come from proper use of the mind by the person who reads the sutras; and this explains how the divine power works in response to an appeal from a living being.

Q: How much time do we need to attain deliverance by setting our minds on the practice of the Dharma?

A: Using the mind for practices is like washing dirty things in sticky mud. Prajna is mysterious and wonderful. Itself unbegotten, its mighty functioning is at our service regardless of times and seasons.

Not Letting the Mind Dwell on Anything

You must avoid letting your minds dwell upon anything whatsoever, which implies (being unconcerned with) either deeds or no deeds....

What I mean... is keeping your minds free from hatred and love. This means that you must be able to see attractive things without love for them arising in your minds... and also you must be able to see repulsive things without hatred for them arising in your minds.... You must examine this thoroughly.... Once you have lost a human body, you will not obtain another for millions of aeons. Strive on! Strive on! It is absolutely vital that you come to understand this.

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