The Dharma that the Sixth Patriarch inherited was transmitted to China by the twenty-eighth Patriarch in India, Great Master Bodhidharma. Patriarch Bodhidharma had observed that the roots for the Great Vehicle were mature in China, and decided that he ought to bring the Great Vehicle Buddhism to China. Therefore, undaunted by the distance and the rigors of the journey, he came to China.
But after he arrived in China, Bodhiruci and his followers were jealous of him. They made many attempts to poison the Patriarch to death, but never succeeded in doing so. Later Patriarch Bodhidharma found a successor to whom he could transmit the Dharma--Great Master Huike. He transmitted the robe and bowl to Great Master Huike, and then he entered Nirvana.
Great Master Huike was the Second Patriarch. His former name had been Shenguang (Spiritual Light), because when he was born, his parents saw a golden-armoured spiritual being emit brilliant light. This Patriarch was extremely intelligent and had an excellent memory. He could read ten lines in the time it took an ordinary person to read one. In a gathering of a hundred people, all talking at once, he could clearly distinguish each conversation.
This Patriarch, however, had a huge temper. If someone disagreed with him, he was ready to fight. Before the age of forty, he always wore a string of iron recitation beads, even when he was explaining the Sutras or speaking the Dharma. He used them to restore justice wherever he saw injustice being done. That's why, when he saw Patriarch Bodhidharma, he used his beads to hit the Patriarch. But then he knelt for nine years and cut off one of his arms. Think about it. If he didn't have a temper, how could he have chopped off his arm with one stroke? It was his temper--his anger--that enabled him to cut off his arm. His temper displayed great humaneness, great courage, great intelligence, and great wisdom.
Later, the disciples of Bodhiruci tried to obstruct and kill him out of jealousy. For this reason, Great Master Huike feigned insanity. But during that time he continued to teach those people who had affinities with him. Even though he was pretending to be crazy, he still had affinities with living beings, and many people came to believe in him.
The Third Patriarch was Dharma Master Sengcan, who lived in the Sui dynasty. No one knew his origins or his lay name. When he first came to visit the Second Patriarch, his body was covered with repulsive sores like those of a leper.
“Where are you from?” asked the Second Patriarch. “What are you doing here?”
“I have come to take refuge with the High Master, and to study and cultivate the Buddhadharma,” answered Master Sengcan.
“You have a loathsome disease and your body is filthy. How can you study the Buddhadharma?” asked the Second Patriarch.
“I am a sick man and you are a high master, he said, but in our true minds where is the difference?”
The Third Patriarch, Dharma Master Sengcan, also feigned insanity just as his teacher had. He went around quietly and taught living beings. He said, You all think that to sit in full lotus is the best way to die. Watch! I'll demonstrate my independence over birth and death in a special way!” Saying that, he went up to a big tree in front of the dining hall where a thousand Bhikshus had been invited to a vegetarian feast. He leapt up and grapped a branch, and although he didn't hang himself, he died right then and there. While swinging from the tree by one hand, he quietly entered Nirvana.
The Fourth Patriarch was Dhyana Master Daoxin (Faith in the Way) of the Tang dynasty. His surname was Sima, and his name was Xin. His family was well-respected. He left the home-life at a young age to cultivate the Way, and lived to the age of seventy-two. For sixty years he sat constantly in meditation, never lying down to rest. Although he seldom opened his eyes, when he did, everyone shook with terror. Such was the magnitude of his awesome virtue.
The realm of his achievement was inconceivable. Once when he was cultivating in the mountains, the nearby city of Hubei was besieged by bandits for more than a hundred days. He went into the city to teach the officials and citizens there to recite “Mahaprajnaparamita.” After they had recited for a time, the bandits fled and water reappeared in the wells. This is the response based on the Way which Master Daoxin evoked.
When the Master encountered stubborn living beings, he taught them to discard their bad habits and become good. Those incorrigible beings, however, often discarded what was good and continued doing evil. They didn't follow his directions. But the Master persisted and by using all kinds of skill-in-means caused these stubborn living beings to realize their mistakes and reform. He propagated the Buddhadharma for more than forty years, transforming living beings greater in number than seedlings of rice, stalks of hemp, shoots of bamboo, or blades of grass.
The Fifth Patriarch was Great Master Hongren (Vast Patience). He lived in Huangmei County near Double Peak Mountain in Hubei Province. His family name was Zhou. When he was seven, he was sent to a monastery to cultivate. During the daytime, he worked diligently and bore the toil and complaints. No matter who criticized him, he would accept it happily and reform his faults. That's how he cultivated day after day when he was only seven, doing all the chores in the temple during the daytime, and vigorously applying effort in Chan meditation at night. He did't let a single moment go by in vain.
Why was the Fifth Patriarch named Hongren, “Vast Patience”? It was because he could be patient with anything. Even what was unbearable, he would bear. What he could not yield, he would yield. Great Master Hongren's physique was tall and big. He was eight feet tall and had an extraordinary appearance. His eyes were very bright, and he did not casually open his mouth to talk. He always spoke and acted with great caution. In every moment, whether he was walking around or standing still, awake or asleep, he was working hard at his cultivation. He never let the time go to waste.
The Fifth Patriarch was very strict in his observance of the precepts. He was especially earnest in his cultivation. Once when the city of Hubei was besieged by bandits, Great Master Hongren immediately decided he had to rescue the city's residents. He descended East Mountain and entered the city. When the bandits looked at Great Master Hongren, what they saw were golden-armored heavenly troops seeming to descend from the heavens, armed with jeweled weapons, manifesting their awesome military strength. They were so terrified that they threw down their helmets and armor and fled.
The Sixth Patriarch was Great Master Huineng (Kind and Able). He was born during the Zhenguan Reign of the Tang Dynasty. His ancestors were from Fanyang. At the time of his birth, a beam of light shined in space and a strange fragrance filled the room. After being born, he did not drink his mother's milk. At night, spirits appeared and poured sweet dew over him. And so as the days went by, he gradually grew up. Since his family was very poor, he had to gather wood to sell in order to support himself.
He grew up, and at the age of twenty-four--when he was already an adult--he still had to gather wood to sell. One day he had to deliver some wood to a customer's home. As he collected the money, he heard someone reciting a Sutra nearby. When he heard the person recite to the line,“One should produce the thought which dwells nowhere,” he suddenly became enlightened. Then he went to Huangmei to seek certification.
From the time he was born, the Sixth Patriarch was different from others. When the Fifth Patriarch saw him, he recognized that the Sixth Patriarch was a vessel for the Dharma, one who would achieve great things in Buddhism, but he didn't let his feelings show. Instead, he told the Sixth Patriarch to go to the threshing room to thresh rice. And so he went there to toil at threshing rice. As he threshed the rice, he worked on his cultivation. One day, the Fifth Patriarch asked him,
”Is the rice ready?”
”The rice has long been ready,” he replied.
The Fifth Patriarch then transmitted the robe and bowl--the articles of faith--to him. He thus inherited the lineage of the Buddhas and became the Sixth Patriarch.
Later the Sixth Patriarch returned south and hid for sixteen years, during which he concentrated on his cultivation and nurtured his blessings and wisdom. He lived among hunters, mingling with worldly people. He concealed his talents and went along with mundane customs, softened his character, and dissolved internal complications. He hid among the hunters and waited for sixteen years. Then, on the eight day of the first month in the first year of the reign period Yifeng (A.D. 676), the cyclical year bingzi, he met Dharma Master Yinzong at Guangxiao Monastery in Guangzhou Province. Dharma Master Yinzong shaved his head [so that he could leave home and become a Bhikshu]. On the eight day of the second month, the complete precepts were transmitted to the Sixth Patriarch. After receiving the precepts, he spoke Dharma to the fourfold assembly. He explained the Proper Dharma Eye Treasury and the wonderful mind of Nirvana, the Mind Dharma of the Real Mark which is without marks, which directly points at the mind and causes people to see their natures and become Buddhas.
Now that we are studying the Patriarchs of the past, everyone should turn the light around and shine it within. Each person should ask himself, “Which Patriarch do I want to be like? Which Patriarch is a model that I want to follow in cultivation?” We have to think about it in this way for the Sutra lecture to be of any use. This way, the lecture can help us in body and mind, and with regard to the matter of birth and death. If, after hearing the Sutra, the Sutra is still the Sutra and you are still you, so you are separate from the Sutra and the Patriarchs, then you will never gain any benefit. We have to “emulate the virtuous qualities we see in others, and examine ourselves when we see what is not virtuous.” Whichever Patriarch we admire the most, we should strive to emulate. Then we will not have wasted our time.