Who is Daikan Eno?


OK, this one was a bit embarrassing. I decided to figure out who Daikan Eno was, as I had previously written that “Daikan Eno and Tozan Ryokai are the ones I know least about.” It turns out, of course, that he is one of the most famous Ancestors of all, the revered Huineng, Sixth (and last) formal Ch’an / Zen ancestor! For some reason, though, we tend to remember him by his Chinese rather than his Japanese name, so I never made the connection.1 In the words of that great ancestor, Homer Simpson, “Doh!”

I’ve heard the story of Huineng many times – you know it: the illiterate peasant who wrote the winning entry in the “Succeed the Fifth Ancestor” poetry competition? Yes, you probably do, but I’ll rehash it in any case. I’ll refer to the Sixth Ancestor as Huineng throughout, as that seems to be the common usage in English.

So then: Who is Daikan Eno? It’s Huineng, of course!

Life of Huineng

Even a bit of research reveals the trouble with a biography of Daijan Huineng (Jp. Daikan Eno, 638-713 CE): what we think we know is almost certainly not the truth. For those that haven’t come across the term, this neatly illustrates the difference between hagiography and biography. A biography is the story of the life of a person – it can sometimes be quite critical and in many ways tries to evaluate that person’s life. A hagiography, on the other hand, is the story of a saint or bodhisattva, and is often focused on their religious or spiritual importance, true or not. The term ‘hagiography’ actually comes from Christian studies of saints and their miracles. And in the case of Huineng, the biography and the hagiography seem to have very little in common!

Hagiography: Huineng and the ancestral succession

The story that I already knew of Huineng was the story that is recorded in the Platform Sutra, which is attributed to Huineng himself (but see the next section). It is one of the founding myths of the Zen school and can be found in many versions.2 Anyone writing about how the Zen school was founded will recount this tale, but please excuse me while I do exactly the same even though I suspect you’ve heard this once or twice before…

Huineng was from Southern China, the illiterate son of a disgraced former government official who died when Huineng was very young. He grew up as, essentially, a peasant, and one day was on his way to sell firewood when he heard someone reciting the Diamond Sutra.  Immediately, he had a great kensho, and soon he set out for the monastery of Hongren (Jp: Daiman Konin, 601 – 674), the Fifth Ancestor of Zen, who was famous for his teachings on the Diamond Sutra. When he got there, Hongren recognised his wisdom, but set him to work at menial tasks for some months, in order not to get the monks riled.


In time, Hongren was approaching his end, and needed to secure the succession of the entire Zen patriarchy. Favourite to succeed was the head monk, Shenxiu (Jp: Jinshū, 606?-706). Hongren set a task: in order to be considered for the succession, candidates must present their understanding in a poem. Shenxiu wrote his poem on a corridor wall:

The body is a Bodhi tree,
the mind a standing mirror bright.
At all times polish it diligently,
and let no dust alight.

Huineng heard this poem (remember, he could not read), and immediately realised that the poet had not seen the fundamental nature. He asked another monk to write his response on the same wall:

Daman Hongren
Daman Hongren

Bodhi is fundamentally without any tree;
The bright mirror is also not a stand.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?

Master Hongren saw this response and went to see Huineng while the latter was pounding rice. “Is the rice ready?” asked Hongren in his inscrutable way (and one that would not give the game away to other monks and servants around no doubt). “The rice has been ready for a long time: it only awaits sieving,” replied Huineng.3 Hongren, in similarly coded fashion, told him to visit later that night. When Huineng went to see him a bit after midnight, Master Hongren expounded on the Diamond Sutra – the first actual teaching that Huineng received – and upon hearing one particular line (“Responding to the non-abiding, yet generating the mind,” if you must know…!), Huineng had a profound enlightenment. Hongren passed to him the robe and the bowl that signified that Huineng was now the sixth generation ancestor of Zen in China (with Bodhidharma having been the first).

Rice-pounding stone
The very rice-pounding stone used by Huineng, apparently (source)

Huineng had to flee the monastery in fear of his life, because the other monks were consumed with jealousy. He left and went south, but eventually a monk by the name of Huiming, who had previously been a general before leaving home, caught up to him. Huineng set the robe and the bowl down on a rock and said, “Take them if you can.” Huiming tried, but failed to lift them, and then realised just what he’d been trying to do – he’d intended killing the man his master had passed on the bowl and robe to. He fell to his knees and said, “I did not come for the bowl and the robe: I came for the dharma.” Huineng said, “You have come for the dharma: do not think of good or evil. At this time, what is your original face?” The monk was awakened, and recognised Huineng as the new ancestor and as his teacher, and helped him escape.

Huineng wandered China for fifteen years until he felt safe enough to announce himself. When he decided to share his teachings, he went to a certain monastery. As he walked up, he heard two monks arguing about a flag flapping in the wind. “The flag is moving,” said one. “No, the wind is moving,” insisted the other. Huineng addressed them, and said that neither flag nor wind was moving: it was their minds were moving. The head of the monastery recognised that this must be the inheritor of Hongren’s robe and bowl, and after a short ‘dharma combat’, publically recognised him.

Huineng mummy 2
Huineng’s mummy, still on display in China

Huineng ended up establishing his own monastery, and later died at Nanhua Temple, where his mummified body still sits in zazen posture to this day.

Biography: The missing ancestor

So how much of this is true? Well, we have very little way of knowing! Translator and scholar John McRae, though, in the preface to his translation of the Platform Sutra, writes that the life of Huineng:

…is almost totally unknown. He probably taught a style of meditation practice based on the idea of sudden enlightenment, but this was really nothing exceptional for his day. Although he lived in Shaozhou in the far south, where he probably came from a locally prominent family (meaning that he was almost certainly not illiterate), he seems to have had cordial relations with other meditation masters. There is no reliable evidence whatsoever that he was designated the sole successor of his teacher, Hongren of Huangmei, or that he received Bodhidharma’s robe and bowl from Hongren.

So where do we get this story from? It turns out that the Platform Sutra may actually have been written by someone else, not Huineng, as part of the efforts of a monk called Shenhui to promote the Southern (Sudden) school of Ch’an over the Northern (Gradual) school. One of the main thrusts of this was painting Shenxiu – the head monk in the Platform Sutra who writes the first verse – as the opponent to Huineng.

Shenxiu we know quite a lot about, as he was one of the major figures of Ch’an Buddhism of the day, and certainly known in the Imperial Court.  For instance we know when he was at the monastery with Hongren – in fact, we know enough to say with confidence that Shenxiu and Huineng were not there at the same time, so the poetry competition could not really have happened as it is portrayed in the Platform Sutra!

Huineng did exist, but almost all we know of him is propaganda. And it worked: the Northern School of Shenxiu died out, and all the extant Zen, Ch’an, Son (Korean) and Thien (Vietnamese) lineages today descend from the Southern School of Huineng. [Or the Southern School of Shenhui, more accurately!]

Is the truth important?

What a strange question. Of course it is. And yet, of course it isn’t. The story goes that there is an unbroken mind-to-mind transmission from teacher to student that leads down from the Buddha through the Indian masters, the Chinese Ancestors, the Japanese lineage, down to Maezumi, Tenshin Roshi, Keizan Sensei and to us. However, the more we examine this, the more we see that this cannot be literally true.

Huineng (from Wikipedia)
(mummified body)

How important is this? How much faith can we have in a lineage that we now know to be fictitious? If Huineng was not really the sixth ancestor (OK, that might be overstating things a bit!), and if Bodhidharma didn’t really exist at all (more on that in a future post!), then whose lineage are we in? Should we all just give up and join the Theravadins, who have far stronger claims to an unbroken lineage back to the Buddha?

(Obviously I don’t think so or I wouldn’t be writing this on a Zen blog!)

Much of this for me comes back to how we as Westerners inherit the Zen tradition, and what we bring to it. One of the ways in which we are changing Zen as we engage with it is by bringing a far more critical eye to the history and legacy of our transmission. I’m grateful that we are not expected to unquestioningly swallow the myths of old, that we are allowed and encouraged to critique our heritage. Additionally, I stand in wonder as I see us continually not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, which goes against all my pessimistic expectations of humanity!  The message I hear again and again is: question everything, be critical, but get your arse on the zafu and practice. I think the Buddha himself would have been happy with this message.


The story of Huineng is a myth, and it serves some good old mythic purposes – for one, it’s a Hero myth, with the young man setting out on an adventure against the odds, receiving help from various teachers along the way including an archetypal Wise Old Man who sees past the external trappings into the Hero’s true nature and passes on the secret knowledge. There’s even a mythic tale in which Huineng encounters an actual dragon who he tricks and defeats! Eventually after much wandering and conflict, the Hero makes his place in the world and we all live happily ever after.

I’m screeching up on forty and am starting to think of myself as middle-aged (gasp!), so perhaps I’m past that time when hero myths really excite me. For me, there’s another lesson here, and it’s still about stories, but from a more analytic aspect perhaps.

Huineng tearing sutrasHuineng tearing up the sutras, in a 13th-century image showing the iconoclasm of Ch’an / Zen

What has fascinated me is the idea of our founding narratives, and how we hear them, receive and maintain them.  The critical eye of western thought (perhaps our culture’s most precious addition to the traditions that we inherit from The Mysterious East) mean that we don’t mindlessly accept these stories as ‘what really happened’, but can address their truth claims a little more lightly. This lighter grasp lets us reflect more on how we think about these matters. For instance, there’s a level to this narrative about mistrusting institutions. Master Hongren himself did not trust his own monks not to hunt down the illiterate peasant. How odd, that the founding myth of our institutions should be telling us not to trust institutions. Perhaps our ancestors are more critically aware than I give them credit for.

Narratives are interesting – they are way of stating an identity, telling stories about who we are and how we relate to the world. In my practice and life I’ve started to become aware of a whole bunch of narratives I employ to build up this creature called ‘Alasdair’. And hopefully through my practice, I’m able to wear away at some of that. Reflecting on the story of Huineng, I discovered that even the ancient institutions of Zen have their own narratives, and if I’m not careful about how I receive and maintain these narratives and teachings, I end up with another layer of stories between me and ‘reality’, another layer of stuff to grind away at, to wear down until I don’t have anywhere to hang this personal identity on.

And there’s a warning in the story about what happens when we fail to hold on lightly to these myths – we might end up like Huiming, the general who ended up chasing Huineng south after the passing over of the bowl & robe, whose aim was to kill Huineng and presumably pass the robe and bowl to Shenxiu.

It wasn’t Shenxiu who instigated the mob chasing after Huineng. In the Platform Sutra, he’s portrayed as full of doubt and not willing to press the case of the succession, even though the rest of the monastery feels it’s a foregone conclusion. No, Shenxiu is beset by worries about his own motivation and achievement, fretting and “unable to rest either sitting or lying down.” He actually admits to Hongren that he is unable to be a patriarch, so in a sense this is a compassionate portrayal of a man in crisis (the agenda of the writer is clearly all aobut dissing the Gradual School here, but we’re dealing with the mythic now). No, it’s Huiming with his fixed views about who should and shouldn’t be Hongren’s successor that cause the problem.

I’m afraid I don’t see much of myself in Huineng, often I feel like more like Shenxiu, fretting and vacillating, not sure of my understanding. Sometimes, though, I worry that I’m more Huiming, with a set of fixed opinions that I can’t or won’t let go of, occasionally end up pursuing some course or another, only to regret it later when Sensei (or my wife, a friend, or even my son!) brings my motivation into question with a carefully-placed word or question. Then I’m unable to pick up the robe when I find it, I can’t honestly continue with my mission whatever it might be, I have to come face-to-face with myself and reappraise.

Often it’s nothing major, but sometimes perhaps it’s my original face I have to come face-to-face with and really delve deep into who I am to see through the bullshit that I’m producing. Otherwise, I’m not able to see past the stories about who I am and even about what Zen is, and I can’t see the ground beneath my feet.

So for me, the interesting point of the story is in some of the supporting figures, not the protagonist (who’s drawn in pretty idealised, black-and-white terms), that provide the richness for the tale. Again, I’ve gone of seeking the ancestors and ending up somewhere unexpected. I sought Huineng, and ended up identifying with Shenxiu and Huiming, the antagonists!

Notes, references, etc

Just for clarity, here’s a list of the names (and alternate versions) used in the post above:

Japanese Chinese Dates Notes
(Wade Giles system)4 (Pinyin System)4
Daiman Konin (Gunin) Ta-man Hung-jen Daman Hongren 602-675 Fifth Patriarch
Daikan Eno Ta-chien Hui-neng Dajian Huineng 683-713 Sixth Patriarch
Datsu Jinshu Da-tong Shen-hsiu Datong Shenxui 605?-706 Head monk under Hongren, ancestor of the Northern School
? ? Huiming ? General-turned-monk who becomes Huineng’s disciple
Kataku Jinne Ho-tse Shen-hui Heze Shenhui 670-762 Possible author of Platform Sutra, Southern School promoter
  1. Considering he was Chinese, this is of course entirely appropriate – it’s just not entirely consistent as there are many other ancestors from China who we remember by their Japanese equivalent names. Tozan Ryokai, also in our dedication list, is one such… not sure why he’s not remembered so much as Dongshan Liangjie, but there you go.

  2. See some translations of The Platform Sutra at the following links:

  3. Keizan Zenji’s Transmission of the Lamp has this as the moment of enlightenment (Case 33), but that’s not how it’s portrayed in the Platform Sutra.

  4. The reason that you often see two versions of Chinese names is that there’s been a change in the way that we write these in Roman script. The older system is the Wade-Giles system developed in the late nineteenth century, but favoured today is the Pinyin system developed by the Chinese government in the 1950s.

I’ve used all sorts of sources for this, including good ole Wikipedia of course, but have relied quite heavily on the following articles:

Hu Shih. (1953). Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism in China: Its history and method. Philosophy East and West, 3 (1), pp. 3-24. Available at http://www.thezensite.com/ZenEssays/HistoricalZen/Chan_in_China.html.

Thompson, John M.  (2006).  “Huineng”, on the Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy.  Available at http://www.iep.utm.edu/huineng/.