The Platform Sutra's Nonabiding

"If you can clear away grasping mind, you will be permeated with non obstruction."

The Platform Sutra's Nonabiding
One bit of the nonabiding dharmadhatu.

The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor begins with Huineng’s first person account of his dharma journey, including two awakenings (first when hearing a monk in a marketplace in the South chanting The Diamond Sutra, and then in Hongren's monastery in the North when Hongren recites The Diamond Sutra to Huineng late in the night), and a bunch of dharma drama.

The second section of the text, "Prajna,” unpacks and applies the essential teaching of The Diamond Sutra that led to Huineng's second awakening: "Abide nowhere and let the mind come forth."

The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch
Here is the record of the life and teachings of Huineng, the influential Sixth Chan (Zen) Patriarch. Complete in one volume.

In this post, I'll offer translations of two essential passages from The Platform Sutra. First, I'll offer seven translations of the above sentence that led to Huineng's definitive awakening, then work with one short passage from the second section with both John R. McRae's translation and my own. My aim in the first section is to help you get a bead on the meaning of "Abide nowhere and let the mind come forth" (by exhausting all beads), viewed through the lenses of seven translators. In the second part, my aim is to give you a sense of my translation process, and in so doing help you deepen your understanding of the fore-mentioned short passage. And as a result of the choices you see me make while translating the passage, you might also take translations more lightly.

So let's get on with it.

Oh, by the way, in the oldest known version of The Platform Sutra, found in the Dunhuang caves, the key sentence from The Diamond Sutra that catalyzed Huineng's awakening,Abide nowhere and let the mind come forth," is nowhere to be found. Talk about proof that the teaching of nonabiding does not abide!

Mogao Caves
Situated at a strategic point along the Silk Route, at the crossroads of trade as well as religious, cultural and intellectual influences, the 492 cells and cave sanctuaries in Mogao are famous for their statues and…

Abide nowhere and let the mind come forth

Although the Chinese (應無所住而生其心) can be rendered in various ways, all the translations listed below express the essential point similarly. When translating a text from classical Chinese to English it is hard (aka, impossible) to get something exactly right and oh so easy to get it wrong. With this passage, although it is also hard to get it exactly right, it is also oh so hard to get it wrong.

The Platform Sutra is a frequently translated text so I'll just share seven of the more well-known versions with a bow of gratitude to those who've gone before us who did their best to pass this incredible dharma our way. The translations are offered here in order of publication date (or translation date, in the case of the first one):

"Depending upon nothing, you must manifest your mind." Sokei-an Sasaki, Original Nature: Zen Comments on the Sixth Patriarch's Platform Sutra, 2010 (based on talks from the 1930's).
"You must not be attached [to things], yet must produce a mind which stays in no place." Philip B. Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, 1967.
"One should use one's mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachments." A. F. Price & Wong Mou-lam, The Diamond Sutra & The Sutra of Hui-neng, 1969.
"Activate the mind without dwelling on anything." Thomas Cleary, The Sutra of Hui-neng, Grand Master of Zen, 1998.
"Responding to the nonabiding, yet generating the mind." John R. McRae, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, 2000.
“You should give rise to a thought without being attached to anything." Red Pine, The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng, 2008.
“Abiding nowhere, awakened mind arises." Shodo Harada, Not One Single Thing: A Commentary on the Platform Sutra, 2018.

Got it? "Abide nowhere and let the mind come forth."

Do not linger

In the second of ten sections of The Platform Sutra, "Prajna," Huineng takes the high seat and gives his first dharma talk. In it, he points to the awake-truth of "Abide nowhere and let the mind come forth" by aligning with and defining the Great Wisdom Beyond Wisdom (mahaprajnaparamita).

Here is McRae's translation of the short passage from the second section that I want to highlight:

Good friends, one should not reside within or without, and one’s going and coming should be autonomous. One who is able to eradicate the mind of attachment will [attain] penetration unhindered. Those who are able to cultivate this practice are fundamentally no different from [what is described in] the Prajnā Sutra.

And my translation:

Good and knowledgeable friends, inside and outside are not a place. Going and coming are sovereign. If you can clear away grasping mind, you will be permeated with nonobstruction. If you can cultivate this practice, you will be one with the Prajna Sutra with no distinction.

Why do I say it like this?

First, "good and knowledgeable friends" (善知識; Sanskrit, kalyana mitra; Japanese, zen chishiki) is used seventy-nine times in the text, so I think it needs a bit fuller translation. Katagiri Roshi translated kalyana mitra as "good knowing friend" - which works too.

Huineng uses "good and knowledgeable friends" for a transitional phrase throughout the text and also as a respectful address for his audience. It has a much different feeling, for example, than shouting, "Yo!" I know of no other text where "good and knowledgeable friends" is used as a transitional phrase. This is a curious feature of The Platform Sutra.

About "good and knowledgeable friends," the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism has (slightly modified):

A good friend or teacher who knows one well, and is able to advise properly concerning spiritual matters. A reliable teacher; someone whose mastery of Buddhism is sufficient to allow them to serve as a reliable teacher. In Chan/Zen Buddhism it usually means oneʼs own master.

There are two other types of "good and knowledgeable friends." The first is someone who supports your practice financially or materially. The second is a sangha peer, usually a senior, who inspires your practice.

Given that Huineng had entered the life of a homeleaver just before this talk, he was junior to everyone in the audience. So it seems to be the last type of "good and knowledgeable friends" that Huineng uses throughout.

In the passage at hand, after Huineng calls to his audience, he says simply, "...inside and outside are not a place." "Inside and outside" brings us to the very heart of delusion - that the is self is inside the body-mind somewhere and the rest of the universe is outside. Huineng undermines that assumption.

"...Are not a place" (不住), is more literally to not abide, to not live somewhere, to have no home, no country, no static point of reference. 不住 also means not to attach, not to linger, not to dwell on some object of thought. It is similar to the phrase "abide nowhere" in "Abide nowhere and let the mind come forth." In order to awaken and practice wisdom, Huineng is saying, do not linger in the common framing of inside and outside.

After challenging common sense notions about inside and outside, Huineng takes up going and coming. He says something surprising here too, that going and coming are "sovereign" (自由) or "autonomous" in McRae's translation.

What is Huineng's meaning?

The characters point to both sovereignty and being free, unfettered, and liberated. The Digital Dictionary of Buddhism says that 自由 means that one is "... not trapped by compulsions ... a synonym for the state of enlightenment."

In other words, when the distinction between inside and outside collapse, going and coming can be the activity of freedom itself.

Huineng then shares his experience, and the experience of the many who've undergone the reversal of awakening, that "If you can clear away grasping mind, you will be permeated with nonobstruction" (無礙; Japanese, muge). Or in McRae's version, "One who is able to eradicate the mind of attachment will [attain] penetration unhindered." It's like saying you'll be full of emptiness.

"Clear away" (除) is another commonly used character in the text, occurring twenty-two times. 除 means "to do away with, get rid of, clear away, cleanse, discard" (Digital Dictionary of Buddhism). McRae uses “eradicate” here, and although it is a fair rendering, it doesn't feel quite in tune with Huineng's teaching. "Clear away" seems strong enough for being "permeated with nonobstruction."

And instead of "permeated," McRae uses "penetration." Again, McRae seems overly aggressive. The characters, 通達, have a complex range of meanings in English, including to penetrate as well as to pervade and to permeate. Penetration has such a strong subject/object connotation (i.e., a penetrator and that which is penetrated) that I prefer permeate's less dualistic connotations. I'm reminded of Dongshan's: "You are not it, it actually is you."

Huineng concludes this short passage with this promise: "If you can cultivate this practice, you will be one with the Prajna Sutra with no distinction." Or McRae's "Those who are able to cultivate this practice are fundamentally no different from [what is described in] the Prajnā Sutra."

What is the significance of this?

Remember that Huineng had both his first kensho and his more definitive awakening while hearing The Diamond Sutra, one of the wisdom, or prajna, sutras. In his second experience with the Fifth Ancestor, he heard the phrase, "Abide nowhere and let the mind come forth." At that moment, inside/outside collapsed, the going/coming of the sound of the Fifth Ancestor's voice reciting The Diamond Sutra became sovereign (i.e, free and unfettered). All grasping was cleared away, and Huineng was nonobstruction. "Abide nowhere and let the mind come forth."

In so doing, so-called Huineng became the beating heart of prajna, with nothing left out. At that time, Huineng tells us that he became "... intent on circulating this liberative dharma and causing those who study the Way to realize the wisdom of sudden awakening."

And here it is for you, whoever you are.

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