Media Reviews

The Sutra of Huineng: Grand Master of Zen

Translated by Thomas Cleary

Book Review by Mn.Ron Hogen Green, MRO

Master Huineng (638-713) is one of the founding teachers of the Zen school. His is a well-known story: an illiterate boy awakens upon hearing a phrase from the Diamond Sutra, travels long distances to meet the Fifth Zen Ancestor Hongren, and dictates the foundational poem of Zen in response to the limited perspective of the head monastic at Hongren’s monastery. He then goes on to receive dharma transmission and becomes the Great Grand Master of Zen.

Stories like this one are the basis of many koans and dharma discourses that for centuries have been grounded in the details of the Sixth Ancestor’s life. When a discovery of an early manuscript of the sutra in the Tunhuang caves revealed the likelihood that many of these stories have over the life of the sutra been constructed and embellished, some Buddhist scholars were quick to use these textual developments as evidence that the accepted history of Zen—indeed even the fundamental experience of awakening—is legend as well.

To Cleary’s credit, the translation he offers is not concerned with the historic and academic controversies and discussions. He takes us directly into the heart of the sutra by offering us a clear and lucid presentation that takes up the more accessible, familiar and much more interesting later version of the sutra, legends and embellishments included. For non-academicians interested in the study of the sutra as religious inquiry, Cleary offers a golden opportunity to raise our own inquiries and delve deeply into the teachings in the exact way that the sutra suggests: through our own direct questioning. The accessibility of his translation and the organization of the material through simple chapter divisions invite us to read, study, contemplate and do zazen with the many intriguing questions and responses offered us.

Cleary separates the sutra into nine chapters to help us make sense of a sometimes rambling narrative that draws a rough portrait of the life of the Sixth Ancestor, with some of the key chapters touching on subjects such as prajna, sudden vs. gradual enlightenment, and the like.

Philip B. Yampolsky has translated the earliest known version of the Sutra of Huineng and his remains the accepted academic standard. It is accompanied by a detailed introduction and a discussion of the historical and religious controversies concerning this sutra. For those interested in exploring the Sutra of Huineng from the perspective of practice, however, the Cleary translation is both elegant and accessible, as well as a pleasure to read and study

Mn. Ron Hogen Green is Director of Operations at Dharma Communications.