As with all the early Chan patriarchs, many of the details of Hongren’s life are uncertain and much of his biography is layered with legend added well after his death. The following biography is based on Chan traditional sources.
Although the Records of the Teachers and Disciples of the Lankavatara claim that Hongren’s father abandoned the family, Chan scholar John McRae points out that Hongren’s residence was converted to a monastery, implying that Hongren’s family was probably wealthy and prominent locally. Furthermore, mention of Hongren doing menial labour would only be of significance if this were unusual, indicating that Hongren was of upper-class birth.
- Daoxin met Hongren on a road in Huangmei. Daoxin asked his name.
- Hongren replied, “I have essence but it is not a common name.”
- The Chan master asked, “What name is it?”
- Hongren said, “It is the essence of Buddhahood.”
- Daoxin replied, “Have you no name?”
- Hongren said, “None, because essence is empty.”
- With this, Daoxin passed on the teaching and the robe (making Hongren the next Patriarch of Chan).
The Ch’üan fa pao chi (Annals of the Transmission of the Dharma-treasure), written approximately 712, says that Hongren was quiet and withdrawn, diligent in his menial labors, and sat in meditation throughout the night. He “never looked at the Buddhist scriptures” but understood everything he heard. After some ten years of teaching, the record claims that “eight or nine of every ten ordained and lay aspirants in the country had studied under him.”
Hongren stayed with Daoxin until the latter’s death in 651. Presumably, he was with Daoxin when the master was at Ta-lin ssu on Mount Lou and followed him to Mount Shuangfeng, one of the “twin peaks” of Huangmei.
Later tradition has it that Hongren, after Daoxin’s death, moved the community of monks to Mount Dong-Shan, “East Mountain”, the easterly of the “twin peaks”. The teachings of Daoxin and Hongren became known as the “East Mountain Teachings” (tung-shan fa-men).
The East Mountain Teachings were seen as the “authentic” Chan Buddhist teachings, promoted by Hongren’s student, Shenxiu (神秀)(606?-706), the most prominent Buddhist monk of his time. Hongren’s significance can be noted by the fact that a compilation of his teachings, presumably shortly after his death, the Treatise on the Essentials of Cultivating the Mind, (Wade–Giles: Hsiu-hsin-yao lun; Japanese: Shūshinyō-ron) is the earliest collection of the teachings of a Chan master.
Although Hongren’s students included Vinaya specialists, sutra translators, and Lotus Sutra and Pure Land devotees, Hongren’s teaching focused on meditation practice. According to the Treatise on the Essentials of Cultivating the Mind, Hongren's basic teaching was that the Pure Mind was obscured by “discriminating thinking, false thoughts, and ascriptive views.” Eliminating false thoughts and maintaining a constant awareness of one’s natural enlightenment ensures Nirvana naturally arises.
- Look to where the horizon disappears beyond the sky and behold the figure one. … It is good for those beginning to sit in meditation, when they find their mind distracted, to focus their mind on the figure one.
- View your own consciousness tranquilly and attentively, so that you can see how it is always moving, like flowing water or a glittering mirage. …until its fluctuations dissolve into peaceful stability. This flowing consciousness will disappear like a gust of wind. When this consciousness disappears, all one’s illusions will disappear along with it.
Hongren was held in high esteem by later Chan-adepts in the ancient capital cities of Chang'an and Luoyang in the early eighth century, when Chan moved from a rural base to the centre of Chinese power, in the major urban areas and the imperial court.
|5||Daman Hongren (601-674)(5th Patriarch)|
(WG Ta-man Hung-jen, Jpn. Gunin)
|6||Yuquan Shenxiu (605?-706)
(WG Yü-Ch'uan shen-hsiu, Jpn. Jinshū)
(WG Hui-neng, Jpn. Enō)
|7||Northern School||Qingyuan Xingsi (660-740)
(WG Ch'ing-yüan Hsing-ssu, Jpn. Seigen Gyōshi)
|Nanyue Huairang (677-744)
(wg Nan-yüeh Huai-jang, Jpn. Nangaku Ejō)
(WG Ho-tse Shen-hui, Jpn. Kataku Jin'e)
|8||Shitou Xiqian (700-790)
(WG Shih-t'ou Hsi-ch'ien, Jpn. Sekitō Kisen)
|Mazu Daoyi (709-788)
(WG Ma-tsu Tao-i, Jpn. Baso Dōitsu)
(WG Ho-tse School, Jpn. Kataku School)
|Fifth generation: Guifeng Zongmi (780–841)|
((圭峰 宗密 WG Kuei-feng Tsung-mi, Jpn. Keihō Shūmitsu)