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Hongren (601–674; Chinese: 弘忍; pinyin: Hóngrěn; Wade–Giles: Hung2-jen3; Japanese pronunciation: Konin; Korean pronunciation: Hong'in, posthumous name Daman) was the Fifth Patriarch of Zen in China. He carried on Daoxin's teaching, and established the site of the legendary East Mountain School (later known as the "Northern School"). Traditionally, he gave the Dharma transmission to Huineng in secret; historically, Shenxiu was his successor.

Treatise on the Essentials of Cultivating the Mind – translated by McRae

Life and Teaching

According to the Records of the Teachers and Disciples of the Lankavatara, Hongren's lay surname was Zhou, and his family came from Xunyang, registered in Huangmeixian. It is claimed that Hongren’s father abandoned the family, but that he was "burned by filial duty to support his mother". 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 labor would only be of significance if this were unusual, indicating that Hongren was of upper-class birth. In any case, the record goes on to state that he began to serve Daoxin at the age of seven, having left home to live at Youju Temple. It is recorded that he taught both Xuanze and Shenxiu.

Monks and nuns and laypeople alike gathered around Hongren, working to provide support. He taught them the meaning of the Lankavatara Sutra, saying, "Only those who witness it with their minds fully know this scripture - it is not something that verbal analyses can explain." (Lanka Record, Cleary)

It is recorded that Hongren ordered a stupa constructed in "the second month of 674"; the construction was seemingly led by Xuanze, though all the disciples joined in to transport stones. On the sixteenth day of that month, at midday, Hongren faced south, closed his eyes and died at 74 years of age. He was entombed at Fengmao Mountain. According to legend, his body did not decay for some time. Interestingly, the Lanka Record explicitly states that he left no written teachings and disavows an unnamed treatise on "Chan technique" attributed to Hongren, calling it "spurious". This may or may not refer to the Treatise on the Essentials of Cultivating the Mind; however, it is likely the case that the treatise was put together by Hongren's students after his death.

Encounter with Daoxin

Daoxin asked the young would-be disciple his family name.

[The term 'xing' in Chinese translates to 'name', as in a family name or lineage, though it is also used in the sense of the term 'nature' in English. As such, asking someone about their 'xing' could be interpreted literally as an inquiry about their family name; or, it could be an inquiry about what they and/or where they come from.]

Hongren says, "I have a nature [xing], but it is not the usual name [xing]."

The Ancestor asks again, "What family name do you have?"

He says, "My nature is Buddha Nature [fa-xing]."

The Ancestor asks, "Do you have no name?"

He answers, "My nature is emptiness."

On Seclusion

A monk asked Master Hongren, “Why don't we study the way of awakening in cities where there are many people, instead of at places deep in the mountains?”

Hongren answered, “The timbers needed to make a great building originally came from secluded mountain valleys. They can't be grown where many people are congregated. Since they are far from crowds of people, they can't be chopped down or harmed by axes, and are able to grow into great trees, which later can be used to make central beams and pillars. So in studying the teaching, one should find refuge for the spirit in remote mountain valleys, escaping far from the troubles of the dusty world. People should nourish their nature in deep mountains, keeping away from worldly affairs for a long time. When not always confronting common affairs the mind will naturally become at ease. Studying Zen in this way is like planting a tree, with the result that later it can bear fruit.”

During this era the great teacher Hongren only sat peacefully in an upright position and did not compile writings. He taught Zen orally to his personal disciples, quietly passing on the teaching to many others.

(From the Xiu Xin Yao Lun (c.700) written by members of the “East Mountain School” (Hongren's students) as a summary of Master Hongren's teaching. Based on a translation by John R. McRae)


Li Huiiu of Longi, formerly Minister of the Department of War, composed a eulogy for Hongren:

What a marvel was the Master! In mystic accord with the reality of the Path, he gathered in his mind and cut off intellectual knowledge. With lofty enlightenment, he penetrated the spirit: free of birth, he realized the fruit: showing extinction, he shared the dusts. Here and now he has been transformed: how soon will anyone approach his level?