The Gospel of John and the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch

The Gospel of John (John) and the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (Platform Sutra) are considered foundational texts within their respective Christian and Chan Buddhist traditions. Each were produced during times of significant intra-community disagreement and were meant to both establish disputed doctrine as well as consolidate authority around individuals and traditions competing in a malleable doctrinal climate.

John settles the question of Jesus’ nature, divinity and sacrifice, while promoting the authority of the what scholars now call the Johannine tradition or community. The Platform Sutra resolves the dispute between the Northern and Southern schools regarding sudden versus gradual awakening; establishing the disciples of Huineng as true Dharma heirs.

Both texts centralize doctrinal authority around persons well-known within the community while employing a subtle polemic, critical of rivals and their teachings.

This post will briefly examine the history and doctrine of both John and the Platform Sutra. It will compare the rhetorical and doctrinal strategies employed by each text to to establish central, and enduring, religious doctrine in these two ancient religious traditions.

John

The central doctrine of the Gospel of John is that Jesus is the eternal Son of God; the prophesied Messiah. From its opening hymn , the nature of Jesus Christ as “the Word” is the the fourth Gospel’s overarching theme. In John, the familiar narratives of the Synoptic Gospels are recounted, but in such a way as to leave no ambiguity about who Jesus was, why he ministered, and why he died.

Most scholars agree that the opening of John 1 is likely a recitation of a hymn which would have been used as part of the Johannine community’s liturgy.

John opens with allusions to Genesis:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Further:

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth

Whether written by a single author or compiled by a theologically-motivated redactor, the Gospel of John addresses questions on several core ideas:

1. The Nature of Jesus
2. Relationship between the Law of Moses and Jesus
3. Purpose of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection

John’s Gospel dates to the late 1st century; emerging after Mathew, Mark and Luke, and 40-50 years later than the letters of Paul. The Gospel of John, 1st and 2nd John, as well as the book of Revelation make up the Johannine literature contained within the New Testament.

It is this Johannine literature which defined the Church’s proto-orthodoxy and the central ideas found in this literature remain the basis of orthodox belief today. In both Eastern and Western Christian traditions, Jesus is both God, and the Son of God who willingly gave his life as a sacrifice to nullify the sins of the world and open eternal life for believers. Yet in the early years of the formation of Christianity, there were several contenders claiming to be true believers in Jesus. The Gnostic Christians being among the most well-known and some of whom accepted, as canon, the extra-Biblical Gospel of Thomas.

While John is never identified as the author of the text, he is referred to as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” In contrast, the brief mention of the Thomas is only to state that he was not with the disciples when the resurrected Jesus appeared to them near his empty tomb. And also, that upon hearing this account, Thomas did not believe until seeing the resurrected Jesus himself. Thus, Thomas became, “Doubting Thomas.”

This episode is unique to the Gospel of John. It serves as a subtle critique of Thomas’ faith, perhaps in an attempt to persuade contemporary believers that their belief may be best served by embracing the teachings of John.

Doubting Thomas

New Testament scholar Elaine Pagels has argued that the Gospel of John was written, at least in part, to counter the Gospel of Thomas, a text discovered in the mid 20th century. Thomas is unique in several ways. It is not a narrative text. Rather than tell the story of Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas is a collection of Jesus’ sayings, many of which appear in the synoptic gospels. Yet, it is a decidedly gnostic. That is to say, its contents are consistent with the teachings and mythology of Christians who called themselves Gnostic.

Early Christian Gnosticism is characterized by its highly mystical nature and its departure from Christianity’s Jewish roots. It was likely heavily influenced by Stoicism and other popular philosophies in the region during that time. The Gnostic Jesus is not the Savior of the World. Rather, he is a guiding teacher to help believers know themselves and realize that the Kingdom of God is within them.

This stands in stark contrast with the Johannine doctrine that Jesus is the eternal Son of God and savior of the world. Yet, there are several aspects of John that would have appealed to Gnostic Christians. In particular the imagery of Jesus as the bread of life and of believers symbolically partaking of his flesh and blood.

Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch

Similar to the Gospel of John, the Platform Sutra emerged during a period of doctrinal dispute. In the 8th century, longstanding rivalries between various Chan schools intensified. This was, in large part, due to the polemical efforts of Shen-hui who was highly critical of so-called Northern views on mediation and enlightenment.

In 730, Shen-hui, a monk in the Heze lineage, launched a polemical campaign against the person of Shen-shiu, a revered teacher in rival lineages. Shen-hui was particularly critical Shen-shiu’s student Puji, who some identified as the 7th patriarch of Chan. Shen-hui found this claim untenable and sought to discredit Puji by calling into question Shen-shiu’s reception and fundamental understanding of the Dharma. At the same time, he promoted Huineng, a teacher associated with Southern doctrines.

Shen-hui claimed that Shen-shiu, a revered teacher of the East Mountain Teaching, was not the legitimate successor to Hongren; the widely accepted 5th patriarch of Chan. Shen-hui was highly critical of Shen-shiu’s apparent emphasis on sutra study. But his harshest criticism was reserved for the teaching of “gradual” enlightenment. In Shen-hui’s view, enlightenment was realized in an instant; at the moment one truly experiences their original nature. Shen-hui used these claims to discredit the Northern schools while at the same time gaining imperial patronage for the Southern schools. It was from within this environment the Platform Sutra emerged around 780.

The Sutra is written as the recollections of the monk, Fa-hai but its true author and date of composition remain unknown. Although it is likely that the composite text was a product of Shen-hui’s disciples relying on existing hagiographies of Huineng. The sutra’s purpose can be seen as threefold. First, to establish Huineng as the true Sixth Patriarch, successor to Hongren. Second, to frame the culmination of Chan practice as radical non-dualism; seeing one’s original nature as fundamentally pure. And third, to promote the doctrine of “sudden” enlightenment in contrast to the “gradual” teaching taught by Northern schools.

The Platform Sutra begins with a first-person account of how Huineng, a lowly peasant from “the South” overheard a recitation of the Diamond Sutra while in the market selling firewood. Upon hearing the sutra, he was immediately awakened and sought out further instruction from Hongren, the Fifth Patriarch. Upon meeting Huineng, Hongren asked how an uneducated peasant could expect to receive and understand the Dharma. Huineng replied that there is no difference in Buddha-nature between north and south, dull and quick-witted. Impressed with his understanding, Hongren accepted Huineng and set him to work within the monastery.
At some point thereafter, Hongren gathered his students and instructed them to compose a verse to illustrate the depth of their understanding. Through this competition, Hongren would know who was to receive his robe and be his successor. According to the narrative, Shen-shiu was Hongren’s most senior student and in deference to him believing that he would be the victor, Hongren’s other students did not compose verses.

The Platform Sutra presents a narrative wherein Shen-shiu is seen as a wise and beloved student, but whose understanding fell short of the “essential point.” The text describes how Hongren held verse-writing competition to determine his successor. Shen-shiu is apprehensive about composing a verse; being unsure of his own understanding of the Dharma. Ultimately Shen-shiu did compose a verse and anonymously wrote it on the wall under cover of night.

The body is the Bodhi tree
The mind is like a clear mirror.
At all times we must strive to polish it, And must not let the dust collect.

Upon reading this verse Hongren publicly praised Shen-shiu’s understanding and encouraged his students to study and recite it. But in private, he told Shen-shiu that his understanding was incomplete.

At some later point, while threshing rice, Huineng overheard a student reciting Shen-shiu’s verse. Huineng — like Hongren — understood that the verse represented a keen understanding of the Dharma but missed the essential meaning. Huineng immediately went to the monastery and dictated his own verse to be written on the wall.

Bodhi originally has no tree,
The mirror also has no stand.
Buddha nature is always clean and pure; Where is there room for dust?

When Hongren discovered Huineng’s verse, he denigrated it publicly; fearing that his students would become jealous or angry that an uncultured peasant from the south had a great understanding of the Dharma. But at midnight, Hongren summoned Huineng to his quarters and expounded the Diamond Sutra to him. Huineng received the Dharma, the robe, and the bowl as the successor to the Fifth Patriarch. Fearing for his safety, he immediately fled.

The remainder of the sutra is in two parts: Huineng’s discourse on wisdom, practice, and awakening followed by accounts of Huineng’s interactions with students. Throughout his discourses and interactions, he promotes a radical non-dualism to be incorporated into the totality of being; especially meditation and Dharma study. Utilizing this non-dual view, Huineng expounds doctrines emphasizing that pure buddha-nature is to be found in all beings.

It is important to note that the characterization of Shen-shiu in the Platform Sutra stands in stark contrast to polemic of Shen-hui. While Shen-shiu may not have had a complete understanding, he is presented as a sympathetic figure. A beloved student of Hongren who’s teachings would cultivate great merit and blessing. Thus, we can see the Platform Sutra as an attempt to improve the relationship and cooperation between Northern and Southern schools while underscoring the doctrinal authority of the South.

Establishing Orthodoxy

From this brief examination we can see that both the Gospel of John and the Platform Sutra set out to accomplish similar goals. First, they settle questions regarding the central tenants of doctrine within their traditions. Second, they subtly discredit prominent teachers of rival doctrines and elevate teachers of the preferred doctrine. This is done, in large part, by presenting close, personal connections between preferred teachers and an established doctrinal authority; namely Jesus and Hongren. Third, they seek to establish narrative and doctrinal climates in which rival ideas could be made harmonious with “the Way.”

The Gospel of John boldly settles the question of the person of Jesus. He is the eternal Son of God who existed from the beginning. His brutal death and resurrection were to nullify the effects of sin for those who would believe in him, become his disciples, and follow the great commandments of loving God and neighbor. Similarly, the Platform Sutra settles the question of “sudden” vs “gradual” enlightenment as well as other issues related to sutra study and the methods of meditation.

Both John and the Platform Sutra aim to discredit personalities emblematic of rival doctrines. In John, the Apostle Thomas is shown to be “Doubting Thomas” while John is the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” The Platform Sutra likewise portrays Shen-shiu as a wise and humble student but failing to grasp the “essential meaning” of practice. Conversely, Huineng is the unlikely Patriarch; illiterate and poor, but chosen by Hongren and wise in his understanding of the Way.

But despite seeking to discredit rival doctrines and personalities, both texts also provide a framework in which rival practices may conform to the preferred doctrine. For example, despite advocating “sudden” awakening, Huineng also taught of the importance of meditation and study when done with the proper understanding. Similarly, there are several examples in the Platform Sutra of Huineng interpreting and expounding on sutras, despite his illiteracy and insistence that the Dharma is known only “beyond words and letters.” Given that both meditation practice and sutra study were key elements of Northern practice, the inclusion of these teachings in the Platform Sutra may be seen as an effort to resolve differences between the rival schools and find common ground.

Likewise, the Gospel of John presents a knowledge the Jewish calendar superior to that found in Matthew; a gospel aimed at demonstrating that Jesus was a fulfillment of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible. Like the synoptics, it presents the arrival and teachings of Jesus as a fulfillment of the Law of Moses. But it also describes Jesus in highly mystical terms; using imagery and symbolism that would have appealed to any Christian sympathetic to Gnostic views. John’s Gospel incorporates elements that would appeal to Christians from varying backgrounds.

Much more could be said about the similarities between John and the Platform Sutra. But it is clear that both the Gospel of John and the Platform Sutra were successful in consolidating related traditions into a single orthodoxy. That this orthodoxy persists today is a testament to the influence both personality and text have on sustaining the doctrines of long-standing religious traditions.