In a Facebook post on Huineng (6th Patriarch), I found the below conversation -

A monk asked Huineng, "Who is able to attain the essential teaching of Huangmei [the Fifth Patriarch]?"
Huineng replied, "Those who understand Buddhism."
The monk then asked, "Have you attained it?"
Huineng's answered, "I don't understand Buddhism."

Where do I find a reference to this and what does it mean to not understand Buddhism?

  • 3
    Sounds like you're trying to understand Buddhism ;)
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 11:32
  • @AndreiVolkov Yeah, Zen/Mahayana. But neither sure about yours nor of Huineng's connotation with the word 'understanding'. :)
    – Mr. Sigma.
    Commented Sep 7, 2019 at 12:35

2 Answers 2


Zen masters often said that they didn't know anything of Buddhism. For example, in Suzuki's essay, "The Doctrine of Enlightenment," the Fifth Patriarch is quoted as saying: "Four hundred ninety-nine of my disciples understand well what Buddhism is, except one Huineng. He is not a man to be measured by an ordinary standard. Hence the robe of the faith was handed down to him." (Essays in Zen Buddhism, First Series) What this means is simply that Hui-neng's wisdom didn't come from studying the sutras but from within himself. On the other hand, he well understood all of the sutras intuitively because of his wisdom. This is not to say one shouldn't study the sutras, but that understanding comes from within, and one shouldn't rely on anything without.

If the particular quote is accurate, Hui-neng was engaging in a particularly Zen method of teaching, and his answer shouldn't be taken literally. He may have meant that if you really understand Buddhism, if you have attained the state in which there are no things such as a self, enlightenment or Buddhism, then you don't understand Buddhism.


But neither sure about yours nor of Huineng's connotation with the word 'understanding'. :)

To try to get (the) meaning, I don't look at the last phrase in isolation (i.e. "understanding"). The quote is a dialog, perhaps the answers make sense in context, as answers to what's being asked.

So what's the answer to "Have you attained it?"

And is it "the essential teaching of Huangmei?"

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