Chinese Texts, Sutra Excerpts, The Masters

From Huineng’s Platform Sutra: What Does Maha Mean?

Huineng was an illiterate woodcutter who became a Zen master and the sixth patriarch of Ch’an in China. His defining work is the Platform Sutra which emphasizes the importance of direct experience over intellect and learning in the study of Zen. In this extract from the second chapter of the sutra, entitled ‘Prajna’, he talks about the nature of emptiness, and that of our inherent nature.


What does maha mean? Maha means great. The extent of mind is as vast as space, without bounds. It has no squareness or roundness, no largeness or smallness; it has no blueness, yellowness, redness or whiteness. It has no up or down, no long or short. It has no anger and no joy, no right and no wrong, no good and no bad. It has no head or tail.

The lands of all buddhas are all the same as space. The subtle nature of people in the world is naturally empty, with nothing that can be grasped. The true emptiness of our inherent nature is also like this.

Good friends, don’t cling to emptiness when you hear me speak of emptiness. Above all, do not stick to emptiness. If you sit quietly with an empty mind, you are fixated on indifferent voidness.

Good friends, the emptiness of physical space contains the colors and forms of myriad things, the sun, the moon, and stars, the mountains, rivers, and land, the springs and valley streams, the grasses, trees and forests, bad people and good people, bad things and good things, heaven and hell, the oceans and the mountains – all are within space. The emptiness of the essential nature of people in the world is also like this.

Good friends, our inherent nature contains all things – this is greatness. All things are in your essential nature. If you see everyone’s bad and good but do not grasp or reject any of it, and do not become affected by it, your mind is like space – this is called greatness, hence the term maha.


Huineng (617-713)
From: The Sutra of Hui-neng, Grand Master of Zen

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