Recognized as the sixth great patriarch of Zen (Ch´an in Chinese) Buddhism, founded the Southern school which became the dominant school of Zen, both in China and in Japan.
As a young and illiterate peddlar of firewood he heard the Chin-kang (Diamond Sutra) and travelled 500 miles to the area in North China where the fifth Ch´an patriarch Hung-jen (601-674) was expounding this text.
According to legend, in a dramatic poetry contest in 661 the senior monk Shen-hsiu (605?-706) wrote "The mind is the stand of a bright mirror.../ Do not allow it to become dusty" but Hui-neng wrote "Buddha-nature is forever clear and pure./ Where is there any dust?" Thereupon the fifth patriarch transmitted the law to Hui-neng.
Hui-neng returned to the South reaching Canton in 676.
He was ordained priest and for the next 37 years propagated the Law. In a sermon that has been recorded as the Liu-Tsu t´an-ch´ing (Platform Scripture of the Sixth Patriarch) he declared that all people possess the Buddha-nature and that one´s nature is originally pure. Instead of reading scriptures, building temples, making offerings, reciting the name of the Buddha and praying for rebirth in paradise one should take refuge in one´s pure nature inn which all Buddhaa and doctrines are immanent. The way to discover one´s own nature is through calm and wisdom which will be attained when one is freed from deliberate though and from attachment to things. The traditional method of sitting in meditation is useless, for tranquility is not motionlessness but is the state of having an unperturbed inner nature and a absence of erroneous thought. If one sees one´s own nature, enlightenment will follow -suddenly, without external help.
In pronouncing this radical doctrine of sudden enlightenment Hui-neng rejected all traditional concepts and practices and created a wide schism between his Southern school and the Northern school led by Shen-hsiu who had advocated gradual enlightenment.