Delusion as a Hindrance to Enlightenment in The Platform Sutra - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

Delusion as a Hindrance to Enlightenment in The Platform Sutra

Armstrong State University

The final and most difficult challenge of a Buddhist practitioner is to attain enlightenment, which to an outsider appears to be a long and arduous task.  However, according to The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, a person can achieve enlightenment in a relatively short amount of time, and instantaneous enlightenment is also a possibility.  This is not by any means to say that attaining enlightenment is easy. A student can be under the tutelage of a great master and practice the Way, yet struggle to awaken for many years.  One major hindrance to achieving enlightenment, as discussed in The Platform Sutra, is the “deluded” person’s inability to awaken due to his perceptions of the world, which once corrected will allow him to discover his true nature and become enlightened.

A Chinese version of The Platform Sutra

Although the potential for every person to achieve enlightenment is assuring, the delusion of the mind is a significant obstacle in the path toward salvation. According to The Platform Sutra, “enlightenment (bodhi) and intuitive wisdom (prajñ?) are from the outset possessed by men of this world themselves. It is just because the mind is deluded that men cannot attain awakening to themselves” (135). But what constitutes a deluded mind? The text only goes as far to say that the deluded person does not understand his true nature. The examples of a deluded person’s mistakes provide understanding to the difficulty in achieving Buddha-wisdom.

One critical error a deluded person makes in his pursuit of enlightenment is his perception of how he views himself. If a person does not realize that his nature is pure, he will not be able to achieve enlightenment: “If people think of all the evil things, then they will practice evil; if they think of all the good things, then they will practice good. Thus it is clear that in this way all the dharmas are within your own natures, yet your own natures are always pure” (141-2).  Furthermore, the student must truly understand purity without trying to view purity as a quantifiable entity of the self.  In the words of The Platform Sutra text, “If you activate your mind to view purity without realizing that your own nature is pure, delusions of purity will be produced… Purity has no form, but… some people try to postulate the form of purity...People who hold this view obstruct their own original natures and end up being bound by purity” (139-40). To understand the purity of one’s own nature, one must stop trying to view purity as a means of achieving enlightenment. The self is in essence pure, and the student needs only to accept his natural purity rather than striving to gain something that is inherent. The two ways of cultivating this correct perception of the self is through mentorship from a teacher and meditation.

Ink painting, "The Six
Patriarch Tearing up
the Sutra" by Liang Kai
(fl.13 cen.)

Another misstep in the deluded person’s struggle toward enlightenment comes from his view of meditation as a means of obtaining wisdom. The Platform Sutra stresses that wisdom and meditation should not be viewed as two different things; they are of the same substance and go hand-in-hand as the basis for studying the dharma (135). The purpose of meditation is not to gain wisdom, since “at the very moment when there is meditation, then wisdom exists in meditation” (135). Meditation allows the student to resist the confusion caused by outside influences and understand the pure nature of the self. In order to cast off all confusion and doubts, the student must lose all subjectivity with regard to the self and the outside world, which the text refers to as “no-thought.”  No-thought is “not to think even when involved in thought” and “to be unstained in all environments” (138). If the student can see past the thoughts of good versus evil and the arguments of meditation versus wisdom, he can observe the “True Reality” of the self and any further outside influences will not affect his understanding of the dharma or his own purity. No-thought is the most difficult concept for a deluded person to grasp in The Platform Sutra, but it is also a fundamental element to achieving enlightenment. Once a deluded person can follow no-thought, the Way becomes clear and he will be able to attain enlightenment.

Even though the prospect of instantaneous enlightenment is appealing to people of all walks of life, from commoners to nobles, and from laymen to monks, the process of becoming enlightened still contains a number of challenges. There are many delusions that prevent a Buddhist from fully awakening, and reliance on a teacher will only get a person so far. In order to completely traverse the path to enlightenment, “sentient beings, each with their own natures, must save themselves” (143). The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch is not a how-to guide for finding nirvana, but the teachings within the text provide multiple steps in the right direction for seekers of the Way. Ultimately, it is up to the deluded person himself to recognize the hindrances to achieving enlightenment, and to experience his awakening through comprehension.        

About the author

Lisa Bringhurst graduated with a BA degree in English at Armstrong in May 2011. Currently she is conducting her research at Georgia Southern University and planning to go to graduate school in the near future.

Recommended citation

Lisa Bringhurst, “Delusion as a Hindrance to Enlightenment in The Platform Sutra,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no.2 (Summer 2011).


Yampolsky, Philip. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. Columbia University Press, 1967.

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