He was said to originally be an illiterate wood-cutter, who, upon hearing a recitation of the Diamond Sutra (金剛經), became awakened to the import of Buddhism. He went to study with the Chan master Hongren (弘忍), eventually becoming the dharma-heir of this teacher, and thus the sixth patriarch (六祖).
He is said to have advocated a sudden approach to Buddhist practice and enlightenment, and in this regard, is considered the founder of suddenistic (頓教) "Southern Chan." While these are the legendary accounts handed down by the tradition, it is widely understood that the actual history of the situation may have been quite different, to the extent that some believe that an actual person named Huineng may not have even existed. In any case, the work attributed to Huineng, the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (六祖壇經), ended up becoming one of the most influential texts in the East Asian meditative tradition.