As with most of the early Chán patriarchs, very little firm data is available about his life. The earliest extant biography of the Chán patriarchs is the Biographies of Eminent Monks and its sequel, Further Biographies of Eminent Monks by Tao-hsuan . The following biography is the traditional Chan biography as handed down throughout the centuries, including the ''Denkoroku'' by Zen Master Keizan Jokin .
The Hsu kao-seng chuan says that Huike was born in Hu-lao and his secular name was Shen-kuang . A scholar in both Buddhist scriptures and classical Chinese texts, including Taoism, Huike was considered enlightened but criticised for not having a teacher. He met his teacher Bodhidharma at the Shaolin Monastery in 528 when he was about forty years old and studied with Bodhidharma for six years .
Legend has it that Bodhidharma initially refused to teach Huike and Huike stood in the snow outside Bodhidharma’s cave all night until the snow reached his waist. In the morning Bodhidharma asked him why he was there and Huike replied that he wanted a teacher to "open the gate of the elixir or universal compassion to liberate all beings". Bodhidharma refused, saying, “how can you hope for true religion with little virtue, little wisdom, a shallow heart, and an arrogant mind? It would just be a waste of effort.”
Finally, to prove his resolve, Huike cut off his left arm and presented it to the First Patriarch as a token of his sincerity at which point Bodhidharma accepted him as a student and changed his name from Shenguang to Huike .
:Huike said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is anxious. Please pacify it.” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.” Huike said, “Although I’ve sought it, I cannot find it.” “There,” Bodhidharma replied, “I have pacified your mind.”
According to the ''Denkoroku'', when Huike and Bodhidharma were climbing up Few Houses Peak, Bodhidharma asked, “Where are we going?” Huike replied, “Please go right ahead---that’s it.” Bodhidharma retorted, “If you go right ahead, you cannot move a step.” Upon hearing these words, Huike was enlightened.
Legend has it that Bodhidharma wished to return to India and called together his disciples and the following exchange took part.
:Bodhidharma asked, “Can each of you say something to demonstrate your understanding?”
:Dao Fu stepped forward and said, “It is not bound by words and phrases, nor is it separate from words and phrases. This is the function of the Tao.”
:Bodhidharma: “You have attained my skin.”
:The nun Zong Chi stepped up and said, “It is like a glorious glimpse of the realm of Akshobhya Buddha . Seen once, it need not be seen again.”
:Bodhidharma; “You have attained my flesh.”
:Dao Yu said, “The four elements are all empty. The five skandhas are without actual existence. Not a single dharma can be grasped.”
:Bodhidharma: “You have attained my bones.”
:Finally, Huike came forth, bowed deeply in silence and stood up straight.
:Bodhidharma said, “You have attained my marrow.”
Bodhidharma passed on the symbolic robe and bowl of dharma succession to Huike and, some texts claim, a copy of the Lankavatara Sutra. Bodhidharma then either returned to India or died. Huike went to Yedu about 534 and, except for a period of political turmoil and Buddhist persecution in 574, lived in the area Yedu and Wei for the rest of his life. It was during the time of upheaval that Huike sought refuge in the mountains near the Yangtze River and met Sengcan who was to become his successor and the Third Chinese Patriarch of Chan. In 579, Huike returned to Yedu and expounded the dharma, drawing large numbers to listen to his teachings and arousing the hostility of other Buddhist teachers, one of whom, Tao-heng, paid money to have Huike killed but Huike converted the would-be assassin.
The Wudeng Huiyan compiled by Dachuan Lingyin Puji claims that Huike lived to the age of one hundred seven. He was buried about forty kilometres east northeast of Anyang City in Hebei Province. Later, the Tang Dynasty emperor De Zong gave Huike the honorific name Dazu Some traditions have it that Huike was executed after complaints about his teachings by influential Buddhist priests. One story says that blood did not flow from his decapitated body, but rather, a white milky substance flowed through his neck.
There is some evidence that both Huike and Bodhidharma based their teachings on the Lankavatara Sutra although this cannot be firmly established by modern scholars. This sutra urges ‘self-enlightenment’, the “forgetting of words and thoughts”. Tao-hsuan listed Huike and his circle of disciples as masters of meditation and the Lankavatara Sutra in his ''Further Biographies of Eminent Monks'' There is little doubt that Huike practiced and promoted meditation as the method to reach understanding of true Buddhism. Tao-hsuan referred to Huike as dhyana masters highlighting the importance of meditation practice in these early years of Chan development. However, what form Huike and Bodhidharma’s meditation took (which Tao-hsuan labelled ju shih an-hsin wei pi-kuan is unclear.
One text that was circulating at the time of Huike was the ''Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices'' . This text was the purported teachings of Bodhidharma with a preface by T’an Lin The two entrances refers to the entrance of principle and the entrance of practice. The entrance of principle is that one must have faith in the truth of the teachings and that everyone possesses the same “true nature” which is covered up by “false senses”. The entrance of practice refers to the four practices of the title: be undisturbed by suffering, accept one’s circumstances and be unmoved by good or bad fortune, be without attachment or desire and, finally, govern one’s actions based on understanding the emptiness or non-substantiality of all things.
Attached to the text are some letters, one of which may have been written to Huike and Huike's brief reply. The Bodhidharma text and Huike’s letter indicate that the earliest teachings of what was to become Chan emphasized that Buddha Nature was within and each person must realize this individually through meditation rather than studying the sutras, ceremonies, doing good deeds or worshiping the Buddhas. Meditation should be free of any dualism or attached goal and realization occurs suddenly. Huike wrote:
:Originally deluded, one calls the mani-pearl a potsherd
:Suddenly one is awakened---and it is as a pearl
:Ignorance and wisdom are identical, not different.
One of the most important characteristics of the early Chán of Bodhidharma and Huike was the sudden approach to enlightenment rather than the Indian yogic meditation which advocated concentration and gradual self-perfection.