Sixth Patriarch

huineng1六祖 The Sixth Patriarch of the Zen lineage, Huineng, is one of the most influential figures in Eastern philosophy, and this story may be the most significant in all of Zen lore. Not only is it an interesting tale of an underdog attaining the highest position against all odds, but also it is an essential lesson in the Tao.

When Huineng first came to the monastery of the Fifth Patriarch, he was an unimpressive figure — a poor boy from the backward countryside who did not even know how to read or write. The learned monks at the monstery considered him beneath them and mostly ignored him. Little did they realize that one day this scruffy-looking, low-class peasant would be the leading figure of the Zen tradition.

When the time came for the Fifth Patriarch to name his successor, he ordered all the disciples to express their understanding of Zen in a poem. The one who could demonstrate the utmost undestanding would become the next Patriarch.

The most senior disciple at the monastery was the head monk Shenxiu, who was an accomplished scholar in his own right. Most monks felt certain that the mantle would be passed on to him, and none of them could be a match in that regard, so it would be pointless for them to try.

Shenxiu was humble, and did not assume he was qualified to be the successor. However, he wished to obey the Master and assess himself, so he wrote his poem on the wall of a temple corridor:

Body is the bodhi tree
Mind is like clear mirror stand
Strive to clean it constantly
Do not let the dust motes land

Bodhi means enlightenment or spiritual awakening. The bodhi tree is the tree that Gautama sat under when he became fully enlightened and attained Buddhahood. This type of tree originally grew on the banks of a tributary of the Ganges and features heart-shaped leaves.

In his poem, Shenxiu compared the human body to the bodhi tree. What he implied was that the human mind was like a meditator sitting under the tree. In time, this meditator, like Gautama, would attain the ultimate wisdom.

Next, Shenxiu compared the mind to a mirror that must be kept clean at all times. The dust in the poem refered to all the distractions, temptations and impure thoughts of the material world. To keep the mind free of these unclean elements, a Zen disciple must diligently engage in pursuits such as reading, reciting scriptures, practicing the various rituals, and meditation.

In a nutshell, Shenxiu expressed that the road of enlightenment was not effortless. Only through hard work and never-ending diligence could one purify oneself sufficiently for Buddhahood. The poem was a rallying call for the monks to fortify their resolve and continue moving forward on this difficult journey.

All the monks were impressed, certain that this poem was effectively the edict from their next leader. The Fifth Patriarch was not as impressed, but recognized the value in what it expressed. He ordered the monks to memorize it and recite it as they went about their daily duties.

Huineng overheard the monks, and understood instantly where it fell short. The ultimate wisdom was another level beyond what Shenxiu expressed. Huineng knew how to express that ultimate level, but since he was illiterate, he was not able to write it down in words. He ended up asking someone else to write it up on the wall for him:

Bodhi really has no tree
Nor is clear mirror the stand
Nothing’s there initially
So where can the dust motes land?

This poetic response drew different reactions. When monks saw it, they were surprised. Some expressed amazement, and some were unsure. When the Fifth Patriarch saw it, he comprehended Huineng’s meaning perfectly. Represented in these four lines was a powerful intuition more capable of grasping the true Tao than Shenxiu’s formidable intellect and decades of schooling.

The Fifth Patriarch knew that if he were to announce Huineng’s succession publicly and hand the reins over to him, the monks would not understand. They might turn on Huineng and cause him harm just to prevent him from assuming the position. Therefore, he pretended to be unimpressed.

In secrecy, he summoned Huineng to him in the middle of the night. Without anyone knowing, he passed the symbols of his authority — Bodhidharma’s begging bowl and Buddhist robe — to Huineng. Then, he ordered Huineng to flee for his life.

Huineng hastily departed the monastery, with a mob of angry monks in hot pursuit. What happenned after that is another story for another time. For now, let us ponder this question: what exactly was the meaning of Huineng’s poem that impressed the Fifth Patriarch sufficiently to make him the successor?

Huineng’s central insight was in pointing out the transient or illusory nature of the physical world. H said “bodhi has no tree” because our immortal souls are not the physical bodies we inhabit temporarily. Wisdom, awakening and enlightenment are the attributes of the soul, and they exist with or without the body.

“Clear mirror” isn’t the stand. Why not? Remember that Shenxiu compared the mind to the stand, which holds the soul — the mirror — in place. Huineng pointed out that this was but an artificial constraint. The soul existed regardless of the body, so the mirror was there with or without the stand. The stand was not required or even particularly important!

Huineng further pointed out that all the distractions of the material world were just as transient or illusory as our temporary mortal forms. We know that the polluting influences of the physical world cannot last, unlike the immortal soul. In other words, our essential, eternal selves are the only reality of existence. Money, material possessions, fineries, precious jewels… none of these are things we can take with us when we pass beyond. From the perspective of eternity, they may as well not exist!

If one can completely come to grips with this basic truth expressed by Huineng, enlightenment can happen in an instant. Hence, the true path to Buddhahood isn’t the direction of hard work and the acquisition of even more knowledge and scriptures, as indicated by Shenxiu. The truer path is along the road of intuitive insight, where we progress beyond mere logic and reasoning and become one with wisdom and understanding.

How can we traverse this path? With our entire being, rather than just one hemisphere of the brain. Too much intellectual sophistry leads nowhere except ever more confusing and confounding complexity. When you get right down to it, the ancient masters and sages are really trying to tell us to stick to the basics and keep it simple. Simplicity and clarifying, penetrating basic truths — these are the essence of Tao, and this is the golden nugget of knowledge we have been searching all this time to find.