By Duane Toops
Last week I published an article (and video) examining a key moment in the life of Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan/Zen Buddhism.
Obviously, there’s still much more that can be said about Huineng. For example, there’s another, perhaps more famous, moment in the legendary history of Huineng that I didn’t talk about.
Full disclosure, after I posted last week’s content about Huineng and as I was finishing up writing this video/article I was listening to an episode of Daniel Scharpenburg’s podcast, “The Bodhisattva Road”, and I suddenly realized that I was unintentionally ripping him off. So make sure to go listen to his podcast (sorry Daniel).
After Huineng has his initial interview with the Fifth Patriarch Hongren, and displays his potential, he is accepted into the monastery. However, being from the South of China, Huineng was considered to be a “barbarian”—coarse, uncivilized, and of less status and standing than those of the North. As such, he was sent to the back of the monastery to cut firewood and to thresh rice. There Huineng toiled for eight months, without ever being allowed to step foot in the front Dharma hall, that is, the lecture hall of the temple where senior monks would teach and provide instruction.
One day, the Fifth Patriarch, Hongren, gathered together all of his disciples and challenged them each to compose a verse detailing their understanding regarding the meaning of “original nature.”
Hongren said that he would read each of the students’ verses and the one whose displayed true understanding and true realization would become Hongren’s successor as the Sixth Patriarch.
Needless to say, both the stakes and the bar were set pretty high.
Now, in the minds of all Hongren’s students there was an obvious choice as to who should, and probably would, succeed Hongren. Shenxiu was a senior instructor and teaching transmitter, second only to the Abbot and thus the most likely candidate to become the Sixth Patriarch. This view was so fervently held by the other monastics that they thought it would be improper and a waste of their time and effort to even attempt to compose a verse. Betting on Shenxiu was a sure thing, so why bother? All the students fully relied on Shenxiu to be the right guy for the job.
However, Shenxiu didn’t seem to share the same level of certainty.
In fact, Shenxiu was so uncertain that he anonymously writes his poem on the wall of the Dharma hall. After the verse was discovered and read by all the other monks, this poem that Shenxiu had secretly scrawled across the Dharma hall wall was enthusiastically lauded. Even Hongren, the Fifth Patriarch, publicly praised the poem. However, Hongren recognized that Shenxiu was the author, and he also recognized that Shenxiu had not reached full awakening, or full understanding.
Shenxiu had not fully seen into his original nature.
Now, if there was anyone that didn’t stand a chance in this competition it was Huineng; a poor, uneducated, unqualified, un-credentialed kid, from the wrong part of town. While pounding rice at the back of the monastery, Huineng hears one of the Monk’s reciting Shenxiu’s verse, and he immediately feels in his gut that something about this verse has missed the mark.
This is like a scene from Good Will Hunting. Huineng is, perhaps, the most naturally gifted and the most naturally brilliant person in the monastery, and he is also the most unnoticed, the most unrecognized and the one assigned with doing the most menial of tasks. Yet, here he is, responding with a verse of his own, answering the challenge presented on the wall of the Dharma Hall.
It was because of the wisdom Huineng demonstrated in this poem that Hongren chose Huineng to be his successor. I’m not nearly knowledgeable or learned enough to offer a qualified commentary on the intricacies of the verses by either Shenxiu or Hongren, (although I’ll probably make the attempt next week) but, I think the whole situation itself says something deeply interesting and important.
Given Huineng’s background, station, status and even his position within the monastic community, this scene is quite telling. The most mundane and ordinary of people is precisely the one who gives expression to something truly extraordinary. In this way, I think Huineng is something of a living explication of his verse, a living embodiment of his rebuttal poem.
He’s a nothing, a nobody and thus he is everything, and he is everyone.
In Zen, qualifications are inconsequential. Credentials are not the source of credence. Titles are ultimately trivial. Pedigree is peripheral and unimportant. Seeing into our original nature, seeing into our nascent awakened state, seeing into reality, itself, is all that matters.
It says in the Platform Sutra that, “if one recognizes one’s own original mind and sees one’s original nature, then one is called a great hero, a teacher of gods and humans, a Buddha.”
Editor: Dana Gornall
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