By Duane Toops
If you’ve been following my YouTube channel and/or my articles for the past few weeks you know that I’ve been thinking a lot about Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan/Zen Buddhism.
Almost three weeks ago I made a video about Huineng meeting the Fifth Patriarch Hongren, and last week I made a video about the infamous poetry contest between Shenxiu and Huineng. What I didn’t talk about in that video were the individual verses composed by Shenxiu and Huineng for this competition.
If I’m being honest I think one of the other reasons I was so reluctant to comment on the poems written by Shenxiu and Huineng was because I’m not sure I’m qualified enough to do so. I’m not sure that I have a clear enough understanding of the distinctions between the two verses and what’s represented within them to adequately expound upon them.
But, Shenxiu was uncertain of his own understanding as well, and he still wrote his poem on the wall of the Dharma Hall. Huineng knew that he, himself, held the lowest possible position at the monastery, had no credentials, qualifications or education, and still he responded with his own poem. In fact, when one of the monks scoffed at Huineng for wanting to respond to Shenxiu’s verse with a verse of his own, Huineng said that, “If you wish to study the supreme Bodhi, do not slight the beginner. The lowest people may have the highest wisdom; the highest people may have the least wisdom.”
If that’s true then I guess I’m out of excuses. So here goes…
After the Fifth Patriarch, Hongren, instructed each of the monks to compose a verse demonstrating their understanding of original nature, Shenxiu wrote the following:
The body is a Bodhi tree
The mind like a bright mirror stand.
Time and again brush it clean,
And let no dust alight.
And then, after hearing Shenxiu’s verse recited by another monk, Huineng was compelled to respond with the following Verse:
Originally Bodhi has no tree,
The bright mirror has no stand.
Originally there is not a single thing:
Where can dust alight?
When this story is told and interpreted, it’s often presented as an antagonism. It’s suggested that Shenxiu, Huineng, and their verses represent an opposition—a contradiction. The implication is that one supersedes the other. Huineng’s is presented as being superior to Shenxiu’s. Often the suggestion is that Shenxiu’s verse is wrong and Huineng’s is right.
Maybe I’m just displaying my own ignorance but, I have to ask: what’s so wrong with Shenxiu’s verse?
John M. Thompson writes that Shenxiu offered, “A straightforward articulation of the necessity of diligent practice.” During his time at the monastery Shenxiu devoted himself to the practices of meditation and prajna,or wisdom, and I think his poem reflects that devotion. Shenxiu utilizes the imagery and symbols of the tradition.
“Bodhi” is wisdom, knowledge, awakening and Enlightenment. The “bodhi tree” is the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment and awakening. In this regard, when Shenxiu suggests that “the body is the Bodhi tree” he is suggesting that as sentient beings we are each the sacred place of awakening and enlightenment. The potentiality for the realization and manifestation of awakening is ever-present within each of us, right where we are.
I think Shenxiu’s next line provides a parallel to the first.
The bright reflective qualities of the mind are mirror like, the clarity of which is supported and maintained by disciplined practice. To me, at least (and what the fuck do I know), none of this seems to be particularly off-base. Sometimes it seems that there are dusty defilements that block the clear awakened radiance of our “original nature,” and thus we aim to diligently brush past them, to see through the dust, and to piercingly see into “reality.”
Maybe Shenxiu’s verse isn’t wrong, maybe its just incomplete.
Huineng seems to emphasize the idea of emptiness. He says that Bodhi has no tree, the mirror has no stand or no support. He implies that not only is there nowhere for dust to land, gather or collect, there is actually no dust at all.
I think Huineng is saying that the wisdom and knowledge of the awakened intellect is not tied to a distinctly separate person, place or thing, and the blockages, obstructions and defilements that we we think stand in the way of us seeing clearly aren’t actually there. In other words, I don’t think Huineng is saying that these ideas aren’t helpful or that they’re not important. Instead, I think he’s just trying to remind us that our ideas about practice, our ideas about enlightenment and awakening, our ideas about reality, and even our ideas about what obstructs our view of reality are all just ideas without any absoluteness or ultimacy.
Maybe it’s not that Huineng’s verse is superior to Shenxiu’s, maybe Huineng’s verse is the completion of Shenxiu’s. Maybe Huineng didn’t set out to correct Shenxiu’s thought but, to complete it. Maybe they’re not meant to be contradictory, but meant to be complimentary. Maybe the verses are intended to be read together and not two opposing poles but, two parts of the same practice.
Maybe they’re better reconciled.
Shenxiu emphasizes the importance of practice, diligence and clarity, and Huineng reminds us to hold on to these ideas loosely because even they’re empty too.
Shenxiu tells us to be fervently diligent in our practice, and Huineng reminds us that, in doing so, we should hold on to the practice loosely, because even that’s just an idea too.
Editor: Dana Gornall