This longer piece of writing is from 2012. I am hoping it will be enjoyed, and will provide inspiration and guidance to students of meditation and self-enquiry. I find the story of Hui Neng to be one of the most beautiful and illuminating in the whole of the Buddhist tradition. Among the many deep themes in this rich and multi-dimensional story, you will find, I believe, the essence of Zen.
Those who have been reading my articles on the ‘mandala wisdom’ on this website, will find that this story also brings us back, in a fresh new way, to our entry point into the mandala: the Eastern Quadrant; the Mirror-Like Wisdom; and the brahmavihāra of Equanimity.
Although the psychological model and framework for meditation and self-enquiry, which I have been advocating in my writing is primarily that of the ‘mandala wisdom’ from the late Mahayana Buddhism, and Padmasambhava’s Bardo Thodol (or Tibetan Book of the Dead), its foundations are in early Buddhism and in the pre-Buddhist psychological and spiritual models, which Gautama Buddha himself used when talking about the ultimate nature of mind.
The story that I would like to tell here however, comes from Zen, a strand of Buddhism that was initiated by Mahakashapa, an enlightened student of the Buddha, who took the tradition to China. Culturally, Zen has something of the simplicity of early Buddhism, but is informed by the expansive compassionate mission, and by the beautiful and richly symbolic Sanskrit texts of the Indian Mahayana. At the time of this story, Zen was still a Chinese Buddhist tradition (the Chan tradition) and had not yet spread to Japan.
The spiritual teachers who passed on the living experience of enlightenment within the Zen tradition over many centuries have become known as the Zen Patriarchs. This is the story the man who became the Sixth Zen Patriarch. It is the story of Hui Neng.
This story has had a great impact on many people, and has always had great power for me also, because Hui Neng is such a perfect exemplar of that dimension of spirituality that the Buddhist tradition calls the Mirror-like Wisdom. Though a completely uneducated man at the time of his realisation, he had a spiritual clarity that stands as a beacon for us all, many centuries later. Through his influence during his lifetime, and the written records of his teachings, he personally brought about a renewal of Chinese Buddhism, and set it on the path to becoming the spiritual force that it became, and still is in the modern world.
Hui Neng was a very ordinary man, an illiterate Chinese peasant. He was born in Guangdong Province in the agricultural south of China in the seventh century CE. Our main source for his story is the ‘Platform Sutra’, the first section of which records an autobiographical talk that Hui Neng gave long after he was accepted as the Sixth Patriarch by the Buddhist community of China.
Hui Neng’s early life
We are told that Hui Neng’s father died when he was three, but even before his father died, there was extreme hardship for his family. The text tells us that his father had originally held an official position but had been banished from his native town. So it seems that Hui Neng probably grew up in poverty but had an extremely resourceful mother who worked very hard to support him through childhood despite her own heartbreak and deprivation.
As a young man, Hui Neng supported himself and his mother by chopping and carting firewood. We are given very little information about him, but we can imagine perhaps that he was too poor to think of marriage, and spending time alone in the woods and bamboo groves, found peace in nature, in the experience of being, and in reflection on the ultimate nature of things. I imagine him as a man of instinctive kindness and honesty who, while not educated, had a naturally inquiring mind and a contemplative, if not mystical, temperament – and who was always interested in, and open to, the truth – from wherever it may come.
Hui Neng first hears the Dharma
I imagine Hui Neng having many moments of resting as the imperturbable stillness of awareness, and consciously appreciating and familiarising himself with that peace. We are told however that, for him, a great turning point in the process of his realisation came when he heard the words of the Diamond Sutra being recited in the marketplace by a lay Buddhist – a man who had attended talks given by Hung Jen, the Fifth Patriarch. We can imagine Hui Neng taking time after making a delivery to listen respectfully and with single-minded intensity to the mysterious words of this powerful, dramatic, and challenging text. The Diamond Sutra was a sutra of the India Mahayana, which had been translated from Sanskrit into Chinese. It contains many bold statements about the ultimate nature of mind. It appears to most people to be full of riddles – completely defying the rational mind.
We are told that there was a particular line in the text that made a profound impact on Hui Neng. In translation these are the words:
“One should produce that thought which is nowhere dwelled.”
On hearing this, we are told, Hui Neng was swept into that stream of recognition and being that the Buddhist tradition calls Enlightenment. From that moment on, the process of realisation that was at work in him became irreversible; he was destined to become a realised soul; one who knows and rests inseparably in the oneness of awareness; one in whom the background has become the foreground, and the foreground the background; one who no longer suffers in their suffering; one who knows the ultimate nature of mind. He also recognised that he was a Buddhist – and began to learn about, and connect with, that culture, that language, and that archetypal world.
It seems he found a confirmation in the Diamond Sutra of a way of seeing and being and knowing that was already familiar to him. The social, cultural and religious significance of this way of seeing was however suddenly made clear for him. It seems that the idea that the field of awareness in which thought arises is ultimately a “nowhere” – and ’empty’ of egoic self-nature – resonated with his experience. And in fully acknowledging the importance of this, he would have realised also, that paradoxically this nowhere place of awareness itself, is the only place of true objectivity, the only basis for truly objective observation of self, other, and world. The impression given, is that from this moment of confirmation onward, he understood this truth with such penetrating clarity, that in all the many challenges of his life from that point on, he could always rely on that knowing – and in the peace that it brought with it.
Enlightenment: Sudden or Gradual?
Hui Neng is usually identified in the minds of students of Buddhism, with the idea of ‘sudden’ as opposed to ‘gradual’ awakening, and in his later life as an enlightened teacher he appears to have been something of a champion of an approach that is probably better characterised as ‘direct’ rather than ‘sudden’. In the light of this apparent dichotomy of ‘sudden’ and ‘gradual’, it is instructive to notice that the story of Nui Neng’s enlightenment, although it shows this directness, can also be seen as a gradual process with several distinct stages of deepening, surrender, and learning; a process in which he was coming more and more fully into alignment with his original realisation.
Hui Neng’s story becomes more accessible to us if we acknowledge that he was undergoing a process. There is even a danger that we distance ourselves from him and his experience if we over-idealise his experience and place this ‘sudden’ realisation through direct engagement with the nature of mind, outside of the realm of possibilities for ourselves. If we fail to feel the resonance of his experience in our own moments of knowing, we are refusing the gift in the story.
The power of Hui Neng’s influence on the China of his day lay partly in his ordinariness. He had no education, but rather than this being an obstacle, for him it was a blessing. He had the innocence and openness of mind that in Zen tradition has been called ‘Beginners Mind’, and this allowed him to enter the mystery, when others could not. He was like Parsival, the ‘fool’, the innocent and uncultivated Arthurian knight who is the one who finds the Holy Grail when all others had failed.
A Spiritual Friendship
Whatever else it was, this meeting with the man in the marketplace was for Hui Neng a meeting with his destiny, the moment of his entry into his true identity and path in life. It was also a point of no return, a point of no falling back. From here on in, he was in the gravitational force field of Enlightenment. We can imagine perhaps a powerful purifying peace descending over him like a gentle cascade. We can imagine perhaps a benign and radiant quality in his presence. We can imagine the completeness of his relatedness, the sparkle in his eyes, and the intimacy and mutual gratitude in his connection with this passionate lay student of Buddhism, but please let’s not distance ourselves from this experience. We all have these moments of innocent receptivity that can change our lives forever – if we let them.
Clearly, the discussion that followed made a huge impact on the man who had been reciting the text. I imagine him as a prosperous, scholarly, and richly dressed man with a deep love of the Buddha Dharma; a man who could read and write, and probably owned copies of the Buddhist texts. He is perhaps a man who has been deeply affected by the missionary spirit of Mahayana Buddhism, and is filled with the passionate wish to spread the Buddha’s teachings; a man who has traveled to the Buddhist monastery of the Fifth Patriarch to here him teaching, and returned determined to create a community of students and practitioners in his hometown. I see him immediately compelled to invite Hui Neng, the poor woodcutter, to come to his home many times over the following days and weeks, to have tea with him, and perhaps to read and reflect together, and to talk about the teachings.
We can imagine this man’s growing excitement and perplexity as the illiterate Hui Neng in his rough and dirty peasant clothes consistently expresses penetrating understanding of the strange and wonderful texts that he has been studying – and appears to show the qualities of a Buddha in aspects of his manner, communication and presence. We can also imagine the profound effect of these meetings on Hui Neng, as he recognises his innate kinship with this mysterious and wonderful spiritual tradition from India. His new friend would have explained the central Mahayana ideal, the ideal of the Bodhisattva, the being who lives for the wellbeing and salvation of all beings, and Hui Neng would have recognised that motivation as the guiding purpose in his own heart.
Hui Neng’s Journey North
In the text, all we are told is that this man enthusiastically urged, and subsequently sponsored, Hui Neng to travel north to visit master Hung Jen, the Fifth Patriarch, at the Huang Mei monastery, providing both money for his journey and his maintenance there, and ongoing financial support for his mother while he was away. I cannot help but see these two men as deep spiritual friends, each profoundly affected by the other, each feeling deep appreciation for the other, and each fully connected with the other’s needs, each intent on supporting the other; and both fully aware that the ultimate purpose of their friendship was to serve the greatest good of all.
We are told that the journey to the monastery took Hui Neng thirty days. It is probably fair to assume that Hui Neng had never before travelled more than a few days journey from his hometown, so this would have been a time of great expansion and deepening for him on many levels. We can imagine him learning much about the world along the way and reflecting deeply on what he saw. In a sense this was the time of his ‘going forth’, the time of his life when, having recognised his destiny, having been blessed with clarity as to purpose and his next steps, and the material resources to meet his modest needs, he responds completely to the calling, and throws himself forward into a new life. Each new day on this journey would have brought new challenges and new fears and new witness of suffering. We can imagine that each challenge he faced would have brought new knowledge and new confidence; that each new fear faced would have brought new trust in life; and that each new witness of suffering would have brought new depths of compassion.
“Buddhahood and Nothing Else!”
It seems that Hui Neng arrives at the end of his journey in a state of utterly single-minded spiritual purpose, and on meeting Hung Jen, the Abbot of the monastery, he boldly states that his interest is in the complete realisation of Buddhahood in this life “and nothing else!”. The tradition gives a very much distilled account of Hui Neng’s interview with Hung Jen, the enlightened Fifth Patriarch of the tradition. My instinct tells me that Hung Jen would have almost immediately recognised the high level of Hui Neng’s realisation. It must have been a profoundly affecting meeting for both of them. We can imagine Hung Jen testing Hui Neng’s realisation in various ways – and each time finding his original instinct confirmed.
The text tells us that a key theme of their conversation was that Hung Jen was concerned about how Hui Neng, an illiterate ‘barbarian’ from the agricultural south, would be received within the refined and educated culture of this monastery in the north. The fact that he cannot read is, it seems, regarded as an overwhelming practical obstacle, as the locals appear to feel nothing but disdain towards the country bumpkins from the south. We can also assume that a very different dialect of Chinese was being spoken in the monastery, than that which Hui Neng had grown up speaking in the south.
A Meeting of Minds
One of the ways Hung Jen tests Hui Neng is to ask him directly how he thinks he is going to participate in the life of the monastery and gain realisation if he is cannot even read. Hui Neng’s response, as recorded by the tradition, is very clear:
“Although there are northern men and southern men, north and south make no difference to their Buddha-nature. A barbarian is different from Your Holiness physically, but there is no difference in our Buddha-nature.”
If Hung Jen was not already convinced of Hui Neng’s realisation, it seems that the conversation paraphrased in these lines was more than enough to eliminate all doubt. He would have recognised that Hui Neng was stating an absolutely fundamental spiritual truth, and was speaking not from learning or egalitarian sentiment, but directly from his realisation; directly from his complete familiarity with the one mind of awareness in which all beings rest equally. Both men knew that the unitary field of awareness in which everything arises, is equal and even throughout the infinity of space. They both knew that all human beings participate in this radical and sacred equality, despite their apparent differences.
Both men also knew that almost all human cultures either ignore or actively reject this foundational insight and principle. More even than this, it is probable that both knew that an unfortunate feature of the egoic mind, is its mental habit of judging people as of greater and of lesser value, as better or worse, as worthy or less worthy, as more or less able, and as more or less Enlightened – and that this is nowhere more rife than in a monastery.
The Patriarch’s Dilemma
At one level, the situation that Hung Jen found himself in was very simple and beautiful: a precious moment of connection such as he perhaps has not experienced since the passing of the previous Patriarch. We can imagine them gazing at each other and feeling acknowledged in a new and perhaps unfamiliar way – another lovely moment of spiritual friendship. We can even imagine feelings of celebration and delight – even of relief – in the Fifth Patriach, as he recognises that his teaching efforts have borne fruit in an unexpected way; that Hui Neng appears to have gained realisation outside of the Buddhist community, but through their mutual connection in Hui Neng’s patron, has recognised the Chinese Zen tradition as his spiritual home and vocation; and that even if no-one else realises the one mind in this generation, Hung Jen has at last found someone who might be able to keep the lineage alive when he dies.
However, it is clear that Hung Jen has been presented with a difficulty. Hui Neng was presenting him with the dilemma that faces all men in positions of religious authority in one way or another. As Abbot of the monastery, he was running an inherently hierarchical organisation that has a need to honour the commitment of its senior members. He also needs to honour the committed laity, especially the wealthy laity, that were supporting the monastery financially. There was a pragmatic and even political dimension to his role. His greatest need, the guiding purpose of his life, was to live and communicate his own realisation, to keep the tradition truly alive and grounded in the actual experience of Enlightenment. However, he also needed to keep the tradition and its teaching program progressing and running smoothly within the cultural limitations of Chinese society at that time.
Hung Jen also needed to acknowledge that in a monastery there are many levels of development happening that all serve to support the overall goal of the transmission of the experience of enlightenment. In the Buddhist tradition, the goal of spiritual realisation, is almost always set within the cultural context of, not only the tradition, but the broadly conceived aim of personal development within that context. In a monastery, there is a wide range of skills, knowledge and personality development happening, which are also highly valued and necessary if the tradition is to be preserved.
A Temporary Solution
More even than this, Hung Jen appears to have been very much afraid of the possibility of jealous rage, and even actual physical violence towards Hui Neng, if his realisation was to be publicly acknowledged. As horrific a reflection as it may seem upon the political dynamics of life in a Buddhist monastery in seventh century China, it has to be said that Hung Jen was actually afraid that this wonderful man from the south might be murdered, and immediately made the protection of Hui Neng’s life his highest priority.
We are told that they had to cut their meeting short due to the presence of other disciples, so Hung Jen had to make a decision on the spur of the moment. His solution was radical. It seems he decided that the safest option was to do nothing, at least for the time being; to make no acknowledgement of Hui Neng’s realisation to anyone else in the monastery; to have no further contact with him; to ask him to remain silent as much as possible; and to ask him not to attend the teaching sessions or make any show of his knowledge. He admitted him to the monastery in the most junior role, working in the kitchens and stables with lay members of the monastic community. It appears that he had no doubt that Hui Neng would understand and completely accept the situation, such was the recognition that had passed between them during their brief meeting on that first day.
It was eight months before they met again, and even then, it was only the briefest exchange of reassurances, of deep respect, and of acknowledgement that each understood the other’s mind.
Hui Neng works in the Monastery Kitchens
The image of Hui Neng working with the support staff in the yards, stables, kitchens and vegetable gardens of the monastery is a very beautiful and thought-provoking one. We can imagine that for the most part he would feel very much at home in the culture of that community, content to observe and learn, and to allow any need for recognition that he might have had, to simply be unmet.
He must have been a source of some perplexity to his workmates, but I would like to think that he earned their acceptance and respect. I imagine that he was always clear, objective, and thoughtful, but very simple and without intellectual ambition; always practical, efficient and effective, but totally without pride; always kind, empathetic and warmly present, but totally without affectation; always motivated; and always in the flow. We can also imagine him reflecting in private moments; wondering, presumably without anxiety, about what the outcome of this situation might be; perhaps developing a critical perspective about the way the monastery was organised, but always content to let his needs be unmet, and to respect the judgement and authority of Hung Jen.
The presence of Hui Neng in the monastery must have been troubling for Hung Jen. How could it be that this commoner from the backwoods has gained such complete clarity of understanding while his students who have been studying the great texts with him for many years have not? Why is it that the efforts of his monks were not bearing fruit? Why was it so difficult to pass on his realisation to these men who were trying so hard to learn? His students are such well-educated intelligent men. Several of them would have such a natural authority if they were to take over the Patriarchate. Why then could they not grasp the essence of the teachings? We can imagine Hung Jen redoubling his teaching efforts and trying to find new ways of helping his students to go beyond their book knowledge and their relative stillness of mind, and to achieve actual liberation.
The Patriarch’s Poetry Challenge
The next episode of the story is the famous one in which, we a told, Hung Jen gives a discourse to all his disciples in which he urges them passionately to engage in meditative inquiry so as to realise the ultimate nature of mind and free themselves from the endless cycle of rebirth. He then challenges each one of them to look into their own experience of the nature of mind, and to quickly write a short four-line verse, or ‘gatha’, expressing their own inner knowing of the ultimate truth. He makes it clear that he intends this to be a test of the degree of their realisation, and explains that the monk who is able to show that they really understand the ultimate nature of mind will receive the transmission of the lineage and will become the 6th Patriarch. We can imagine perhaps that Hung Jen, mindful of Hui Neng working in the kitchens and unable to think of a satisfactory way to resolve the situation, would dearly love to see evidence that one of his learned and literate disciples was also able to see the truth and express their realisation clearly.
Since the monastery already has a senior instructor and teacher called Shen Xiu, who is acknowledged by all as the senior-most monk after the Abbott, all the junior monks we are told, decide not to bother even trying to do the inquiry, and do not attempt to write a verse. They rationalise that it is more respectful to simply wait to see what their instructor Shen Xiu comes up with. Reading this section of the autobiography, we have a disturbing and illuminating sense of how processes of psychological projection, and of how habitual self-limiting assumptions, and the hierarchical thinking in the monastery, is profoundly undermining the monks’ ability to take personal responsibility for their spiritual process.
Shen Xiu’s Conflict and Struggle
Shen Xiu is also burdened by his role in the hierarchy. The text describes in detail how the decision of the junior monks not to engage puts a lot of pressure on him, and throws him into painful internal conflict. Knowing that he is the only one who will be submitting a verse, and also knowing very well that although he is very learned, he has not yet realised the ultimate nature of mind, he becomes anxiously preoccupied with how his gatha will be received by the Patriarch and by the monks. It appears that when Shen Xiu tries to write a gatha, he writes and rewrites it many times, but is unhappy even with his best effort. We are told that after trying to find the courage to face the Abbot with it no less than thirteen times over the course of the next four days, he gives up and decides to write it on a section of wall inside the monastery that had recently been prepared for the painting of a mural and would soon be painted over. He writes his verse at midnight making sure that no one sees him.
The translations of the original Chinese characters into English are many and varied, but the following is probably fairly close to what Shen Xiu wrote:
Shen Xiu’s Gatha
The body is like the Bodhi Tree
The mind like a bright mirror on a stand
Time and again polish is diligently
To keep it uncontaminated by dust
It is easy to see why Shen Xiu has become the main teacher at the monastery under Hung Jen. He beautifully and poetically expresses the main preoccupations of a monk: the need for discipline and unrelenting effort to control and purify the mind by maintaining mental states that are calm, positive, focused and undistracted. There is a satisfying poetry in his expression. From a certain point of view, the body is indeed like the Bodhi Tree, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment. And the mirror is a wonderful metaphor for the mind. We sense that he half-remembers a teaching in which Hung Jen was pointing to the nature the mind using the metaphorical image of a mirror. It is as if he is trying to grasp the meaning of what he has heard, but cannot quite capture it.
Full Marks for Effort
We can imagine that Hung Jen, the abbot and Patriarch, who has been waiting for four days for Shen Xiu’s gatha, has a very clear intuitive sense of what Shen Xiu has been going through. When he discovers the gatha on the wall the next day he almost certainly knows immediately who the author is, and can see that it does not express an understanding of the ultimate nature of mind, but it seems that his response gives no indication of disappointment whatsoever. He cancels the plan for the mural painting, which was to have been of a beautiful inspiring scene from one of the great Mahayana sutras, and praises the verse very highly. He makes it known that it contains very important truths about living a good life and purifying karma. Far from expressing disappointment, he states that anyone practicing this teaching will be saved from the misery of being born in ‘the evil realms of existence’. (There are, in Buddhist cosmology six possible realms, or places of rebirth, four of which are regarded as particularly unfortunate – Asura realm, the Preta Realm, the Hell Realms, and the Animal Realm.) He invites all of his monks to give honour to the gatha by burning incense in front of it, by learning it, reciting it, and putting the principles it contains into practice.
That night Hung Jen secretly meets with Shen Xiu, and asks him if he is the author of the gatha. Shen Xiu somewhat nervously acknowledges that it is, and asks Hung Jen for his honest opinion of it. Hung Jen responds kindly. He explains to Shen Xiu that he has reached the door of Enlightenment, but has not yet entered it, and then spends time guiding him in self-inquiry and trying to point him beyond thought to the objective mind, the field of awareness in which thought arises. He then urges Shen Xiu to look within once again and to try to come up with another gatha that expresses the core insight that they have talked about. Again Hung Jen promises Shen Xiu that the Patriarchate will be passed to him if he can show that he is ready, and once again Shen Xiu finds himself tormented, unable come up with anything better.
The Meeting of Abbot and Senior Monk
The image of this meeting between Hung Jen and Shen Xiu is in some ways extremely touching. Clearly Hung Jen has feelings of great love, respect, gratitude, and appreciation for Shen Xiu – his favourite and most devoted student. They have a deep bond of friendship, and an affection that is mutual. Although they are on different spiritual levels, they are co-workers, they share a vision: a vision of developing a Buddhist culture in China; and a vision of salvation, of helping the men and women of China to find the peace of realisation – the end of suffering. There is no doubt that Hung Jen would very much love to be able to pass the robe and bowl, the symbols of the Patriarchate, to Shen Xiu.
Reflecting on this meeting between enlightened master and unenlightened senior student, a student of the Buddhist tradition cannot help but think of the Buddha’s relationship with Ananda, his student and personal companion throughout his years of teaching. Like Shen Xiu, Ananda was a brilliant student with a kind heart, a truly remarkable memory, and a very keen sense of the cultural and historical importance of the teachings and of the tradition, but he was unable to gain enlightenment while the Buddha was alive. It was only after Gautama’s death that Ananda found the Buddha within.
Next, we hear that, because members of the monastic community have taken seriously Hung Jen’s invitation to learn and recite Shen Xiu’s gatha, Hui Neng gets to hear it being recited by a boy who is a lay member of the community and a member of the kitchen staff like himself. Hui Neng realises immediately that the author of the gatha is not enlightened and asks the boy who composed it. The boy explains the whole story of the Abbot’s challenge to the monks, and the gatha that was written on the wall, and the praise that Hung Jen had heaped on it, and agrees to take Hui Neng to see the wall where the gatha is written.
So we have the curious image of the illiterate Hui Neng standing before the four rows of Chinese characters that he cannot read, reciting to himself the words he has heard, and reflecting deeply upon them. He knows very well that they do not express the ultimate nature of mind, but he also knows that they have been highly praised by Hung Jen. I sense there may have been a very important process of integration and learning for him in this. He would have recognised and acknowledged that Hung Jen was praising the important relative truths in this gatha, truths that bring improvement to the human condition and prevent rebirth in the worst realms, even though the original challenge had been to express something of absolute truth, the knowledge of the ultimate nature of mind that brings complete liberation.
We cannot help but bring to mind Hui Neng’s first meeting with the Patriarch, when he declared that he wanted “Buddhahood and nothing else!”. I believe Hui Neng comes to an even greater understanding of, and respect for the mind of Hung Jen as he contemplates the gatha and Hung Jen’s response to it. In his affirmation of the gatha, Hung Jen brings home to him that the Buddhist tradition is not concerned only with Buddhahood “and nothing else!” On the contrary it embraces the challenge of raising up the quality of our conduct and our mental wellbeing in a very broad way. Everything that is conducive to these goals is included, and given meaning and value. The goal of Enlightenment can be seen as the highest goal – one which provided the context in which these lesser gaols are set.
The Inclusivity of the Bodhisattva’s Task
Even though the Bodhisattva is primarily concerned with liberation; with the absolute salvation of all beings; with going beyond all conditions, he is also inherently and passionately motivated to simply meet human needs and alleviate suffering on a relative level – on the level of conditioned existence. The Bodhisattva engages with all aspects of human life and culture without exception. His passion is to make life more wonderful in whatever way he can. Nothing relative is excluded, but the absolute liberation that springs from knowledge of the ultimate nature of mind, from the one mind, from awareness itself, is his central concern, his highest purpose, and the source of his tireless compassionate motivation.
I imagine Hui Neng kneeling in honour and obeisance before the gatha on the wall, and feeling a great love not only for his master Hung Jen, but also perhaps for the senior teacher Shen Xiu. It would be easy to dismiss Shen Xiu as being preoccupied with the achievement of only relative goals: relative tranquility, relative wisdom, relative happiness, relative compassion and relative purification. This would be a mistake, since it is the energy of the absolute arising in each heart that ultimately motivates these relative goals. As Hui Neng recites and reflects, I believe he comes to recognise clearly, that although it is sometimes helpful and necessary to acknowledge the two apparent levels of truth on the spiritual path, ultimately they are not separate, and both are valid. With this insight, he knows in his heart that all those who sincerely teach the Buddha Dharma are worthy of deep respect and gratitude – Enlightened or not.
We can imagine the illiterate Hui Neng standing before the writing on the wall, continuing to contemplate and turning Shen Xiu’s gatha images over in his mind, and trying to figure out the characters. We can imagine him being highly motivated to learn to read. I imagine that Shen Xiu’s gatha is on the left side of the panel of wall that has been prepared for the mural, and that there is space next to it that is calling out to be written on with another gatha that would provide a counterpoint to, and a clarification of, the first. We can imagine Hui Neng wishing he could write, wishing he could communicate his clarifying understanding, which he is convinced will help the monks in their practice. It is of great value for us to fantasise about what Hui Neng might have been thinking. Once again, let’s not distance ourselves from him. Rather let’s allow ourselves to join him in his reflection and his self-inquiry.
The Body is the Bodhi Tree
We can perhaps imagine Hui Neng reflecting on the first line of Shen Xiu’s gatha:
‘Yes, the body is indeed like the Bodhi Tree, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment. And the commitment to meditation practice, the commitment to allowing the body to be still like a tree is important. The stillness of the body, and the stillness of the mind as we take moments of rest, moments for meditative inquiry, is very helpful indeed. It allows us to notice awareness itself, and to notice its qualities. Awareness is always still. Awareness is always still and benevolently present like the beautiful tree that provided the Buddha with shade on that final day.’
‘Awareness is still even when the body is moving. Awareness is imperturbable, unaffected by the movement of thought. It is always there, still and present, and all-embracing, even when we move and think and go about our business. If a person stops moving and sits still, and lets the mind become quiet for a moment, they will notice that the one mind of awareness is always there wherever they are, and whatever they are doing. Awareness is everywhere. There is no special place where enlightenment is more or less, stronger or weaker. Awareness is equal and even throughout infinite space and time.’
‘The one mind of Bodhi, the one mind of Enlightenment, needs no tree. It has no location whatsoever. There are no conditions for it. Bodhi does not even require the stillness of a good meditation posture that is solid and strong like a tree. Actually it’s the other way round. Resting in the ultimate stillness of awareness it what allows the body to become still and peaceful and relaxed. Resting as awareness allows the body and mind to become imperturbable and benevolently present like the Bodhi tree. The Body is the Bodhi tree is a beautiful metaphor, but it could be confusing. The one mind of awareness itself cannot be located. It has, and needs, no location.’
If I were to write a gatha, I am afraid I would have to say something like Bodhi is not a tree or better still:
Bodhi needs no tree.’
The Mind a Bright Mirror on a Stand
Once again let’s imagine Hui Neng reflecting on Shen Xiu’s gatha:
‘Yes, a bright mirror is an excellent metaphor for the mind. Clarity of mind is indeed like a bright mirror. And the stand is like the meditator sitting with a good straight meditation posture. The stand is also perhaps an image of uprightness and nobility of conduct. The discipline of acting ethically and with generosity can indeed lead to a clear calm mind if they are performed without pride and identification. However, the ultimate basis of a clear calm mind is the imperturbable clarity of awareness itself. And ethical action comes naturally to one who has learnt to rest in the one mind of awareness. Ethical and generous actions of body, speech and mind, are beautiful and bring happiness, because they bring us into alignment with our true nature, but only complete familiarity with our true nature will bring liberation.’
‘The mind is like a mirror because the images in a mirror do not stick to its bright surface. When the meditator contemplates the mind of awareness itself rather than just the fleeting contents of the mind – the thoughts that arise and pass away – he sees that awareness is indeed mirror-like and bright. Indeed, the one mind of awareness is always luminous and shines with a kindly non-judgemental light on all thoughts whatsoever. Awareness just sees things as they are. It does not need to change the thoughts that arise. It is receiving and accepting of them – recognising that they are empty of self-nature.’
‘Spiritual transformation is a question of emphasis, a question of where we choose to place our attention and our identification. If I were teaching meditation I would advise the monks to give their attention to the mirror-like quality of awareness itself, rather than to it mental contents. This change of emphasis alone is enough to purify the mind, since awareness is purity itself. No thoughts can ever stain its mirror-like purity and brightness. The meditator does not need to judge his thoughts and control his mind. He only needs to become familiar with the mirror-like awareness in which his thoughts arise. As he learns to rest as the one mind of awareness, he will see the conditioned nature of his thoughts. He will notice that they are only points of view, just thoughts conditioned by his experience, and his identification with them will fall away.’
‘When men and women emphasise the contents of the mind, and only glance in the mirror of the one mind of awareness, they glimpse its brightness and take that to be the source of a personal self that is completely separate. Then they take the thoughts that arise in the mind to be ‘my’ thoughts. Both the glanced reflection in the mirror of mind, and the thoughts that arise there, are each taken as confirmation of separate self-hood. When however, in meditative inquiry we look more carefully into this mirror of the mind, we find no self. Both the one mind of awareness, and the thoughts that arise in it, are completely without self-nature.’
‘One who has gained familiarity with the one mind of awareness develops a reflective mirror-like intelligence. When judgements arise in him, he reflects on them. He does not speak them or act on them, but notices that they are just conditioned points of view, just the momentum and reactivity of his mind. When he is familiar with the one mind of awareness he becomes capable of true objectivity, and thinks in a completely new way that is not self-referencing.’
‘Shen Xiu has written ‘The mind is a bright mirror on a stand’. If I were to the write a gatha, I would want to write a counterpoint to that which emphasises the fact that the mirror-like mind of awareness itself has no conditions whatsoever. If I could write I would like to say:
The bright mirror has no stand.’
Time and Again, Polish it Diligently
This is the third line of the Shen Xiu’s gatha. Once again let us imagine Hui Neng’s thoughts:
‘Shen Xiu is correct in his understanding that to create a way of life and a way of being that is in alignment with the highest good, it is necessary to be vigilant, to take action, to be diligent, to apply effort, to ascertain and cultivate what is positive at all times. Those who cling to illusion of a separate self, do behave badly, and they do indeed accumulate negative tendencies that obscure the true nature of the mind. But ultimately the opposite is also true. One who gains deep familiarity, through meditative inquiry, with the ultimate nature of mind, with the mirror-like purity of awareness itself, eventually learns to rest instinctively as that. Since the imperturbable mirror-like clarity of the one mind of awareness is our ultimate true nature, it inevitably becomes completely natural and effortless for us to rest in that peace – if we regularly choose to do so in meditation and in daily life.’
‘If I was writing a gatha in response to Hung Jen’s challenge to point to the ultimate nature of mind and to the path of complete liberation, I would want to emphasise this paradox. Although effort and diligence is often appropriate, the one mind of awareness itself needs no polishing to keep it shining brightly. It is stainless by nature – originally, essentially and primordially pure and clean.’
‘If I could write a line that is a statement about the nature of the bright mirror of awareness, I would say simply:
It is originally pure and clean’
To Keep it Uncontaminated by Dust
This is the fourth and final line of Shen Xiu’s gatha. Let’s imagine once again, what Hui Neng might have thought about it:
‘I feel compassion for Shen Xiu and his monks. It takes so much effort for them to maintain their practice and their commitment to the monastic life. Until we have learnt to rest in the clarity and purity of awareness itself, the mind always appears to be filled with conflicts and unwanted thoughts. If the monk allows himself to identify with his thoughts – believing that they are ‘my’ thoughts – then they do indeed appear to be like worldly ‘dust’ that accumulates on the surface of the mind – obscuring the true nature of mind despite his best efforts.’
‘Until he recognises that the contents of the mind and his awareness of them, are both entirely empty of self-nature, it is natural that a monk would identify with his mental contents and want to remove this mental ‘dust’. His relentless effort to purify the mind of these unwanted contents deserves commendation, but ultimately peace is only possible by a change of emphasis and attention – and a release of identification. There is a danger that the earnest struggle to remove the dust of unwanted thoughts becomes habitual, and that the ultimate source of peace of mind is forgotten.’
‘If I was writing a gatha I would what to try to remind the monks that it is necessary and sufficient that they choose to become deeply familiar with the inherent stainless clarity of awareness itself. If they choose to give their attention to that, so that their attention is balanced between awareness itself and that which is arising in awareness and inseparable from it, their mind will naturally becomes clear. The one mind of awareness itself requires no cleaning. Because it is primordially pure, stainless, and empty of self-nature, it is always entirely unaffected by the mental contents that arise within it. Awareness is imperturbable and indestructible. It can no more be affected by thoughts than a mirror can be affected by the reflected images that move across it.’
‘For the fourth line of my gatha, if I could write, I would say:
Where then could dust collect?‘
The Two Gathas
The text tells us that another man joins Hui Neng as he is gazing meditatively at the wall where Shen Xiu’s gatha is inscribed. It appears that he is a visitor to the monastery from some distance away. We are told that he is an official from Jiang Zhou province by the name of Zhang Ri Yong. Hui Neng would have recognised him by his dress as one who could read and write. It appears that the two men, though of very different social class, stuck up a rapport and talked together about the words and meanings of Shen Xiu’s gatha. First, Zhang Ri Yong read the gatha to Hui Neng and helped him understand the characters, and then Hui Neng managed to persuade him to write the gatha that he had composed on the wall next to that of Shen Xiu. So the two gathas written side by side must have expressed something close to the following in their meaning:
Shen Xiu’s Gatha Hui Neng’s Gatha
The body is the Bodhi Tree Bodhi needs no tree
The mind is a bright mirror on a stand The bright mirror has no stand
Time and again polish is diligently It is originally pure and clean
To keep it uncontaminated by dust Where then could dust collect?
So, Hui Neng, while adhering to Hung Jen’s request that he should not talk to other members of the community, has ultimately not been able to completely hide his realisation. His compassionate impulse to bring clarity where there was confusion, has brought the attention to Hui Neng that Hung Jen had been trying to avoid. The clarity of his insight is now evident in the writing on the wall, which immediately causes quite a stir in the monastery. As soon as Hung Jen sees the second gatha on the wall next to Shen Xiu’s, he recognises the wisdom in it and knows that it could only have been composed by Hui Neng. Fearing a violent attack on Hui Neng motivated by jealousy and envy, he immediately attempts to erase Hui Neng’s gatha with his shoe, and is disparaging and dismissive about it. Intent on protecting Hui Neng, he makes it known that he thinks the second gatha to be the work of one who has also not yet realised the ultimate nature of mind
These two gathas viewed side by side in this way speak volumes not only about the Chan Buddhist tradition at that time, but about the Buddhist tradition in general. They present an eternal philosophical question, a perennial starting point for inquiry for all spiritual students and for all spiritual communities. History has shown that the world view and emphasis represented by Shen Xiu’s gatha tends to come to dominate the philosophy and practice in almost all religions and spiritual traditions, whereas the Hui Neng’s gatha represents that insight which both initiates, or brings renewal to, these traditions.
We are told that although he had publicly dismissed Hui Neng’s gatha, Hung Jen finds a way of connecting with Hui Neng, by coming to the kitchens where he is working. By communicating together in the language of the kitchen, they manage, without anyone else knowing, to arrange a late-night meeting.
A Secret Meeting – Late at Night
This late-night meeting must have been extraordinary for both of these men. Hui Neng describes it in some detail in his autobiographical talk. They may only have had one or two hours together and Hui Neng clearly still treasures the memory many years later. It is a moment in the story for us to treasure also. At the meeting, Hung Jen expounds the Diamond Sutra and a particular line in the text makes a huge impact on Hui Neng.
“One should use one’s mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachment,”
This statement unfolds yet another dimension of the theme that has already been expressed in a very profound way in Hui Neng’s gatha. It is another way of talking about the mirror-like nature of awareness and of the beauty of honesty and objective truth; of thought that is completely fair and balanced and not biased by either conscious or unconscious self-reference. Interestingly, it talks of objectivity as a way of ‘using’ the mind, which becomes possible when we are free from egoic identification with thoughts, feelings and experiences; from any attachment to any particular way of seeing the world. Those that rest as the one mind of awareness, are able to ‘use’ their minds consciously and skilfully in the work of creation. Those that have no familiarity with the one mind of awareness, have no freedom from attachment; have no place of rest; have little or no capacity for objectivity; and are completely subject to the reactivity of their minds and the suffering that their thoughts create.
On hearing that line in the text, Hui Neng says he:
“became thoroughly enlightened, and realised that all things in the universe are the One Mind itself.”
This is a very profound statement indeed. This is not just an expression of his understanding of the text. An even deeper insight has arisen. In the moment that Hui Neng identifies as his final and complete realisation, he sees that all things in the universe are the one mind itself; that everything that ever happens is a manifestation of the one mind of awareness.
The Patriarchate is passed to Hui Neng
We can imagine the two men gazing at each other with bright eyes in the lamp light, each finding various words and metaphors for their experience, and each feeling the deep joy in being fully understood by the other. It must have been a meeting filled with a sense of destiny and creative purpose as well as joy. While Hung Jen clearly understood that Hui Neng was very likely going to become a very different teacher from himself, he would also have been full of advice for him.
The text gives us only hints as to the content of their conversation. Hung Jen was already an old man and in failing health, and he now knew beyond a shadow of doubt that he must pass on the Patriarchate to Hui Neng that very night, and then help him to flee to the south to escape jealousy, persecution and quite possibly murder. Since their brief meeting when Hui Neng first arrived at the monastery, Hung Jen had been through a process of deep reflection through which he had become convinced that Hui Neng must indeed be the one to receive, and subsequently pass on, the transmission. Being a native of the south, and knowing the dialect of that region, Hui Neng would be able to take the Dharma to a whole new constituency.