The next morning Hung-jen congratulated Shen-hsiu, but asked him to write another, as the first didn’t show a very deep understanding. Hui-neng, who couldn’t read, had Shen-hsui’s poem read to him by another monk, and then composed one himself. He asked the monk to write it out for him:
The Bodhi* is not a tree,
And there is no clear mirror standing.
There is nothing to be wiped,
And nowhere for dust to cling.
There are many ways of interpreting this story, here is one. Shen-hsiu’s poem uses the metaphor of the mind as a mirror and is grounded in a belief that if we clear the mind of all dust and defilement we will achieve a state of purity of mind (enlightenment). This was a common belief at the time and probably most of the monks would have agreed with Shen-hsiu. But this ‘mirror-wiping’ view of Zen practice seemed ridiculous to Hui-neng. Surely a person with mind wiped clean, was no more than “a lump of wood or a block of stone.” In Hui-neng’s view the mind wasn’t an object like a mirror – for it is a process, an active dynamic entity – and it can’t be grasped or ‘cleaned’. The mind is empty of self-existence or substance, it flows and meanders and is ever-changing. Hui-neng seems to be reminding Shen-hsiu and his fellow students that all things only exist in relation to, and dependent upon, everything else that exists. We need to let go of the erroneous view of the mind as an object to be wiped clean – just as we need to let go of the idea that thoughts are objects that can be grasped and the belief that we should try to stop the flow of mental activity, in the hope that this will bring us peace.
Throughout his life Huineng appears to have taught his students to realise that practice and awakening are two sides of the same coin. Practice doesn’t lead to awakening, practice is awakening. Attaching ourselves to a goal (enlightenment) simply separates us from what is already here. Awakening happens of its own accord, not as a result of ‘mirror-wiping’ or clutching at ideas, beliefs and methods. Sitting in zazen (mindful meditation) is to sit without attachment – awake to this life, here and now. Huineng: “to realise your true nature, is to be the Buddha.”
However we interpret the story of the two poems, the Fifth Patriarch considered Huineng to be his successor. Given the circumstances, he insisted that Huineng should go away for a while to stay clear of the other students who were dismayed at the prospect of having an illiterate peasant as a future teacher!
The contrast between Shen-hsiu and Huineng is often described in Zen literature as an opposition between those who believed in ‘enlightenment’ as a gradual process – Northern School of Zen – (Shen-hsiu’s ‘mirror-wiping’ approach) and those who believed in ‘sudden awakening’ – Southern School – (Huineng and his successors). Although these two approaches were argued about over the centuries, it would be over-simplistic and inaccurate to see one as right and one as wrong. Awakening has arisen both as a sudden and life-changing event, and as a gradual process of insights and realisations – dependent upon the characteristics and context of each individual.
Flag & wind
Two monks were watching a temple flag blowing in the wind. One said: “The flag is moving.”
The other said: “No, it’s the wind that is moving.”
Huineng just happened to be passing by. He told them: “It’s not the wind, or the flag; it’s your mind that’s moving.”
* ‘Bodhi’ is usually translated as, ‘awakened, enlightened’ or as ‘wisdom’. In this context the Bodhi Tree refers to the Banyan or ‘Bo’ tree under which the Buddha sat when he became awakened/enlightened.
[Most of what we know about Huineng comes from the Platform Sutra (c.780) – a text describing the teachings that he delivered on a raised platform to enable the large crowds that gathered at his talks to see and hear him.]