How Huineng Became the Sixth Patriarch

The rice grinding wheel Huineng used while serving as a laborer in the monastery

Part 1: Shenxiu's Masterpiece

Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, is without question one of the most influential figures in Tao philosophy, and this story may well be the most significant tale in Zen lore. Not only is it an interesting drama of how the underdog attained an exalted position against all prevailing expectations, but also the poetry contained herein teaches us some essential and fundamental Tao lessons.

When Huineng first came to the monastery of the Fifth Patriarch, he was a singularly 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 paid him to heed and in general considered him beneath contempt. Little did they realize that one day this scruffy-looking, low-class peasant would become their spiritual leader.

When the time came for the Fifth Patriarch to name his successor, he ordered all the disciples to express their understanding of Zen Buddhist teachings in whatever way they saw fit. The one who could demonstrate the utmost undestanding would become the next Patriarch.

(To understand the significance of this event, let's imagine what would happen if the Pope in Vatican should decide that his successor shall be the winner of an essay contest open to all... hmm?)

The most learned disciple at the monastery was the head monk Shenxiu, who was an accomplished scholar. Most monks felt certain that the mantle would go to him, and that there was no way any of them would be a match for Shenxiu's intellects. Many did not even try.

To demonstrate his wisdom, Shenxiu wrote his famous poem on the wall of a temple corridor:

Body is the bodhi tree

Heart is like clear mirror stand

Strive to clean it constantly

Do not let the dust motes land

(If you know Chinese, you may notice that the above is a poetic translation rather than a rigorously exact one. If you're wondering how I arrived at the above, take a look at the Translation Notes.)

Bodhi means enlightenment or spiritual awakening. The bodhi tree is the tree that Gautama sat under when he became fully enlightened and attained the state of grace known as 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 compares the human body to the bodhi tree. His meaning is that sitting by the tree is the human soul, which like Gautama, is capable of attaining the ultimate wisdom.

(Incidentally, The Bodhi Tree is also the name of the famous bookstore on Melrose devoted to metaphysical subjects. An interesting fact about the bookstore is that it was founded by, of all people, three aerospace engineers! That's perhaps a compelling testimonial that not all engineers are the stereotypical cardboard figures.)

Also, in his poem Shenxiu compares the soul to a mirror that must be kept clean at all times. The "dust" in the poem refers to all the distractions, temptations and impure thoughts of the material world. To keep the soul clear of these unclean elements, a Zen disciple must diligently practice Tao - which is to say, engage in pursuits such as meditation, reading and reciting of scriptures, and the performance of the various rituals.

In a nutshell, Shenxiu expresses that the road of enlightenment is not an easy one. Only through hard work and never-ending diligence can one purify one's mind sufficiently to attain Buddhahood. The poem was a rallying call for the monks to fortify their resolve as they continue on this difficult spiritual journey.

All the monks were impressed. And, certain that this poem is effectively the edict from their next leader, they all memorized it and recited it as they went about their daily duties. Huineng overheard them, and that was how he learned of the existence of Shenxiu's work.

(Now let's think about this for a moment. How would you top Shenxiu if you were Huineng? Shenxiu's poem seems impeccable! Who can fault this declaration of a cultivator's total commitment to constant effort to achieve the ultimate enlightenment?)

Part 2: Huineng's Response