How Huineng Became the Sixth Patriarch

Part 2: Huineng's Response

Huineng understood instantly where Shenxiu fell short. There was another level of wisdom beyond that described in Shenxiu's poem. Huineng knew how to express this understanding in a poem - but being illiterate, did not know how to write it down. He ended up asking another monk to write it up on the same wall for him:

Bodhi really has no tree

Nor is clear mirror the stand

Nothing's there initially

So where can the dust motes land?

When they saw this poetic response, the monks did not get it at all. But the Fifth Patriarch comprehended Huineng's meaning perfectly. Represented in these four lines was an intuitive mind more capable of grasping fundamental Tao concepts than Shenxiu's formidable intellect after decades of schooling.

Now, if the Fifth Patriarch were to announce Huineng's succession publicly and hand the reins over to him, he knew that the monks would not understand. They probably would turn on Huineng and possibly even cause him harm just to prevent him from assuming the office. Therefore, he pretended to be unimpressed with the response. In great secrecy, and in the middle of the night, he passed the symbol of his authority - a bowl and a robe - to Huineng and ordered him to flee for his life.

And so Huineng did hastily depart the monastery, with a mob of angry monks in hot pursuit. What happenned after that is another story for another time. For now, let us ask this question: what exactly was the meaning of Huineng's poem that impressed his master so much?

Huineng's central insight is in pointing out the transient or "illusory" nature of the physical world. "Bodhi has no tree," he said. Why not? Because our immortal souls are an entity apart from the physical bodies we inhabit temporarily. Wisdom, awakening and enlightenment are the attributes of this immaterial spirit, and exist with or without the body.

"Clear mirror" isn't the stand. Why not? Remember that Shenxiu compared the heart to the stand, which holds the soul - the mirror - in place. Huineng points out that this is but an artificial constraint. The soul is there whether or not there's anything holding it up. The heart - the stand - isn't required or even particularly important!

Huineng further points out that all the defilements and distortions of the material world are just as transient or illusory as these temporary mortal forms we assume. The polluting influences of the physical world come and go and cannot last, unlike the immortal soul. In other words, our essential, eternal selves are the only real entities in the universe. Money, material possessions, fineries, precious jewels... none of these are things we can take with us when we pass beyond. For all practical intents and purposes, they may as well not exist!

If one can completely come to grips with this basic truth expressed by Huineng (easier said than done... you still wanna win the Lotto and you know it), enlightenment can happen in an instant. Hence, the true path to Buddhahood isn't the direction of hard work and the acquisition of even more knowledge and scriptures, as indicated by Shenxiu. The truer path is along the road of intuitive insight, where we progress beyond mere logic and reasoning and become one with wisdom and understanding.

How can we traverse this path? With our entire being, rather than just one hemisphere of the brain. Too much intellectual sophistry leads nowhere except ever more confusing and confounding complexity. It's time we recognize the fundamentals and come to the simple yet profound realization that, hey, all this Tao and Zen stuff ain't the mystical, mysterious stuff that only inscrutible Orientals can understand! When you get right down to it, the ancient masters and sages are really trying to tell us to stick to the basics and keep it simple. Simplicity and clarifying, penetrating basic truths - these are the essence of Tao and this is the golden nugget of knowledge we have come all this way to find.