One day the Fifth Patriarch asked the Sixth Patriarch, “Is the rice ready?”
Hui Neng replied, “The rice has long been ready. It is now waiting only for the sieve.”
This passage in the Sixth Patriarch’s Sutra is extremely important.
When the Fifth Patriarch met the Sixth Patriarch, he recognized him as a vessel of the Dharma, as someone who would have great achievements in Buddhism. However, he didn’t let his feelings show. Instead, he ordered the Sixth Patriarch to go to the threshing floor and thresh rice. When the Sixth Patriarch threshed rice, he tied a heavy rock around his waist to add weight to his body so that he could pound the rice. During the eight months that he toiled on the threshing floor, he didn’t talk to anyone or seek special favors from people.
One day the Fifth Patriarch asked him, “Is the rice ready?”
Hui Neng replied, “The rice has long been ready. It is now waiting only for the sieve.” This passage in the Sixth Patriarch’s Sutra is extremely important.
The Fifth Patriarch found the Great Master Hui Neng on the threshing floor and asked him, “Is the rice ready?” On one level the question means, “Have you finished threshing the rice?” On another level, the meaning is: “Have your efforts been successful? Are you well on your way in your cultivation?”
Why does the Sutra say, “rice”? Because rice is made up of many round grains, it symbolizes the precious mani jewel of the self-nature. “Is the mani jewel of your nature perfected? Is the light of your mind full? Is the light of your nature full? Is the light of your body full? Have you perfected these three kinds of light yet?"
There’s another meaning. When the raw grain is boiled, it becomes edible. The Patriarch’s question means, “Have you succeeded in your cultivation of the Way? You have been pounding rice and cultivating Dhyana meditation. How is your skill?” There are many levels of meaning here.
The Sixth Patriarch, of course, understood the Fifth Patriarch’s question, for it is said, “One who has gone through understands another who has gone through.”
“The rice has long been ready. My skill was perfected long ago,” the Sixth Patriarch answered. “It is now waiting only for the sieve.” In threshing rice, a sieve is used to sift out the husks. Here, the sieve represents getting rid of the filth. The fourth chapter of the Lotus Sutra tells of the poor son who spent twenty years sweeping away the dung. Although the Sixth Patriarch’s spiritual skill was perfected, it still waited for the sieve; he still had to sweep out the dung! Do you understand now why Sutras must be explained? If they were not explained, you would not even know enough to sweep away the dung, and you would be utterly useless!
“Sweeping away the dung” means getting rid of the afflictions of views and thought. Although the Sixth Patriarch knew the method, his afflictions of views and thought had not yet been completely eliminated. That he was waiting for the sieve can also mean that no one had certified him. Even though, in his intense vigor, he had reached a high peak, and the fire in the censer was pure green, he had not yet been certified by an enlightened good knowing advisor.