Nearly everyone knows who Huineng and Shenxiu are. However, we’ll review their verses below.
Shenxiu’s verse says:
The body is a Bodhi tree.
The mind like a bright mirror-stand.
Time and again, brush it clean;
Let no dust alight.
Huineng’s verse says:
Originally Bodhi has no tree,
The bright mirror has no stand.
Originally there is not a single thing:
Where can dust alight?
Based on these verses, Huineng obtained the Fifth Patriarch’s robe and bowl and the world came to slight Shenxiu and praise Huineng.
Whether or not the body is a Bodhi tree and the mind a bright mirror is a question of the authors’ personal attainment. These verses could not have been spoken by anyone else. In comparing the two verses, Huineng’s line “there is not a single thing” shows that he understood the nature. Although Huineng fled in the middle of the night, it was merely a physical action, a move that he was forced to make because of the situation at that time. However, his mind was pure and clear; otherwise, how could he later have said the famous line, “Neither the flag nor the wind is moving. Your minds are moving.” On the other hand, although Shenxiu remained in the same place and let the others chase after Huineng, his mind was stirred ceaselessly by his ambition to become the sixth patriarch. Thus these verses were not composed out of the blue; they reflect the minds of the people who composed them.
However, we would be unwise to dismiss Shenxiu’s verse as nonsense. Shenxiu’s line “The body is a Bodhi tree” is a conditioned dharma. It is a series of steps leading up the mountain, a method for handling affairs, a guide for the wild and deluded. Huineng’s line, “Originally Bodhi has no tree,” is an expression of the ultimate Dharma, which is not restricted by the body, by things, or by principles. It comes from an imperturbable mind which is in control, which can handle whatever comes, whether it is the demon or the Buddha or our closest friends and relatives.
This mind is simply the inherent nature. It resembles the void, which cannot be broken up by the temporary phenomena of clouds or rain. Since our wisdom does not penetrate to the reality of things, we understand the mind in terms of the clouds and rain; we do not perceive the underlying nature of the mind, which is like the void. Shenxiu was speaking to people like us. Since our “sky” has been obscured by dark clouds for far too long and our view is too narrow and superficial, we simply cannot believe that there is a clear sky behind those dark clouds. Thus, Shenxiu’s verse speaks right to us. It’s the best medicine for getting rid of defilement. We are not in any position to reject this medicine, because our vision is obscured by a log, a stand, and particles of dust.
We all like to climb to high places, not only because we can get a better view of the things below, but because we can see the sky above more clearly. Mountain climbers know that the sky looks different from the top of a mountain than from the ground, because one gains a wider perspective and greater clarity, and one’s view is not obstructed by the surrounding environment. Huineng’s teaching of sudden enlightenment is analogous to a helicopter that takes one straight up to the summit; it’s the most direct way to go. We ought to be grateful to Huineng for his fine verse, for without it we might be led to think that climbing one step at a time is the only way to get to the top. There are actually many ways of reaching the summit, determined by the diversity of human potentials.
In fact, the teachings of Huineng and Shenxiu and even Pure Land and Esoteric doctrines are only expedients. It’s just that Huineng’s teachings are more suited to those of keen wisdom. Those of dull faculties tend to become rigidly attached to principles. But keen and dull are relative and changeable qualities. To continue the analogy, the helicopter may also crash, and those who climb step by step may also reach the destination if they persevere. Conditions change constantly, but the inherent nature is the same in everyone, no matter what kind of faculties they have. If Shenxiu and Huineng were alive today, they would both be teachers worthy of veneration, without discrimination between who is higher and who is lower. Because the dust is constantly settling, it must be wiped; because there’s no place for the dust to alight, there’s basically no need to clean.
To be continued