Buddha’s Dumbest Student

Monk Sweeping


Tesshin was called away this week due to a family emergency.  Below is one of the Sangha’s favorite talks he gave almost one year ago…

In this talk, Tesshin related the parable of Buddha’s dumbest student.  When Shakyamuni started his Sangha many different types of people were attracted.  Some were very academic, some were spiritual, and some were very physically active.  The story goes that one student in particular was quite – how shall we say it? – DENSE.  This student would come to every lecture, but in personal interview he would show no progress.  The Buddha would never lose patience because as a teacher it was his duty to utilize any and all methods to reach a student.  However, this student proved to be quite a challenge. 


Most teachers would have become frustrated and would have given up on this “stupid” student.  What is the point on spending so much time “dumbing down” lessons for someone who obviously lacks the intelligence to understand?  Like everything else in Buddhism – the surface observation is usually not the right one! 


After many attempts, Shakyamuni eventually tells the “dumbest” student to stop coming to lectures and to simply sweep out the temple.  At this, the monk states, “I can do that!”  So every day the “slowest” monk dutifully and carefully sweeps out the temple while all the “smart” monks are in listening to the master.  At this point, we should start thinking that there is a message here about masters and students!!  First, this “stupid” monk never gave up and became disgusted.  That is something!  Second, he had absolute faith in the master.  The master said sweep and he swept.  Would we have such faith in our teachers today?  Would we have become insulted if the master said that we should not come to the seminar – and even worse, we should be some servile janitor and clean out the temple?   Lastly, think about teachers today – would they “think outside the box” and try unconventional ideas to help a “different” type of student.  This is why Tesshin’s job of being a Zen teacher is so difficult.  How do you teach what cannot be taught or even put into words?


So what happened?  One day our “slow” student suddenly realized that there was no more dust left in the temple to sweep!  BANG!  Instant enlightenment – with a broom no less!  Why?  What happened?  This is Zen – that very moment is everything!  Dusting when there is no dust.   – Cleaning bowls which are already clean –  Your face before you were born!  The dumbest person in the room realized it while all the “geniuses” in the lecture hall continued to read books and hear lectures, but never got anywhere! 


This story reminded me about the sixth patriarch of Zen – Hui Neng who lived in southern China from 638 – 713 CE.  Here was a boy who was an uneducated peasant.  The story goes that he achieved awakening while hearing the Diamond sutra.  At this point, he presents himself to the the 5th patriarch – who immediately recognized the deep understanding and eventually made him the successor.  The story goes that the 5th patriarch had a poetry competition where the most accomplished monk would receive transmission. 

The senior monk presented the following …

The body is the wisdom-tree,

The mind is a bright mirror in a stand;

Take care to wipe it all the time,

And allow no dust to cling.


Then the “kitchen rat” stands up and presents …

Fundamentally no wisdom-tree exists,

Nor the stand of a mirror bright.

Since all is empty from the beginning,

Where can the dust alight


Ah, there we are, dusting where there is no dust!! 

Personally, I would love to have been in the room when the kitchen rat “put the hurt” on the senior monk with an obviously superior understanding of reality.  The story continues that the master understood that Hui Neng was the most accomplished, but was afraid to announce it to all the rest of the monks as there would have been an uproar (a bit of classism from our zen monks – if you ask me!)  As such, the master called Hui Neng at night and secretly transmitted to him and then sent him away to teach elsewhere.


Finally, there is a famous saying in Zen that if you meet the Buddha on the road – you should kill him.   Here Tesshin was reminding us with the parable of the “slow” monk that realization cannot be intellectually understood or learned – it must be “rediscovered” and experienced personally.  Even a teacher like Shakyamuni can only point at “it” –  he cannot teach it.  This is why Zen emphasizes time on the cushion and living moment to moment.  Yes!  It is possible to gain enlightenment by everyday activities.  Shakyamuni understood this and it is why he lovingly told the monk to sweep – he understood that the books and lectures were a distraction.  Tesshin wanted us to hear that message today and remind us that enlightenment is not a function of intellect –  it is a function of realization.  We all have this ability to realize as we are all human and sentient.  All that is needed is focus, hard work and faith.