The 6th Patriarch



Tesshin was traveling this week so one of our senior students, Barbara Green, graciously offered to give a talk this week on the Sixth Buddhist Patriarch.  


It is said that Huineng had been an illiterate laborer. One day, while listening to someone recite the Diamond Sutra, he suddenly became enlightened.  After this, it was suggested he attend the monastery of Hongren – the 5th patriarch.  


The Fifth Patriarch was getting old and needed to decide who would carry on his lineage.  To decide the issue, Hongren proposed a poem contest for his students in order to demonstrate the stage of their understanding of the essence of mind.  He decided to pass down his robe and teachings to the winner of the contest, who would become the Sixth Patriarch.


Shenxiu, the leading disciple of the Fifth Patriarch, composed a stanza but did not have the courage to present it to the master. Instead, he wrote his stanza on the south corridor wall to remain anonymous one day at midnight. The other monks saw the stanza and commended it. Shenxiu’s stanza is as follows: 


The body is the tree of enlightenment, 

The mind is like a bright mirror’s stand 

Time after time polish it diligently, 

So that no dust can collect. 


Hongren was not satisfied with Shenxiu’s stanza, and pointed out that the poem did not show understanding of “his own fundamental nature and essence of mind”.  Two days later, the illiterate Huineng heard Shenxiu’s stanza being chanted by a young attendant at the monastery and inquired about the context of the poem. The attendant explained to him the poem contest and the transmission of the robe and Dharma.  Huineng asked to be led to the corridor and asked the attendant to write down the following stanza…


Enlightenment is not a tree, 

The bright mirror has no stand; 

Originally there is not one thing— 

What place could there be for dust? 


The followers who were present were astonished by the work of an illiterate “nobody.”  Being cautious of Huineng’s status, the Patriarch wiped away the stanza and claimed that Huineng had not reached enlightenment.


However, on the next day, the Patriarch secretly went to Huineng’s room and declared “You are now the Sixth Patriarch!  Save as many sentient beings as you can, and spread the teachings so they will not be lost in the future.”  Huineng, knowing that the other monks would be jealous left the monastery to wander and teach. 


The story of Huineng has much to teach us.  According to the traditional interpretation, the two verses represent respectively the gradual and the sudden approach to enlightenment.  This is a common question in the Buddhist tradition.  Can someone become instantly awakened or does it grow steadily over long periods of time.  The group discussed this question and the general conclusion reached is that it really does not matter.  It is more important for students to start on the path and stay on the path rather than to worry that things are not happening fast enough.  


Another topic discussed is our preconceptions about status and achievement.   Huineng was not a high status student in the monastery, yet it was he who mastered reality, the mind, and everything!  How many times do we discount someone because they do not fit our “assumptions” of what success looks like?  Even worse, when we are surprised by this success, we get angry and act to destroy the unexpected person’s success.  Why did Huineng have to leave the temple?  What is the lesson here for us today?  


Again, we would like to thank Barbara for her careful research and lively talk.