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Religion Library: Zen

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Julia Hardy

The sacred narrative that in many ways serves to define Chan, or Zen, is the story told by the Platform Sutra about the sixth patriarch, Huineng. Before the argument occurred over the legitimate successor of the fifth patriarch, Hongren, there were a number of small groups and competing factions with some common ideas. Those common ideas were innovations within the Buddhist tradition in China. The creation of the Platform Sutra was part of the process of establishing Chan as a distinct and unified Buddhist sect.

Little is known about the historical person, Huineng, and most scholars agree that the story told in the sutra is not based on historical fact. More important than its historicity, however, is the structure the sutra provides as a basis for the development of Chan.

The Platform Sutra tells, in first person, the story of a poor and illiterate boy from Guangdong who overheard someone reciting the Diamond Sutra and experienced a flash of insight. An act of kindness by a patron covered expenses for the care of the boy's widowed mother, so that he could set off to the north to study at the monastery from which the individual who was reciting had come.

Arriving at the monastery, Huineng was not taken seriously as a student because of his lack of intellectual sophistication, and instead was put to work chopping firewood and threshing rice. Despite this rejection, the patriarch recognized the boy's unusual spiritual talents, and he indicated to Huineng that he had avoided giving him any attention because he felt it was unsafe.

One day the patriarch assembled all the monks and instructed them to write a poem about the essence of mind, and stated that the writer of the poem that displayed the clearest understanding of Zen would become his successor. All the students were convinced that the star pupil, Shenxiu, would be chosen, so none of them submitted a poem. Shenxiu found the pressure of the situation intimidating. Eventually he decided to write his poem on the wall in secret, and only to admit it was his if the patriarch approved of it.

This is the poem he wrote:

The body is a Bodhi tree,
The mind a mirror bright
Time and again brush it clean,
And let no dust alight.

Although the patriarch publicly praised the verse, in private he told Shenxiu that it did not demonstrate a complete understanding, and that he should submit another instead.

In the meantime, Huineng, who could not read, overheard a boy reciting Shenxiu's verse. He asked the boy to take him to the wall where the verse was written so that he could properly honor it. A local official happened to be there at the time, and Huineng told him he also had composed a verse. He asked the official to write it on the wall for him, as he could not write.

This was his verse:

There is no Bodhi tree,
No mirror standing bright.
If everything is void;
Where can dust alight?

 

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