The Sixth Patriarch. Revising the story of realization and transmission. Barry Magid November 21st 2020

This morning I’d like to continue discussing the story of Huineng, known as the Sixth Patriarch, a figure who is generally acknowledged is now either partially or wholly fabricated as a kind of archetypal exemplar of a Zen teacher. And our question is basically, If you were going to make up an archetypal Zen teacher, what would you want him to look like? Why would you tell the story this way? What are the features of the way the story is told that illustrate what were the crucial concerns in his time about the nature of practice and realization?

Now we said last time how Huineng was said to be an illiterate peasant, where his illiteracy sort of immunizes him against all the intellectualization that Zen is supposed to be against, a special transmission outside the sutras. So as an illiterate he knew none of that, although all it took was to hear a single line from the Diamond Sutra for him to awaken. I tried to find that line. I saw a couple of different versions. One might go something like this: When thoughts arise, then a mind nowhere. The idea is that thoughts are wholly empty, they attach to nothing, they ultimately refer to nothing. So we’ll see how that particular line and that idea get reflected in one of the most famous stories about Huineng, which is the poetry contest that was supposed to have been set by the fifth patriarch to determine his successor.

The head monk at the time is said to have submitted a poem that was put up on the wall in the equivalent of the bulletin board of the monastery and his poem said something like: The body is like the bodhi tree, the mind like a mirror on a stand. Carefully polish the mirror. Do not let any dust alight. So we can presume that this poem reflects something about the standard picture of what practice is, what meditation is, that’s going to be challenged by the poem that Huineng asked to be written in response to that. See, it’s interesting that when we think about these monks, we really have no idea what they were doing, no idea what they called meditation. We can be pretty sure they weren’t sitting there counting their breaths. We can be pretty sure they weren’t sitting there doing Mu, since this is a few generations before the birth of Joshu. Koan practice hadn’t been formalized or established yet. So what were they doing when they sat there? And really, how much sitting there were they actually doing?

We know that contemporary monks may spend a vast majority of their time either in physical labor, simply supporting the life of the monastery, growing food and so forth or performing services and rituals. The monks’s role may have been much more a matter of recitation than quiet meditation. When you think of the life of a contemporary Trappist monk, what’s built into his schedule is work and the recitation of the Office and many times during the day they go into the choir, they chant the Psalms, they chant various verses. They didn’t build in a lot of what we call silent meditation. It was communal prayer and chanting. So maybe these monks had a life closer to that, what we imagine happens in a zendo now.

But if you look at the poem, it seems that one of the things that is being addressed is a kind of project of quieting the mind and purifying the mind. The mind is like a mirror and the ideal seems to be a perfectly clean, reflective surface that is easily contaminated by dust, the dust being our thoughts, our emotions, and somehow practice must be about wiping that mirror clean, keeping it empty, keeping it pure. So maybe this is a kind of standard picture of practice that the author of this story is trying to set up an alternative to. I think that we certainly can identify with that model in the sense that today, for most people, quieting the mind, clearing it out, emptying the mind, is the basic idea of what meditation is supposed to be about.

I think it continues to be, if not people’s explicit practice, at least part of their curative fantasy about what meditation can or should ultimately do for them. And if you ask people if they had a good sitting, they usually say yes if they are very calm, their mind is clear, and bad sittings are when their mind is spinning and they can’t quiet down and so forth. But we get the alternative picture from Huineng, who because he’s illiterate had to have this poem read out to him and then he dictated an alternative for someone to put up there. And his version was something like: Originally there is no bodhi tree or mirror, both are empty, non-existent. Where possibly could any dust alight?

So what he’s doing with his kind of alternative is to try to negate this whole apparently self-obvious equation of meditation with quietism or purification. The mind is originally empty, the mirror is not something that can be sullied or contaminated, our job isn’t to keep it clean because the whole notion of purity versus impurity is itself the problem. We’re not trying to dispel one half of the dualism and replace it with the other. We’re trying to break out of that alternative of cleanliness and dust.

Over the years I think I developed my own version of that attitude when I say that the mind is not contaminated by its contents. Whatever it is we’re doing here is not a purification process. Some of you may remember, I think in Joko’s first book, she talks about this story, and she says that as a matter of fact, really, we have no choice, but to practice as if we’re polishing the mirror. What we do when we label thoughts is that kind of meticulous attention, moment after moment of thoughts, and what we’re doing is not trying to wipe them away or empty our mind, but by labeling them see them just as empty thought, to see them like that verse in the Diamond Sutra that he originally heard: let thoughts arise that abide nowhere, see thoughts as empty, transient. We don’t have to do anything about them except see their true nature. To cling to a thought is to get caught up in the content of the thought, to think that the content of the thought matters in some way, that it’s a problem that we have to figure out, either how to make it go away or how to do something about it. To see the thought as empty is to see that it poses no problem whatsoever, it’s no different than the chirping of the birds outside the window.

So Joko thought that what we have to do is simply watch or label these thoughts, not to make them go away but to just see them over and over again, just as thoughts, just as thoughts. And then really in moment to moment that’s how we have to practice. We can’t do anything to try to make lightning strike and have a kind of sudden revelation of the emptiness of everything. All we can do is practice moment after moment, each thought as it arises. So if those verses try to give us an alternative to purification and quietism, the other story that’s most famous about the sixth patriarch gives rise to another famous koan. It shows something about what it meant to have a student-teacher relationship and what would bring about one of these sudden moments of insight. Keep in mind that nowhere in Huineng’s story do we hear anything about ever sitting in meditation. There’s nothing equivalent to Dogen’s idea of the identity of practice and realization, or zazen and realization. We don’t know if he was ever even allowed in the zendo. He was just a worker, a lay brother, someone working in the kitchen.

But because of this verse, the Fifth Patriarch recognized him as his successor and gave him his robe and bowl to symbolize the transmission, but he warned him that none of the other monks would accept this and that he should leave in the middle of the night without anyone knowing. See, even in this transmission, it’s important to notice he’s not ordained. He’s simply recognized as having insight, and so again, he may have some idea that whoever is writing this story is trying to say something about the usual form, you could say clerical patronage, succession. Perhaps the whole system of who was the abbot and who succeeded the abbot and how much this had to do with real insight and how much of it was bureaucracy and how much of it was patronage from the emperor, something about that usual system must have felt rotten, that we’re telling the story about transmission being completely separate from the ordinary temple hierarchy and bureaucracy.

In any case Huineng takes the robe and bowl and high-tails it out of town, but the next morning it’s discovered that he’s gone. The old teacher doesn’t want to come down and says the Dharma has gone away, and the monks all gather together and realize that Huineng has left and they decide to go after him and the story is that they were led by a monk who in his previous life had been a general, and this man is a fierce, formidable character and he leads the posse, chasing Huineng out into the forest. After a certain amount of time they catch up with him, but Huineng sees them coming and he takes the robe and the bowl and he puts it down on a big rock in a clearing in the woods and he goes to hide, and the general stops everybody, says Hold it up, we’re going to take care of this, and he approaches this by himself to pick up the robe and the bowl. But when he tries to take them he finds himself paralyzed. He can’t lift them. Something happens. He realizes for whatever reason he’s not entitled to pick up these symbols of transmission. And as he stands there frozen, not knowing what to do, Huineng comes out of his hiding place and says to him, Right now, just in this moment, without thinking either good or evil, what is your original face before the birth of your parents?

The tables are strangely turned here. See, Huineng tells him, You can’t lift the robe and bowl, but really, they are only symbols. They are not the real thing. He’s essentially saying to him, You've got yourself caught up in a kind of very literal curative fantasy that you can actually have this gaining idea of getting these objects, and that’s going to make you a teacher. But it’s not like that at all. But if that’s not the case, what is? What’s the core matter here that we're trying to grasp ahold of? So here you get another picture of what we imagine is involved in realization and how the story is designed to go against the grain of that. The obvious one is this sort of gaining idea of getting the robe and bowl as a concrete, literal version of the gaining idea. But the other more subtle one here is in his question: Right in this moment, thinking neither good nor evil, what is your original face before the birth of your parents? What does that mean? What is that asking for?

See, I think one of the things it points to is our fantasy of death. To be asked to go back before the birth of your parents, go back in the mists of time, go back into the space of eternity or the transcendent world, go back to the very beginning of things. Who and what are you then? What is this original face? Where are you going to look for that? Deep inside? What does it mean? Where would you find it?

See, this in a sense is a kind of mirror image of that gaining idea, the idea that there’s something deeply hidden, esoteric, to be discovered. If the truth is not in the robe and the bowl right here, it must be something strange and esoteric and hidden. But for the old general monk, when he hears that question, something happens. It says he breaks out in a cold sweat and suddenly he gets it. And I think this moment becomes again a kind of model of the idealized interaction between the student and the teacher, in which they arrive in a state of desperation. They’re sure what they need, they’re sure what they’re after, but something happens to undercut or cause to collapse that whole curative fantasy, when he finally realizes that it’s right in front of him but he can’t pick it up, the whole idea of the gaining idea of the curative fantasy has been blown apart. It’s not going to work.

Well, what’s left? Thinking neither good nor evil. Stop thinking of me as the good guy and you as the bad guy and any of that. What’s happening right now? And so, what the patriarch is doing is pointing him to what he’s saying is actually in the question itself. Right now, in this moment, where’s your original face? Well, it’s not hidden. It’s right here in this moment. If we go back to the original verse of the Diamond Sutra, where he had his original enlightenment experience, there arises a thought that abides nowhere. Right? There’s your original face. Something that arises abiding nowhere. Just this. Just this. The empty mirror, the empty dust. Just this. Just this.

See, we can call what happens to the monk in this story sort of the epitome of what gets to be called great doubt, a kind of collapse of your curative fantasy to the point where you’ve thrown everything you can into trying to do the thing you think is necessary and it hasn’t worked. Where are you then? Well, that’s the moment when you’re potentially most receptive to not getting anywhere, to being finally, completely, and totally present because all the avenues have been blocked, all the routes you think you need to take have gone nowhere. All you do is stay right here, right now.

So what we get in this story, to sum this up, is that we go from this picture of practice as quietism, of purification, of calming of the mind, of clearing out thoughts and feelings, that kind of cultivation of the clear mirror, and that mirror has to get shattered in some way because then what you're left with is your original face, which is nothing but this moment.

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