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At the Fifth Ancestor Hongren's monastery was an illiterate peasant boy who was to become, next to Bodhidharma and Shakyamuni, perhaps the most revered master in Zen history.

The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor, the biographical account of his life, tells how he went to Hongren after being filled with illumination on overhearing a monk reading the Diamond Sutra: "Awaken your mind without fixing it anywhere." (That is, allow mind to arise abiding nowhere.)

Hongren, on learning that Huineng was an illiterate commoner from the south endeavoring for Buddha-nature: "You are a barbarian, how could you hope for becoming a Buddha?"

Huineng: "A barbarian is only apparently different from you, but there is no distinction concerning our Buddha-nature."

Huineng's reply displayed his understanding that all—emperor, peasant, scholar, rich, poor, or educated—have the same Buddha nature. The same as that of the Ancestor!

Recognizing his enlightenment, Hongren set him to work in the kitchen to avoid embarrassing the senior monks, one of whom was Shenxiu, the same master later exalted by the Empress Wu (see Lesson 10).

Poetry challenge

When Hungren saw his death approaching he told his monks to compose a verse showing an intuitive understanding of his own inner nature. He who could do this would be given the "transmission" and receive the robe and bowl of office as Sixth Ancestor.

The favorite for the title was Shenxiu, who wrote:

Our body is the Bodhi-tree
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we clean them hour by hour
And let no dust alight.

Marveling at this, the other monks decided it could not be bettered. But Hongren responded to the verse by telling Shenxiu: "This verse does not demonstrate that you have yet achieved true understanding of your original nature. You have reached the front gate, but you have not yet entered into full understanding. Prepare your mind more fully and when you are ready, submit another gatha." It is a Chan commonplace that Shenxiu's verse stressed methodical practice and was perfectly logical—just the opposite of the sudden, antilogical leap of intuition that is true enlightenment. Shenxiu departed, but try as he might, he could not produce the second gatha.

As the story goes, Huineng, not knowing of Hongren's test, saw the verse on the wall, asked someone to it read out to him, and dictated his own poem to be written alongside it:

There is no Bodhi-tree
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void
Where can the dust alight?

This mind-as-buddha view is at the core of Chan.

In these lines, Huineng went beyond the correct but limited insight of Shenxiu. He was saying that to see the mind as a "thing" to be kept pure by constantly "sweeping away" defilements is to miss the underlying truth that mind is in itself buddha, and is therefore inherently undefiled. There is no dust to collect. This mind-as-buddha view is at the core of Chan.

Fleeing south

The master, recognizing that this was the work of someone who truly understood the essence of mind, erased it lest it put Huineng in danger from the wrath of monks jealously loyal to Shenxiu. Huineng was summoned to see the master that same night, given the robe and bowl of office (said to be those of Bodhidharma), and was advised to flee south.

This event is celebrated in the Chan proverb:

The seen hundred eminent monks understood the Dharma; only Huineng did not. That's why he obtained the Ancestor's robe and bowl.

Huineng flees

When the other monks realized what had happened, they hastily organized a party to retrieve Huineng. When one of the pursuers, a burly former soldier, finally reached the new Sixth Ancestor in his hideaway, he was suddenly overcome by the presence of Huineng and found himself asking not for the return of the robe but rather for instruction. Huineng obliged him:

Not thinking of good, not thinking of evil, tell me: What was your original face before your mother and father were born.

This celebrated question—which dramatizes the Zen concept of an original nature in every person that precedes and transcends artificial values such as good and evil—caused the pursuer to be enlightened on the spot.