Nirvana was in his nature

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Nirvana was in his nature

The world is a fun-house mirror: What we see in it is really upside-down. The story of Hui-neng, Seon (Zen) Buddhism's sixth patriarch, tells us that.

In the eyes of the world Hui-neng was the least of men, a servant, an orphan, an illiterate, a barbarian, of short stature, a fugitive. Yet he was the living Buddha of his age. He worked as a scullery servant in a temple, hulling rice by treading a pestle with his feet. Because he was too small for the task, he had a stone strapped to his back to give him extra weight: He was a lightweight, in every apparent sense. You see him, a little man treading grain, in the decorations of many temples.

Unable to read the sutras, he was considered incapable of being a monk. But he was taken in, as many were, out of charity, because he was destitute. As he treaded the grain one day, however, he heard a poem composed by the chief monk of the temple to express the nature of enlightenment:

The body is the wisdom tree

The mind a looking glass:

Polish the surface eternally;

Let no dust pass.

This, he thought, was a fine poem; but not quite to the point. He added his own verse, asking a monk to write it down:

There is no tree originally

Nor is there any glass.

So how can either later be?

Dust through dust may pass.

The abbot, Hung-jen, head of the Zen order, saw the inscription and was horrified. That night, secretly, he came to the little servant's cell and acknowledged that Hui-neng understood the essence of enlightenment. The chief monk, and the abbot's chosen successor, did not. He named Hui-neng the new head of the order, giving him the robe of office as the sixth patriarch of Zen in China.

Hung-jen then advised Hui-neng to flee for his life. It was all very well to be enlightened; but others had spent their lifetimes at the task. The monks would not be pleased at this servant suddenly being their leader.

Hui-neng fled. At last he was cornered by one angry monk and forced to surrender the robe of office. Fortunately, he was able to enlighten the thief in time to save his life. Murderous thieves, it seems, like orphans, in the end make good Buddhas. Only in his native south, three years later, did Hui-neng feel able to reveal himself. Even then, the northerners refused to recognize him.

Over time, Hui-neng's claim of authority triumphed. What we today call Zen or Seon is his school, its essential scripture, his teaching and autobiography, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. Korea's head temple, Jogyesa, is named for Hui-neng's monastery in south China.

Why did the fifth patriarch, Hung-jen, not publicly acknowledge Hui-neng as his successor? Doing so would have saved the southerner from much danger, and saved Zen from a subsequent split by making the legal transmission of authority plain.

Officially, he did so not to save Hui-neng, or himself, but for reasons of enlightenment. Zen cannot be conveyed in words, but must be passed from master to pupil by personal demonstration.

Had Hung-jen revealed immediately that someone so worthless held the secret of the universe, Hui-neng would have been killed in due course. Truth would have died. The world is mad; but it cannot be ignored. It is dangerous to turn one's back on a lunatic.

Unofficially, perhaps not doing so made the symbolic point that truth in this fun-house world is always something of a secret: it looks to most like Hui-neng, as small as a mustard seed, or salt, or dust. It is the rejected stone treading the chaff.

An especially good pictorial history of Seon, including the story of Hui-neng, is painted around the meditation hall at Bomunsa temple in eastern Seoul. To visit, take subway line No. 6 to Bomun Station and walk west. The main hall is to the right.

Stephen Roney guided the Seoul Mystery Tours for some years. He is now furthering his studies at University College of the Cariboo in Canada. Mr. Roney can be reached on the Web at

by Stephen Roney

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