This is my second post on three attitudes which are fundamental to Zen training and practice. In the first one, I discussed the teaching poem of Shen Hsui, the “loser” in the famous, although probably mythical, poetry contest which took place in the latter part of the 7th century in China. I call this the “no mirror” attitude in contrast to Shen Hsui’s “mirror wiping” attitude.
Here’s the poem”
“The body is not the the Bodhi tree
Nor the mind a mirror bright
Since from the first no thing exists
Where can dust alight?”
This poem emanates from the tradition of the prajna paramita sutras, which are important in our tradition, since we chant the shortest of them, the heart sutra, every day. This group of sutras focus on deconstructing all of our beliefs about everything.
Here’s a little background on Hui Neng. He grew up in a more southerly area than Shen Hsui and is considered the founder of the southern school of Chan.
His father, an exiled administrator, died when Hui Neng was three. This plunged the family into poverty, and Hui Neng began supporting himself as a woodcutter. He was at the market one day and heard someone chant from the Diamond Sutra, “Awaken to the mind which does not abide anywhere.”
Apparently, he did just that!
Wanting to deepen this awakening he learned that he could study/practice at Hung Jen’s monastery in northern China. Hung Jen recognized his great potential. However, since he was both young and illiterate, he assigned him to the rice-hulling shed instead of sitting with other monks in the meditation hall.
Hui Neng knew nothing of the poetry contest until he heard a monk chanting Shen Hsiu’s verse. He asked another monk to take him to the wall and read the verse to him. He then asked the monk to write his verse, which I have just quoted, on the wall.
In his poem, Hui Neng, in contrast to Shen Hsui, is suggesting that a path which leads us somewhere other than where we are right now is of no value. Reality cannot be captured by any concepts. In line with the prajna paramita sutras, he points out that awakening is not about traveling from here to there. It’s not about working hard and checking our investment each day. Questions like, “Was my zazen sincere, or was I just spaced out the whole time? Am I working hard enough? Shouldn’t my mind be calmer by now?” are irrelevant. All we have to do is stop dividing things up through our thinking. Whereas the first poem promotes different forms of dust wiping meditation, he second poem indirectly implies that all we need to do is let go of everything we know and learned. Then we see clearly that our divisions, categorizations, and judgments are all mere fabrications.
Whereas Shen Hsui’s form of meditation is one in which we sit still, for Hui Neng whether you are sitting, standing, or lying down makes absolutely no difference. Even the labels which delineate sitting, standing, or lying down are just constructs and all constructs are fictional. If we pay attention with bare awareness- stopping, looking, and listening to whatever we encounter before our mind slices and dices or tries to remove dusts- the natural activity of what my first teacher Suzuki Roshi called “Big Mind” manifests itself.
“If you want to tame your sheep or cow, give it a large pasture,” he said.
Both of the poems imply that we can empty ourselves of the three most prevalent dusts of greed, anger, and delusion. The Bright Mirror poem suggests there’s a path from being blinded by these to enlightenment. The No Mirror approach is much simpler: Just let go of all the ideas you’ve accumulated about getting rid of dusts and come back to what is before you contaminate with any overlay of thought.
But with no path to do this, practitioners might easily become discouraged or confused.
When I teach meditation, I focus on the value of moving between focused dust wiping and bare awareness. For many years, I have moved between these two in my own meditation, often beginning with a focus and then when I get settled, broadening beyond it.
I would like to finish this piece by briefly mentioning a limitation of each of the attitudes expressed in these poems. Shen Hsui’s approach encourages competition with yourself or others to clean your mirror. It can result in a narrow, judgmental meditation which never sinks into Big Mind since as, I have suggested before, it is the nature of the mind to project memories into the present and future. Furthermore, the dust wiping approach seems to empower those people who are “good at it” and disempowers those who aren’t. On the other hand, Hui Neng’s approach suggests the discriminating mind is of little value, which is certainly not the case. Knowledge, reasoning, logic, and scientific pursuit are features of being human that have proven to be of great value. Any time we go too far in one direction at the expense of the other, our view of reality becomes distorted. Wholeness is lost.
In my third and last post, I’ll discuss one more attitude toward Zen practice which comes from the teaching of Dogen: the Shattered Mirror.
In my book Nothing Holy About It, I discuss three attitudes from our tradition that inform our practice. In the next two or three posts I want to briefly review what I said there and elaborate on points I have thought about since the book was published six years ago.
The first two are poems come out of a fictionalized story from 8th century China. It takes place in Hung Jen’s monastery. This early Zen teacher is ready to appoint his eventual successor and calls on his monks to write poems to express their understanding.
The head monk, Shen Hsui, wrote a poem anonymously on the wall because he was afraid to fall short of his teacher’s expectations. This poem was received by his teacher somewhat positively. One translation reads: “The body is the bodhi tree; The mind the mirror bright; Be careful to wipe it clean; and let no dust alight.”
This poem harkens back more than a thousand years to the Theravada or “teaching of the elders.” We also find these instructions in the earliest Yoga scriptures and in European deep thinkers like William Blake with his famous statement, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
This is based on the belief that our natural state of mind is mirror-like and reflects everything within it. In our meditation practice, we patiently and persistently polish this mirror so that it reflects everything accurately. As a result, its luminosity penetrates everything. Sometimes the practice of mirror wiping, (which includes a commitment both to daily meditation as well a longperiods of sitting in retreats), can be both arduous and tedious, but if we have a goal and a clear direction, we keep at it.
Its roots are in Indian yogacara practice. Yoga means, “to yoke.” As we empty out all the gunk we carry around in our heads, we yoke ourselves to a spacious timelessness which includes all life.
Dust is always accumulating: our concepts, ideas, worries, and anxieties are always arising and darkening our vision. This past year has been like no other in most of our lives in the amount of dust it has stirred up. What’s been happening in our country has created a dust storm which has discolored all of our mirrors.
It’s been a year when many have needed a routine of focused meditation more than ever. There are so many “dust wiping” techniques you can use; whether it is watching or counting your breathing, scanning your body for places of stress of tension, repeating a phrase or mantra over and over as you sit, doing a loving-kindness meditation or even listening to a guided meditation app.
Often, I compare this “dust wiping” practice to learning to play a musical instrument. If you practice every day regardless of your level of success, sooner or later you will learn to wipe the dust away even after sitting for a short time. You may wonder how the poem which promotes this practice was the losing one. I will talk about this in my next post.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher