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.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher