Huineng, illiterate monk

Huineng is one of the most influential teachers in the history of Zen Buddhism. He lived in the 600s in China, before Zen spread out to the rest of Asia. The two schools of Zen that exist today, Rinzai and Soto, were created by his successors. He’s so beloved and respected today that’s it’s almost hard for us to believe that he was a hated rebel in his time. He challenged conventional thinking about enlightenment. 

Huineng was poor. His father died when he was very young and his family never really recovered. He never had time to learn how to read or write. He made a meager income selling firewood. 

The story says that one day he overheard someone reciting the Diamond Sutra and he instantly became enlightened. He immediately left his life behind and sought out a famous Buddhist teacher named Hongren.

Huineng was allowed to live in Hongren’s mountain monastery, but he wasn’t allowed to become a monk. He was considered to ignorant and poor. It’s said that he looked like a barbarian. So, he was like a janitor. He did chores around the monastery. 

This is when the story sounds just like the film ‘Good Will Hunting’. Ever since I saw that movie I picture Huineng as Matt Damon and Hongren as Stellan Skarsgard…

Hongren was looking for a successor, someone to take his place. He challenged the monks that lived there, of which there were many, to compose a verse that effectively explains the true essence of the mind. Whoever could successfully do this, would be his successor. 

A student named Shenxiu wrote the following verse:

The body is a bodhi tree / the mind a mirror bright / At all times polish it diligently / and let no dust alight.

He wrote this on the wall in the middle of the night so every would see it when they got up in the morning. It sounds pretty good, right? Clear your minds, be enlightened.

 

 

 

The other monks in the monastery were so impressed by Shenxiu’s answer that they didn’t even try.

But, when Huineng asked someone to read it to him and he heard it he wasn’t impressed. There wasn’t really anything bold or new about it. Huineng had another worker help him write his own verse on the wall next to Shenxiu that night. It said:

 Bodhi is fundamentally without any tree; / The bright mirror is also not a stand. / Fundamentally there is not a single thing —
 Where could any dust be attracted?

In Buddhism we learn that the way the think about ourselves is fundamentally incorrect. Individuality is an illusion. We are all interconnected to everything and we don’t really have a separate ‘self’ that we can describe in any serious way. Huineng is attacking Shenxiu’s answer, which was the traditional zen answer of the time, as shallow and meaningless. Shenxiu says, “You must purify yourself.” and Huineng replies, “There’s no self there to purify.”

This is a really heavy concept. Sit with it for a minute if you need to.

Hongren took Huineng to his room and read this from the Diamond Sutra: “use the mind, but be free from any attachment.” And in that moment, Huineng was fully enlightened and he exclaimed:

“How amazing that the self nature is originally pure! How amazing that the self nature is unborn and undying! How amazing that the self nature is inherently complete! How amazing that the self nature neither moves nor stays! How amazing that all dharmas come from this self nature!”

We are enlightened already. Huineng’s story is a big reminder that anyone can be enlightened at any time because it’s our true nature. We just have to unleash it. It’s also important because sometimes we get discouraged. Remember kids, if an illiterate janitor can become enlightened, you can too.

Shenxiu and some of the other monks were unhappy about all of this. They wondered how this poor barbarian janitor could possibly be the new zen master.
Shenxiu actually said, “screw this, let’s start our own zen, a better zen!” It didn’t work out for him. Shenxiu’s lineage of students did not survive.

All Zen lineages today trace their roots back to Huineng, the illiterate monk.

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About Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg is an independent dharma teacher living in Kansas City. He gives online teachings through the Open Heart Project. His writing has appeared in Lion's Roar, Patheos, Tattooed Buddha, and Elephant Journal.

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