Soon after Hongren announces that he is going to die soon and must pass the role of Grand Master and patriarch on to someone. He asks the monks to compose verses of poetry that display their understanding of Chan Buddhist teaching. Many of the students tell each other that the head monk Shenxiu will compose the best verse, so they will not even bother. Shenxiu says to himself that it is wrong to seek the rank of master rather than the teaching itself, and he must compose a verse that shows a true understanding or he will never get the teaching from Hongren. He is anxious, frets and sweats, and after composing a verse that he is not sure about he tries several times to get up the nerve to present his verse to Hongren but stops out of fear. It is very clear that Shenxiu thinks the teaching is something external to himself that he does not already possess and this causes him great distress, showing he is not wise or worthy. It is good that he values the teaching above the position, but he treats the teaching as something that can be gained or lost, much like the position of master. He is worried about the outer form, which shows he does not see the meaning within.
Meanwhile, Hongren has hired a painter to cover a hallway in a mural that depicts the Lankavatara Sutra and the Chan patriarchs, in a text written to connect Bodhidharma to Huineng via the Chan patriarchs, unknown to Shenxiu, probably for the best. Shenxiu decides to write his verse in the dead of night on the wall that will be painted over anyway, and then if Hongren says it is good he will admit that it is his own. Shenxiu takes his brush and writes:
The body is the Bodhi Tree. The mind is a mirror on a stand.
Take care to wipe it continuously, never letting dust cling.
Honren sees the verse and pays the artist to go home without painting the mural, saying that the Diamond Sutra says all forms are illusions and if they leave the verse up on the wall people can recite it, act in accord with it and avoid falling into evil, bringing them great benefit. Huineng, pounding rice outside, hears a young monk reciting Shenxiu’s verse the next day and asks to be taken to the lecture hall to see it, as he has not been to hear a single lecture yet. He asks a military official standing by the wall to read the verse to him. Huineng chuckles and asks the official to write another verse next to it. The official is surprised that an illiterate wishes to compose a verse, but Huineng tells him a person of the lowliest rank may have the greatest wisdom, while a person of the highest rank may completely lack it. On the wall the officer writes for Huineng:
Enlightenment originally has no tree, and a clear mirror is not a stand.
Originally there isn’t a single thing. Where can dust possibly settle?
Everyone is amazed by Huineng’s verse, marveling that this Cinderella servant could possibly be a bodhisattva incarnate and that you truly can’t tell a person by their appearance. In the Daoist text of Zhuangzi, which is quoted often in the Zen tradition it says, “I’ve heard that if a mirror is bright, no dust settles on it. If dust settles, it isn’t really bright.” While Shenxiu, who would go on to lead the Northern School of Chan, wrote a verse that displays understanding of Buddhist and Daoist metaphors, Huineng, who would go on to lead the Southern School, wrote a verse that shows an understanding of non-duality, of each thing being and not-being together as well as all things being one with a lived awareness of buddha-nature. This plays on stereotypes of the Northern School giving scholarly analysis and the Southern School being brute and to the point, much like Indian Buddhism contrasted with Chinese Daoism. Hongren told the painter that forms are illusions, letting the text stand in the place of the image, but Huineng showed that the text itself is also a form and illusion, as words stand for things but are not the things themselves, and metaphorically the mind is like a mirror but different from a mirror, both a mirror and not a mirror. Later, Huineng tore up sacred sutras to shock his students into realizing that the text is inferior to the meaning.
Hongren realizes that Huineng is his dharma-heir, the sixth patriarch, but keeps this to himself and secretly summons Huineng in the dead of night and explains the Diamond Sutra to him. When Huineng hears, “Activate the mind without dwelling on anything,” he experiences great enlightenment. Hongren gives Huineng the robe and bowl of the patriarch and sends him to the south, fearing that others may hate and harm him. The way that the story is told in the Song by the descendants of Huineng, Shenxiu continued to lead the Northern School but Huineng replanted the true school secretly in the south. Much as scholars say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Isaiah said he would be in the Old Testament, Huineng certainly started a school in the south, but if he met Hongren in the north it was only because Huineng became the sixth patriarch after his death in the Song, which meant he had to be taught by the fifth.
Huiming, a high ranking general turned monk, pursues Huineng along with hundreds of others and finds him hiding at the top of a mountain. Huiming says, “Explain the teaching to me, laborer.” Huineng asks him to focus his mind and says, “When there is no good or bad, what is your original face?” Huiming is enlightened, realizing that he looks out of some skull with the same consciousness of the Buddha. Huiming says that although he had studied the truth for years he had not yet seen his own face, but that now he is like someone who drinks water and knows whether it is hot or cold without a thought. Huiming climbs down the mountain, finds the other hundred pursuers and tells them, “I have just climbed to the heights, but after all that there was no trace of him.”
Huineng finds his way south, and as he is entering the monastery where he will teach and set up his school he hears two monks arguing about a flag on a pole in the courtyard, an incident that finds its way into the Gateless Gate as a popular koan. Huineng asks them what they are arguing about, and the first monk says it is the flag that is moving, not the wind, and the second says that it is the wind that is moving, not the flag. Huineng said, “It is your minds that are moving.” According to both the Lankavatara and Diamond sutras, all things are simply mind, and mind in the first monk is focusing on the flag and dismissing the wind while the same mind in the second monk is focusing on the wind while ignoring the flag. The wind is an invisible force of air, like the mental, while the flag is a visible substance of earth, like the physical, such that the argument between the monks is like asking whether the mind or the world is the cause of things. If mind and world are both mind together, arguing either against the other is pointing to mind with mind rather than other mind both ways, and at the same time all of this together is simply mind that is moving.
The master of the monastery, hearing of this, summons Huineng and asks him if he is the sixth patriarch who fled south. Huineng says he would not dare presume to be him. The master bows, and asks about the transmission of the teaching. Huineng says, “There is no demonstration or transmission, as it is simply seeing nature, not a matter of meditation or liberation.” Huineng famously taught: No permanence, no impermanence, no arrival, no departure, no exterior, no interior, no origination, no extinction. The master asks how Buddhism can not be a matter of meditation or liberation, and Huineng says Buddhism is about non-duality, realizing that the self and the world are one. The master says that his own lectures are like gravel, but Huineng’s teaching is gold, and turns over the monastery to him. Huineng concludes his life story for the local governor, and begins a series of lectures on wisdom and buddha-nature, including:
Know that the buddha-nature is fundamentally no different in the ignorant or wise.
All wisdom comes from our own essential nature. It does not enter from outside.
Those who realize on their own do not need to seek outside. If you insist that a teacher is necessary to obtain liberation, you are wrong. Why? Because there is a teacher within your own mind that understands spontaneously.
The extent of mind is vast as space, without bounds. It has no squareness or roundness, no largeness or smallness, no blueness, yellowness, redness or whiteness. It has no up or down, no long or short. It has no anger and no joy, no right and no wrong, no good and no bad. It has no head or tail. The lands of all buddhas are the same as space. The subtle nature of people in the world is originally empty, with nothing that can be grasped. The true emptiness of our inherent nature is also like this.
Good friends, don’t cling to emptiness when you hear me speak of emptiness. Above all, do not stick to emptiness. If you sit quietly with an empty mind, you are fixated on indifferent voidness. Good friends, the emptiness of physical space contains the colors and forms of all things, the sun, moon and stars, the grass, trees and forests, bad people and good people, bad things and good things, heaven and hell, the oceans and mountains, all within space. The emptiness of the essential nature of people in the world is like this. Good friends, our inherent nature contains all things, and this is greatness. All things are in your essential nature. If you see everyone’s bad and good but do not grasp or reject any of it, and do not become affected by it, your mind is like space, and this is greatness.
When it rains on the land all homes are flooded, but when it rains on the ocean nothing increases or decreases… Rain doesn’t come from heaven, but from all sources of moisture, refreshing all living beings, plants and animals. The hundred rivers and countless streams feed into the ocean, merging into one body. Wise insight into our original nature is like this. Good friends, when people of small ability hear this teaching, they are like plants with small roots that collapse in heavy rain and can’t grow… The barriers of their false views are heavy and the roots of their passions are deep. They are like huge clouds covering the sun.
Deluded, a Buddha is a sentient being. Awakened, a sentient being is a Buddha. Ignorant, a Buddha is a sentient being. With wisdom, a sentient being is a Buddha. If the mind is warped, a Buddha is a sentient being. If the mind is impartial, a sentient being is a Buddha. When once a warped mind is produced, Buddha is concealed within the sentient being. If for one instant of thought we become impartial, the sentient beings are themselves Buddha. In our mind itself a Buddha exists. Our own Buddha is the true Buddha. If we do not have in ourselves the Buddha mind, then where are we to seek the Buddha?
Huineng goes on to tell the governor and everyone assembled that the Pure Lands are not thousands of miles away but within ourselves, the ground we walk on, and that the bodhisattvas are nothing other than human virtues such as compassion and wisdom. Like many historical moments when tradition is radically questioned, this can be interpreted as a simple denial of the existence of heavens, hells, saints and demons, but it would be understood by many then and now as an affirmation of the involvement of the spiritual and transcendent in everyday existence. Hakunin, the Japanese master of the Rinzai (Linji) school, was asked by a samurai if heaven and hell exist, and Hakunin laughed at him. The samurai drew his sword, and Hakunin said, “Here open the gates of hell.” The samurai sheathed his sword, and Hakunin said, “Here open the gates of paradise.”
The nun and revered Chan master Wujin asked Huineng to explain passages of the Nirvana Sutra that she still couldn’t understand after long years of study. Huineng asked Wujin to read the passages to him, as he never learned to read. Wujin asked him how he understands the sutra without reading it, and Huineng famously replied that we can use a finger to point to the moon in the sky but don’t need a finger to see it. Bruce Lee uses this to teach his student in the beginning of Enter the Dragon, telling his student to feel, not think, as if he focuses on the finger he will miss the moon and all its glory. For Huineng, the sutra points to the experience, and for Lee the thought points to the action. In both cases, experience in action is the point, not pointing to them.