A Lesser-able Attempt

(Wong Mou-Lam)

The Patriarch one day assembled all his disciples and said to them, “The question of incessant rebirth is a momentous one. Day after day, instead of trying to free yourselves from this bitter sea of life and death, you seem to go after tainted merits only (i.e. merits which will cause rebirth). Yet merits will be of no help if your Essence of Mind is obscured. Go and seek for Prajna (wisdom) in your own mind and then write me a stanza (gatha) about it. He who understands what the Essence of Mind is will be given the robe (the insignia of the Patriarchate) and the Dharma (the esoteric teaching of the Zen school), and I shall make him the Sixth Patriarch. Go away quickly. Delay not in writing the stanza, as deliberation is quite unnecessary and of no use. The man who has realized the Essence of Mind can speak of it at once, as soon as he is spoken to about it; and he cannot lose sight of it, even when engaged in battle.”

Hung-jen expounds on the nature of the diurnal wheel of samsara with its incessant cycle of rebirth. Merit alone will not free one from its habitual stranglehold on one’s spirit. Prajñā-kayā—the internal body of Wisdom holds the key that can break the karmic-spell. Awakening to the Bodhi-mind is the prize of enlightenment. He asks his disciples to ponder on this realization and compose a gatha (stanza) that reveals their level of Buddha-gnosis. The one who unravels the bodhi-secret will be symbolically given the sign—“Bodhidharma’s Robe” and hence win the line of Dharma-succession.  The one who thus awakens to the very vivifying Bodhi-mind will never lose sight of it, even when engaged in battle (i.e., Dharma-combat).

Having received this instruction, the disciples withdrew and said to one another, “It is of no use for us to concentrate our mind to write the stanza and submit it to His Holiness, since the Patriarchate is bound to be won by Shen-hsiu, our instructor. And if we write perfunctorily, it will only be a waste of energy.” Upon hearing this all of them made up their minds not to write and said, “Why should we take the trouble? Hereafter, we will simply follow our instructor, Shen-hsiu, wherever he goes, and look to him for guidance.” Meanwhile, Shen-hsiu reasoned thus with himself.

“Considering that I am their teacher, none of them will take part in the competition. I wonder whether I should write a stanza and submit it to His Holiness. If I do not, how can the Patriarch know how deep or superficial my knowledge is? If my object is to get the Dharma, my motive is a pure one. If I were after the Patriarchate, then it would be bad. In that case, my mind would be that of a worldling and my action would amount to robbing the Patriarch’s holy seat. But if I do not submit the stanza, I shall never have a chance of getting the Dharma. A very difficult point to decide, indeed!”

In front of the Patriarch’s hall there were three corridors, the walls of which were to be painted by a court artist, named Lu Chen, with pictures from the Lankavatara Sutra depicting the transfiguration of the assembly, and with scenes showing the genealogy of the five Patriarchs for the information and veneration of the public. When Shen-hsiu had composed his stanza he made several attempts to submit it to the Patriarch, but as soon as he went near the hall his mind was so perturbed that he sweated all over. He could not screw up courage to submit it, although in the course of four days he made altogether thirteen attempts to do so. Then he suggested to himself, “It would be better for me to write it on the wall of the corridor and let the Patriarch see it for himself. If he approves it, I shall come out to pay homage, and tell him that it is done by me; but if he disapproves it, then I shall have wasted several years in this mountain in receiving homage from others which I by no means deserve! In that case, what progress have I made in learning Buddhism?” At 12 o’clock that night he went secretly with a lamp to write the stanza on the wall of the south corridor, so that the Patriarch might know what spiritual insight he had attained.

The stanza read:
Our body is the Bodhi-tree,
And our mind a mirror bright. Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight.

As soon as he had written it he left at once for his room; so nobody knew what he had done. In his room he again pondered: “When the Patriarch sees my stanza tomorrow and is pleased with it, I shall be ready for the Dharma; but if he says that it is badly done, it will mean that I am unfit for the Dharma, owing to the misdeeds in previous lives which thickly becloud my mind. It is difficult to know what the Patriarch will say about it!” In this vein he kept on thinking until dawn, as he could neither sleep nor sit at ease.

Shen-hsiu’s Dharma-students have placed him in a precarious predicament and he’s clearly not up to the test. He immediately begins to second-guess his intentions on whether or not to respond to Hung-jen’s writing contest—“will I attempt this for the greater good of the Buddhadharma…or am I just saying yes, ‘I’ll do this’, out of pride due to my students’ urging me to do so?” His anxious-mind blocks him at every attempt to discern a way-out of his dilemma. It takes him thirteen-attempts to muster-up enough courage, finally writing his poem on that illustrious wall—but not without sweating-it-through the whole night, tossing and turning…feverishly excogitating—“Will my attempt be good enough??? What will my master say about it???” Regardless of the final outcome, it is perfectly clear from the git-go that he would miserably fail. If he had the proper bodhi-power to begin with, he would without hesitancy “instantly known” how to best respond to Hung-jen’s koan on the Bodhi-mind. But, he did not; it’s obvious that his was going to be a lesser-able attempt.

But the Patriarch knew already that Shen -hsiu had not entered the door of enlightenment, and that he had not known the Essence of Mind. In the morning, he sent for Mr. Lu, the court artist, and went with him to the south corridor to have the walls there painted with pictures. By chance, he saw the stanza. “I am sorry to have troubled you to come so far,” he said to the artist. “The walls need not be painted now, as the Sutra says, ‘All forms or phenomena are transient and illusive.’ It will be better to leave the stanza here, so that people may study it and recite it. If they put its teaching into actual practice, they will be saved from the misery of being born in these evil realms of existence. The merit gained by one who practices it will be great indeed!” He then ordered incense to be burnt, and all his disciples to pay homage to it and to recite it, so that they might realize the Essence of Mind. After they had recited it, all of them exclaimed, “Well done!” At midnight, the Patriarch sent for Shen-hsiu to come to the hall, and asked him whether the stanza was written by him or not. “It was, Sir,” replied Shen-hsiu. “I dare not be so vain as to expect to get the Patriarchate, but I wish Your Holiness would kindly tell me whether my stanza shows the least grain of wisdom.” “Your stanza,” replied the Patriarch, “shows that you have not yet realized the Essence of Mind. So far you have reached the ‘door of enlightenment’, but you have not yet entered it. To seek for supreme enlightenment with such an understanding as yours can hardly be successful.

“To attain supreme enlightenment, one must be able to know spontaneously one’s own nature or Essence of Mind, which is neither created nor can it be annihilated. From ksana to ksana (thought-moment to thought-moment), one should be able to realize the Essence of Mind all the time. All things will then be free from restraint (i.e., emancipated). Once the Tathata (Suchness, another name for the Essence of Mind) is known, one will be free from delusion forever; and in all circumstances one’s mind will be in a state of ‘Thusness’. Such a state of mind is absolute Truth. If you can see things in such a frame of mind you will have known the Essence of Mind, which is supreme enlightenment. “You had better go back to think it over again for couple of days, and then submit me another stanza. If your stanza shows that you have entered the ‘door of enlightenment’, I will transmit you the robe and the Dharma.” Shen-hsiu made obeisance to the Patriarch and left. For several days, he tried in vain to write another stanza. This upset his mind so much that he was as ill at ease as if he were in a nightmare, and he could find comfort neither in sitting nor in walking.

Sure enough, Hung-jen already intuitively knew that Shen-hsiu would not succeed; he could see right through his anxious energy-signature; he lacked the Dharma-eye and could not break-through to the other side of the Nirvanic-Mind. Upon espying Shen-hsiu’s stanza on the monastery-wall, he says to the artist who had painted images depicting imagery of succeeding Patriarch’s in the Lankavatarian tradition that he needn’t bother to paint a new one presently. There has yet to be a successor.  He then quotes from the Diamond Sutra that all phenomenal forms are transient at best. Historically, this is a slap in the face of the Lanka; obviously the sages here from the southern-school had not discerned that the Lankavatara Sutra itself decried all notions of phenomenal forms; indeed, an authentic Lankavatarian-School would never have had any form of image painted on any wall to begin with—least of all one depicting the spiritual-essence of its tradition.  Afterwards, Hung-jen decides not to erase Shen-hsiu’s stanza; there’s still merit within it that other adepts can gleam in at least recognizing the entrance before the gate-less gate…even though no entry, as of yet, has been made through-it; at least they have a notion of how to begin to recognize and rise beyond their own karma. Coming before Hung-jen, Shen-hsiu sheepishly asks if there is just a “wee-wee amount” of wisdom in his stanza. One can almost feel his heart sink when the Master responds that, “son, you’ve just arrived at the door of the gateless-gate; you have far to go before you dare even attempt to decipher the actual entrance through the dharma-door into the other-side of Nirvanic-Suchness. Go back and try again” No doubt feeling completely crushed, Shen-hsiu slithers back to his monks-cell without the slightest inkling of how to respond; in the days that followed, feeling as if in a hellish nightmare from which there was no escape. Truth be told, however, Shen-hsiu’s crushing defeat was aptly-concocted by his arch-rival Shen-hui, and his school of sudden-enlightenment. In actuality, Shen-hsiu’s verse was only one side of the enlightenment equation; he was totally aware of this…something we will reserve for our subsequent blog.

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