Some responses to a poem of Kurt’s over at Coffee Sutras put me in mind of the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. Unfortunately, the only translation I have is pretty clunky, but it’s part of a thick volume of sutras, published in Taiwan back in 1962, that contains classical Chinese and English on facing pages. I remember just enough Chinese from college to be able to figure out how to improve on the English (which I otherwise use as a crutch).

Please note that I am not a Zen Buddhist, however; I welcome suggestions on how to improve the translation and commentary that follow.

The Platform Sutra is in my opinion a classic of world literature on the level of St. Augustine’s Confessions. Like that work, it does get rather dull in parts. But the opening section contains an autobiography that is remarkable for the author’s insights into the mental condition of his would-be adversary Shenxiu, the head monk at the Chan (Zen) monastery where an illiterate Huineng – the future Sixth Patriarch – is stuck in the kitchen, put on rice-hulling duty.

The central drama concerns the contest over dharma transmission, a perennial, defining feature of hierarchical politics within the Chan sect. Like the aging Isaac in the Bible, who to the utter perplexity of most modern readers has but a single blessing to dispense to one of his two children, Chan masters apparently could only transmit the mystical essence of their teaching (dharma) to one pupil. Such transmission can only occur if the pupil has attained some form of enlightenment. That’s the theory, anyway.

So one day the reigning patriarch announces what amounts to a poetry contest for the monastic succession. After a protracted argument with himself about what to do, Shenxiu sneaks out after dark to graffito his submission anonymously on the side of a wall:

The body is like the bodhi-tree,
The mind, a bright mirror.
Hour by hour one wipes it clean.
Dust never gets a chance to settle!

The sutra describes Shenxiu returning to his room and lying awake until dawn, plagued with doubts. “In the quiet of his room he pondered: ‘When the Patriarch sees my stanza tomorrow, if he likes it, it will show that I am ready for the dharma. But if he disapproves, it will mean I’m unworthy, owing no doubt to misdeeds in previous lives, karmic accumulations thoroughly beclouding my mind. What will he say about it? It’s so hard to predict!'”

Huineng doesn’t say how he gained this omniscient narrator’s perspective; perhaps the pious reader is supposed to take it as a sign of his unique attainment. But I wonder if this might not also hint at some otherwise secret rapprochement between adversaries, whose respective followers would maintain a strong rivalry for centuries.

At any rate, the next day when the Master comes across the verse, he diplomatically orders incense to be burned before it, declaring that anyone who follows its teachings would gain great merit. The monks lose no time in figuring out its author, and many of them quickly commit it to memory. That’s the other great thing about this sutra: its wholly convincing portrayal of monastic politics. Noble intentions and genuine insights mix with insecurity, arrogance and obsequiousness. The master himself, we soon learn, isn’t exactly a free agent, and fears violence and general insurrection if he passes over the head monk in choosing his successor. He sends for Shenxiu the following night, imparts some gentle words of instruction, and urges him to keep trying.

Huineng, engrossed in his kitchen duties, remains blissfully unaware of this swirl of political events. But one day, an acolyte passes by the kitchen loudly reciting Shenxiu’s verse.

“What poem is that?” I asked the lad. “You dumb hick! How could you not know about it? The Master told all his followers that, since the question of rebirth was so difficult, those who wish to inherit his robe and teaching should write him a verse, and whoever managed to express the true nature of the mind would become the Sixth Patriarch. Elder Shenxiu wrote this free verse stanza on the wall of the south corridor and the Master told us to recite it. He also said that those who put its teachings into practice would benefit tremendously and be saved from rebirth in the Hell realms.”

I told him I wanted to learn it too, so I might have the benefit of it in the future. Even though I’d been at the monastery for eight months hulling rice, I’d never had occasion to go to the meditation hall, so I asked the boy to show me where the poem was written so I could pay my respects.

He led me to the spot. Since I was illiterate, I asked him to read it to me. A petty officer of the Canton district named Zhang Zhiyong happened to be passing by, and he stopped and read it out clearly for me. [This presumably means he translated it into the vernacular.] Then I told him that I too had composed a poem, and asked if he could write it there for me.

“How extraordinary!” he exclaimed. “Can someone like you really compose a poem?”

“Even if it’s the highest form of enlightenment you’re after, you shouldn’t look down on a beginner,” I replied.

“Please recite your stanza, then,” he said. “I’ll write it down. But if you should succeed and win the dharma, don’t forget to bring me along!”

My stanza read as follows:

Bodhi has nothing to do with a tree;
Bright and reflective, the mind is nothing like a mirror.
Without so much as a single attribute,
How could there be any place for dust to collect?”

Later on, attracted by the gathering crowd, the Master came over and erased the poem with his shoe to prevent anyone from getting envious and beating me up. When they saw this, the monks assumed it meant that the poem’s author had not yet realized the essence of the mind.

The next day, the Patriarch came secretly to the room where rice was milled. Seeing me at work with the stone pestle, he said, “A seeker of the path risks his life for the dharma. Is this proper?” Then he asked, “Is the rice ready?” “Ready long ago,” I replied. “It’s just waiting for the sieve.” He knocked the mortar three times with his stick and went away.

Guessing what the signal meant, in the third watch of the night I went to his room. Using his robe as a screen so that no one would see us, he expounded the Diamond Sutra to me. When he came to the line, “One should use one’s mind in such a way that it will be free from attachment,” I suddenly became thoroughly enlightened and realized that the mind’s true nature can’t be differentiated from the world at large.

On re-reading this, I’m struck by the reverence for the text displayed throughout the Platform Sutra. Though the story of Huineng gaining enlightenment without the benefit of literacy would play a role in the development of anti-intellectual tendencies in some later versions of Zen, in his own teachings the recitation of texts occupies a central place. Silent reading won’t do; one must hear, take to heart/mind and speak. But as the example of Shenxiu demonstrates, words themselves, however worthy of respect, can be of little use to the mind that still sees itself as apart from its words and images, the “ten thousand things” that accumulate seemingly of their own accord, like dust.

It’s no wonder, then, that the portrait of Shenxiu is so sympathetic and psychologically realistic: we are meant to hear ourselves in his agonized self-doubt.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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