Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, is without
question one of the most influential figures in Tao philosophy, and this story may well be
the most significant tale in Zen lore. Not only is it an interesting drama of how the
underdog attained an exalted position against all prevailing expectations, but also the
poetry contained herein teaches us some essential and fundamental Tao lessons.
When Huineng first came to the monastery of the Fifth Patriarch, he was a singularly
unimpressive figure - a poor boy from the backward countryside who did not even know how
to read or write. The learned monks at the monstery paid him to heed and in general
considered him beneath contempt. Little did they realize that one day this
scruffy-looking, low-class peasant would become their spiritual leader.
When the time came for the Fifth Patriarch to name his successor, he ordered all the
disciples to express their understanding of Zen Buddhist teachings in whatever way they
saw fit. The one who could demonstrate the utmost undestanding would become the next
The most learned disciple at the monastery was the head monk Shenxiu, who was an
accomplished scholar. Most monks felt certain that the mantle would go to him, and that
there was no way any of them would be a match for Shenxiu's intellects. Many did not even
To demonstrate his wisdom, Shenxiu wrote his famous poem on the wall of a temple corridor:
Body is the bodhi tree
Heart is like clear mirror stand
Strive to clean it constantly
Do not let the dust motes land
Bodhi means enlightenment or spiritual awakening. The bodhi tree is the tree that Gautama
sat under when he became fully enlightened and attained the state of grace known as
Buddhahood. This type of tree originally grew on the banks of a tributary of the Ganges
and features heart-shaped leaves.
In his poem Shenxiu compares the human body to the bodhi tree. His meaning is that sitting
by the tree is the human soul, which like Gautama, is capable of attaining the ultimate
Also, in his poem Shenxiu compares the soul to a mirror that must be kept clean at all
times. The "dust" in the poem refers to all the distractions, temptations and
impure thoughts of the material world. To keep the soul clear of these unclean elements, a
Zen disciple must diligently practice Tao - which is to say, engage in pursuits such as
meditation, reading and reciting of scriptures, and the performance of the various
In a nutshell, Shenxiu expresses that the road of enlightenment is not an easy one. Only
through hard work and never-ending diligence can one purify one's mind sufficiently to
attain Buddhahood. The poem was a rallying call for the monks to fortify their resolve as
they continue on this difficult spiritual journey.
All the monks were impressed. And, certain that this poem is effectively the edict from
their next leader, they all memorized it and recited it as they went about their daily
duties. Huineng overheard them, and that was how he learned of the existence of Shenxiu's
Huineng understood instantly where Shenxiu fell short. There was another level of wisdom
beyond that described in Shenxiu's poem. Huineng knew how to express this understanding in
a poem - but being illiterate, did not know how to write it down. He ended up asking
another monk to write it up on the same wall for him:
Bodhi really has no tree
Nor is clear mirror the stand
Nothing's there initially
So where can the dust motes land?
When they saw this poetic response, the monks did not get it at all. But the Fifth
Patriarch comprehended Huineng's meaning perfectly. Represented in these four lines was an
intuitive mind more capable of grasping fundamental Tao concepts than Shenxiu's formidable
intellect after decades of schooling.
Now, if the Fifth Patriarch were to announce Huineng's succession publicly and hand the
reins over to him, he knew that the monks would not understand. They probably would turn
on Huineng and possibly even cause him harm just to prevent him from assuming the office.
Therefore, he pretended to be unimpressed with the response. In great secrecy, and in the
middle of the night, he passed the symbol of his authority - a bowl and a robe - to
Huineng and ordered him to flee for his life.
And so Huineng did hastily depart the monastery, with a mob of angry monks in hot pursuit.
What happenned after that is another story for another time. For now, let us ask this
question: what exactly was the meaning of Huineng's poem that impressed his master so
Huineng's central insight is in pointing out the transient or "illusory" nature
of the physical world. "Bodhi has no tree," he said. Why not? Because our
immortal souls are an entity apart from the physical bodies we inhabit temporarily.
Wisdom, awakening and enlightenment are the attributes of this immaterial spirit, and
exist with or without the body.
"Clear mirror" isn't the stand. Why not? Remember that Shenxiu compared the
heart to the stand, which holds the soul - the mirror - in place. Huineng points out that
this is but an artificial constraint. The soul is there whether or not there's anything
holding it up. The heart - the stand - isn't required or even particularly important!
Huineng further points out that all the defilements and distortions of the material world
are just as transient or illusory as these temporary mortal forms we assume. The polluting
influences of the physical world come and go and cannot last, unlike the immortal soul. In
other words, our essential, eternal selves are the only real entities in the universe.
Money, material possessions, fineries, precious jewels... none of these are things we can
take with us when we pass beyond. For all practical intents and purposes, they may as well
If one can completely come to grips with this basic truth expressed by Huineng (easier
said than done... you still wanna win the Lotto and you know it), enlightenment can happen
in an instant. Hence, the true path to Buddhahood isn't the direction of hard work and the
acquisition of even more knowledge and scriptures, as indicated by Shenxiu. The truer path
is along the road of intuitive insight, where we progress beyond mere logic and reasoning
and become one with wisdom and understanding.
How can we traverse this path? With our entire being, rather than just one hemisphere of
the brain. Too much intellectual sophistry leads nowhere except ever more confusing and
confounding complexity. It's time we recognize the fundamentals and come to the simple yet
profound realization that, all this Tao and Zen stuff ain't the mystical, mysterious stuff
that only inscrutible Orientals can understand! When you get right down to it, the ancient
masters and sages are really trying to tell us to stick to the basics and keep it simple.
Simplicity and clarifying, penetrating basic truths - these are the essence of Tao and
this is the golden nugget of knowledge we have come all this way to find.