Thursday, September 8, 2011

How did the Sixth Patriach manage to save his own life?

The life story of Zen Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng (六祖慧能) has been retold again and again by many authors, including the contemporary dramatist and Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian (高行健) who devoted a complete work to the life of Hui Neng, his Snow in August (八月雪). Hui Neng's life story was first appeared in the Platform Sutra (六祖檀經), the only Sutra that was not the direct teaching of the Buddha. In this post, I'm interested to tackle one incident only: when monk Hui Ming (惠明), a former General, caught up with Hui Neng in the mountains, he wanted to kill the master and took back the Patriarch symbols (信物). The question is: How did master Hui Neng manage to save his own life?

This part of the story in Chinese is like this:

一僧俗姓陈,名惠明,先是四品将军,性行粗糙,极意参寻,为众人先,趋及惠能。惠能掷下衣钵于石上,云:"此衣表信,可力争耶?"能隐草莽中。惠明至,提不动,乃唤云:"行者!行者!我为法来,不为衣来。"惠能遂出,盘坐石上。惠明作礼云: "望行者为我说法。"惠能曰:"汝既为法而来,可屏息诸缘,勿生一念,吾为汝说。"明良久,惠能曰:"不思善,不思恶,正与麽时,那个是明上座本来面目?"惠明言下大悟。复问云:"上来密语密意外,还更有密意否?"惠能云: "与汝说者,即非密也。汝若返照,密在汝边明曰: "惠明虽在黄梅,实未省自己面目,今蒙指示,如人饮水,冷暖自知。今行者即惠明师也。"惠能曰:"汝若如是,吾与汝同师黄梅,善自护持。"明又问:"惠明今后向甚处去?"惠能曰:"逢袁则止,遇蒙则居。"明礼辞。

For simplicity, the follow is an English translation from this website:

"Among them there was a monk named Hui Ming, whose lay surname was Chen. He was a general of the fourth rank in lay life. His manner was rough and his temper hot. Of all the pursuers, he was the most vigilant in search of me. When he was about to overtake me, I threw the robe and begging bowl on a rock, saying, "This robe is nothing but a symbol. What is the use of taking it away by force?" (I then hid myself). When he got to the rock, he tried to pick them up, but found he could not. Then he shouted out, "Lay Brother, Lay Brother, (for the Patriarch had not yet formally joined the Order) I come for the Dharma, not for the robe."

Whereupon I came out from my hiding place and squatted on the rock. He made obeisance and said, "Lay Brother, preach to me, please."

"Since the object of your coming is the Dharma," said I, "refrain from thinking of anything and keep your mind blank. I will then teach you." When he had done this for a considerable time, I said, "When you are thinking of neither good nor evil, what is at that particular moment, Venerable Sir, your real nature (literally, original face)?"

As soon as he heard this he at once became enlightened. But he further asked, "Apart from those esoteric sayings and esoteric ideas handed down by the Patriarch from generation to generation, are there any other esoteric teachings?" "What I can tell you is not esoteric," I replied. "If you turn your light inwardly, you will find what is esoteric within you."

"In spite of my staying in Huang Mei," said he, "I did not realize my self-nature. Now thanks to your guidance, I know it as a water-drinker knows how hot or how cold the water is. Lay Brother, you are now my teacher."

I replied, "If that is so, then you and I are fellow disciples of the Fifth Patriarch. Take good care of yourself."

In answering his question whither he should go thereafter, I told him to stop at Yuan and to take up his abode in Meng. He paid homage and departed."

As I commented previously, the history of a spiritual master is always mythical, forming part of the spiritual tradition of the practice. And it is the same with the Platform Sutra. But human psychology won't change, let's look at it from the human side.

The bottom line is monk Hui Ming had to get what he wanted before he would spare the life of Master Hui Neng. What did he want? His ultimate objective (apart from his overt objective of taking back the Patriarch symbol and killing the master) is to learn the Dharma. Master Hui Neng was smart, he certainly knew this was the only way he could save his life, i.e. to satisfy Hui Ming's ultimate objective. But our Master had to behave under the spiritual constraint of his spiritual tradition. In this particular case, the spiritual tradition was that the Dharma could not be passed to those who had not been intellectually enlightened (頓悟). That was why his master Fifth Patriarch passed the Dharma to him alone (basically after reading his famous verse, Fifth Patriarch certainly set a very high standard for intellectual enlightenment!):


There is no Bodhi-tree,
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?

Master Hui Neng therefore faced a formidable task of eliciting immediate intellectual enlightenment (頓悟) out of Hui Ming. And he did it! He gave his patriarch symbols (信物) of begging bowl and robe to Hui Ming by placing them on a piece of rock. While in hiding (he didn't want to be killed before anything happened!) our master reminded him of the uselessness of physical possession like the patriarch symbols. History would not be the same if Hui Ming didn't get enlightenment immediately. The story was Hui Ming's mind was opened for enlightenment (but NOT seeking enlightenment) and asked master Hui Ming "what is my true nature?". The master essentially told him: THIS moment you are being in is your true nature ("When you are thinking of neither good nor evil", the quintessential Zen or Tao moment). Hui Ming suddenly got it! (It is interesting here to compare chapter 2 of Diamond Sutra in which the Buddha gave similar "enlightenment opportunity" that His students failed to grasp: interested readers please click HERE to read.)

And Hui Ming, now definitely had decided not to kill the master, still wanted to learn the Dharma from the master. It is interesting to note that according to the Sutra, the master said something rather ambiguous: "What I can tell you is not esoteric," I replied. "If you turn your light inwardly, you will find what is esoteric within you." Clearly he was referring to some inner meditative practice. Why he didn't continue? As the spiritual myth goes, any inner practice was meant for those who have already been enlightened intellectually. Who can determine whether or not a student has been enlightened intellectually? The master. That's why the inner teaching has to be taught face-to-face rather than through reading a Sutra! It all adds up to a total concept of spiritual myth!

As my reading of the Sutra goes, I believe the master must have taught the inner teaching to Hui Ming. Firstly, Hui Ming insisted to learn and secondly, he was qualified to learn. It is interesting to note that the Master had just learned the Dharma and without having time to do actual practice. Look at it from this perspective, after teaching Hui Ming (assuming that he didn't withhold anything), our master would be on par with Hui Ming as far as actual practice is concerned. That's why our master said "(Since you've similarly passed on the Dharma as I),  you and I are fellow disciples of the Fifth Patriarch". This interpretation or reading goes well with the spiritual myth.

Just before Hui Ming departed, our master had reaffirmed some mythical advice in practicing the Dharma to Hui Ming: "to stop at Yuan and to take up his abode in Meng". To this last advice Zen master and Taoist Immortal Liu Huayang (柳華陽) interpreted this as the master saying "Seek your Dharma at North" (往北接道). As I explained in a previous post: The mythical North in Taoist meditation , direction North signifies the place where one's internal fire starts.  With this, I end my "speculation" on how Fifth Patriarch managed to save his own life in the mountains.

True body-sculpture of Master Hui Neng

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