One of the founding myths of the Zen School in China is the Mind Verses Competition between Shen-xui and Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch. All the subsequent Zen figures–Baso, Sekito, Rinzai, Joshu, everyone–trace their lineage through him.
In the story, which is sometimes known as the mind verses competition, the Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen asks his monks to write a verse to demonstrate their understanding. His senior disciple,Shen-xui is the only one who responds. He composes a verse which reads:
The body is the Bodhi tree
The mind a bright mirror’s stand
Always polish assiduously
So that dust does not gather
In the story Hui-neng was resident in the monastery at the time, not as a monk but as a labourer, and he was illiterate. He asked someone to explain the verse to him and then asked someone to write his reply, which went as follows.
Bodhi originally has no tree
Nor the mirror a stand
The Buddha nature is always clear and bright
Where is there room for dust?
When the Fifth Patriarch heard Hui-neng’s verse, he secretly gave him the transmission, making him the Sixth Patriarch rather than Shen-xui, and Hui-neng then clandestinely left the monastery in the dead of the night.
The problem with the story is that it is completely made up. All those people existed, both would have been at Hung-jen’s monastery at some time, but they certainly weren’t there together.
Shen-xui was a very prominent meditation teacher at the end of the Seventh century, and had the patronage of Empress Wu.
Hui neng is a manufactured person. There was someone of that name, that much we know, but we also know that everything attributed to him is created later, primarily in ‘The Platform Sutra,’which contains these verses.
The interpretation given to these two verses over time was that Shen-xui’s perspective was deficient because it allegedly suggested a gradualistic model of practice: if we practice assiduously enough,we get the mirror.The criticism that Hui neng made is that practice serves no purpose unless we have a primary insight into emptiness. If we don’t have that insight we can practice as long and as hard as we like, to no effect
Let’s look at Shen-xui’s poem.
The bodhi tree is the tree under which the Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment. It’s a special type of Fig tree, with heart shaped leaves which lives for a very long time. I’ll talk more about it another time, but for our purposes, that’s not the part of the poem which is criticised, it’s the remainder which is accused of fostering a gradualistic approach.
However, Shen-xui does not say that the personal mind is the mirror. He says that the mind is the mirror’s stand.
To understand what that means you need to know that in the China of that period, mirrors were made of metal, so required to be polished consistently to retain their powers of reflection. And they were also round, so if they didn’t have a stand, they were likely to just roll away.
So the metaphor of the mind being the mirror’s stand is quite a subtle metaphor. It’s clearly not saying that through practice I somehow attain enlightenment, but rather that it is the effort of my whole being, my body and my mind, which enables the mirror, which is not mine to manifest here. The mirror is not my personal possession, it is not something which I ever attain.
So the criticism that is made of Shen-xui isn’t fair. And we don’t know if he even wrote the poem. But whether he did or not, I’ll comment on it further.