Zen Renegade

Huineng Quote


Tesshin Roshi opened the Taisho this week by thanking everyone for their hard work and dedication during our second annual Jukai ceremony.  Special congratulations were in order for our Jukai class –  Wendy, Juan, Stacy, Ed and Bianca.   Video of the Jukai ceremony is available on our EVENTS PAGE


Roshi recalled the discussion on authentic Zen teachers we had a few weeks back when Gyokei Roshi visited the sangha from the Soto Zen North American Office.  One topic we did not discuss was how to deal with “Zen mavericks.”  We tend to like mavericks, cowboys, and renegades in America as it is so tied up with our culture.    Roshi wondered if there are teachers in our lineage who were truly enlightened but were really renegades who did not fit into the institutional system.


Roshi then suggested that the 6th patriarch of Zen, Huineng, may best fit the description of a Zen Renegade.  During this time in China, Zen was going through a major transformation.  At the time there were two major schools, namely the Northern School and the Southern School.  The dominant Northern School emphasized a calm and gradual path to enlightenment whereas the Sothern School stressed the concept of intense practice leading to sudden enlightenment.  Needless to say, the dominant school looked down at the Sothern school as unserious and unsophisticated.  As it turned out, Huineng’s transformation of spontaneous enlightenment had a lasting impact on Zen all the way to today.  As such, Roshi will be spending the next few weeks taking us through the Platform Sutra which is Huineng main teaching.  Roshi noted that that this teaching is so insightful it has been elevated to the status of a “Sutra” in Zen.  


This week Roshi wanted to provide us with a refresher on Huineng to get us ready for studying the Platform Sutra.  Huineng was active during the 5th century in China.  According to the history, he was an uneducated layman who had sudden insight when hearing the Diamond Sutra for the first time.  He then traveled to the temple of the fifth patriarch (Hongren) to receive training.  As Huineng was not a monk and lacked any educational background, he was initially refused entry.  Even after showing great determination, he was admitted into the temple more as a workman than as a monk.  Roshi paused here and had us consider the biases we have when evaluating talent.  He asked us to think in our own professions about where real talent can come from.  Sometimes it is not the person who has followed the normal path – but the renegade!  


Roshi related a famous story about Huineng.  Hongren was approaching the end of his life and had to pick a successor.  In order to determine this, he asked all the senior monks to compose a poem to show their realization.  Everyone expected the most senior monk to have the best poem as he was the most intelligent, sophisticated, and erudite.  Below is what he wrote…


The body is the bodhi tree.

The mind is like a bright mirror’s stand.

At all times we must strive to polish it

and must not let dust collect.


Basically, what we have here is a very well formed but conventional response.  Hongren, however saw through this stock-standard answer and was not impressed.  Later on, the uneducated Huineng asked to have the poem read to him.  It could be imaged that Huineng rolled his eyes at the senior monk’s conventional answer and responded with the following verse…


Bodhi originally has no tree.

The mirror has no stand.

The Buddha-nature is always clear and pure.

Where is there room for dust?


Even to our unenlightened eyes, we can see Huineng blasting away at the years of academic accretion displayed in the first poem.  It is almost like Huineng is shouting at everyone to close the books and touch “suchness” directly.  As the story goes, Hongren recognized Huineng’s insight and handed him his bowl and robe making Huineng the successor.  However, and this is very important to note, the monks in the temple could not accept this.  Huineng was illiterate and uneducated!  How could he become the successor of the great master.  Did this prove that the monks were wasting their time with Sutra study and memorization of liturgy and forms?  Even worse, Huineng did not even conform to the established doctrine of the Northern School!  Instead of recognizing his insight and brilliance, they saw him as a threat which must be destroyed.  Hongren recognized the risk and suggested that Huineng leave the temple immediately.  Here Roshi stopped – what a shame!  A temple dedicated to the pursuit of realization casting away the very person who had the very thing they were all seeking.  Again, something for us to consider and meditate upon.    


Huineng did escape the monastery and was able to take on students.  His teachings on sudden enlightenment through intense practice of the unattached mind became the dominant approach in Zen.  Roshi wrapped up by reiterating that we will be studying this Zen Renegade through his main teaching of the Platform Sutra over the next few weeks.