Wednesday, October 06, 2010


You surely remember the first so-called patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma. He was the Indian master who introduced Zen into China.

And you surely remember the story of the sixth patriarch, Hui-neng. His record is a classic Zen story, and it’s worth repeating.

According to legend, Hui-neng was born in southern China. He was an uneducated youth when he heard someone reciting the Diamond Sutra, and he was so taken with the words that he joined the Yellow Plum Buddhist community.

As was the custom of the day, the master of Yellow Plum gave Hui-neng a rough time, to make sure the lad wasn’t some frivolous dabbler in religion.

“Southerners have no Buddha-nature,” the master said, matter of factly.

Hui-neng answered, “There may be southerners and there may be northerners, but Buddha-nature makes no distinction.”

I won’t repeat the entire story of how Hui-neng came to be Zen Buddhism’s sixth patriarch. I will remind you that after eight months as a monastery kitchen helper he displayed his wisdom by refuting a monk’s declaration that one’s body is like the Bodhi-tree, and one’s soul is like a bright mirror that should not be allowed to collect dust.

Hui-neng responded with his verse:

There is no Bodhi tree,
Nor is there a clear mirror.

From the beginning not one thing exists,
So where is a speck of dust to cling?

In other words, one should not become hung up on philosophical hair-splitting.

The master realized that Hui-neng had become conscious of his own Buddha-nature, so he passed on to him the robe that supposedly had been handed down from Bodhidharma.

This act validated Hui-neng as Zen’s sixth patriarch in China.

Moving right along, some time after that, the Yellow Plum Zen School divided into two factions over differences in whether the realization of one’s Buddha-nature was a gradual process or a sudden occurrence.

Talk about splitting hairs.

It was a disagreement that has been carried down to this day, and now, as then, it has little to do with anything except as a point of argument.
So don’t bother your mind over sudden versus gradual awakening.

When awakening comes, it comes.

That is important.

This brings us to Sandokai.

Sandokai is a verse that was written in the sixth century by a Chinese master named Shitou. The verse was intended to relieve the “gradual” versus “sudden” inconsistency. In addition, it clarified other opposites such as good and bad, light and dark.

As a consequence, Soto Zen tends to soft-pedal differences and overlook contradictions.

Although most Soto groups forego chanting, in almost all Soto temples around the world a version of Sandokai is verbalized daily. It is invariably recited at the memorial service of a deceased master.

We won’t be chanting or singing or praying, but in a forthcoming talk I’ll present some detailed thoughts on Sandokai.

One of Shitou’s Dharma heirs was Yakusan Igen. One day Shitou came upon Yakusan, who was deep in zazen.

“What are you doing?” Shitou asked.

Yakusan said, “I’m not doing anything.”

A good answer, eh?

Shitou said, “Well, then you are sitting idly.”

Yakusan answered, “If I were sitting idly, I would be doing something.”

A better answer, eh?