Lesson
9

Huineng

2 of 7

It is your mind that moves

For several years Huineng sought seclusion, living among hunters in the south and concealing his identity.  But this life as an anonymous vagabond—an Ancestor while not even a priest—could not be his final calling, and as he he neared forty he ventured into Canton to visit a temple. One afternoon as he lingered in the guise of an anonymous guest, he overheard a group of monks arguing about a banner flapping in the breeze

One monk : "The banner is moving."

Another monk: "No, it is the wind that is moving."

Although he appeared to be but a lay observer, Huineng could not contain himself: "You are both wrong. It is your mind that moves."

The abbot of the temple, standing nearby, was dumbstruck by the profound insight of this stranger, and on the spot offered to become his pupil. Huineng declined the honor, however, requesting instead that his head be shaved and he be allowed to enter Buddhist orders, a priest at last.

When the abbot asked Huineng whether Hongren, the Fifth Ancestor, had transmitted to him any particular methods, he answered:

He had no particular methods, but only stressed the necessity of seeing one's self-nature. He did not even speak of deliverance through dhyana.

Legends

Huineng was shortly acclaimed by one and all as the Sixth Ancestor. The foregoing story, perhaps the most famous in the Zen canon, is drawn mainly from the Platform Sutra of Huineng, purportedly an autobiography and sermon presented to an assembly in his later years. The real life of Huineng is a historical puzzle that may well never be resolved.

For example, it is common to note that the later Chan writers took great pains to render Huineng as illiterate and unlettered as possible, the more to emphasize his egalitarianism. (This in spite of the fact that the sermon attributed to him refers to at least seven different sutras.) The facts were adjusted to make a point: If a simple illiterate wood peddler could become Ancestor, what better proof that the faith is open to all people?

Does it really matter whether the legend is meticulously faithful to the facts? Huineng is as much a symbol as a historical individual, and it was essential that his life have legendary qualities. In his case, art may have helped life along a bit, but it was for a larger purpose.