Retelling an old story

June 4th, 2010

I’m devoting my June to a bigger writing project, so my updates here will be even more sporadic than usual, and perhaps out-of-context bits of what I’m writing. Hey, if you haven’t, check out the funky essays I wrote for Monkey Goggles. But for now, a fragment that surprisingly came out in my writing today.

The story of Hui-neng is one of the most famous ones in Chinese Buddhism. Zen master Hung-jen, the Fifth Patriarch of Zen announced that anyone who would be considered heir to his position should write a poem on the wall of the monastery. Everyone thought Shen-hsiu, his most esteemed follower, would succeed at this. Shen-hsiu was the most educated, had appeared as a guest on a handful of talk shows, and had a nice little fan club. He carefully thought through which one of his greatest hits he’d write to seal the deal.

He wrote a poem, and it wasn’t bad. It was like the kind of thing Buddhist-inclined office workers can put on their Buddhist-quote-a-day calendars to read during their coffee breaks and feel inspired. Shen-hsiu knew what worked, and he went there.

One illiterate monk, Hui-neng, heard about the poem, and realized it was incomplete and pithy. Sure, it was pretty much true, and not a horrible thing to say, but Hui-neng had a response, being present for this moment, that came directly from his own insight. He asked a friend to write a follow-up poem on the wall.

Seeing the follow-up poem, the Zen master knew it came from Hui-neng, and that it demonstrated deeper wisdom. He called Hui-neng to a private meeting, and declared him the Sixth Patriarch–then told him to run, because Shen-hsiu’s fan club would rip him apart.

Luckily, we don’t live in feudal China anymore. We live on the Internet, where the dissenting voices are merely subject to being told they are worse than Hitler. If Hui-neng were here today, I think he might keep a blog. He might call out the Dharma celebrities whenever they’re full of crap–which, let’s face it, we all are sometimes.

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