Tuesday, August 26, 2003

a Buddhism question

I checked my Hotmail inbox and saw I'd been rewarded with the following, a short-but-profound question:


If the nature of things is void, how can we attach to anything?

Best regards,

I was in the middle of an overlong, pedantic response to this when it struck me: your question is the same as that of the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Hui-neng (btw, folks, it's pronounced "hway nung," rhyming with "spray dung," not "hooey neng" or "hwee neng").

You may know the legend: the Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen, was searching for a successor. Hui-neng was an illiterate worker at the monastery who heard a recitation of a poem written by the prime candidate for succession, Shen-hsiu. Shen-hsiu had written:

Our body is the Bodhi Tree,
And our mind is a bright mirror.
At all times diligently wipe them,
So that they will be free from dust.

Hui-neng thought to himself, "My balls are bigger than this asshole's," and he dictated the following:

The Tree of Perfect Wisdom is originally no tree.
Nor has the bright mirror any frame.
Buddha-nature is forever clear and pure.
Where is there any dust?

[NB: I'm joking, of course. We have no idea whether Hui-neng ever referred to the size of his balls. But Hui-neng became the next Patriarch. Perhaps, as a good Zennist, he would have said his balls were "not-big, not-small." You'll have noticed that Yoda also claims, "Size has no meaning. It matters not."]

Translations of Shen-hsiu's verse and Hui-neng's counter-verse vary widely. Here's another version of Hui-neng's response:

Fundamentally no wisdom-tree exists,
Nor the stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is empty from the beginning,
Where can the dust alight?

You can see the strong resemblance to your question, Zsolt.

On what can the dust collect if there's nothing there from the first?
If the nature of things is void, how can we attach to anything?

So my answer to your question would be: "Yes, exactly." Your question expresses the wisdom you seek. As the saying goes, The question is the answer.

Here's an interesting piece about Hui-neng: Hui-neng: Patriarch of Zen Buddhism.

Let me comment on Hui-neng a bit, though. I tend to think that his response isn't necessarily all that enlightened. After all, his poem makes the best sense only when viewed in relationship with Shen-hsiu's verse. We can (ironically) congratulate Hui-neng on his mirror-mind, the natural directness of his response, but he stood on the guy's shoulders.

Thirty blows to both of them!

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