Hui-Neng’s Autobiography

He was going to speak further to me but the presence of other disciples made him hesitate and he told me to join the other laborers at their tasks. “May I tell Your Eminence,” I urged, “that Prajna (transcendental Wisdom) constantly rises in my mind. As one cannot go astray from his own nature one may be rightly called, ‘a field of merit’ (this is a title of honor given to monks as a monk affords the best of opportunities to others, ‘to sow the seed of merit’). I do not know what work Your Eminence would ask me to do.”

“This aboriginee is very witty” he remarked. “Go to the work-rooms and say no more.” I then withdrew to the rear where the work of the monastery was carried on and was told by a lay brother to split firewood and hull rice.

More than eight months after the Patriarch met me one day and said, “I know that your knowledge of Buddhism is very sound, but I have to refrain from speaking with you lest evil men should harm you. Do you understand?” “Yes Sir, I understand,” I replied. “And I will not go near your hall, lest people take notice of me.”

One day the Patriarch assembled all his disciples and said to them: “The question of incessant rebirth is a very momentous one, but instead of trying to free yourselves from that bitter sea of life and death, you men, day after day, seem to be going after tainted merits only. Merit will be of no help to you if your essence of mind is polluted and clouded. Go now and seek for the transcendental wisdom that is within your own minds and then write me a stanza about it. He who gets the clearest idea of what Mind-essence is will be given the insignia of the Patriarch; I will give him the secret teaching of the Dharma, and will appoint him to be the Sixth Patriarch. Go away quickly, now, and do not delay in writing the stanza; deliberation is quite unnecessary and will be of no use. The one who has realised Essence of Mind can testify to it at once as soon as he is spoken to about it. He cannot lose sight of it, even if he were engaged in a battle.”

Having received this instruction, the disciples withdrew and said to one another, “There is no use of our making an effort to write a stanza and submit it to His Eminence; the Patriarchship is bound to go to Elder Shin-shau, our Master, anyway. Why go through the form of writing, it will only be a waste of energy.” Hearing this they decided to write nothing, saying, “Why should we take the trouble to do it? Hereafter we will simply follow our Master Shin-shau wherever he goes and will look to him for guidance.”

Meanwhile Shin-shau reasoned within himself, “Considering that I am their Master, none of them will take part in competition. I wonder whether I should write a stanza and submit it to His Eminence, or not. If I do not, how¬†can the Patriarch know how deep or how superficial my knowledge is? If my object is to get the Dharma, my motive is pure. If it is to get the Patriarchship, then it is bad; my mind would be that of a worldling and my action would amount to a theft of the Patriarch’s holy seat. But if I do not submit the stanza, I will lose my chance of getting the Dharma. It is very difficult to know what to do.”

In front of the Patriarch’s hall there were three corridors the walls of which were to be painted by a court artist named Lo-chun, with pictures suggested by the Lankavatara Sutra depicting the transfiguration of the assembly, and with scenes showing the genealogy of the five Patriarchs, for the information and veneration of the public. When Shin-shau had composed his stanza he made several attempts to submit it, but his mind was so perturbed that he was prevented from doing it. Then he suggested to himself, “It would be better for me to write it on the wall of the corridor and let the Patriarch find it himself. If he approves it, then I will go to pay him homage and tell him that it was done by me; but if he disapproves it,–well, then I have wasted several years’ time in this mountain receiving homage which I did not deserve. If I fail, what progress have I made in learning Buddhism?”