Notes on the Verses by Shen-hsiu and Hui-neng


According to the Platform Sutra:

Hung-jen, the Fifth Patriarch, the Enlightened Master

Shen-hsiu, the Learned Senior Monk, experienced in gradual meditation

Hui-neng, the illiterate woodcutter from the barbarian south, suddenly enlightened


1) Shen-hsiu presents the following verse which Hung-jen characterizes as incomplete in understanding.

The body is the bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror.
At all times we must strive to polish it,
And must not let the dust collect.
(Yampolsky 130)

This can be understood as advocating a gradual process of achieving and maintaining the purity and clarity of the mirror-like mind, the mind of emptiness or empty awareness, of the oneness of reality. The emphasis is on the form of practice required of the body and the mind to cultivate and sustain this awareness.

2) Hui-neng offers the following alternative verse:

Bodhi originally has no tree,
The mirror(-like mind) has no stand.
Buddha-nature (emptiness/oneness) is always clean and pure;
Where is there room for dust (to alight)?
(Yampolsky 132)

This can be understood as advocating the sudden awakening to emptiness/oneness. The emphasis is on realizing emptiness beyond form all-at-once, instantaneously, in the here-and-now (in the moment of reading the verse).

3) Another edition of the Platform Sutra attributes the following verse to Hui-neng:

The mind is the Bodhi tree,
The body is the mirror stand.
The mirror is originally clean and pure;
Where can it be stained by dust?
(Yampolsky 132)

This appears to be a kind of combination (although not exact) of the first two lines of Shen-hsiu's verse and the last two lines of first version of Hui-neng's verse. The first half is form and the last half expresses emptiness. One must realize emptiness in the world of form, and the true nature of form is emptiness. However, one must realize emptiness in this very moment, not see it as something that one strives to achieve or keep in the future.

Hui-neng, the illiterate woodcutter who comes from outside of the rigid hierarchical structure of gradual meditation practices, achieves the instantaneous awareness of the oneness of all reality in the here-and-now. Nevertheless, he inherits the religious authority of the Fifth Patriarch Hung-jen and eventually becomes the Sixth Patriarch, the head of the Chan/Zen Buddhist order in China.