14 May First Meeting Between the Fifth Patriarch and the Monk Hui-Neng
(Excerpt from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, expounded by Master Shen-Long, Chapter 1 Cultivation Cause, pg. 35)
[Sutra Text Translation]
After Hui-Neng made arrangements for his mother’s welfare, he took his leave. In less than thirty days he arrived at Huangmei and paid obeisance to the Fifth Patriarch.
The Fifth Patriarch asked him: “Which province are you from? What do you seek?”
Hui-Neng replied: “This disciple is a commoner from Guangzhou, from the south of China, I travelled far to be here, I want to become a Buddha under the teaching of the Fifth Patriarch, nothing else.”
The Fifth Patriarch said: “You are a person from the south of China, a ‘geliao’ – a barbarian (slang for an uncivilized ethnic group), how can you become a Buddha?”
Hui-Neng said: “Although people can come from the North or the South, Buddha-nature inherently does not have North or South. While the position of the geliao-barbarian and that of the venerable monk are not alike, however what difference do they have in their Buddha-nature?”
Explained by Master Shen-Long:
If Hui-Neng were born into this world now, he would not have any faithful friends. When we go to see an eminent Great Master, would we say that the purpose of us coming to visit is to become Buddha? The average person would not ask this.
So let us study his language carefully; he wholeheartedly wanted to recover his inherently pure self-nature. The common person would not be this way. When they go to a monastery, the first thing they seek for is safety and blessing; or to gain some benefits from the school of Buddhism. They have purpose, so their minds are already not purified of defiling illusion. People go there either to perform charitable deeds, or sow discord among the people in the school of Buddhism, or do other chores.
However, Hui-Neng states: “I want to become a Buddha, nothing else“. He arrived there from far away covered in dust, and all he wanted was to become Buddha under the teaching of the Fifth Patriarch!
The Fifth Patriarch said: “You are a person from the south of China, a geliao.” A ‘geliao‘ is a barbarian (slang for an uncivilized ethnic group), at that time they were looked down upon. The Chinese had their scholar-bureaucratic concepts similar to a time in Ancient India – many Asian societies still retain this. This scholar-bureaucratic concept has not changed even now:
To be a scholar is to be at the top of society, the worth of other pursuits is small, the one who studies books exceeds them all.
This statement made sense during the era of the scholar-bureaucratic class because studying books produced wisdom. Nowadays in the scientific era, where all skills and technologies are proceeding simultaneously, many social structures have to rely on the great bulk of the population, not just scholars. However in the past, the qualification of scholars was different; besides statesmanship (the art of leading a country), one was well-rounded and also knows about military strategy, structure engineering, and construction, etc.
“How can you become a Buddha?” The Fifth Patriarch tested him by devaluing him and scolding him.
Huineng said: “Although people can come from the North or the South”, as people can be poor and lowly, noble or rich, strong or weak; Buddha-nature inherently does not have North or South. There does not exist east, south, west or north within Buddha-nature. This means that when the Sixth Patriarch went to meet with the Fifth Patriarch, his mind was crystal clear and understood things thoroughly. He already beheld his Buddha-nature to become Buddha; this was his performance to show the people at that moment! As a geliao – an uncivilized ethnic group of the borderlands and a very pitiful person who has a different status from a Buddhist monk, what differences do they have in their Buddha-nature with us?
五祖說:「你是從嶺南人,又是獦獠」獦獠沒有開化的民族,南蠻子當時是被瞧不起的。中國的士代夫觀念很重,士代夫觀念到現在還是改不了。萬般皆下品,唯有讀書高。本來這句話在士代夫階級中這樣講，是可以的,講得通。為什麼?讀書生智慧。現在不是,百工技藝同時進行時代, 很多社會結構要靠大眾, 而不是只有讀書人。所以讀書人現在人家笑, 手無服肌之力,光說不練。不過以前讀書人和現代的不太相同。除精石學問以外,通兵法、建築工程、全材都有。「你怎麼能夠做佛?」五祖試他。先扁他、罵他。