Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chinese grafitti

For some reason, a couple of Chinese poems remain clear in my mind even now, 10 years since I have been in China.

Two of the poems I remember are dueling poems. The first one was composed by one of the top Zen Buddhist monks of the 7th century. The other was written by a lowly cleaning dude at the temple, who turned out to be the monk's rival for the much vaunted position of Sixth Patriarch.

The tale of Hui Neng (慧能 Hui4 Neng2) begins with a young lad (Hui Neng, A.D. 632-713) who grows up very poor and sells firewood to support himself and his single mom. His name was Lu (庐 lu4) at the time (Hui Neng, meaning "intelligent ability," became his monastic name later). One day on a firewood delivery run Lu (I'll just call him Hui Neng now) ran into a dude reading outside of a small inn. He asked the guy what he was reading and where he was from. Turns out he was reading the Diamond Sutra (金剛經 jin1 gang1 jing1), a Buddhist scripture that teaches awareness of the mind and its various ways of tricking you.

So Hui Neng (now 24) learns that his guy was studying at the Huang Mei Temple in Hubei Province, and he decides to go there to study. Long story short, Hui Neng meets the head of the temple, the 5th Patriarch (meaning the 5th Zen Buddhist master since the religion arrived in China), whose name was Hong Ren (弘忍 Hong2 Ren4).

Hong Ren says "what do you want, kid?" and Hui Neng is like "I am from Ling Nan, I want to study Buddhism." So Hong Ren tests him and says "What makes you think a peasant from Ling Nan can learn Buddhism?" Hui Neng says "Men are from the north or the south, but the true nature of Buddha knows no north or south." Hong Ren is like "whaaaaat?" and is super impressed, but in order to keep the 700 unruly monks from getting angry about a young punk coming from the countryside and gaining monk status just-like-that, he makes Hui Neng a laborer, cleaning up after the other monks and threshing rice.

Eight months later, Hui Neng is still happily cleaning up after the other monks. One day Hong Ren announces that he wants everyone to write a verse displaying their understanding of Buddhism. That night, the senior monk Shen Xiu (神秀 Shen2 Xiu4) (who realizes the poem thing is a test to see who is worthy to become Hong Ren's successor) puts a lot of thought into it (big mistake in Zen Buddhism). He sneaks down in the middle of the night and writes - on the wall of the temple - this verse:

(shen1 shi4 pu2 ti2 shu4, xin1 ru2 ming2 jing4 tai2
shi2 shi2 qin2 fu2 shi4, mo4 shi3 you3 chen2 ai1)

which means:

"The body is the Tree of Enlightenment, the mind is like a bright mirror stand.
Always be diligent in cleaning it, and allow no dust to land."

All the monks see it in the morning and are all like "whoa, that's deep." Except for Hong Ren, who just sort of looks at it and says nothing. Then, Hui Neng hears about the ruckus in the hall and heads over for a look. Upon seeing the verse, he asks Hong Ren if he too can have a crack at a Buddhist verse. He gets permission and ad libs the following ...

(pu2 ti2 ben3 wu2 shu4, ming2 jing4 yi4 fei1 tai2
ben3 lai2 wu2 yi1 wu4, he2 chu4 re3 chen2 ai1)

which means:

"Enlightenment has no tree, the bright mirror has no stand.
Originally there was nothing, so where can the dust even land?

... showing his really deep and innate understanding of Zen, and he gets the patriarch's robe, thus becoming the Sixth Patriarch! Whereupon he is immediately sent into hiding for 15 years with Cantonese pig farmers so he won't get attacked by a mob of furious monks.

The End

Note: I really like the phrase 本来无一物, (ben3 lai2 wu2 yi1 wu4). Literally it means, "In the beginning, there was not one thing." It sums up the universe nicely in like 5 characters. 物 (wu4) is a nice word, too, because it can mean any "thing." Chinese philosophy somtimes refers to the 万物 (wan4 wu4) or "myriad creatures," but you can also take it to mean "matter" in general so he is kind of hinting at the pre-Big Bang void. Maybe. Anyway I like it.


Susan said...

Ben, as always I'm amazed at the depth of your knowledge and how much you learned, along with drinking games and kung fu,in China! The story reminds me of Good Will Hunting, sort of a math version of the lowly cleaning guy demonstrating super powers to astonished experts, in that case MIT profs and grad students. Keep up the great blog!

Ben Moger-Williams said...

Thanks Mom
Good observation. I guess that type of story is always popular! So, as for depth, I remembered the poems and the general story, but of course the Internet helped fill in the gaps...!

Siew Gin said...

Somehow i don't remember any of these interesting stuff in my Chinese class.