Huineng (638–713) is one of the most important figures in the Chinese Buddhism tradition. He has been traditionally viewed as the Sixth and Last Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. He is said to have advocated an immediate and direct approach to Buddhist practice and enlightenment, and in this regard, is considered the founder of the ‘Sudden Enlightenment’ southern Chan school of Buddhism.
It is said that the fifth Patriarch Hong Ren (601-674) decided that he would choose the next Patriarch by means of a competition. Monks could write a poem about developing Prajna (wisdom) to show their depth of understanding. The most senior monk Shen Xiu wrote the following poem on the wall.
The body is the Bodhi tree;
The mind like the bright mirror.
Let no dust alight.
The Patriarch commented that Shen Xiu’s work was not profound enough to penetrate utmost into the Emptiness of the Buddha-nature of sentient beings and the multiplicity of the cosmos. This is because it still involves the dualistic view of phenomena in terms of arising and ceasing, impurity and purity or increasing and decreasing in terms of three-fold training of morality, concentration and wisdom.
Next Huineng got a junior monk to write poetic reply on the wall for him since he was illiterate:
Originally, there is no Bodhi tree;
Neither is there the stand of the bright mirror.
Originally, everything is empty;
Where could the dust alight?
Although the Patriarch commented that Hui Neng’s poem also hadn’t seen the essential nature, he apparently felt that Hui Neng could make the grade when he passed the robe and begging bowl to Hui Neng.