Some 1,100 years after Prince Siddhartha Gautama founded a philosophy in India, two monks in China created a fissure in his teachings that still affects the hundreds of millions of Buddhists today.
The monks, Shen-hsiu and Hui-neng, lived in AD 6th century. The dominant religion of their day was Taoism, which was derived from a 5,000-word philosophical text written by Lao-tze, a near contemporary of Siddhartha.
Buddhism was brought to China by Indian monks travelling the Silk Road during the AD 2nd century. For nearly 700 years it survived in China, but only began to thrive during the unstable period of “The Sixteen Kingdoms”. A few centuries later it was adopted as the state religion of the Tang dynasty; while Taoism was relegated to the sideline.
Hui-neng was from the southern province of Guangdong, which considers him one of its two most famous sons (the other is Sun Yat-sen, founder of modern China).
During Hui-neng’s time, the heart of Chinese Buddhism was in the north. Poor and illiterate, the young man supported his mother by gathering firewood. Legend has it that he became inspired upon hearing a Buddhist verse, “Let your mind go free without dwelling on anything”.
Motivated, Hui-neng settled his mother and walked 500 miles to the temple where the famous monk, Hung-jen, or the Fifth Patriarch, resided. Hui-neng secured work in the kitchen. Shen-hsiu, meanwhile, was already the heir-apparent.
One day the ageing Hung-jen made it known that he was looking for a successor. Each disciple was asked to compose a poem demonstrating their spiritual advancement.
Shen-hsiu, after agonising for three days, pinned his on a tree:
The body is the Bodhi Tree
The heart is a mirror
One must diligently wipe and polish it
So it would not accumulate any dirt.
(Bodhi, a type of fig, was the tree under which Buddha sat the night he achieved enlightenment and is therefore highly significant to Buddhists.)
Hui-neng thus pinned his response:
The body is not a tree
The heart is not a mirror
If there is nothing
How could it get dirty?
With that, Hui-neng became the Sixth Patriarch, succeeding Hung-jen.
But that did not negate the poem by Shen-hsiu. Each had simply interpreted Siddhartha’s teaching in his own way. A Buddhist’s ultimate aim is to achieve nirvana, and be freed from the world’s myriad illusions and temptations. Shen-hsiu saw that to be attained by action, a lifelong regime of tight discipline. Hui-neng chose inaction, nothingness. To Shen-hsiu, the heart of Buddhism is “to be”. To Hui-neng, it is “not to be”.
Their differences worked their way into the many branches of Buddhism. Hui-neng founded Zen Buddhism; Shen-hsiu’s influence is found in Theravada, as is practised in Thailand.
Theravada demands active participation from its followers. It is a short step from engaging in temple activities to rallying on the streets. Had the teaching of Hui-neng prevailed in Thailand, there would probably not have been any demonstration, since any concern over Buddhism’s role in the constitution would merely be viewed as another illusion – to be discarded on the path to enlightenment.