It’s Not in the Words***

The Sixth Ancestor of Zen is Hui Neng (638-713 CE). The kind of Zen practice which we study today derives directly from his revolutionary teaching style. Every lineage of Zen can be traced back through him to the Buddha. In 1992, I had the tremendous good fortune to be allowed to cut my hair and take the novice monks Precepts in his temple in China, Nam Hwa Sah Temple on Chogye Sahn Mountain, before an altar on which sits his mummified body.

There is a story about Hui Neng Sunim which describes quite well why he is the central root-point for all of the many Zen schools which branched out from his practice, down until today:

One day, Hui Neng Sunim encountered a nun, Wu Jin Sunim, who recited the long Maha-Paranirvana Sutra as a practice. After hearing her chant just a short segment of this incredibly long sutra, Hui Neng Sunim already penetrated its meaning, and began expounding beautifully on it. Everyone was completely astonished! Their surprise was magnified by the fact that we Nangs Sunim was known to be functionally illiterate – – he could not even write or read Chinese characters!

The nun was also very surprised, and a little bit doubtful that he could attain such insight into the sutra just by hearing the words that she chanted. Despite her many, many years of practice, she had only recently begun to get a glimpse into the meaning of the sutra – – how could this monk attain that meaning so directly?

In order to test Hui Neng Sunim, the nun then pointed to certain words and terms in the text, and asked Sunim about their true meaning. “ you seem to have grasped the inner meaning of something I have chanted for so many years, yet only recently begun to understand. Then, what do this and this and that term mean, exactly?”

“Sorry, Sunim,” he replied humbly. “I can’t read these words that you are pointing to. If you want to know the meaning, you’ll need to ask me straight out what your doubt is.”

“How can you possibly grasp the meaning of this sutra so well when you don’t even know the words?” she asked.

“The profound teaching of the Buddhas,” he replied, “is not in the written words themselves.”

Hui Neng Sunim’s answer reveals why he is universally regarded as the one who — like the Buddha and Bodhidharma before him — established the ethos for how we practice Zen. 

“The profound teaching of the Buddhas is not in the written words themselves.”

***(Or in the mummified body, either.)

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