Beyond Good and Evil
by Scott Bradley
by Scott Bradley
"Don't think good; don't think evil. At this very moment, what is the original face of Ming, the head monk?"
At these words of Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch, Ming had "great satori". This story is well-known. The lay and illiterate Hui-neng, who had been sent into the obscurity of the monasteries' rice-husking shed, had demonstrated to Hung-jen, the Fifth Patriarch, his superior understanding of the Way and was thus given the robe and bowl of transmission. But knowing the jealousy of the monks, Hung-jen told him to flee into the night.
Sure enough, when the monks got wind of this, a group of them took off after Hui-neng, but only the robust Ming was able to catch up to him. At this Hui-neng laid down the robe and bowl and said it was not something to fight over. But when Ming discovered he could not lift them, he declared he really only wanted to be instructed in the Way.
Some monastery. Some monks. It sounds more like kindergarten. And frankly, I think it is the fear of finding just this, which in part puts me off of ever joining one. I heard Leonard Cohen, who had recently emerged from a Zen monastery, say that the others thought he was cool, but he hated them all. But he also added that a monastery is said to be like a bag of rocks in which each rounds off the corners of the others. That may well be, but the world at large is more than able to do the same. While he was Zenning his agent had stolen all his money. Still, he could sing a "broken Hallelujah".
But returning to the 'turning words' of Hui-neng, these are the heart of this koan (the 23rd in the Mumonkan; Aitken). When invited to see his original face, what would have the jealous and deceitful Ming seen if he had not been told to forget good and evil? He would have seen his present face — a self torn by guilt and self-contempt. He would have seen a self divided against itself.
But the original face is beyond all this. It dwells in a 'place' which knows no more of good and evil than a tree or a stone. And Ming saw it and was transformed. He didn't receive new commandments chiseled in stone, 'Thou shalt not be jealous", but a new way of being. Nor did he, upon returning to the monastery, harangue his fellow monks about their failings. His transformation was word enough. His realization of a reality beyond the moral and logical machinations of the mind fulfilled the letter of the law beyond what that letter could ever hope to achieve.
It is the discriminating mind, living under the tyranny of word and judgment, which hides the original face.
You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.