Like the front and back foot in walking

Mindfulness in the tradition of Huineng

When asked by an old Chinese Chan (Zen) teacher: ‘In what tradition do you teach?’, Jon Kabat-Zinn answered: ‘I teach in the tradition of Huineng’. To teach mindfulness you don't have to be a scholar in the history of Chinese Zen. But it is essential to understand the implication of this statement.

In the Stress Clinic, where we teach mindfulness, we have a cookie box. On the wall next to the box is a cartoon saying: ‘Today I will live in the moment unless this moment is unpleasant in which case I will eat a cookie’. We value humor a lot. It opens us.

This cartoon reflects a common misconception about being in the now. For many people the now is a holy grail, a hard to reach place where you try to let go of the past and the future. I see people desperately trying to suppress all thoughts about the past and the future to remain in this elusive now.

That is a big misunderstanding. The important word in the phrase ‘to live here and now’, is ‘to live’. The here and now is the only place you can never get out of. Thinking of the past or the future can only happen now.

The question is not if you are here and now. The question is how you are here and now. And when you are desperately trying to suppress your thoughts, then now is ‘desperately trying to suppress’.

That is not mindfulness and definitely not the tradition of Huineng. Mindfulness is about an open mind, about being aware. Not about suppressing.

Huineng is best known by the Platform Sutra, a text attributed to a student of him. The Platform Sutra has two functions. First of all it expresses the basic teaching of the Chan school. But to understand the text you also have to be aware of the political function it served at the time when it was written. It pitches to ‘Southern School’ against the ‘Northern School’, in a vehement battle for legitimization of the Southern School.

There is nothing new under the sun. Just as mindfulness has to legitimize itself the Chinese traditions had to. These days we are glad we have science to legitimize our practice.

Huineng is portrayed as an illiterate boy from the South, working in the kitchen of the most important Chan monastery in the North. The abbot, Hongren, plans to give transmission and challenges his monks to write a poem to show their understanding.

It is only a formality as there is only one candidate, the head monk Shenxiu. He paints a poem on a wall.

The body is the bodhi tree
The mind is like a bright mirror’s stand
Be always diligent in rubbing it
Do not let it attract any dust.

Huineng, who can’t even read, hears about this and he realizes that this poem is not the expression of the true understanding. He asks a monk to paint another poem next to it.

Bodhi is fundamentally without any tree
The bright mirror is also not a stand
Fundamentally there is not a single thing
Where could any dust be attracted?

When Hongren reads both poems he realizes he has a problem. The understanding of this illiterate boy from the South is much deeper than that of the head monk from the North.

Secretly he gives transmission to Huineng, symbolized by the robe and the bowl of the Buddha. Then he helps him escape because he knows the other monks won't understand.

What is this about? Basically as human beings we have two different ways of being here and now, two different ways to relate to what is now. Both ways are important.

I want to start with a question. How long does a human being live? There are two possible answers to that question.

One possible answer is: you live only one moment. That is now. All the rest is storyline, all the rest is our narrative about a past that we come from and a future that we plan to go to. In that storyline, the now becomes a moment somewhere in between the past and the future.

But we can only live now. This moment is all we have, it’s the only moment in which we can breathe. it’s the only moment in which we can be present. As Thich Nhat Hanh says: ‘the rain only falls on the present moment’.

So it’s like two modes of being. You could call it the storyline mode and the presence mode. Sometimes we call it the doing mode and the being mode. In Buddhist texts it is often referred to as relative and absolute reality or as the two truths, but in my experience these translations create more confusion than clarity.

The two poems in the story of Huineng refer to those two modes. Cleaning away the dust from our mind to make it like a bright mirror is storyline. Huineng’s poem abruptly does away with the storyline inviting us to just be present.

Language is perfectly suited for the storyline mode. In the presence mode it becomes silent. So how can we speak about it? To get out of the storyline Buddhist texts often resort to paradoxes. The drawback of this method is that it may give the false impression that we are talking about something obscure, a deep and hard to understand philosophy.

Basically it is extremely simple. To simple even for words. It is not a philosophy. It is about how we relate to what is now.

Huineng‘s story goes on. The next morning the monks discover that the robe and the bowl have disappeared and that the kitchen boy is gone. They suspect he has stolen them and they start a pursuit.

One of the monks, Huiming, has been in the military and he quickly overtakes our kitchen boy. But when he tries to take the robe and bowl he discovers he is unable to lift them. He realizes something else is going on and he asks Huineng to teach him.

Huineng gives him one question: ‘Not thinking good or evil, what is your original face?’ Literally translated from the Chinese this may sound a little awkward. But isn't this the quintessential mindfulness instruction? Nonjudgemental awareness.

Hearing these words Huiming understands. He asks ‘Is there any other secret teaching?’ Huineng answers there never was any secret. Huiming says: ‘Now I am like a man who drinks water and immediately knows whether it is cold or warm’.

Some people see mindfulness as a shallow first step on the arduous stairway to enlightenment. Huineng says it is all there is. Nothing comes next. There is no hidden meaning. That is the teaching of Huineng.

The Sutra argues that a teaching that limits itself to the storyline is incomplete. This does not mean that the storyline is not important. It’s extremely important. Our life depends on it. After all Huineng’s biography in the Platform Sutra is a story too.

I have to know who I am, what I am doing here. I need to know where I come from, where I go to, where my house is, where I will sleep tonight. All that is important.

If I’m only present in the now and forget about the rest, that would be extremely dangerous. I would be lost. My story gives me certainty and security. And I am 100% certain that I will sleep safely in my own bed tonight. However, however, hospitals are full of people who hadn’t really planned to spend the night there.

Our storyline gives us security and makes our world predictable. But reality doesn’t really care about our storyline. Basically life is uncertain. There’s no way for me to be certain that tonight I will sleep healthily in my own bed.

This is where the other mode comes in: the presence mode. That’s what we practice in mindfulness and meditation: just being present and experiencing everything that happens as something that happens now. Temporarily you let go of the storyline and you are simply present to whatever happens in this moment.

In my meditation sadness may come up. In the storyline mode I will think: where does it come from, what can I do about it? In the presence mode, I will just be present with this sadness, just the way it presents itself. How it feels in my body, how it arises in my mind.

It doesn't have to be sadness. It can also be great joy, or plain boredom. But the same principle applies.

My thoughts will not stop. They go on and create stories. That is what they are about. There is no need to suppress or stop them. My thoughts are just part of the events that happen now. Just like the rain, thoughts can only arise in the present moment. No problem with that.

Why is this important? The storyline space is narrow, in presence there is a vast openness. In the storyline there is certainty but also limitation, in the openness there is no limitation.

In the storyline mode, everything that falls out of the storyline escapes our attention. In the presence mode we can attend to whatever happens. In this openness, in this presence, we can be touched. This is the place where compassion arises. This is the place where creativity arises. This is the source where beauty and wonderment spring forth.

This is the place where our storyline can change. It is the place where people return to when the full catastrophe of life strikes. When life refuses to adapt to my storyline I will have to adapt my storyline to life.

As humans we have this wonderful capacity to relate to life in these two ways. Our storylines differentiate us from each other. Our presence is our common humanity where we can meet each other.

There is another Chinese text, also by a student of Huineng. It is best known as the Sandokai, a hard to translate title.

When I first encountered it, it looked to me like the most nonsensical text I had ever read. It contains phrases like: ‘The spiritual source shines clear in the light, the branching streams flow on in the dark.’ I learned it was kept secret for many centuries.

Why was this text kept ‘secret’? There is no such thing as a secret teaching, Hui Neng said. The Sandokai was never meant to be published because, unlike the Platfom Sutra, it does not have a political function. It even explicitly dismisses the polemic between the Northern and the Southern school. This was a text for ‘internal use’.

The Sandokai becomes crystal clear when you realize that verse after verse he juxtaposes different metaphors for the storyline and presence mode, for doing and being, such as ‘source’ and ‘stream’, ‘dark’ and ‘light’... Then he concludes: ‘it is like the front and back foot in walking’. They go together. We need both to move forward.

This walking is what we call life. It’s all there is.