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Studying the Platform Sutra, Lecture 7

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The disciples received the Fifth Patriarch’s directive and returned to their rooms. They discussed amongst themselves and said, “There’s no need for us to purify our minds and compose a verse to present to the master. The head monk, Shenxiu, is our teacher. After he receives the dharma, we will naturally rely on him. So, we don’t need to compose a verse.” All the disciples set their minds at ease and did not dare to compose a verse.
At that time there was a three-section-wide corridor in front of the Fifth Patriarch’s room. He planned to have the walls of that corridor painted with illustrations of stories of the Lankavatara Sutra and the five patriarchs transmitting the kasaya robe and the dharma as a commemoration of the dharma’s dissemination to subsequent generations. He had the artist Lu Chen examine the walls so that he could start painting the following day.    
After receiving the Fifth Patriarch’s directive, the assembly returned to their rooms and talked among themselves. They concluded that since Shenxiu was the best disciple of them all, even if they were to write a verse they would not be selected anyway. It was obvious to them that Shenxiu would compose a verse and then be chosen to receive the dharma. They subsequently would only need to rely on Shenxiu for their practice. Hence, it was unnecessary for them to agonize over composing a verse.   
 
‘Illustrations of stories of the Lankavatara Sutra’ refers to ‘transformation tableaux’ (bianxiang) of stories from a particular sutra. There are such transformation tableaux for such sutras as the Lotus Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra. The Fifth Patriarch wished to commemorate the transmission of the dharma over the five preceding generations by having illustrations of the events painted on the walls of the corridor.
 
The head monk Shenxiu (神秀 606-706), who is mentioned here, was almost thirty years senior to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng (638-713) but only twelve years junior to the Fifth Patriarch (594-674). Shenxiu was known to have ordained as a young boy and was very well versed in such scholarship as the four books and three classics of Confucianism and the Chuangzi. In short, he was a man of wide knowledge. After the Fifth Patriarch’s death, Shenxiu disseminated the dharma in the northern regions, such as the ancient capital of Chang’an (Xi’an), while the Sixth Patriarch Huineng worked in the South. As far as their teachings were concerned, the Sixth Patriarch advocated ‘sudden awakening,’ while Shenxiu taught ‘gradual cultivation.’ Later generations in the Chan school criticized Shenxiu’s teachings and ultimately his sect disbanded for lack of disciples.   
 
There is a record that, when Shenxiu was in his forties, he came to study with the Fifth Patriarch for six years. He was supposedly extremely tall and handsome, while the Sixth Patriarch, who was from the south, was short and ugly. Later on when the Sixth Patriarch’s name became well known, the Empress Wu Zitian invited him to the palace, but he declined by giving the excuse that he was ill. Another source states that he declined so as not to offend the empress because of his ugliness. Shenxiu and the Sixth Patriarch were therefore quite the opposites. Shenxiu, who was tall and handsome, served as state preceptor through the reigns of three emperors; he was also designated as dharma master of the Chinese joint capitals of Luoyang and Chang’an. He lived a much more glorious life than the Sixth Patriarch.
 
Ironically, Shenxiu’s dharma lineage disappeared three to four generations later, perhaps due to the inadequacies of his teachings or the lack of worthy disciples. On the other hand, the Sixth Patriarch Huineng’s name was only well known in the southern city of Guangzhou (Canton) during his lifetime; but, due to the reputation of his dharma, he had ten major disciples and many extraordinary dharma-descendants subsequently in his school. For instance, Nanyue Huairang (677-744) and his disciple Mazu Daoyi (709-788) were also superb masters. They had eighty great, enlightened masters in their dharma lineage, including Baizhang Huihai, who is famous for his quote ‘a day without work is a day without food,’ Huangbo Xiyun, and Linji Yixuan, through whom the branches of the school multiplied. The fact is that, much more than during the Sixth Patriarch’s time, it was his disciples who brought his ‘sudden dharma’ to prominence. Incidentally, Shenxiu was respected as an authoritative master (kwonsung權僧) and served as state preceptor through the reigns of three emperors. In the Platform Sutra, Shenxiu is portrayed as a total mediocrity, but history tells us otherwise.

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