Encounter in the Woods
As the disciples pursued Huineng, one of them was well ahead of the pack. His name was Huiming, and he used to be a military general. He was much faster than the rest, so he was the first to catch up with Huineng.
Huineng knew he could not outrun this pursuer. When Huiming got closer, he knew he had to hide. He set down the robe and the bowl on a rock and said loudly: “These symbols represent our faith! Are you trying to take them by force?” Then, he hid himself in a nearby bush.
Huiming followed the sound Huineng’s voice, and saw the robe and bowl on the rock. He reached out to take them, but found that he could not. His conscience told him Huineng was right — it would be the wrong thing for him to do.
He yelled out: “Master! Master! I came for the dharma, not for the robe and the bowl.”
Hearing this, Huineng came out of hiding to sit on the rock. Huiming bowed to him with respect. “Master, please provide me with a dharmic lesson.”
Huineng said: “Since you came for the dharma, I would like you to start by letting go of your desires and attachments. Do not let a single stray thought come up, and I shall speak of the dharma for you.”
There in the woods, the two men sat in meditation for a while. When the time felt right, Huineng broke the silence: “No thoughts of good, and no thoughts of evil… in that moment, what you experience is the original appearance of your nature.”
These words triggered a great awakening in Huiming, and he felt the joy of enlightenment. After a moment, he asked: “Other than the esoteric teachings passed down from previous generations, are there more hidden secrets of spiritual wisdom?”
Huineng smiled: “If I tell you, then they are no longer secrets. All you have to do is reflect on yourself, and you will find the secrets right next to you.”
This insight filled Huiming with gratitude. He said: “I studied hard at the temple for quite some time, but never understood what it meant to know my true self. Now, I listen to you, and it is like drinking water and knowing its temperature by direct experience. You are truly my teacher.”
The two of them went their separate ways. Each of them had gotten something intangible, yet extremely valuable, from their encounter.
Initially, Huiming seemed similar to the other disciples, intending to stop Huineng using any means necessary — including violence. As the story progressed, he was revealed to be quite different. There was wisdom and goodness in him, waiting for awakening.
Huineng recognized the potential in Huiming and provided him with guidance. His lesson was simple, yet profound. It pointed to our usual preoccupation with good and evil, right and wrong. He knew it was normal for human beings to make assessments and draw conclusions about the world. At the same time, he could also see the tendency in most people to become harshly judgmental and overly attached to self-righteousness.
This harshness is toxic. It manifests as the us-against-them tribal mentality and even hatred. We have many examples of this in our world, so it looks like human nature hasn’t changed that much in the centuries since Huineng’s time.
The solution is to clear the mental state. Let the turbulent mind settle down so it can operate at a higher level. Stop stirring it up with stray thoughts — especially thoughts that dwell on right and wrong or good versus evil.
The more you do this, the more easily you perceive your original nature. This is the true self. It goes beyond identity, mind, memories, or anything else that is usually associated with you. Those things can change, but the true self is the “you” that never changes — no matter what.
Many of us expend much time and effort looking for “secrets.” It is a futile endeavor, because the real secrets can only be found in the heart, not in the material world. As Huineng explained, if you want to find them, all you only need to to reflect on the essence of your true self.
This essence cannot be grasped through external instructions. That is why Huiming never understood it while studying at the temple. It has to be felt through an internal connection. This is why a Zen master may ask students, “What is your original face before you were born?”
Contemplate this question for yourself. Turn your gaze within. Perhaps you will make an inner discovery, just as Huiming did. In that moment, you gain direct experience of the great spiritual truth about you and everything else — and just like drinking water, only you will know what it feels like. Only you will know the joy that cannot be described with words.