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Expanding and Extending Perspectives

by Stan Herman

The title of this column is inspired by an almost 2000-year-old Buddhist scripture which tells of Hui-Neng, the sixth patriarch of the Ch’an school. Hui-Neng was raised in poverty in the city now called Canton, in China. Growing to young manhood, he could neither read nor write, but wishing with all his heart to learn the way to spiritual realization he took the lowliest job in the kitchen of the Tungtsan monastery. There he worked diligently for years, splitting firewood and hulling rice, gathering what learnings he could by overhearing conversations of the monks and listening to the sermons of the abbot (the fifth patriarch).

Some time later, the old abbot decided he must retire. To choose his successor, he followed tradition and held a poetry contest, declaring that the author of the stanza which best reflected a full understanding of enlightenment would take his place.

Almost all the monks thought that the contest would be won by the senior monk among them, and were convinced later when they read his poem, which was chalked on a large stone wall of the central corridor. It read, in part;

    “Our mind is a mirror bright.
    Carefully we watch… hour by hour
    And let no dust collect...”

Unable to read, Hui-Neng, the lowly kitchen worker, persuaded a passing monk to read the poem to him. Afterward he nodded, and then humbly requested that his own stanza be chalked next to it. It read in part:

    “...Nor is the bright reflecting mind a… mirror.
    Since mind is emptiness,
    Where can dust collect?”

Hui-Neng’s response was saying that a mirror, no matter how clean and clear still produces only reflections of the ideas, theories and biases each of us (and the culture we live in) projects. That includes both the good and the neurotic. We can look at any period in history, from the golden age of Greece to our current techno-marvellous era and we will find grand concepts of liberty, democracy and loving kindness, which we applaud. And simultaneously we will find other concepts that justify slavery, ethnic and gender discrimination, economic exploitation and acquisitive materialism, which we abhor. But spirit lives neither in the concepts we approve nor in the ones we disapprove. Concepts are the mirror.

Only when we can look through the mirror do we get an unobstructed view of spirit, and spirit, in turn, can reach out and touch our hearts and heads and hands. Spirit is not something that must be attained. It is already here, inside each of us as fully developed as can be. The only difficulty is that our egos have covered it over with the mirror of our projections - our ideas about who we are, what others expect of us, what we believe in and what we don’t believe in.

Well, you ask, what other possibility is there? Hui-Neng advised the following:

  1. Do not accept on faith any dogmatic teachings.
  2. Maintain an enquiring mind and an earnest search into the depths of one’s own nature.
  3. Hold a humble but positive confidence in the possibility of a sudden self-realization.
  4. When realization is attained, live a following life of simplicity, self-restraint, industry and sympathy with all animate life.

Looking Through the Mirror is intended to help those who are inclined to expand and extend their perspectives - to view situations, especially at work, in new ways and to explore different options for responding to them through more ready access to spirit.

Stan Herman is a management consultant. His most recent books are A Force of Ones and The Tao at Work (Jossey-Bass). This column is to encourage discussion on issues of spirit. To ask questions, express your view or order books, email [email protected] or fax 619-480-1628. Credit to Dwight Goddard and Chogyam Trungpa who helped awaken many spirits.

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