Sunday, April 24, 2011

Huineng and the Rice Sieve.

In the first chapter of the Platform Sutra, Zen's 6th Patriarch Huineng tells the story of his life.

After a first episode of enlightenment in his native Kwangtung, Huineng travels far from home to meet the 5th Patriarch Hongren.  At his arrival at the Monastery, Hongren asks him a few questions, realizes he was pretty sharp, and sends him to work in the kitchens. 

After several month spent  pounding rice, Huineng - who can neither write or read - enters a sort of spiritual poetry contest in which also compete the smartest monk of the place. 
He asks one of his colleagues from the kitchen to write his Stanza for him on one wall of the Monastery. 

Impressed by what he read, but not willing to let anyone know about it, Hongren does not say much. Instead, one evening, he goes to the room where Huineng is pounding rice.

Huineng goes on:
Seeing that I was working there with a stone pestle, he said to me, "A seeker of the Path risks his life for the Dharma. Should he not do so? " Then he asked, "Is the rice ready? " "Ready long ago, " I replied, "only waiting for the sieve. " He knocked the mortar thrice with his stick and left. 

Knowing what his message meant, in the third watch of the night I went to his room..."

Now, what is this "sieve" business here ? Honestly ? Can you figure this out? This does not seem to add anything to the story. But, Zen Masters are not known to act without reason.  Huineng could simply tell us that Hongren asked him to come see him later that night. But No! He insists on this sieve story, so there must be something to it that we don't get, and is worth investigating...

I researched Rice agriculture and processing, and learned quite a bit on the subject and its relation to Kobudo - I'll post about that later - but it did not help my understanding of this part of the Platform Sutra. The only relevant fact out of this research is that yes, lots of sieves are used at different stages of rice processing.

Actually, I found the explanation when and where I was not looking for it (is that familiar or what???) in a book by Nan Huai Chin : the Story of Chinese Zen
It was not to be found in technical details of Rice production, cultivation or preparation, but is of linguistic nature. It is simply that in Ancient Chinese, "The word for "sifting" has the same sound as the word "teacher" ..."
 Now this is what Nan Huai Chin says, and I won't argue with him for my knowledge of Chinese is to say the least, extremely limited, even more so of Antique Cantonese...

So you see, sometimes things are much simpler thatn you think they might be. Providing you know the language...

In a later post I'll tell you about what I found about Rice Agriculture and it's influence on Kobudo (classical weapon traditions of Okinawan martial arts)

No comments: