One of Shen Hui’s disciples spoke to him one day and said that other masters were teaching that form is not different from void and void not different from form. He’d heard Master Tsiun taking his own body as an example and remarking that ‘this was Tsiun and at the same time not Tsiun’. Referring to his nose, ears, and each part of his body in turn, he’d considered them and rejected them all as not being Tsiun, saying that they were only fictional designations. ‘That which cannot be perceived,’ Tsiun had said, ‘is the void. And form exists only because the relative and the causal exist.’
‘Will you please reveal to me the meaning of this teaching, Master?’
‘Master Tsiun establishes in his explanation a particular principle,’ said Shen Hui, ‘but if one examines the meaning of the Heart Sutra, it is not in agreement with him. In effect, the explanation of Master Tsiun consists in examining particular things in order to understand what the void is. He does not know that the objects of the mind are higher than Mount Sumeru. Listen carefully and I will explain the meaning. Form exists because the mind produces it; void exists because of that which cannot be perceived. It is also said: “It is because of the transcendent nature of things that form exists, and it is because of the nontranscendent nature of form that void exists.” When the sutra says: “Form is not different from void, nor void from form,” that is precisely what it means.
‘Again, it is said: “Perception is form. The perception of that which cannot be seen is void.” The sutra says: “Form is void and void is form. It is the same for feelings, perceptions, mental activity and consciousness.'”
For other teachings by Shen-Hui click here.
But for Shen-Hui Zen, as we know it today, would probably be quite different. He was one of the main students of the famous sixth patriarch Hui-neng. However, what is not very well known is that after Hui-neng’s death, the Zen patriarchship first pasted to the leader of the ‘gradual’ school of Zen Shen-hsiu. Shen-Hui went to the Chinese court and made the case for Hui-neng and the teaching of sudden awakening, and after many years had Hui-neng recognised as the sixth patriarch.
First published in the October 1989 Buddhism Now