The Fifth Patriarch, when choosing his successor, asked each of the monastery's monks to write a verse illustrating their Zen insight. The much accomplished monk who was presumed to be the heir-apparent wrote:
"The body is the Bodhi tree,Profoundly dissatisfied with this explanation, Hui Neng, the monastery's unordained cook, wrote:
The mind is like a clear mirror standing.
Take care to wipe it all the time,
Allow no grain of dust to cling to it."
"The Bodhi is not like a tree,
The clear mirror is nowhere standing.
Fundamentally not one thing exists:
Where then is a grain of dust to cling?"
In rejecting the "mirror wiping" concept of meditation, Merton observed that Hui Neng "was not rejecting meditation itself, but what he believed to be a totally wrong attitude to meditation." Merton explains that a "wrong attitude" or error may occur when the ego, in a last-ditch effort to retain its hold on the spiritual seeker, embraces spirituality itself. He explains:
"1. This wrong attitude assumes and gives primacy to a central ego-consciousness, an awareness of an empirical self, an "I" which, with all the good intentions in the world, sets out to "achieve liberation" or "enlightenment." This is the familiar empirical ego which is aware of itself, observes itself, remembers itself, and seeks ways to preserve and perpetuate its self-awareness. This "I" seeks to affirm itself not only in its actions, and its thoughts, but also in contemplation. In stripping off the exterior and sensible trappings of superficial experience, the ego seeks to realize its own spiritual nature more perfectly. This implies a rejection of one's sensible and active self in order to attain to an inner "silent" self, which is still, however, our "ego."
2. The empirical and self-conscious self then views its own thought as a kind of object or possession, and in so doing accounts for this thought by situating it in a separate, isolated, "part of itself," a mind, which it compares to a "mirror." This is also considered a "possession." "I have a mind." Thus the mind is regarded not as something I am, but something I own. It then becomes necessary for me to sit quietly and calmly, recollecting my faculties and reaching down to experience my "mind."
3. The empirical self then resolves to purify the mirror of the mind by removing thoughts from it. When the mirror of the mind is clear of all thought (so it imagines), the ego will be "liberated." It will affirm itself freely without thoughts. Why does it aim at this bizarre attainment? Because it has read in the sutras that "enlightenment" is a state of "emptiness," of "suchness." It is an awareness of an inner and transcendental mind. Presumably if all thoughts of material and contingent things are kept out of the mirror, then the mirror will be filled with the pure spiritual light of the Buddha mind, which is a kind of "emptiness.""
In this manner, the ego, it turns out, becomes the ultimate ego-trap. The old axiom, "Know thyself!" is thus, still valid, albeit with the corollary: "But beware of thyself, and all its ways!"