The objective of objects of Dharma
is to point us beyond themselves –
towards the objective Dharma.
As recorded in the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, when Master Huineng was still a layperson, he was conferred the title of the Sixth Patriarch of Chan when he inherited the robe and (alms) bowl from Master Hongren (the Fifth Patriarch of Chan), who explained to him the significance of the items. As the Chinese people had no confidence in the First Patriarch Bodhidharma (who was the 28th Patriarch in India) when he first arrived in China, the robe was handed down (or transmitted) as a physical form of testimony from one Patriarch to the next. For the Dharma though, it is transmitted from heart to heart, though the recipient must realise it by his own efforts. From time immemorial, it has been the custom for Buddhas to verify and pass the quintessence of the Dharma to their successors. However, as the robe may thereafter be cause for dispute and strife, Master Huineng was to be the last to inherit it. If it were to be further handed down to his successor, his life might be endangered. He was then instructed to leave as quickly as he could. With that, Huineng escaped to the South, as there was certainty that he would not be well received in the North due to his lowly worldly status.
Two months later, as predicted, when he reached Mount Tayu, he noticed that several hundred men were in hot pursuit of him for the purpose of snatching the robe and bowl from him. One of them there was a monk named Huiming, who was a general of the fourth rank in his lay life. As such, his character was rough and his temper quick. Of all the pursuers, he was the most diligent. When he was about to catch up with Master Huineng, the latter threw the robe and bowl onto a rock and exclaimed, ‘This robe is nothing but a symbol. What is the use of taking it away by force?’ He then hid himself. When Huiming reached the rock, he tried to pick the items up. To his great shock, he realised that he could not. In sudden yet deep remorse, he repented aloud, ‘Lay brother, lay brother, I have come for the Dharma, not for the robe.’ Thereupon, Master Huineng calmly emerged from his hiding place. Huiming immediately bowed and requested him to preach the Dharma to him, at which he attained insight.
This incident is a powerful reminder that we should never be distracted by status or power struggles when practising the Dharma, but focus on perfecting our compassion and wisdom instead. If even a monk, who was eager to pursue the truth could ended up pursuing only what represented it, it is indeed easier for laypeople to lose mindfulness of spiritual priorities over material gains. As the robe and bowl represented the authentic and immovable karmic right to lead the Dharma assembly by the power of truth, it could not be taken by brute force. The physical strife for the robe and bowl was futile, not unlike trying to grasp the reflection of the moon in a lake, missing the truth that though the reflection represents the real moon, it is never truly the moon, which cannot be grabbed. In a sense, all the objects of office, wealth and such that we struggle for and cling to are our personal mundane and unsubstantial ‘robe and bowl’. Are they authentic, in comparison to the real ‘robe and bowl’? Even if you have managed to shape and secure your own ‘robe and bowl’ of sorts, how worthy is it for handing down, for anyone’s trouble to inherit? May we authentically deserve the true robe and bowl soon!
If we objectify the Dharma without internalising it,
the Dharma becomes mistaken and clung to
as mere external objects.