Buddhist Messages from the Film “Good Will Hunting” and Huineng the Sixth Patriarch of Zen.
Good Will Hunting is the story of a young man from humble beginnings who happens to have a genius level intellect. His genius is discovered and he ends up making some choices about what path he wants to take in life.
I see an interesting thing in “Good Will Hunting.” There is a Zen story that it lines up with very well. I’m not sure if Matt Damon and Ben Affleck knew anything about Zen history when they wrote the movie, but I’m inclined to think that they did.
Huineng was the Sixth Zen Patriarch. He put forth the idea that enlightenment can come upon us suddenly because we all have Buddha nature. This has remained an important feature in Zen teachings since his day. His story and teachings are recounted in the Platform Sutra.
Will Hunting did several low paying jobs with no real direction in life. Huineng was a poor illiterate commoner in China. Will took a job as a janitor at MIT because he was attracted to education and learning. Huineng became attracted to Buddhism when he heard a monk reciting the Diamond Sutra. He traveled to the monastery that was run by the Fifth Zen Patriarch, Hongren. He moved in there and got a job helping to take care of the monastery, chopping wood and pounding rice.
Will comes to a turning point when a famous math professor puts an unsolvable equation on the wall as a challenge to his students. None of his students can solve it. Will becomes inspired and solves the equation. He solves it when no one is watching, but the Professor is able to figure out that he was the one who did it.
Huineng comes to a turning point when Hongren challenges all of his students to compose a verse describing enlightenment. Only one of his students, Shen-hsiu, makes an effort. He writes on the wall of the monastery:
“The body is the bodhi tree.
The heart-mind is like a mirror.
Moment by moment wipe and polish it,
Not allowing dust to collect.”
Hongren tells Shen-hsiu to try harder. Huineng decides to compose his own verse. With help from someone (remember, he is illiterate), Huineng writes his response on the wall next to Shen-hsiu’s answer. He writes it anonymously. His response is:
“Bodhi originally has no tree.
The clear and bright mirror also has no support.
Buddha-nature is constantly purifying and clearing.
Where could there be dust?”
Not only did Huineng give a good answer, he also tore apart the answer that Shen-hsiu had given.
Like the professor, Hongren is able to discern who wrote this verse. Also like the professor, he sees great potential in this young man.
In “Good Will Hunting,” Will struggles throughout the film with the decision of what to do with his life. In the end, he goes out into the world to find his own way, leaving his mentor behind.
When Hongren notices the great insights that Huineng has, he declares him the sixth patriarch, a Zen master and the successor to his lineage. Huineng leaves the monastery and goes out into the world to find his own way, leaving his mentor behind.
In both cases, the mentor saw huge potential in the student that wasn’t really being lived up to.
There’s a lot more going on in each of these stories, but I wanted to focus on the parallels which, to me, are quite striking. The part about writing on the wall is so similar that I’m convinced someone who had a hand in that script knew the story of Huineng.
The story of Huineng has an important lesson for us. Because Buddha nature is our true nature, anyone can become enlightened. Even an illiterate wood chopper, like Huineng, or a poor janitor, like Will Hunting.
It can become easy to get discourage on the path, but we shouldn’t. We are all enlightened already.
Ed: B. Bemel