Monday, December 07, 2009

Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage

This is an introspective time of year, and I've been spending the dark, pre-Winter evenings perusing old texts. I've come across this wonderful poem, written in the 8th century of our common era by the Great Chinese Zen (Chan) Master Shitou Xiqian (700-790):

Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage

I've built a grass hut where there's nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it's been lived in - covered by weeds.

The person in the hut lives here calmly,
Not stuck to inside, outside, or in between.
Places worldly people live, he doesn't live.
Realms worldly people love, he doesn't love.

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten feet square, an old man illumines forms and their nature.
A Mahayana bodhisattva trusts without doubt.
The middling or lowly can't help wondering;
Will this hut perish or not?

Perishable or not, the original master is present,
not dwelling south or north, east or west.
Firmly based on steadiness, it can't be surpassed.
A shining window below the green pines --
Jade palaces or vermilion towers can't compare with it.

Just sitting with head covered, all things are at rest.
Thus, this mountain monk doesn't understand at all.
Living here he no longer works to get free.
Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?

Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can't be faced or turned away from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instruction,
Bind grasses to build a hut, and don't give up.

Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations
Are only to free you from obstructions.
If you want to know the undying person in the hut,
Don't separate from this skin bag here and now.

I can't presume to interpret this wonderful piece, except to say that a careful look suggests that the grass-roofed hut he speaks of is not necessarily literally some hut in the forest on a mountain. If the frame of mind is right, it could be my apartment in New York City. Let's pause and think how we'll build our own hut of grasses.

This translation is taken from Taigen Dan Leighton's book Cultivating the Empty Field (2000), a delightful book about another famous Chinese master, Hongzhi.

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