Feb 19, 2024

Commentary On Two Pieces Of Zen Poetry: "On Believing In Mind" & "Song Of Meditation"

The following 2 extracts of Zen Poetry are from the Manual Of Zen Buddhism (1935) translated by D.T. Suzuki that, I think, encapsulates zen as taught by the ancient zen masters.

This poem summarizes the zen experience in a very taolike manner that brings together zen and taoism so smoothly you can see how easily this philosophy can be adopted to any way of living and thus how it was adopted and used to great effect by the Samurai and the culture they spawned in Japan through their promotion of Zen.

Note: The translation is in italicized bold text and my commentary is in normal text.

On Believing In Mind (Shinjin-No-Mei)

1. The Perfect Way knows no difficulties

Except that it refuses to make preferences;

Only when freed from hate and love,

It reveals itself fully and without disguise;

A tenth of an inch's difference,

And heaven and earth are set apart;

If you wish to see it before your own eyes,

Have no fixed thoughts either for or against it.

Stop imagining/conceiving of stuff to live beyond the feelings of being for or against something.

2. To set up what you like against what you dislike--

This is the disease of the mind:

When the deep meaning [of the Way] is not understood

Peace of mind is disturbed to no purpose.

To create “good” and “bad” is like a mental illness.

3. [The Way is] perfect like unto vast space,

With nothing wanting, nothing superfluous:

It is indeed due to making choice

That its suchness is lost sight of.

The path is smooth and open.

4. Pursue not the outer entanglements,

Dwell not in the inner void;

Be serene in the oneness of things,

And [dualism] vanishes by itself.

Go beyond duality and don’t get caught up in distractions.

5. When you strive to gain quiescence by stopping motion,

The quiescence thus gained is ever in motion;

As long as you tarry in the dualism,

How can you realize oneness?

You can’t attain spontaneity if you dither between opposites.

6. And when oneness is not thoroughly understood,

In two ways loss is sustained:

The denying of reality is the asserting of it,

And the asserting of emptiness is the denying of it.

Emptiness being at the heart of everything is attributing a concept to a description of the indescribable (cause it’s an experience). By creating an image of the way of zen you are not describing zen. If instead you deny all descriptions then you are experiencing zen.

7. Wordiness and intellection--

The more with them the further astray we go;

Away therefore with wordiness and intellection,

And there is no place where we cannot pass freely.

The more you seek to describe something the further away from direct experience you stray.

8. When we return to the root, we gain the meaning;

When we pursue external objects, we lose the reason.

The moment we are enlightened within,

We go beyond the voidness of a world confronting us.

Objects are a distraction and take us away from our true being. When enlightened we go beyond the empty labels we ascribe to things.

9. Transformations going on in an empty world which confronts us

Appear real all because of Ignorance:

Try not to seek after the true,

Only cease to cherish opinions.

Changes in the world that may scare you are just an illusion. Ignore opinions of others and live without trying to seek answers to things,

10. Abide not with dualism,

Carefully avoid pursuing it;

As soon as you have right and wrong,

Confusion ensues, and Mind' is lost.

If you stop putting things on scales like good and bad or right and wrong or long and short then you live beyond categories. If you imagine such stuff then you mind is imagining stuff and thus is confused.

11. The two exist because of the One,

But hold not even to this One;

When a mind is not disturbed,

The ten thousand things offer no offence.

The differences in things exists because we imagine them to exist. When the mind isn’t imagining things the world can offer no offense.

12. No offence offered, and no ten thousand things;

No disturbance going, and no mind set up to work:

The subject is quieted when the object ceases,

The object ceases when the subject is quieted.

When you are in the zen state, in a state of dhayana, you are at rest and at ease with the world around you.

13. The object is an object for the subject,

The subject is a subject for the object:

Know that the relativity of the two

Rests ultimately on one Emptiness.

Reflectivity depends on the perception of the mind.

14. In one Emptiness the two are not distinguished,

And each contains in itself all the ten thousand things;

When no discrimination is made between this and that.

How can a one-sided and prejudiced view arise?

The writer is being poetic and using the poetic licence he’s describing the same idea from many different angles, as is probably apparent by now, so I thought just a line of commentary here and there will suffice for this poem as the essential concepts have been covered earlier.

15. The Great Way is calm and large-hearted,

For it nothing is easy, nothing is hard;

Small views are irresolute,

The more in haste the tardier they go.

Everyone can walk the path of zen just learn not to be in haste.

16. Clinging is never kept within bounds,

It is sure to go the wrong way;

Quit it, and things follow their own courses,

While the Essence neither departs nor abides.

If you are attached to things you will never be able to control it and it will lead you down the wrong path. Let things be and don’t seek to control them.

17. Obey the nature of things, and you are in concord with the Way,

Calm and easy and free from annoyance;

But when your thoughts are tied, you turn away from the truth,

They grow heavier and duller and are not at all sound.

Follow the spontaneity of life and you live freely. When you tie up your mind in thoughts life becomes heavier and less fun.

18. When they are not sound, the spirit is troubled;

What is the use of being partial and one-sided then?

If you want to walk the course of the One Vehicle,

Be not prejudiced against the six sense-objects.

Not exactly sure what he is saying here but it’s definitely along the concept of letting go of attachments that the senses can get caught up in but not being against them, i.e. don’t pursue or reject stuff or don’t have strong feelings for or against things (basic idea of ‘things are as they are’).

19. When you are not prejudiced against the six sense-objects,

You are then one with the Enlightenment;

The wise are non-active,

While the ignorant bind themselves up;

While in the Dharma itself there is no individuation,

They ignorantly attach themselves to particular objects.

It is their own mind that creates illusions--

Is this not the greatest of all self-contradictions?

When you let go of the world and just live in it without pursuing or rejecting it then you are enlightened. The wise aren't actively pursuing things while the ignorant bind themselves up in thoughts of goals and ambition and such. All of these are actions derived from attachment to things.

20. The ignorant cherish the idea of rest and unrest,

The enlightened have no likes and dislikes:

All forms of dualism

Are contrived by the ignorant themselves.

They are like unto visions and flowers in the air;

Why should we trouble ourselves to take hold of them?

Gain and loss, right and wrong--

Away with them once for all!

The ignorant seek pleasure and avoid pain while the wise take things as they are

21. If an eye never falls asleep,

All dreams will by themselves cease:

If the Mind retains its absoluteness,

The ten thousand things are of one Suchness.

If you are always alert and without thought then all dreams will cease. If you retain your zen perspective then all just is as it is (Suchness).

22. When the deep mystery of one Suchness is fathomed,

All of a sudden we forget the external entanglements;

When the ten thousand things are viewed in their oneness,

We return to the origin and remain where we ever have been.

A description of zen from another perspective. The more perspectives you use the better chance you have of getting the idea of an experience across. Like describing the taste of strawberries in as many ways as possible so a person has an idea of what it is like before the actual eating of a strawberry for the first time. Yet, just like zen, describing the indescribable will leave out the essence of what eating a strawberry if like as words can’t get across an experience.

23. Forget the wherefore of things,

And we attain to a state beyond analogy;

Movement stopped and there is no movement,

Rest set in motion and there is no rest;

When dualism does no more obtain,

Oneness itself abides not.

Once again, the writer is saying to reach beyond dualism to experience zen,

24. The ultimate end of things where they cannot go any further

Is not bound by rules and measures:

In the Mind harmonious [with the Way] we have the principle of identity,

In which we find all strivings quieted;

Doubts and irresolutions are completely done away with,

And the right faith is straightened;

There is nothing left behind, There is nothing retained,

All is void, lucid, and self-illuminating;

There is no exertion, no waste of energy--

This is where thinking never attains,

This is where the imagination fails to measure.

A description of what zen is like (like trying to describe the taste of strawberries).

25. In the higher realm of true Suchness

There is neither "self" nor "other":

When direct identification is sought,

We can only say, "Not two".

In zen you are beyond categories so there is no self or other.

26. In being "not two" all is the same,

All that is is comprehended in it;

The wise in the ten quarters,

They all enter into this Absolute Reason.

Being in a non-dual state everything is connected to everything else and seems to be just one entity. Entering this state (of zen) is true Reason.

27. This Absolute Reason is beyond quickening [time] and extending [space],

For it one instant is ten thousand years;

Whether we see it or not,

It is manifest everywhere in all the ten quarters.

The Original Mind (Absolute or Pure Reason) exists beyond time and space (as time and space are concepts created by the mind). 

28. Infinitely small things are as large as large things can be,

For here no external conditions obtain;

Infinitely large things are as small as small things can be,

For objective limits are here of no consideration.

Everything is one in a mental state beyond categories (zen).

29. What is is the same as what is not,

What is not is the same as what is:

Where this state of things fails to obtain,

Indeed, no tarrying there.

This is a state of spontaneity.

30. One in All,

All in One--

If only this is realized,

No more worry about your not being perfect!

Attain this state and you will have no more worries.

31. Where Mind and each believing mind are not divided,

And undivided are each believing mind and Mind,

This is where words fail;

For it is not of the past, present, and future.

When you live in a state of mind undivided (zen state), then all is one. Words, time, and space cease to exist as the mind no longer thinks in those categories and ceases to use labels to describe things altogether (being ‘undivided’).

Poetry with a different approach to explaining and/or viewing zen; 

Yet another look at the zen state through a poem but saying that everything and all the mind can imagine is Buddha rather than the common technique used thus far, i.e. that there is nothing beyond and it’s conceptions/imaginations. In other words, if the person insists there there is a “Buddha”, i.e., something greater than himself, then you respond by saying ‘fine, then all is Buddha”. In other words, ‘all is Divine’.

Note: The word Samadhi is the Indian word for a meditational experience of zen. Mahayana is the philosophical type of Zen Buddhism as opposed to the more religious southern styles of Buddhism.

Hakuin’s “Song Of Meditation”

Sentient beings are primarily all Buddhas:

Everyone is a Buddha

It is like ice and water,

Apart from water no ice can exist;

A human and a Buddha are like ice and water, i.e. they are basically the same

Outside sentient beings, where do we find the Buddhas?

It is only humans that are buddha like anyways

Not knowing how near the Truth is,

People seek it far away,--what a pity!

People have a tendency to search for truth far away when it is in thier own minds rather than outside of them. 

They are like him who, in the midst of water,

Cries in thirst so imploringly;

They are like the story of the man who travelled to India to ‘find himself’ and when he finally found a person he believed to be a wise yogi he told him ‘I have come to find myself’. The yogi took one look at him and replied, ‘well, here you are. now what?’

They are like the son of a rich man

Who wandered away among the poor.

It’s like a person who has rejected a safe home by clueless wandering away into the wilderness

The reason why we transmigrate through the six worlds

Is because we are lost in the darkness of ignorance;

The reason we got through cycles of experience (as if the history of our lives were repeating themselves) is because we are ignorant.

Going astray further and further in the darkness,

When are we able to get away from birth-and-death?

How can we live in the zen state when we constantly create selves by which to live by.

As regards the Meditation practised in the Mahayana,

We have no words to praise it fully:

Zen Buddhism has the best form of meditation.

The virtues of perfection such as charity, morality, etc.,

And the invocation of the Buddha's name, confession, and ascetic discipline,

And many other good deeds of merit,--

All these issue from the practice of Meditation;

Meditation clears the soul and helps make a person moral.

Even those who have practised it just for one sitting

Will see all their evil karma wiped clean;

Even one meditation session can clear your head of evil thoughts.

Nowhere will they find the evil paths,

But the Pure Land will be near at hand.

Meditation will lead you to purity.

With a reverential heart, let them to this Truth

Listen even for once,

And let them praise it, and gladly embrace it,

And they will surely be blessed most infinitely.

This truth will help people if they listen to it even once with faith.

For such as, reflecting within themselves,

Testify to the truth of Self-nature,

To the truth that Self-nature is no-nature,

They have really gone beyond the ken of sophistry.

Those have realized their is no self (or that the go is a creation of the mind) has reached beyond the illusions of the mind.

For them opens the gate of the oneness of cause and effect,

And straight runs the path of non-duality and non-trinity.

By practicing meditation  you reach beyond the illusions of division the mind creates you discover all is one.

Abiding with the not-particular which is in particulars,

Whether going or returning, they remain for ever unmoved;

When you find your center (in zen) you will always be able to keep centered.

Taking hold of the not-thought which lies in thoughts,

In every act of theirs they hear the voice of the truth.

By understanding the abstraction that exists in thoughts they can always see beyond the words.

How boundless the sky of Samadhi unfettered!

How transparent the perfect moon-light of the fourfold Wisdom!

The meditative state is amazing! (very very cool)

At that moment what do they lack?

As the Truth eternally calm reveals itself to them,

The zen state of meditation (samadhi) is the center of eternal calm.

This very earth is the Lotus Land of Purity,

And this body is the body of the Buddha.

Earth IS heaven.

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