The Song of Experiencing the Tao
“There exists … a curious collection of songs composed by the southern school of the Ch’an Buddhists known as the School of Shen-hui. According to tradition, the songs were composed by a monk from Yung-chia in Chekiang called Hsuan-chueh, who was known to be alive in the year 713. But whether he was the real author of the forty-six Buddhist songs attributed to him is still uncertain.”
The roar of the lion is the fearless man speaking:
When the beasts hear it, their skulls crack open.
Hearing it, stampeding elephants lose their majestic powers.
Only the gods and dragons rejoice when it is heard in meditation.
He meditates when walking and when sitting.
Silent, speaking, moving, resting, his body is at peace.
In the face of pointed swords he remains eternally calm.
Many Kalpas ago our Master met Dipamkara, (1)
But already he was the “patient sufferer.” (2)
Purify the five eyes, possess the five powers.
If once you have known truth, you know the unknown.
In a mirror the body’s shape is easily discerned,
But in vain can you grasp the moon on the water.
They walk alone, and they are together –
Along the road to Nirvana, the Perfect Ones
With antique minds, pure-hearted, high-spirited,
With sunken cheekbones, despised by the common people.
Wander the streams and oceans, cross mountains and rivers,
Search for the Way, call upon masters, desire to enter the Tao.
No sooner have you come to Ts’ao-hsi, (3)
You will know that neither birth nor death has any meaning.
The moon shines on the river, pines sigh in the wind.
What happens in the quietness of eternal night?
My heart is confirmed in its pure Buddhahood.
My body is clothed in dust, dew, clouds and sunset.
An alms bowl subdues a dragon, a stick defeats tigers.
The two sets of gold rings sound ling-ling.
The priest does not carry his stick to no purpose.
It is the stick of the Tathagata, (4) a holy relic.
In the forest of sandalwood, only the trees grow.
The lion runs wild in these thickets.
In the silence of the forests none dares oppose him.
The birds fly away, the animals run from him.
The baby lion was ahead of the common herd.
When three years old, he roared tremendously.
Though the jackals compete with the King of the Law (5)
And shout for a hundred years, they exist to no purpose.
Let them slander me: I remain unmoved.
Who tries to burn the sky only wearies himself.
I drink the words of the slanderer as though they were dew.
They purge me; suddenly I enter the Ineffable.
If you find any virtue in evil words,
Then the slanderer becomes your spiritual guide.
Let neither offense nor slander provoke hatred in you.
How otherwise can the power of divine endurance be beheld?
- One of the Buddhas of the Past.
- The story of the “patient sufferer” is told in the Diamond Sutra.
- 漕溪, Caoxi. The town where the temple of the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng, was located.
- I.e. the Buddha.
- 法王, King of the Law, or Dharma.
The foregoing text, the Zhengdao Ge, was excerpted from the work “The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry” edited by Robert Payne. It is also called “The Song of Enlightenment” and is well known by its Japanese name, the Shōdōka. Its author, Chan Master Yongjia, was a disciple of the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan School, Huineng, and this poem occupies an important place in the literature of Zen.
“The White Pony” was published in 1947 and subsequently reprinted on numerous occasions. It remains an excellent anthology. Payne compared his rendering with a prior translation by Walther Liebenthal, published in Monumenta Serica, VI, 1941. The footnotes have been slightly modified.
The second illustration is of a stele engraved with this poem in the Six Banyan Trees Temple in Guangzhou, China.
Interested readers will fruitfully consult this page, which contains various different translations of the same collection of poems in its entirety, by translators such as D.T. Suzuki, and Charles Luk, among others.
The Chinese text may be read in beautiful calligraphy here:
Read more about Robert Payne in China here: