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The Song of Experiencing the Tao

證道歌

Yung-ch’ia Hsuan-chueh

[Yòngjiā Xuānjué]

永嘉玄覺

 

Yung-Chia

 

“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.”

 

I

 

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.

 

II

 

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)

 

III

 

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.

 

IV

 

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.

 

V

 

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.

 

VI

 

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.

 

VII

 

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.

 

VIII

 

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.

 

IX

 

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.

 

X

 

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?

 

Footnotes:

  1. One of the Buddhas of the Past.
  2. The story of the “patient sufferer” is told in the Diamond Sutra.
  3. 漕溪, Caoxi. The town where the temple of the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng, was located.
  4. I.e. the Buddha.
  5. 法王, King of the Law, or Dharma.

 

Zheng_Dao_Ge

Stele at the Six Banyan Trees Temple, Guangzhou.

 

 

Notes:

 

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.

 

white_pony

‘The White Pony’ paperback edition.

 

 

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.

永嘉玄覺 Yongjia Xuanjue (665–713) 證道歌 Zhengdao ge

 

The Chinese text may be read in beautiful calligraphy here:

憨山大師書法《永嘉證道歌》

 

Read more about Robert Payne in China here:

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June 6th

At the foot of Splendid Cloud Mountain there is a small village of huddled roofs and great banyan trees called Chin-k’an-pei. Somewhere in this region is the Pekin Mining Syndicate, but rather more important than any syndicates are the small houses covered with vines and approached only by long avenues where a few distinguished scholars have retired. This afternoon we called on an old scholar who is famous because in a book of a hundred pages published more than thirty years ago he made a reasonable attempt to synthesise the philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.

It was one of the smallest houses I have ever seen, a single room which he used as bedroom and study. He wore an old tattered gown and a grey patched skull-cap; yet he was not poor. He was absorbed in his studies – those studies which would lead him in another ten years if he survived to write another small book of perhaps eighty pages on the religion of the Chinese. He was thin-boned and had once been tall. His skin seemed paper-thin in the light coming from the paper windows. His white beard, like his clothes, was torn in places; but the great jade ring on his wrist, his courtly manners, his sharp beaked nose and the small black eyes peering from behind heavy lead-coloured spectacles, suggested an enormous capacity for sustained thought. We talked about his first work – that small pamphlet which had changed a little the opinions of scholars ever since.

“But scholarship is dying,” he said. “The old order is dying – that is true. Yet scholarship is so precious in itself and as an example to others. In the West you have to put your trust in scholars who are scientists, and perhaps that is legitimate; but I would prefer that there should be some good scholars who remain.”

He apologized for not speaking English perfectly and confessed that he had neither read an English book nor spoken to anyone speaking English for forty years, yet he spoke perfectly. “You have a good few scholars still in the Universities – there is a scholar who has studied the Chinese calendar in all its phases, having read 80,000 books on the subject, in your University. Perhaps he will write a book of 300 pages, or even of 400 pages, for all these things are important. People speak too much – speaking is an excuse for not thinking – and they study too little. Before the revolution we thought carefully before we spoke: today we think little, and talk too much. I cannot read the newspapers. There are speeches; there are battles; there is no thinking. In the old days Chinese scholars were chosen by the Emperor. On them was imposed pure trust, and rarely did they misuse the trust. They lived frugally, governed honestly, wrote little and were content with the world. Our military commanders were scholars, Tu Fu and Su T’ung-po were scholars and officials – even Tao Yuan-ming was an official. This was a world in which the behaviour of scholars was the hallmark of everyone’s existence. Then how could we fail?”

His room was even poorer than the rooms of the Chinese scholars in the University; he was talking a language which they alone understood. There was the table; three or four ivory brushes, a tattered scroll on the wall, a jeweled fly-whisk, which, since it was high summer, he was occasionally flicking against our clothes; there was cheese-cloth mosquito curtain and the thick-soled slippers under the bed, and here and there on the walls, cut out from the scrolls which he had once possessed and considered insufficiently dignified to grace his bedroom, were single characters of Chinese, written boldly and elegantly, with tremendous passion and effrontery. It was as though the calligraphers at the moment of writing had seized the secrets of nature. There were perhaps twenty of thee characters written in different styles and at different epochs; and it was clear that the old scholar believed that in the whole history of Chinese handwriting no characters as good as these had ever been painted. Later, just as we were about to leave, I noticed what appeared to be a bronze umbrella-stand behind the door filled with rolled-up scrolls.

It was then that the room became charged with excitement. One could not ask him – even as a favour – to show us the scrolls. One could only hope that he would notice their presence before we had gone. I felt sure that they were good; and they were better than anything I had ever seen before – copies of T’ang Dynasty paintings, a painting of a monk, perhaps Bodhidharma, in a red robe, a single curlew on a swinging branch painted in thick monochrome like tempera, some golden birds and some court ladies dancing at the foot of the throne, and four or five other paintings and a few pieces of calligraphy.

“The rain has got at them,” he said sadly, pointing to the yellow spots, “but perhaps it is better like this. The world no longer appreciates good painting or good government. The world is covered with high clouds, and we hear only the murmur of the rivers and see nothing clearly. All that is good in China has passed and I am too old to hope for a resurrection.”

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Read more from Robert Payne’s Chinese Diaries: Leaves from a Chinese Diary, and, Chungking Diary – The Seal Carver.

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June 3rd

The blind old seal-carver still wears glasses. He sits behind the counter of his little shop, and sometimes he takes off his glasses and gazes up at the sun. He can see very faintly – the difference only between light and shade. The faint incisions which he makes on jade are for ever hidden from him, and perhaps it is not necessary to see, for the sensitivity of his fingers is three-dimensional. I have watched him pass his finger-tips over a seal-carving of my name and tell me exactly to what depth, and in what shape he had carved the letters. He has a long single strand of grey hair which trembles from his upper lip like the antennae of a moth. “These are in the characters of the old bronze seals,” he said, as he gave me the carving. “They are the best. China was great then.” I do not know why it is, but every peasant in China knows that his country was greatest in the Han Dynasty and speaks of past greatness with the terrible sincerity of those who know that it can never return again.

And as we walked down the dusty road in the broad sunlight, where everything dazzled and a clammy warmth came from the moist asphalt in the street, it was pleasant to touch and look at the jade carving done so delicately and with so much passion by a blind man who will never see his handiwork.

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Read another entry from Robert Payne’s Chinese Diaries.

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Leaves from a Chinese Diary

 

China to Robert Payne is more than a country; it is a way of life, of thought, of feeling. Few Westerners have sensed or pictured its beauty and its people more keenly than this young novelist and scholar. This is a long, rich book of wide range and variety, an eminently sophisticated and intelligent book, written in prose which will be an exciting discovery to the discerning reader.” (from the preface to Forever China)

 

March 4th

Why did I come to China? Why does anyone come to China? There are moments in China when the dirt and poverty of the people make one suddenly decide to take the next airplane to India, and then a moment later a girl on a white donkey passes slowly along a dusty road, or a pair of pigeons rise high in the sky, or at night a courtyard opens silently, lamps are lit, you hear the click of tiles and the whispers of women down some deserted alley-way; and then the amazing vitality and beauty of these people, whose arts are so ancient that they have long ago forgotten the origin of their simplest customs, surprise one with their fine excess…

 

China was made for the night and the dawn. A few days ago we began to live in a house near the Canadian Mission Hospital far away from the main traffic of the river. You reached the house by a long winding path over the foot-hills, climbing among steep fields of rice, small battered whitewashed houses, duck-ponds, tombs. We would cross the river from the north bank under a full moon, and it was not always a pleasant journey, for the boatman would think nothing of stopping in mid-stream and refuse to take us to the other bank unless we paid another ten dollars, and sometimes, knowing that we would have to walk for miles along the rocky coast, he would allow the boat to drift down-stream. But always the nights were beautiful. The shape of a curving roof against the stars, the songs of the boatmen, the small red fires in the boats along the shore, and the great white cliffs of Chungking would console us for the solitary journey. And even the gravestones, so gloomy and white in the moonlight, and even the dogs grubbing the earth at the root of the recently-made graves, were not real – they were reality raised to a higher pitch of excitement. So we walked alone at night, listening to the children and old men breathing under their poor matchwood sheds, while the moon rose and the great sweep of the river disappeared into a silver distance. Sometimes, too, but very rarely, there occurred the happiness which a Chinese poet of the Sung dynasty described in a long-forgotten poem:

 

I am old. Nothing pleases me any more. Moreover, I am not a great scholar and my ideas have rarely travelled further than my feet. I know only my forest, to which I always return.

 

The blue fingers of the moon caress my lute. The wind tosses the clouds and ungirds my silken robe.

 

You fool! You ask me what is the supreme happiness on earth. It is to listen to the song of a young girl as she passes along the road after having asked you the way.

 

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

 

Note: Chungking Diary was also published as Forever China, and was followed by a second set of wartime diaries, China Awake in 1947. Both of these books were published in one volume as Chinese Diaries, 1941-1946 in 1970.   Robert Payne (1911-1983) was a prolific British writer who wrote over a hundred books under a variety of pseudonyms. These include novels, biographies, poetry, travelogues and translations. He spent much of WWII in Asia working in British Army Intelligence as well as being a journalist and teacher. Payne edited The White Pony; An Anthology of Chinese Poetry from the Earliest Times to the Present Day in 1947. His colourful career and extensive writings are documented at the Stony Brook University Special Collections, to which he donated his manuscripts, correspondence and papers. Read a biblio-biographical piece on Robert Payne, entitled “Under Cover” (starts at page 35).

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