Awakening Revealed In Few Words

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

A monk ask, “What is liberation?”
Shitou replied, “Who has bond you?”
Another monk asked, “What is the Pure Land?”
Shitou said, “Who has polluted you?”
Another monk asked, “What is nirvana?”
Shitou said, “Who has given you birth and death?”

The great Chinese Zen Master, Shitou Xiqian, who lived in the eighth century was a key figure in the development of Ch’an Buddhism. Three of the five traditional schools of Chinese Zen can trace their lineage through his disciples down to the present day, including my own. Shitou taught that “what meets the eye is the Way” A very pragmatic worldview, and one that hints at the influence the Tao had on Buddhist thought and practice in his day.

Master Shitou is said to have had a great awakening while studying the Zhao Lun (A classic text of commentaries on the sutras). In that work he encountered a passage that said, “The one who realized that the myriad things are one’s own self is no different from the sages.” This realization inspired Shitou to write a number of verses, each more refined and elegant than the last as he worked to broaden his state of enlightenment further. Finally he choose just fifteen Chinese characters to represent the awakened wisdom of a mind free of distortion. In English it takes twenty two words to translate:
Each sense and every field
Interact and do not interact;
When interacting, they also merge —
Otherwise, they remain in their own states.

It is not my intent here to provide a full commentary of this verse. But I will give a broad hint as to how to begin to understand this simple, but very deep wisdom gained over many years of contemplation. Consider “each sense” as meaning a gate, entrance or even an exit point. The phrase “every field” means all-encompassing objects or things outside of ourselves, especially the sense organ of mind. That sense, while we can not touch, see hear, smell, or taste it, it can be imagined. Abstract concepts can be objects of mind. While we can not perceive these things, we can awaken to their reality. The sense organs and their objects are the totality of our lives, and when we learn to coordinate their inputs plus the exquisite functions of mind we can grasp the meaning of “emptiness.”

With this in mind, work to understand each word in this verse as an individual piece in the awakening puzzle and with their separate meanings established, fit them together, and in so doing you will see their individual forms disappear, and an awakened view of all reality emerge.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Awakening Revealed In Few Words

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