THE SONG OF THE PRECIOUS MIRROR SAMADHI by Tung-shan Liang-chieh 〈807-869〉

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Tung-shan Liang-chieh

THE SONG OF THE PRECIOUS MIRROR SAMADHI
by Tung-shan Liang-chieh 〈807-869〉
Commented on by Chan Master Sheng Yen (1930–2009)
Translated by Ming Yee Wang and Pei-gwang Dowiat

It is this very Dharma
The Buddha and Patriarchs secretly transmitted.
Now that you have it
Protect it well. Like a silver bowl full of snow
Or an egret hidden against the bright moon
They are similar but not identical.


When mingled their difference can be recognized.
The meaning does not lie in words,
Yet those who are ripe must be taught.
As soon as you act it is a dead issue,
So consider their varying attainments.


Rejecting words or clinging to them are both mistakes,
Like a blazing fire, useful but dangerous.
If it is only expressed in language
The precious mirror will be stained.
At midnight it is truly bright;
By daylight it no longer shows.


It serves as the law which governs all things;
Use it to uproot all suffering.
Though it is not a way of action
Still, it is not without words.
As before the precious mirror,
The form and reflection gaze on each other.


You are not it,
But it is just you. Just as an infant
Is equipped with five sense organs.
It neither comes nor goes,
It neither arises nor abides. P’o-p’o H’o-h’o ─
A phrase without meaning.


You can never get the substance of it
Because the language is not correct.
Doubling the Li trigram makes six lines.
The outer and inner lines mutually interact.
Stacked, they become three pairs;


At most they can transform into five.
Like the five aromas of the hyssop plant
Or the five branches of the vajra scepter.
The exact center subtly harmonizing,
Drumming and singing simultaneously.


Penetrate the goal and you will fathom the way.
In order to lead there must be a road.
To be wrong is auspicious;
Do not oppose it.


Natural and subtle
It is neither ignorance nor enlightenment
Causes and conditions have their time and season,
Tranquil and illuminating.


It is so small it enters the spaceless,
So large it is beyond dimension.
If you are off by a hair’s breadth
Then you would be out of harmony.


Now there is sudden and gradual (enlightenment)
In order to establish the fundamental guidelines.
When the fundamental guidelines are clear
They become the rule.


Realization of the basic principle is the ultimate standard,
Genuine, constant, yet flowing,
With still body but racing mind,
Like a tethered horse or a mouse frozen by fright.
Past sages pitied them
And liberated them with Buddhadharma.


Following their upside-down ways
They took black for white.
When inverted thinking disappears,
They realize mind of their own accord.


If you want to merge with the ancient track
Then contemplate the ancients.
At the completion of the Buddha path
Ten kalpas of contemplation will be established.


Like a tiger’s lame foot,
Like a shoeless horse,
Because there is a defect
You seek the jeweled bench and priceless halter.
Because you are astonished
You realize you were like the brown or white ox.


Hou-i used his skill
To hit the target at a hundred paces.
As soon as the arrow hits the mark
Of what further use is his skill?
When a wooden man breaks into song,
A stone woman gets up to dance.


Since this cannot be understood by reasoning
How can it be analyzed?
The minister serves his lord;
The son obeys his father.
If he does not obey, he is not filial;
If the minister does not serve, he is not loyal.


To cultivate in hiding, functioning in secret,
Like a fool, like a dolt;
If only you are able to persist,
You will be called a master among masters.

Introduction

The Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi was written by Tung-shan Liang-chieh, a master of the Ts’ao-tung sect of Ch’an Buddhism. I will not discuss the life and experiences of this enlightened master. Instead, I will concentrate on the song itself. Before I comment on the verses, however, I wish to give an overview of the song, and place it in its proper historical Buddhist context.

The Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi belongs to the Ts’ao-tung sect of Ch’an Buddhism. The Rinzai sect and Soto sect of Zen Buddhism are derived from the Lin-chi sect and Ts’ao-tung sect of Ch’an Buddhism. Although the Chinese Ch’an sects and the Japanese Zen sects are in large part similar, one should not presume that they are exactly the same. The founder of the Soto sect, Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) and the founder of the Rinzai sect, Myoan Eisai (1141-1215) introduced the Ts’ao-tung and Lin-chi schools teachings to Japan during the thirteenth century. In the ensuing centuries, the Soto and Rinzai schools have evolved through the influence of Japanese history and culture. In this commentary, I will speak mainly on the Ts’ao-tung sect’s teachings; therefore, omission of other teachings is inevitable. In no way do I wish to denigrate or de-emphasize the importance of other schools of Buddhism.

The Ts’ao-tung sect, while it is a “sudden enlightenment” school, places heavy emphasis on philosophy. A reference is made in the first chapter of The Principle of the Five Sects (written in 1857 by an unknown author), comparing the Ts’ao-tung sect with the Lin-chi sect. It says that if one practices only Lin-chi methods, yet knows nothing of the Ts’ao-tung sect, then that person will be like “wild fox” Ch’an practitioners.

Similarly, if one practices the Ts’ao-tung methods, but has no understanding of the Lin-chi sect, then that person will be lost in a web of teachings; lost in words and language.Therefore, in order to succeed in Ch’an practice, one must understand the Lin-chi and Ts’ao-tung sects together. If one masters these two sects, then one will automatically understand the other three sects: Wei-yang, Yun-men, and Fa-yen. The fact that it can be perilous to follow either school too intensely does not mean that one must study and follow the teachings of both the Lin-chi and Ts’ao-tung schools. Rather, it is a way of pointing out the differences between the two schools’ approaches to practice.

Wild fox Ch’an refers to people who read a few kung-ans with no real understanding and then claim that scriptures are not necessary, and that one need not listen to the teachings or even use methods of practice. They claim that Ch’an is before any of this, and they believe that without relying on Buddhadharma, they have already entered Ch’an. People with these deluded ideas say things similar to the teachings of the great patriarchs, but they do not have true understanding, and their words are empty.

At the other extreme, followers of the philosophy-laden Ts’ao-tung sect, who have not penetrated the teachings, are entangled in words and ideas.

Most Mahayana Buddhist sects borrow terminology from other schools of thought (Indian traditions, Taoism, Confucianism, etc.) to explain the concepts and levels of practice of Ch’an. This is especially true of the Ts’ao-tung school. For instance, in the Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi, ideas are borrowed from the I Ching.

The teachings of the Ts’ao-tung sect are difficult to penetrate because one needs to have an understanding of many other spiritual and philosophical traditions. For those who are not familiar with the concepts of other traditions, Ts’ao-tung teachings are impenetrable. There is also a danger that words taken out of the proper context will be misconstrued. Even those people who are familiar with Taoism, Confucianism, or the I Ching, have to be careful. They must also understand fundamental concepts of Ch’an. If practitioners are not in accord with Ch’an teachings, they will understand the Taoist or Confucianist meaning, and take it to be Ch’an. For these reasons, one must take care in studying Ts’ao-tung teachings.

The title, Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi, deserves special attention. Why does Tung-shan speak of a precious mirror? The mirror is often used as a symbol in Buddhist teachings. The sutras speak of an ancient mirror; so old, it is completely covered with dust; so ancient, people have forgotten that they possess the precious mirror.

A kung-an tells of a master and a disciple traveling through the mountains. They see a group of monkeys, and the master comments that the creatures are truly pitiable, for though they carry the ancient mirror, they run around in confusion and ignorance.

The symbol of the mirror also appears in a story in the Surangama Sutra: A woman wakes up one morning, looks in the mirror and sees her reflection. She is afraid, because she doesn’t recognize the person in the mirror. After a moment, she realizes, “That’s my head!” She rubs her eyes and takes another look, but her reflection is gone again. Desperate, she searches frantically for her head.

The two stories are different, yet they both use the mirror as a symbol. In the story of the woman and her reflection, the mirror is outside of her self. She has forgotten that her head is on her shoulders; she thinks it is in the mirror. In essence, she has forgotten her self. In the story of the monkeys, the mirror refers to our true selves. Though we have never seen this mirror, it is there. The mirror symbol in the Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi is closer in meaning to the story of the monkeys. The mirror is our true self. It is precious because no matter how long it has been hidden, forgotten, and covered with dust, it never loses its power of illumination and reflection.

The precious mirror is not an ordinary mirror, so the analogy must be stretched. An ordinary mirror has a finite shape and size. It has sides, a front and a back. The precious mirror, however, has no boundaries. It cannot be defined in terms of shape and size.

Some early Buddhist masters also used the circle as a symbol of true nature. Recorded incidences often depict disciples asking masters what the Buddha is like, or what self-nature is, or what the essence of the Buddha’s teachings is. In one case, a master formed a circle with his fingers, and then made a motion of throwing it away. In another case, a different master traced a circle on the ground with a stick, and then erased the circle. The circle represents something that is perfect, but it is only a finite symbol. For this reason, the masters disposed of the circles. One must not form attachments to teachings and confuse symbols with reality. Circles and mirrors are merely symbols of true nature. After they are used to make a point, they must be discarded.

The precious mirror is a symbol of the foundation of all dharmas, the source of all sentient beings, the substance of all Buddhas. Many other names and terms referring to the same thing exist. At different times I may refer to it as self-nature, pure nature, or original nature.

In the Avatamsaka Sutra, it is called the One True Dharma Realm. In the Lotus Sutra, it is called the One True Nature. In the Nirvana Sutra, it is called the Great Nirvana, the Secret Store, or Buddha-nature. In the Surangama Sutra, it is called the Tathagatagarbha (Tathagata Store). The Consciousness Only school refers to it as the Alaya Consciousness or the Great Perfect Mirror Wisdom. In the end, however, it is best to remember that they are only names.

From what we know of the meaning of “precious mirror, ” it would seem that “Song of the Precious Mirror” would suffice as a title, yet Tung-shan calls his poem the Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi. Samadhi, like “precious mirror, ” has special meaning in the context of Tung-shan’s title. Samadhi refers to the power of the precious mirror, which manifests only when one attains the most profound level of samadhi. At this stage, all attachments fall away. The power that manifests is twofold: it benefits oneself by removing vexations, and it benefits others by helping them find their own precious mirror. This is the power ─ the samadhi ─ of the precious mirror.

Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi

Several Buddhist works have been written in the form of songs or poems. Perhaps the most famous is the Song of Enlightenment. A teaching written in verse is easily communicated to others. Verse helps the reader absorb material quickly and thoroughly.

In the Ts’ao-tung sect, the Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi was used to transmit the Dharma from master to disciple. People who wanted to follow the teachings and practice the methods of the Ts’ao-tung sect were given this song to study and memorize.

Now we will enter the song. The first two lines:
It is this very Dharma
The Buddha and Patriarchs secretly
transmitted.

The first two lines state that the Dharma is transmitted in private. It is not a public announcement. It is similar to two people having a code that they and only they understand. The first historic transmission occurred between Sakyamuni Buddha and his disciple, Mahakasyapa. After giving a sermon to his senior disciples, Sakyamuni Buddha picked up a flower and held it silently before the assembly. All the monks except one were mystified. Mahaskayapa alone understood the Buddha’s meaning, and he smiled in response. Thus, Sakyamuni transmitted the Dharma to Mahakasyapa, the first patriarch. In turn, Mahakasyapa transmitted the Dharma to his successor, and so on, generation after generation to the present.

The Dharma that is transmitted is precisely this precious mirror samadhi ─ true nature. It is secret in that it is known only by enlightened Buddhists, patriarchs and masters. Only the master and the disciple to whom it is being transmitted are aware of it. Those who do not fully understand the Dharma have no idea of what is happening. Sakyamuni lifts a flower, Mahaskayapa smiles, and the Dharma is transmitted. No one else understands.

According to the sutras, however, Budddhadharma is innate in all sentient beings. It does not have to be given to us by the Buddha. It does not have to be passed from master to disciple. The Ch’an sect maintains that nothing is transmitted. Dharma is within us, so there is no need for transmission. What, then, is the transmission referred to in the first two lines of the Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi? It is true that there is a formal ritual, where something is given or transmitted, but it is only a ritual. Nothing is really given by a master to his disciple. The ritual is simply an affirmation that the master and disciple have come to the same understanding. The master is giving his seal of approval.

An analogy would be the diploma a student receives upon graduation. It represents the student’s education; it affirms that the student has attended school for a certain period of time and has passed the examinations. But the diploma has no intrinsic value. It is not knowledge. It is a symbol. During the T’ang dynasty, a scholar wrote an article about teachers and masters, which said that their functions are to transmit the path or the truth, to teach the students the proper course of work and study, and finally, to help students in their removal of doubt. Later, during the Ming dynasty, Master Ou-i, a Buddhist monk, commented on the article. He said that a teacher does indeed possess the latter two functions, that of teaching a proper course and removing doubt, but one person does not transmit the Buddha path to another person. The path exists everywhere: in ashes, in clay, in hair.

Where, then, is this path, this Tao? Is it in clay pots and fireplaces? Is it in your hair? Does it mean the path shrinks when you get a haircut? What about me, I’m bald? If you went beyond hair and cut off your head, would you succeed in removing the Tao? No, this is all foolishness. Cutting off your head is nothing more than suicide. It does, however, raise an interesting question. Can killing be the Tao? If we understand it as a way of doing something, or getting somewhere, then killing cannot be considered a path. But if we understand the Tao as the ultimate reality, then in that sense there is no such thing as killing or not killing. Where there is a conception of good and evil, right and wrong, there is still attachment. If you consider killing to be evil, and helping good, then you are still relying on the concepts of ordinary sentient beings. A truly liberated being has no attachments to conceptions of good and evil.

The precious mirror is unlimited. It is Buddha-nature, true reality. It can have form; it can be formless. Form and non-form, sentient beings and non-sentient beings, all have the same perfect nature as the Buddha, the same perfect wisdom as the Buddha.
Now that you have it
Protect it well.

These two lines are advice from master to disciple. A glimpse of the precious mirror is not Buddhahood. A disciple might have an experience of enlightenment, but it is not ultimate enlightenment. Enlightenment disappears when vexations arise. Therefore, when the master acknowledges a disciple’s understanding, he also gives a warning. There is gain and loss with this experience. What the disciple has gained is the understanding or the vision of the precious mirror. The master has affirmed a level of understanding. However, if this understanding is not protected through diligent practice, it will be lost again. This is generally called, “sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation.”

A clean mirror reflects perfectly. A mirror covered with dust or steam no longer reflects. One would like to keep one’s mirror clean forever, but it is not always possible. The same applies to Buddha-nature. If you see your precious mirror, protect it well, or it will be covered with the dust and steam of vexation again. Do not despair, however, if, having momentarily glimpsed your self-nature, you watch it disappear under layers of vexation. Finding the mirror and then losing it is not as bad as never having seen it. Seeing the precious mirror increases your faith that it exists, and you will continue practicing with even greater determination.

One might think that Buddha-nature is not worth much if it can be found and then lost again. It is true that something genuine cannot be gained or lost. If something is truly real, then it must be permanent, indestructible. Hair that can be cut is not genuine; a body that ages and dies is not truly real. But enlightenment is different. “I’m enlightened” and “I’m no longer enlightened” are just expressions. Enlightenment is not gained or lost. When someone becomes enlightened, it is Buddha-nature manifested. And when enlightenment is lost, it is Buddha-nature covered by vexation. Whether the mirror is clear or covered, the mirror is still there. Just so with Buddha-nature. It is the reflecting power that is gained or lost.

How can one protect this enlightened state after it is reached? There are two ways. The first is to use great energy, and practice intensely until one attains great enlightenment. It is like burning weeds in a field. An ordinary fire will scorch the ground, but the roots of the weeds remain, and they will sprout again. An intense fire, however, will burn even the deepest roots, and nothing will grow in that field again. This is great practice. A perfect description can be found in the Platform Sutra. Before he became the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng wrote four lines of verse describing ultimate enlightenment. It was in response to another monk’s (Shen-hsiu) description of enlightenment:
There is no Bodhi-tree,
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?

The second way, described in the verse written by Shen-hsiu (606?-706), is to protect the mirror mind by constantly wiping it clean of dust, of vexation. Before reaching the level of “no mirror, ” one must strive to clean the precious mirror. If one is relentlessly diligent, the enlightened state can be protected. This requires ceaseless practice.

Someone once told me that in her practice she saw her vexations, but she did not have the discipline to continually wipe them away. She said she would wait until she was in a better state of mind. I told her that she had the wrong attitude. If you see dust or stains on a mirror, it would be best to wipe them off as soon as you notice them, and not wait for more and more to collect. Of course I am talking about the mind and not a mirror. Cleaning a mirror is easy, but perhaps not so the mind. How is it accomplished? The very act of recognizing the dust, or vexations, on your mirror mind cleans the dust away. No other method is necessary.

There is a difference between the two methods described by Hui-neng and Shen-hsiu. The second method requires continual practice. The first method requires an energy so powerful that no practice is necessary after great enlightenment is attained. At that point, the analogy of the mirror no longer applies. Such attainment is rare.

There is a third way, but it is not part of the proper Ch’an practice. The methods people tried reached an extreme during Sakyamuni Buddha’s lifetime. Monks who had attained arhatship thought that they had completely dropped their egos and reached the final state of enlightenment. Afraid that it would not be permanent, they committed suicide. This practice was banned by the Buddha.

In a more moderate variation of this method, some monks and nuns leave society and live in solitude for the rest of their lives in the hope that they will avoid vexation. Practicing in solitude is a recommended form of practice, but at some point it is necessary to rejoin society. The extreme approach of these left-home practitioners is incorrect. Living in solitude, you will experience less vexation, but you may be misled into thinking that you have accomplished more than you really have. It is like lighting a candle in the dark, and then covering it with a blanket because you fear that the wind will blow out the flame. The flame exists, but it is feeble and of little use.

Ch’an methods direct you to train your mind wherever you are ─ alone, with people, on Times Square. Clean the mirror, and forget the environment. I spent six years alone in the mountains, but my vexations did not disappear, and when I returned, they did not greatly increase. The vexations were more a product of my mind than of the environment I lived in.

Although it is recommended that serious practitioners spend time in practice away from society, one should not completely abandon humanity. You cannot run away from the world. I may have many vexations, but I also have compassion. I am not an arhat. I am only an ordinary sentient being. Sometimes I see my vexations coming down like snow flakes in a winter storm, dropping on my mirror. But through constant practice, I keep my mirror warm, and the snow quickly melts away.
Like a silver bowl full of snow
Or an egret hidden against the bright moon
They are similar but not identical.
When mingled their difference can be
recognized.

These four lines describe how the enlightened person sees the world. Ordinarily, we think that the mind of an enlightened person is unmoving. However, it cannot be said that there is no thought in his mind. There are thoughts, but the way that thoughts arise and perish in the enlightened mind is different from the way they rise and fall in the ordinary mind. If an enlightened mind literally does not move, then one could argue that an enlightened being is no different from a block of wood, a stone, or a dead person. It is true that enlightenment is a “no-mind” state, but it is not the same as the state of a rock or corpse. The mind of an enlightened person still functions. The enlightened mind also differs from an ordinary mind, but only the enlightened being understands and detects the difference.

The first two lines of the stanza contain analogies, which describe things similar but not the same. The silver bowl and bright moon are unmoving. They represent the enlightened mind. They signify wisdom. The snow, which is placed in the bowl, is something moving, in the sense that it is transitory. By containing the snow (the object), the bowl (the subject) manifests a function ─ namely, to contain something. In a similar sense, the moon illuminates the egret. The snow and egret symbolize phenomena of the external environment and the mental realm (thoughts) as well. What ordinary people view as thoughts, enlightened beings see as objects of the mental realm. As such, they are no longer thoughts in the ordinary sense. An enlightened person can use thoughts expediently to help a sentient being. Thoughts are tools for an enlightened person; they are functions of wisdom. To a fully enlightened person, vexation is no different from wisdom, and so vexation can be used as a means of helping others.

In the first line, there is the subject/silver bowl, and the object/snow. In the second line there is the subject/bright moon and the object/egret. The snow and the bowl are the same color, but they are not the same things. The same is true for the egret and the moon.

Enlightened beings see everything as one, but they can make distinctions; that is why they can see that the snow is not the bowl, the egret not the moon. But ordinary beings see everything as separate. For unenlightened people, there are only distinctions. If this stanza were written from an ordinary being’s point of view, the object and subject would be very different. Instead of a white bird, there would be a crow flying past the moon; instead of snow, something brightly colored would be placed in a silver bowl. Ordinary people make very clear distinctions between themselves and what they are observing, and between one object and another. An enlightened person, however, makes no such distinctions between “you and I, ” “this and that.”

Does an enlightened being perceive a father and a son to be the same? Does an enlightened being see both as fathers, both as sons? To an enlightened being, everything is the same. The external realm and the mental realm are one and the same. Nonetheless, the enlightened person still sees the distinctions that ordinary people see.

An enlightened being can function as an ordinary person. In fact, an ordinary person would see nothing unusual about an enlightened being. But an enlightened being is different. He makes no distinctions between near and far, good and bad.

After attaining Buddhahood, Sakyamuni still recognized his father as his father, his wife as his wife. When his father died, Sakyamuni participated in the funeral service as would be expected of any son. Though he did not perceive a father-son relationship in the same way an ordinary person would, he followed worldly convention, and fulfilled his responsibility as a son.
The meaning does not lie in words,
Yet those who are ripe must be taught.
As soon as you act it is a dead issue,
So consider their varying attainments.

This stanza explains the actions of an enlightened master. A master does not teach in any specific form, with any specific words or methods. He will help someone with the right causes and conditions in any way he can. There is no fixed method or instruction.

Once the master acts ─ offers instruction, gives a method, presents a kung-an ─ the act is dead. Acts occur in response to causes and conditions, and are never apart from causes and conditions. Since causes and conditions are always changing, the acts that respond to them are always changing. Once an act transpires, that same act never transpires again, because the causes and conditions will never be the same. This means that the master cannot repeat the same approach again with a different person, or even with the same person at different times. Just as different prescriptions are needed for different illnesses, so too are different instructions needed for different students.

As the last line states, a master must “consider the varying attainments” of each disciple. When I teach someone, I carefully consider that person’s background, personality, nature and manner, and then use the appropriate method, the method that I feel is best suited for this individual.

This stanza provides a model for how a master should interact with a disciple. The first line is a common Buddhist phrase: “The meaning does not lie in words.” Although the ultimate principle cannot be expressed in words, an enlightened person still uses words to help others. But words are always different because the situations are always different.

In Buddhadharma there is a four-part saying: “Rely on the Dharma, not the person; Rely on the principle, not the word; Rely on wisdom, not the discriminating mind; Rely on ultimate principle, not the mundane.” This saying expresses ultimate principles, and with these principles one can teach the Dharma.

Once there was a village where no one had heard the Dharma. The men there were interested only in beautiful girls and nothing else. Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, visited the village in the guise of a beautiful young woman carrying a fish basket. The men started pestering her, asking for fish, but really wanting her. She said, “I’m quite willing to marry the man who can memorize and recite the Heart Sutra in one day.” All the men rushed home, and tried to memorize the sutra. The next day, after she heard all these recitations, she said, “Wonderful, but there are too many of you to choose from. I will marry whoever can memorize and recite the Diamond Sutra by tomorrow.” The next day there were far fewer men, but still more than one. She said, “Still too many to choose from. Whoever memorizes the Lotus Sutra, that’s the one I will marry.”

The next day only one man returned, a very intelligent man. He had memorized all three sutras. Avalokitesvara, as the woman, agreed to marry him, but after the wedding, that very same day, she became deathly ill. Before she died, she said to her husband, “I hope that after I die you will not forget the sutras.”

Her husband replied, “I’ll never forget you or the sutras.” Then she died, but the next day she appeared before him. Frightened, he asked, “Who are you? Are you human or ghost?”

“Neither, ” she answered, “I am Avalokitesvara. I came to your village because the people had no faith in Buddhadharma. Now, with my help, you can start the villagers on the Buddha path.”

Avalokitesvara incarnated as a beautiful woman to help people obsessed with lust. If the men had been obsessed with money, the Bodhisattva would have embodied a different incarnation and used a different approach.

On retreats I give people different methods. Some silently chant prayers, some use a hua-t’ou, others count breaths. Even with counting breaths, a seemingly simple method, there are many variations, and each variation suits a particular person.

A master should assess the student and then prescribe what he feels is the most useful method. The next student must be assessed anew. Indiscriminately handing out the same kung-an to everybody would prove to be fruitless. Of course, a kung-an used centuries ago may be used today, but only in situations where the master feels it will work.

A kung-an or teaching from the past can come alive under the right circumstances. But if a student cannot breathe life into a method, then no matter what it is or where it comes from, it is a dead method.
Rejecting words or clinging to them are both
mistakes,
Like a blazing fire, useful but dangerous.

These lines may be viewed from two different levels: that of the practitioner and that of the already enlightened being. If you are a practitioner who deliberately seeks the precious mirror, then you will move further away rather than towards your goal. You should not cling to the idea of attaining enlightenment.

On the other hand, if you say, “I don’t care about enlightenment. I don’t care if it exists, or if I ever attain it, ” again you will never see the precious mirror in this lifetime. You cannot chase it, and you cannot run away from it.

What is the proper attitude? You should incorporate vows into your practice. Each time, before practicing, vow to work hard, vow to attain enlightenment. Yes, you should seek enlightenment, but when you sit, and use your method, all thoughts of seeking must vanish. There is nothing to seek; there is nothing to gain or lose. Just practice. Vows strengthen determination. Every sitting should begin with a sincere vow.

On another level, this couplet applies to a person who is already enlightened. Truly liberated beings are unaware of their power and wisdom. Their wisdom is ever-present, and they respond to every situation spontaneously.

The blazing fire in the poem represents the precious mirror. It is a beacon of wisdom, a source of power. Like fire, it can be beneficial, but it can also be dangerous. Cling to it and you will burn. Reject it and you will freeze. At one extreme are people who cannot accept the Dharma, and who will eventually reject the practice. At the other extreme are people who are obsessed with attaining enlightenment. They may fall into demonic states.

If a person has seen the precious mirror, and says, “I have the precious mirror!” then he cannot be fully liberated. It is a false enlightenment. He still clings to an “idea” of a precious mirror, to an idea of an “I” who is abiding in something.

I have seen people obsessed with enlightenment, and they have suffered because of it. Some of them believe they are enlightened, but they are not, and this causes many problems. Others get so disturbed about not reaching enlightenment that they become destructive, or even go insane. Truly, these people are burned by the fire. But an enlightened person becomes the fire, so he cannot be disturbed by it. He does not know that he is fire, but when someone needs the flame, he is there to bestow it. That fire is wisdom.
If it is only expressed in language
The precious mirror will be stained.

Any conception of enlightenment, even that of a precious mirror, is wrong. To have a conception is to stain the mirror, or to paint over it. No matter how beautiful a picture you paint, the mirror no longer reflects.

I have been to restaurants with mirror-covered walls, which give an illusion of spaciousness. But if someone were to write on a wall, “This is a mirror, ” then the illusion would be ruined. Left alone, the mirror reflects, but once something covers it, the reflection disappears.

There was a Ch’an master who was asked, “What is it like after enlightenment?”

He answered, “It can’t be described. If you try to describe it, anything you say will be wrong.”

The person who asked was pouring rice gruel from a large pot into small bowls. When he heard the answer, he said, “What a nice pot of gruel. Too bad it has been defiled by some rat shit.”

Even saying that enlightenment is inconceivable or indescribable is wrong. Any description stains the precious mirror.

In the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Bodhisattva Vimalakirti did not answer such questions. That is the true answer. Even a gesture is better than words.

Although words such as “inconceivable” and “indescribable” do appear in the sutras, they are part of rational explanations that help convey the gradual teachings. Ch’an rarely uses these words because they are indirect. If the story I just told you involved an enlightened Ch’an master, a more reasonable answer to the question might have been, “Let’s eat the gruel. There’s no point in discussing this.” That is direct.

If an enlightened Ch’an master answered such questions, it would be like painting a mirror or leaving rat shit in rice gruel. It is not important that students believe a master is enlightened, as long as they benefit from his teachings.
At midnight it is truly bright;
By daylight it no longer shows.

Common sense tells us that midnight is dark, daylight bright. But the poem does not speak of light; it speaks of the precious mirror, namely self-nature.

Self-nature does not change. The environment changes. The mirror does not darken in Samsara (delusion), and it does not brighten in enlightenment. In enlightenment self-nature does not manifest and become visible, and in Samsara self-nature is not defiled. You do not practice in order to make self-nature manifest. You practice to eliminate vexations. When vexations disappear, self-nature manifests naturally. It is not that self-nature appears; rather, vexation disappears. This is an important point to remember: Enlightenment is not the emergence of something new; it is the removal of vexation. Anything else would just be adding to your already deluded mind.
It serves as the law which governs all
things;
Use it to uproot all suffering.

Previously, I emphasized that practice affects vexations, not self-nature, because self-nature is unchanging. So why talk about self-nature? You cannot change it or make it manifest. Of what use is the concept at all? The Buddha speaks about self-nature in order to help sentient beings who still need to practice. Self-nature is meaningless to the Buddha and the patriarchs, but they speak of an enlightened state so that they may urge ordinary beings to strive toward the precious mirror.

Sentient beings need goals and attachments, so it is necessary to speak of a precious mirror. That is why Tung-shan wrote the Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi. The teachings speak of goals, of attachment, of an enlightened state, but when we practice, we must adopt an attitude of not seeking, not naming. In this way we progress. A target must be set, but it is a false target. People need it for incentive and direction, but it is only a device. If you practice correctly, the target disappears when you reach it. If the target is still there, then you have not reached it. The target is non-attachment. When there is no attachment, there is no suffering.

For instance, in the relationship between teacher and student, there should be no attachment to labels. The teacher should not think: “I am the teacher and he is the student.” If such thoughts exist, problems will arise, because the teacher and student are attached to illusory concepts. With this kind of attitude, a teacher might get upset if the student were to rebel or leave.

The correct attitude should be: “If you treat me like a teacher, then I am a teacher; if you treat me as something else, then that is what I am.”

In your everyday life, it would be upsetting if a friend left you, or an enemy troubled you, or a friend became an enemy. The Buddha speaks of the suffering that arises in people who are dear to one another and must separate, or in people who are hostile toward one another and must come into conflict.
Though it is not a way of action
Still, it is not without words.

“Way of action” is rendered from the two Sanskrit terms ─ samskritta and asamskritta. These terms can be interpreted as “dharmas with construction” and “dharmas without construction.” General Buddhist philosophy states that any dharmas in the worldly realm of phenomena, both external and internal, are dharmas with construction, or dharmas of action, because they are constantly changing. According to this line of thought, dharmas with construction are separate and distinguishable from dharmas without construction, which is the unchanging state of self-nature.

Ch’an perspective, however, is different. Even though the precious mirror is not a dharma with construction, it is wrong to say that it is separate from it. Therefore, it is wrong to say that it is unnecessary to explain the precious mirror. Previously, the song said that speaking about enlightenment stains the precious mirror. Here, the song suggests more. In reality, the precious mirror is not stained by language. However, it is also not separate from language.

From the Sixth Patriarch onward, the emphasis in Ch’an has been that bodhi is the same as vexation. The same holds true for Nirvana and Samsara, for dharmas with construction (samskritta) and dharmas without construction (asamskritta).
As before the precious mirror,
The form and reflection gaze on each other.
You are not it,
But it is just you.

These lines allude to an event in Tung-shan Liang-chieh’s life. He had been practicing many years but had not attained enlightenment. One day while crossing a river, he saw his reflection in the water. At that moment he understood his original nature. When he looked down into the water, he said, “I am Tung-shan and the reflection is Tung-shan, but really, which of the two is the true person?”

Ordinarily, one would say that the physical body is the real person and the reflection is the illusion, but Tung-shan felt that if the body is the true person, then the reflection is also the true person, because neither can exist without the other.

One might think that if there is no water, then there can be no reflection, but this is not really the case. The reflection is always present; it is just that without water it simply cannot be seen. If you have a body, you have a reflection. If you have no reflection, you have no body.

Some schools of Buddhism state that the physical body is different and separate from the Dharma body. According to this view, the Dharma body is assumed when we free ourselves from the physical body. From the perspective of most Mahayana schools of Buddhism, if you believe you can transcend an “illusory” physical body to find a “true and undefiled” Dharma body, you will have more luck finding a rabbit with horns or a turtle with hair.

Tung-shan saw his original nature, his Dharma body. He saw that his physical body is not the Dharma body, but he also saw that the Dharma body is not separate from the physical body. The two bodies are not the same, yet they are not different. The physical body is nothing more than the physical body; it cannot encompass the Dharma body. But the Dharma body, which is not limited by space or time, is not separate from the physical body. The illusory body and mind are shadows or reflections of this undefiled Dharma body.

You cannot know a mirror exists until you see a reflection in it. You cannot see a reflection unless a mirror reflects it. The mirror and reflection are interdependent. They are not the same; they are not separate. If you truly understand this, then you understand the precious mirror.

There is another way to understand these verses. Earlier I said the physical body is a reflection in the precious mirror, or Dharma body. Now I say this: When you begin to practice, you begin with a physical body and mind ─ the precious mirror does not exist for you. When you see body and mind as reflections, you realize they are illusory, and you realize that the mirror’s function is to reflect illusions. In reality, both reflection and reflector are illusory.
Just as an infant
Is equipped with five sense organs.

There is nothing intrinsically different between the Buddha and us. The only difference is that we have not realized our Buddha-nature. To give an analogy, we are to the Buddha as an infant is to an adult. In China, people who practice Buddhadharma are called, fo-tze, which literally translates as “Buddha’s son.” This is commonly interpreted to mean that we are disciples of Buddha. A second interpretation holds that we are the sons of the Buddha, and in fact, the eldest sons of the Buddha. One day we too will inherit, or attain, Buddhahood.

An infant is not an adult, but it has the potential to be one. Still, an infant needs adults to care for it, to nurture and teach it. In the same way, practitioners of Buddhadharma need the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, the Three Jewels, masters and teachers to care for them and guide them. Infants reach adulthood; so also will practitioners reach Buddhahood.

The five sense organs of the infant referred to in the poem can be taken to mean the Buddha’s five Dharma bodies, which are derived from the five merits of the Buddha: precepts, samadhi, wisdom, liberation, and the wisdom derived from liberation. The first wisdom, also known as root wisdom, is the wisdom which manifests when self-nature is revealed ─ when vexations disappear. The wisdom derived from liberation is ultimate wisdom, or acquired wisdom, and so is specified as a separate Dharma body, a separate merit. Acquired wisdom is used to help other sentient beings.

The essence of these five merits is within everyone. If we take the Five Precepts (no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, no intoxicants), then we are in accordance, at least partially, with the “precept” Dharma body of the Buddha. With respect to wisdom, even an intellectual understanding of the sutras brings us into partial accordance with the “wisdom” Dharma body. Even if we do not attain ultimate liberation, but only relative liberation, we still come into accordance with the “wisdom derived from liberation” Dharma body. We have the seeds of these merits, these Dharma bodies, but since we are infants, we need to develop them.
It neither comes nor goes,
It neither arises nor abides.

These lines clarify certain misconceptions about Samsara and Nirvana. You may think that in attaining Buddhahood you leave Samsara and enter Nirvana. You may think that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas travel from Nirvana to Samsara to help sentient beings. Such is the understanding of many Buddhists. But these concepts only serve as convenient explanations, expedient teachings. They are not ultimate teachings.

Samsara and Nirvana are not things, nor are they places. These verses describe Buddhahood. The Buddha is a perfect being, not limited by restrictions of space and time. Many Buddhists may think that transcending Samsara involves space. They believe that the Buddha, who has transcended the three realms, must be somewhere else, and that he must return to help sentient beings. But Buddha is not separate from us. The term Tathagata, sometimes called True Suchness, has the meaning:”thus go/thus come.” This is a better understanding. “Transcending the three realms, ” “returning to Samsara to help sentient beings” ─ these are expedient teachings, not ultimate teachings.

Many Buddhists speak of people with virtuous karmic seeds, who, with the proper causes and conditions, bloom into a serious practitioners. Such people, they believe, reach a point in their practice where their faith is firmly established and attainment and will not regress. This is just another expedient teaching. The True Suchness of each sentient being is the same as that of the Buddha. The karmic seed is this True Suchness. There is no sprouting, no progression, no regression.

In reality, the precious mirror is not within us. It cannot be found in Buddhadharma, in the Ch’an hall, or through our practice. If self-nature can be discovered only through the teachings or through a particular practice, then that state cannot be genuine. If you say that the mirror is already within you, that you are already the Buddha, that is not the proper attitude.

The proper attitude is this: “I need to practice to attain the precious mirror, although the precious mirror is not something that I attain through practice.” This may sound strange, but it is correct. Perhaps it is best to leave it at that, and just practice.
P’o-p’o H’o-h’o ─
A phrase without meaning.
You can never get the substance of it
Because the language is not correct.

Human beings use sounds to communicate. When someone talks, there is always meaning in what is said, even if the meaning is nonsense. But, I have a question: When people talk, do they really say anything?

I saw a woman who had been talking to another woman for a long time. I asked her, “Is she a friend of yours?”

She said, “Not really. We just met.”

So I asked, “What is there to talk about, then?”

“Nothing really, ” she admitted, “but it’s a good way to pass the time. Besides, after talking, we became friends.”

I also read that there is a telephone service for people who want to talk but have no one to talk with. They can dial a number and listen to conversations and add their own comments, if they are interested.

These examples show that ordinary people need to communicate. Without conversation, they would suffer, so talk makes them feel better. But are they really saying anything when they talk? Probably not.

Is talk about the precious mirror any more fruitful than these conversations I have mentioned? Probably not. The phrase “P’o-p’o H’o-h’o” has absolutely no meaning. Likewise all the illustrations and explanations we use to describe the precious mirror really have no meaning and cannot tell us what the precious mirror truly is. Nonetheless, we continue with our explanations, because people need them.

No matter how you try to explain the precious mirror, no matter which language or symbols you choose, you cannot come close to the meaning. Try it with something more familiar. In ancient China, a description of a beautiful woman involved analogies: her eyes like a phoenix, her face the shape of a watermelon seed, her teeth like white seashells, her mouth shaped like a cherry, her fingers like scallions. Think about these images ─ they are really not too flattering. Even something so familiar as a human being is difficult to describe with words. Imagine, then, how difficult it is to describe the precious mirror.

Masters and patriarchs are much like babies, making nonsense sounds trying to speak. They know what they have experienced, they know what they want to say, but there is no way they can say it.

We now come to the core of the poem, so I will take care in explaining these difficult lines:
Doubling the Li trigram makes six lines.
The outer and inner lines mutually interact.
Stacked, they become three pairs;
At most they can transform into five.

In this stanza, Tung-shan borrows symbols from the I Ching to illustrate the central ideas of the Ts’ao-tung sect. Ts’ao-tung masters speak of five levels of attainment by which they gauge practitioners’ progress. Although the philosophy of the I Ching differs from that of Buddhism, some ideas and imagery serve as useful tools to help explain Ts’ao-tung concepts.

The I Ching uses solid and broken lines in combinations of three (i.e., trigrams) to explain the interaction of active (yang) and passive (yin) forces. A solid line represents yang, a broken line represents yin. In illustrating the path of spiritual attainment, Tung-shan uses these lines to represent opposites, or extremes, such as Samsara and Nirvana, vexation and wisdom.

The phrase, “outer and inner” of the second line can also be understood as “off-center and center.” Like yin and yang, off-center and center represent absolutes. Buddhism speaks of absolutes, such as True Suchness and Samsara. But really, there is no such thing as an absolute. There is always interaction between extremes. If True Suchness existed alone, there would be no way to experience it. You would have nothing to compare it to. Where there is one, there must be two. There can be none, but never only one. True Suchness exists only in relation to Samsara, just as wisdom exists only in relation to vexation.

In this poem, the inner and outer, or center and off-center, refer to vexation and wisdom. You might think that wisdom should be the center and vexation the off-center, but the ideas are drawn from a fundamental principle of the Ch’an sect, which states that bodhi (wisdom) is vexation and vexation is bodhi. Vexation and wisdom interact in different ways, depending on the level of attainment of the practitioner. I will use a circle as a visual symbol to help explain what is meant by center and off-center. Five circles, with varying degrees of white and black shading, represent the five levels of attainment described by Ts’ao-tung sect. The first, and shallowest, of the five levels does not correspond to beginning practitioners, but rather, to those who have already seen their original nature.

The first level is called “The off-center within the center.” The off-center is wisdom, the center is vexation. Here, the practitioner, still immersed in vexation (black), has revealed the precious mirror (white). He has begun to experience wisdom. For the first time, the practitioner sees his original nature, and he now has the faith to continue practicing diligently. Though he still abides in vexation, the practitioner is completely focused on experiencing wisdom.

The second level is called “The center within the off-center. ” In this circle, the white of wisdom dominates the black of vexation. But although more and more wisdom has been revealed, the practitioner is now keenly aware of and totally focused on his remaining vexation. He is in the process of eliminating vexation.

The third level is literally translated as “coming in the center, ” but it is better understood as “manifesting in the midst of essence.” Here, vexations no longer manifest externally, but the practitioner realizes that they still exist. It is better to view this circle three dimensionally, as a sphere, with the dark core of vexation completely covered by the white shell of wisdom. Vexations are tame; they manifest only in the center. Potentially, they can still arise. At this level, for the first time, the practitioner is equally aware of both vexation and wisdom. It is known as the pivot of the five levels.

The fourth level is loosely translated as “arrival with dual aspects.” The dual aspects are the center and off-center ─ vexation and wisdom. The title of the third circle ─ “coming in the center” ─ implies movement in a particular direction. At the fourth level, the practitioner has arrived at his destination. The circle is completely white. It would seem, according to our use of black and white, that wisdom has completely eradicted vexation. But it is not the case. As I said earlier, there can be two, but never one. With the removal of vexation, wisdom also disappears. Really, to best represent this stage, we should draw nothing ─ just leave a blank space. The outline of a circle is drawn for purposes of illustration.

Wisdom disappears because it can manifest only in the world of Samsara, in the realm of phenomena. When there is total stillness, there can be no wisdom. The wisdom of the fourth level is known as fundamental, or root, wisdom.

This is true liberation, complete emptiness. Samsara is transcended, the cycle of birth and death is broken. The fourth level is the stage of no-action, of nothingness. There are no sentient beings, so there is nothing to be saved.

The fifth circle is called “perfection on both counts.” The fourth level is “fundamental wisdom.” The fifth level is “acquired wisdom.” The fourth level is total emptiness; nothing exists. At the fifth level, vexation is wisdom. That is why the circle is completely black. A being at the fifth level again relates to the world of phenomena, but he uses vexation as a tool of wisdom to help sentient beings.

Ordinary sentient beings think that such a person still suffers from vexation. But to someone at the fifth level, this very vexation is wisdom. At this level, he fully participates in the world and helps sentient beings.

Double Li Trigram

1.kép

In the preceding paragraphs, circles have been used to illustrate the five levels of attainment. Tung-shan uses the doubled Li trigram for the same purpose ─ to illustrate the five levels of attainment. He says that the three pairs transform into five. If you look at the hexigram in the diagram above, you see that the six lines can be separated into five pairs. However, two sets of pairs, pairs 1 and 4, and 2 and 5, are the same. In fact, there are only three pairs, yet they transform into the five levels I just spoke about.

In the preceding diagram, each circle is matched with a set of paired lines. To understand Tung-shan’s symbols, realize that the solid line corresponds to the white part of the circle and represents wisdom. The broken line corresponds to black and represents vexation. Pairs 1 and 2 should really be taken together. They represent the practitioner’s beginning realization of wisdom and progressive removal of vexation. Pair 3, as I mentioned before, is the pivot, where the practitioner is equally aware of both wisdom and vexation. Pairs 4 and 5 should also be taken together; they represent the final stages of enlightenment.

To briefly summarize: at level one the practitioner is focused on wisdom, whereas at level two he is focused on vexation. The point, however, is that the emphasis is still on practice.

At the fourth and fifth levels, practice is no longer an issue. The emphasis is on wisdom derived from liberation and helping sentient beings. At the fourth level, ultimate liberation, neither wisdom nor vexation exist. There are no sentient beings to be saved. At the fifth level, vexation is wisdom, and it can be used to help sentient beings.

At level three, practice is still necessary. The practitioner is still part of the world of Samsara, yet at a stage where he can help sentient beings, where vexations no longer manifest.
Like the five aromas of the hyssop plant
Or the five branches of the vajra sceptre.
The exact center subtly harmonizing,
Drumming and singing simultaneously.

The first two lines continue to explain the five levels of attainment of the Ts’ao-tung sect. The hyssop plant has five subtle aromas or flavors. It is said that if you taste one flavor, then in fact you have had a taste of all of them. One flavor suggests the other four flavors. Likewise, there are five branches, or arcs, on the head of a vajra sceptre, but if you hold onto one arc, the others will follow.

How does this relate to the five levels of attainment? Since the outer and inner ─ wisdom and vexation ─ mutually interact, attaining any of the five levels places a practitioner in a position to attain the others; each level contains the other four, because they are all involved, in one way or another, with wisdom and vexation.

These levels do not really exist, but such distinctions are made to help sentient beings in their practice. If there were one level, separate from everything else, then it would not be attainable, because nothing would be connected to it. Since we are all innately Buddhas, the potential to attain these five levels is always within us.

The next two lines refer to the third level, the pivot. As I said earlier, it is at the third level that a person is equally aware of vexation and wisdom. He is different from a person at the fifth level, who knows vexation and wisdom are the same. The third level connects enlightened beings at the fourth and fifth levels (those who have fully realized wisdom and who help sentient beings) with ordinary sentient beings at the first and second levels (those who are concerned with eliminating vexation).

Drumming and singing refer to the third level, where all the wonderful and subtle functions of the five levels become manifest. The subtle, wonderful functions eliminate vexations and are used to help others. At this level, however, there is still a need for practice, and if the person is truly determined, he will look for the help of a great master.

The preceding eight lines of verse are the core of the Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi. The five levels of attainment, known collectively as the “Five Levels of Lord and Vassal, ” are used by the Ts’ao-tung sect, and Tung-shan was the first master to speak of the five levels in this way (where vexation is the center and wisdom is the off-center). Other Ts’ao-tung masters used different variations. Similarly, the Lin-chi sect uses the four positions of “host and guest” to describe a person’s level of practice and experience of wisdom and vexation. You might ask why Ch’an speaks of “sudden enlightenment” and at the same time talks about levels of enlightenment and stages of practice. You must understand that these schemes and descriptions are used by teachers to evaluate their students’ attainment, and to help them along the path toward ultimate enlightenment.

Centuries later, during the Ming and Ching dynasties, masters spoke of the “Three Barriers” of practice. These barriers correspond to the first three levels of the Ts’ao-tung sect’s five categories. The first barrier is seeing into one’s nature. The second barrier, known as the multiple barrier, describes the stage where the person continues to practice, deepening his awareness of self-nature and eliminating vexations. The third barrier is called the prison barrier. Breaking through this barrier, a practitioner breaks out of the prison of Samsara. Once a person breaks through the third barrier, or passes the third level, progress through the fourth level to the fifth level is quite natural.
Penetrate the goal and you will fathom the way.
In order to lead there must be a road.
To be wrong is auspicious;
Do not oppose it.

The goal is the precious mirror ─ the mind completely free of any obstruction or impurity. The path refers to all the methods, understanding and reasoning that people use to attain the Buddha Mind.

A Chinese character in the third line of this stanza has two meanings. The first meaning, “to be wrong, ” is used in this translation. Earlier, in describing the five levels of attainment, I drew a darkened circle, where black meant vexation, and said that this is the highest level. So that which is wrong is, in fact, most right. Vexation, which is most wrong, is just this highest wisdom.

The character’s second meaning is “interaction between two things.” The unfolding of wisdom and vexation throughout the five levels of attainment is auspicious. In traveling the path to enlightenment, one must move through these levels of interaction, and not resist them. It is the movement through these five levels that brings the practitioner true understanding of the practice.
Natural and subtle
It is neither ignorance nor enlightenment.
Causes and conditions have their time and
season,
Tranquil and illuminating.

At this point, the song returns to the precious mirror. It is both natural and subtle. “Natural” refers to an undefiled, unmoving state. “Subtle” refers to the illuminating power of the mirror ─ its power to function. Both of these attributes are necessary. Do not mistake a state of naturalness alone for the precious mirror.

There was an ancient Indian tradition which believed in pure nature ─ that the world is nothing more than what can be seen, heard, felt, tasted, and smelled. Believing only in pure nature, they had no concern for society, spiritual progress, or suffering. They had no particular interest in explaining why things are the way they are. They did not believe that actions of the past determine the present and actions of the present determine the future. In such a system of beliefs, human life has no meaning.

The power of the mirror to illuminate, in conjunction with the attribute of naturalness, makes the wondrous mirror complete. “Natural” is the unchanging state of Buddha-nature. “Subtle” is Buddha-nature manifesting as wisdom.

When he realized Buddhahood, Sakyamuni said, “It is wonderful ─ all sentient beings have the inherent wisdom and merit of the Buddha.” Bodhi is ever-present. It need not be attained, only realized. Vexations are illusory, and constantly change, but bodhi is unchanging. Merit and wisdom are not derived from the practice. They are uncovered by the practice.

Some say that there is a seed of bodhi, and with practice this seed will sprout and ripen, but this is incorrect. The bodhi seed does not ripen, for if it did, it would also have to decay.

Natural and subtle, the precious mirror is neither enlightenment nor ignorance. Whether you are enlightened or ignorant, the precious mirror is there. When you are enlightened, bodhi manifests. When you are in Samsara, bodhi is covered by vexation.

There is a story about a prince in rags who roamed throughout his kingdom. People thought he was a beggar, and they treated him like one. When his retainers realized who he really was, they brought him into the palace. We are like that prince, but in our ignorance we forget, and we act more like beggars. The story never tells us when the prince became a beggar. Similarly, since beginningless time, we have wandered aimlessly in a state of ignorance.
It is so small it enters the spaceless,
So large it is beyond dimension.

These lines also speak about the precious mirror. The enlightened mind does not move, yet it functions. It is not dead; rather, it is inconceivably more powerful than the mind of vexation, which, because of its attachments, is limited to a small realm of thought and experience. The enlightened mind has no attachments, and so has unlimited power. It can function in realms too small to measure, and on scales larger than space itself. Ordinarily, our knowledge and experience are limited. We cannot comprehend absolute Buddha-nature, which exists everywhere. The enlightened mind has no such limitations; it has realized the true nature of reality. This is not the result of scientific investigation or intellectual endeavor. It is direct personal experience.
If you are off by a hair’s breadth
Then you would be out of harmony.

In the Chinese version of this poem, there is a word that corresponds to a musical instrument. If it is tuned a hair too tight or loose, the sound will be out of tune. If it is tuned perfectly, the tone is beautiful. Likewise, if the precious mirror is even the slightest bit stained, then it no longer manifests as the true wonderful mirror.

Although other religions and certain individuals speak of enlightenment experiences, there is an important difference between their descriptions and that of Mahayana Buddhism. In genuine Mahayana Buddhist enlightenment there are no attachments. Therefore, a practitioner must pass through different levels, continually eliminating attachments, before this final stage of enlightenment is reached.

After a deep experience, it is difficult for a practitioner to determine whether vexations are still present. A good teacher must verify the level of attainment. He might use the five levels described in this poem to measure the practitioner’s attainment. If attachment is present, the experience is not genuine Ch’an.
Now there is sudden and gradual
(enlightenment)
In order to establish the fundamental guidelines.
When the fundamental guidelines are clear
They become the rule.
Realization of the basic principle is the
ultimate standard,
Genuine, constant, yet flowing,

We really cannot talk about Ch’an. But to understand, we are forced to speak. Enlightenment is always sudden, but one may practice vigorously or gently.

Since Ch’an enlightenment is sudden, there is really no need to discuss the stages of a practitioner’s practice. Yet we do so in order to determine whether a practitioner has indeed become enlightened, and if he has, how thorough his enlightenment is. It is for this reason that the Ts’ao-tung sect speaks of five levels of attainment.

Only when enlightenment is genuine will the precious mirror truly manifest in a constant manner. Until this happens, the enlightened mind will gradually disappear under a cloud of vexation and move into delusion again.
With still body but racing mind,
Like a tethered horse or a mouse frozen by
fright.
Past sages pitied them
And liberated them with Buddhadharma.
Following their upside down ways
They took black for white.
When inverted thinking disappears,
They realize Mind of their own accord.

These eight lines describe people who have experienced false enlightenment. Although they seem to be enlightened and free of vexation, their vexations are only tamed and suppressed. The fundamental problems have not been resolved, and therefore the enlightenment is not genuine.

These eight lines especially address people who practice samadhi. Ch’an is not opposed to samadhi, but it is opposed to attachment to the samadhi experience. Samadhi is better than any other worldly experience. There is tremendous risk of becoming attached to it; some people would rather die than come out of it.

Samadhi produces a calm mind, a stable mind. Some wisdom may manifest. It enhances strong faith in the practice. But it is not Ch’an. The tethered horse and frozen mouse refer to such a mind. The mind is contained, vexations are tamed. Nonetheless, the potential for vexations to arise is still there, and therefore, the problem has not been resolved.

An active volcano may look beautiful and serene, but at any moment it can erupt. So, too, a person in samadhi suppresses but does not eradicate vexations. When samadhi power subsides, vexations will reemerge. Such practitioners are followers of the upside-down ways, who take black for white. Samadhi is a temporary, worldly experience. People who believe that it is ultimate enlightenment lack a fundamental understanding of Buddhadharma.

People who experience shallow samadhi will soon confront vexations again, and so come to realize that they are not enlightened. But people who have experienced deep states of samadhi may feel they have completely eradicated vexations. However, they are still attached to samadhi itself. The last two lines in this section state that if such people can accept the principles of Buddhadharma and correct their attitude, then in a short time they can become enlightened.
If you want to merge with the ancient track
Then contemplate the ancients.
At the completion of the Buddha Path
Ten kalpas of contemplation will be
established.

The ancient track is the path traveled by the ancient Buddhas. If we want to attain Buddhahood, then we must traverse this path. Some may feel that their personal path is just as good as the Buddha path, but this is not true. People speak of enlightened saints from the East, enlightened saints from the West. We should realize that there are different criteria for sainthood, but if a person is not on the ancient path of the Buddhas, then he is not a saint of the Buddhadharma.

We know of the Buddha path from the sutras ─ Sakyamuni describes it. It is the path he has illuminated for us. Although the Ch’an sect avoids language, symbols, or descriptions, it cautions us not to stray from the sutras’ teachings by as much as a single word. To do so would be the same as accepting the teachings of demons.

A Ch’an practitioner can use the ancient track to clarify his experience, but it is posssible he may use his own knowledge and misinterpret the sutras, especially if his experience is not genuine. This is dangerous. Therefore, it is important to have a teacher to confirm one’s experience, to measure one’s attainment, and to correct one’s mistakes. One must not stray from the sutras when practicing Buddhadharma.

The “ten kalpas” in the song has at least two interpretations. The first interpretation is derived from the T’ien-tai school. This school has four teachings associated with it: Hinayana, Mahayana that is similar to Hinayana, Mahayana that is different from Hinayana, and the perfect teaching. It is the perfect teaching that speaks of ten levels of faith on the path to Buddhahood. The ten kalpas in the poem refer to the time needed to attain the tenth level of faith, which is that of the Buddha.

A second interpretation refers to a Bodhisattva mentioned in the sutras, who practiced for ten kalpas, but did not attain enlightenment. This is because he had no sutras to guide him. Without the guidance of the sutras, the practice of Buddhadharma is extremely difficult.
Like a tiger’s lame foot,
Like a shoeless horse,

These two lines refer to a practitioner who neglects the sutras in his quest for Buddhahood. A lame tiger cannot hunt and is at the mercy of other animals. A shoeless horse cannot run far and is of no use in battle. Similarly, without the guidance of the sutras to teach, test and affirm attainment, a practitioner is in peril.
Because there is a defect
You seek the jewelled bench and priceless
halter
Because you are astonished
You realize you were like the brown or
white ox.

These verses describe the person who is a diligent practitioner but who has not yet uncovered his precious mirror. He wears the Buddha’s teachings like adornments to impress other people with his intellectual knowledge and defective practice.

However, when he genuinely experiences for the first time that the precious mirror is already within him, he is astonished, and he realizes that before his experience he was no better than a dull and stupid ox.
Hou-i used his skill
To hit the target at a hundred paces.
As soon as the arrow hits the mark
Of what further use is his skill?

Hou-i is a legendary figure in China: a great archer who could pierce a leaf at a distance of a hundred meters. If we were as skilled in practice as Hou-i was in archery, we would make great and swift progress. Our skill is honed by the teachings of the sutras.

But after we see our self-nature and experience ultimate enlightenment, the skills and sutras are no longer necessary. They have served their purpose.
When a wooden man breaks into song,
A stone woman gets up to dance.
Since this cannot be understood by
reasoning
How can it be analyzed?

A wooden man singing and a stone woman dancing? Ridiculous by ordinary peoples’ standards, but quite reasonable in Ch’an ─ where there is no difference between sentience and non-sentience. Sentience and non-sentience are Buddha seeds from the same source. The non-sentient can speak the Dharma and reach Buddhahood, but this can only be understood by an enlightened being.

Ordinary people might use their reasoning or imagination to grasp this, but it would be of no use. An enlightened being, however, sees no difference between sentience and non-sentience. A wooden man might very well sing, but it would be a soundless song, and a stone woman might dance, but it would be a dance with no movement.
The minister serves his lord;
The son obeys his father.
If he does not obey, he is not filial;
If the minister does not serve, he is not loyal.

In these lines, the lord and father refer to the state of purity ─ the Buddha state, and the minister and son refer to the state of ordinary people. You must move toward the undefiled state by heeding the sutras. If you follow your own path, or misinterpret the sutras, you will fall into outer-path teachings. If you follow such a path, you are not a true Ch’an practitioner.
To cultivate in hiding, functioning in secret,
Like a fool, like a dolt;
If only you are able to persist,
You will be called a master among masters.

These are the last four lines of the poem. A great practitioner does not call attention to his practice. He practices quietly toward Buddhahood. Most people would regard him as an ordinary being, not a saint. Nonetheless, such a person possesses great wisdom and compassion. He helps sentient beings, and he derives great benefit from his practice. People might be blind to his wisdom and compassion, however, and call him a dolt or fool. It does not matter.

If you persist in your practice, and quietly cultivate Buddhadharma, eventually you will pass the most difficult barriers and reach the fifth level, where vexation and bodhi are the same. You will be a master among masters.