October 10, 2016

Our sangha is nearing the end of the period of intensive practice we call Ango, peaceful dwelling. Part of our practice during these three months has been the study of Master Shitou Xiqian’s classic poem “Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage”. The song is a teaching describing the right dwelling, the perfect dwelling. This is a dwelling in which we take refuge in the three treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Here the words “right” and “perfect” refer not to right/wrong or good/bad, but  to the completion and wholeness of life. We dwell and take refuge in the whole of life. Hermitages, houses, and bodies are essential to our lives, but still merely forms. Our true refuge and dwelling in life, this life and this moment.

We dwell in and embody a small hut where there’s nothing of value, and yet it includes the entire world. Shitou’s hut was on a mountain, and yet it was not located in any particular place. To dwell in no particular place, we must not become attached anywhere. We must  be steady and grounded in this unlocatable place and also stand aware and alert on the ground beneath our feet.

According to the ways and habits of our everyday lives, this sounds like a riddle, a joke on us.  Instead, it is a finger pointing at the moon, pointing at the freedom that is  our being. How do we let go of our ways and habits and live into this vast life of great freedom?

Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage
Shitou Xiqian

I’ve built a grass  hut where there’s nothing of value.
After eating I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it’s been lived in–covered by weeds.

The person in the hut lives here calmly.
Not stuck to inside, outside, or in between
Places worldly people live, he does not live .
Places worldly people love, she does not love.

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten feet square, an old man illumines forms and their nature.
A Great Vehicle Bodhisattva trusts without doubt.
The middling or lowly can’t help wondering,
Will this hut perish or not?

Perishable or not, the original master is present.
Not dwelling south or north, east or west
Firmly base on steadiness, it can’t be surpassed.
A shining window below the green pines–
Jade palaces or vermillion towers can’t compare with it.

Just sitting with head covered, all things are at rest.
Thus, this mountain monk doesn’t understand at all.
Living here he no longer works to get free.
Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?

Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instruction.
Bind grasses  to build a hut, and don’t give up.

Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations,
Are only to free you from obstructions.
If you want to know the undying person in the hut,
Don’t separate from this skin bag here and now.