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The Gate of Chan and the Song of Mind

“No words can explain enlightenment,” says the seventh-century Zen classic Xin Ming, or “Song of Mind,” yet, paradoxically, this poem is a masterpiece of expressing the inexpressible. In his commentary on it, Chan Master Sheng Yen takes a practical approach, opening up the language of the Xin Ming to show students how to approach meditation, how to deal with problems that arise in their spiritual practice, and how to accomplish the imperative task of integrating this practice into every aspect of one’s life. “True understanding comes only with direct experience,” according to Master Sheng Yen. “These lectures, the Buddhist sutras, songs, poems, and commentaries are useful only insofar as they encourage you to practice and incorporate the Dharma [teachings] into your daily life.”song of mind

The book takes the form of a week-long retreat with Master Sheng Yen, with each chapter in the form of an evening talk given on a particular section of the “Song of Mind” text—giving this book a far more intimate and accessible feel than most commentaries on Zen texts and creating a feeling of being right there with the master as he brings the text to life.

“As a result of unwavering diligence you arrive at the gate of Chan. Before the gate stands a gatekeeper who says, “First you must put down your weapons.” Being determined to pass through the gate, you give it no second thought, so you drop all your defenses. After that the guard says, “Next you must take off all your clothes.” You think for a moment, and then you drop all your remaining attachments. Then the guard says, “Now you have to put aside your body.” You have been working hard for a long time so you decide that enlightenment is even worth dying for, so away goes the body. Finally, the guard says, “You still have your mind; that too must go. There can be nothing left of you when you enter.” Because you are determined to succeed, you agree to this final demand. The instant that you let go of your mind, the gate disappears. There was in fact no gate to pass through and nothing to enter.”

Song of Mind by Sheng Yen, pages 69–70

sheng yenChan Master Sheng Yen (1930–2009) was a widely respected Taiwanese Chan (Chinese Zen) master who taught extensively in the West during the last thirty-one years of his life, with twenty-one centers throughout North America, as well as dozens of others throughout the world. He co-led retreats with the Dalai Lama, and he is the author of numerous books in Chinese and English, including Song of Mind, The Method of No-Method, and his autobiography, Footprints in the Snow.