SONG OF ENLIGHTENMENT

In POETRY by Joe Lamport2 Comments

Huineng_Cut_Bamboo

 

The Song of Enlightenment is a Chan Buddhist poem that dates back to the middle years of the Tang Dynasty. Called Zheng Dao Ge (证道歌) in Chinese, also known as the Shodoka in Japanese, the text is attributed to the poet-monk Yongjia Xuanjue who was a disciple of Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch in the Chan line and the founder of the Southern School of Enlightenment, which puts him and this text in the direct up line of the great Zen tradition.

Altogether consisting of 64 stanzas, there are a number of striking things about this poem, apparent even from the opening verses in the section I have translated below.  To start with, it begins with a direct acknowledgement of the fundamental importance of the basic tenets of Daoism in the Chan pursuit of enlightenment. Indeed, a literal translation of the title of the poem is – A Song Affirming the Dao; this is certainly striking considering the poem’s status as a seminal Zen text. The Daoist influence continues to be evident throughout – even the description of nothingness instead of relying on the Mahayana tradition draws directly on the Daoist formulation as being devoid of all ten thousand things.

There’s another preliminary point worth noting. As a disciple of Huineng, Yongjia’s poem is written in the tradition of the Southern School also known as the School of Sudden Enlightenment. Long and hard though the path to enlightenment may be, it is also prone to abrupt discovery, much like Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus. Yongjia’s poem is full of similar portent, reminding us that enlightenment’s arrival is not going to be well-announced or anticipated and its impact will be immediately felt.

Finally, for those reading the poem in translation, I want to stress the fine poetic qualities of the original text, which are not always easy for a translator to convey. Interesting as it is to read and understand the important elements of Chan doctrine, I hope you can also appreciate Yongjia’s considerable poetic talents and enjoy the poem as a personal testament of faith. Remember that Yongjia is not only an early disciple of Huineng but he is also in the direct down line of Li Bai and Du Fu, so this text is endowed with a double blessing of Tang poetry and Buddhist faith. It’s not every day we get to savor such a vivid first hand account of the path to enlightenment.

The Song of Enlightenment

By Yongjia Xuanjue

Abandoning study
Foregoing action
Remaining idle
And following the Dao
Neither avoiding delusion
Nor seeking out truth

Ignorance is
Our real state of nature
In the Buddhist faith
Our bodies once emptied
Become a sacred place

In our sacred body we
Awaken utterly dispossessed
Returning to the origin
In a simple state of grace

The five realms of experience
Are all empty and fleeting
Like clouds drifting by
And so too our passions
Which dissipate like steam
Over a boiling cauldron

Looking at things as they really are
Not merely as fancied under human law
In an instant everything can be extinguished
Or consigned to hell on earth

If this sounds like nonsense
Or a deceit upon all living things
Then yank out my tongue
And pile it high with dust and gravel
For an eternity

For just as suddenly when
We awaken to suchness
In a meditative state we attain completely
The six perfections and
Ten thousand good deeds

As if dreaming yet clearly we see
All six paths of reincarnation
And only after awakening thus
We confront true emptiness
Devoid of all ten thousand things

 *  *  *  *  *

永嘉大师证道歌

绝学无为闲道人      不除妄想不求真
无明实性即佛性      幻化空身即法身
法身觉了无一物      本源自性天真佛
五蕴浮云空去来      三毒水炮虚出没
证实相 无人法        刹那灭却阿鼻业
若将妄语诳众生      自招拔舌尘沙劫
顿觉了如来禅        六度万行体中圆
梦里明明有六趣      觉后空空无大千

* * * * * *

About the Author
Joe Lamport

Joe Lamport

I’m a poet and translator of classical Chinese poetry. Reading classical poetry, translating it and writing my own poetry in response have all developed into being integral parts of my creative and spiritual practice. My translations of Chinese poetry have been published in a variety of places online, including in Translation. You can also read more of my work on the website Lampoetry.

Image from a Song era painting by Liang Kai of the Sixth Patriarch Huineng.

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Comments

  1. Thanks a lot!
    The song of enlightenment is one of most important texts in Korean Buddhism and it is my great pleasure to read it in English.

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