On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

March 22, 2000

Mountain Poems

Shih-wu (1272-1352)

Here in the woods I have lots of free time. When I don’t spend it sleeping, I enjoy composing chants. But with paper and ink so scarce, I haven’t thought about writing them down. Now some Zen monks have asked me to record what I find of interest on this mountain. I’ve sat here quietly and let my brush fly. Suddenly this volume is full. I close it and send it back down with the admonition not to try singing these poems. Only if you sit on them will they do you any good.

I live far off in the wild

Where moss and woods are thick and plants perfumed. I can see mountains rain or shine
And never hear market noise.
I light a few leaves in my stove to heat tea.
To patch my robe I cut off a cloud.
Lifetimes seldom fill a hundred years.
Why suffer for profit and fame?

This body’s existence is like a bubble’s
may as well accept what happens
events and hopes seldom agree
but who can step back doesn’t worry
we blossom and fade like flowers
gather and part like clouds
worldly thoughts I forgot long ago
relaxing all day on a peak.

My Ch’an hut leans at the summit
Clouds sail back and forth
A waterfall hangs in front
A mountain ridge crests in back
On a rock wall I sketched three buddhas
For incense there’s plum branch in a jar
The fields below might be level
But can’t match a mountain home free of dust.

I searched creation without success
Then by chance found this forested ridge
My thatch hut cuts through heaven’s blue
A moss-slick trail through dense bamboo
Others are moved by profit and fame
I grow old living for Ch’an
Pine trees and strange rocks remain unknown
To those who look for mind with mind

You’re bound to become a buddha if you practice
If water drips long enough even rocks wear through
It’s not true thick skulls can’t be pierced
People just imagine their minds are hard.

Standing outside my pointed-roof hut
Who’d guess how spacious it is inside
A galaxy of worlds is there
With room to spare for a zazen cushion

Shih-wu (1272-1352)

excerpted from  The Roaring Stream – A New Zen Reader By Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker 1996

Shih-wu (1272-1352) is almost unknown today. At forty, rather than accepting a temple appointment, he headed into the mountains continuing his life as a hermit. Shih-wu packed his verses with practice pointers and encouragements, allusions to sutras and Ch’an stories. The poems above were written in the fourteen years before his death. Two anthologies of his work were published – his Mountain Poems and a collection of gathas. These have barely kept his name alive in Chinese poetry and his reputation as a Ch’an master has faded even more. Simplicity, naturalness and ease resound through the writing.


– The following from Journeys on Mind Mountain

The power of Nature to teach us, to sculpt us is endless. How many will slow down enough to listen and learn? How many value the stillness which is the foundation of action? Enter into the following landscapes and see for yourself…

You’d fallen into a scene of unsurpassed beauty. The mind had melted into the scene and become homogeneous with it. The mind became the belonging itself and the belonging permeated the scene as naturally as the vibrant greens of the firs permeated the early spring meadow. This only occurs when the mind becomes totally still. Still, yet incomparably alert and alive, melted into the beginning and into the scene itself. Borders disintegrate when the mind no longer accepts the hardened boundaries of thought as final. When the mind becomes still, it quickly forgets its acquired smallness, which permeates and encompasses everything.

Just ahead towered the sheer walls of an ancient volcano, which seemed to have fallen into itself. It was a stunningly rugged mountain, a bizarre distortion out of a Chinese landscape, fluted with organ pipes and rocky towers. Small forests of ancient firs clung to random outcroppings of rock on the sheer north face. It was an extinct volcano now or maybe just sleeping for a while.

The face was a complex mass of snowy medieval towers and needlelike pinnacles. The topmost edge of summits resembled the spine of a colossal stegosaurus with rows of vertical armored plates. It was mostly rust red, dripping everywhere with fresh white snow. Every crevice and hollow was caulked, each ancient cirque was filled with snow like bowls of thick white cream.

The whole fantastic structure shot up vertically and abruptly from the meadow floor like an immense headboard. At its base was an intricate system of interconnected meadows and small rushing mountain streams, tiny glacial lakes separated by elegant stands of firs. The meadows were mostly covered with snow, which surrounded random islands, green oases of spring. It was something out of a rare dream, so lovely it could have made your heart ache if you could not enter it. But with a mind that’s still and mixed with its surroundings, there was no ache at all, just a serene sense of belonging.

The mind of readiness is like the emptiness of the sky. Both the stimulus and response arise and vanish within it; both encompassed by something that is not a thing at all. Within that readiness, the sounds are held softly, as are actions and every thought. There is no way to do it at all, no method for you. Just rouse the mind, let its own energy flow back to itself. Live in that readiness; not ready for something in particular to happen, but simply ready – ready even for nothing to happen. And ready to return to the readiness immediately when you find that you’ve become lost in complacency. Let the readiness inundate everything, including the legendary you and the mountains, streams, and stars. Watch them all arise and pass away.

An unfolding mystery continually emerges: a perpetually fresh and clear mountain stream flowing by a serene observer sitting on the bank; a perpetually clear mountain stream flowing on past itself, watching itself flow by. A motionless observer watching itself flow down the mountain stream; an observer confronting its own essence wherever it turns, yet just taking everything just as it is and creating no problems where none exist. A mystery continually emerging like a spring.

All of the above present to us koans that are present in the here and now. For most of us those places are literally far away and now covered with snow. How do we keep our practice whole, to go to our jobs, live in the cities and yet not lose the vastness so easily felt in the mountains? To create a true harmony with no divisions.

If you overlook the Way right before your eyes,
How will you know the path beneath your feet?
Advancing has nothing to do with near or far,
Yet delusion creates obstacles high and wide.

– Shih-t’ou (700-790)

Fine snow falling,
Elana, Scribe for Daily Zen

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