Niutou’s Song of Mind: A Commentary by Sheng Yen

Teachings at a meditation retreat by the renowned Chan Master Sheng Yen on stanzas one through five of the Chinese classic Song of Mind.

1 March 2005
Photo by Dominik Gehl

Thoughts Are Illusory

The nature of the mind is non-arising,
What need is there of knowledge and views?

The opening line of Niutou’s Song of Mind, The nature of the mind is non-arising, is what the Buddha himself taught—that all thoughts are illusory. People on retreat are often concerned with sleepiness and scattered mind. However, these thoughts come and go; they were not originally present in the mind, nor are they ever-present. Thus we call them illusions, for Buddhism considers all temporal phenomena to be illusory. If scattered mind were not illusory, it would always be present, and it would never change; if sleepiness were not a temporal phenomenon, you would be sleepy all the time. The fact is that when the mind is concentrated, scattering disappears, and when it is awake, drowsiness is gone. Therefore, sleepiness and scattered mind are both illusory. Meditation is also an illusion, but we use it to help the illusory mind to cease arising.

To come to retreat expecting to get enlightened, to experience buddha-mind, is self-deception. Indeed, since there is no such thing as mind, there is also no such thing as buddha-mind. The self-nature realized after eliminating illusion is also illusory, so it is a mistake to practice with the idea of replacing illusory mind with buddha-mind.

Does this mean you will spend the rest of your life replacing one illusion with another? The Heart Sutra says:

Form is not other than emptiness,
And emptiness is not other than form.
Form is precisely emptiness,
And emptiness is precisely form.

When form disappears, there is no emptiness to speak of. When the illusory mind disappears, true nature disappears as well. When the illusory mind does not move, true mind is not there. Aspiring to enlightenment makes us diligent, but we should not have that idea in mind when we practice. Even if we become enlightened, we should not think that we have attained anything.

Before practice, people are not aware of their illusory mind; they think that everything they experience is real. After they begin to practice they learn that the mind is illusory. When they finally experience enlightenment, they may think they have replaced illusory mind with true mind. The Song of Mind negates this idea: if the nature of mind is non-arising, then neither illusory mind nor true mind exists. Chan Master Linji (d. 867) said that the mind that seeks buddhahood is the mind of samsara. You have come to practice; that is enough. Do not seek anything beyond that.

What need is there of knowledge and views? means that one should not crave knowledge. You may think practice is difficult, but it is actually easy. Just put down your knowledge and views—the sources of vexation—and the mind of illusion will disappear. Scattered mind is only the visible tip of the iceberg; the hidden part is all the knowledge and views that you have accumulated since birth. The way to begin practicing is to first calm your scattered mind.

Like Waking from a Dream

Originally there is not a single dharma;
Why discuss inspiration and training?

One retreatant here has two problems: he wants to grab hold of something but cannot, and he wants to get rid of his ego but cannot. In fighting himself, he is making more trouble for himself; in trying to eliminate ego, he is making it more tenacious. He is not alone. Everyone has problems with practice. After all, if you had no problems you would already be enlightened.

Niutou says, Originally there is not a single dharma; why discuss inspiration and training? Here, “dharma” represents all phenomena, including the buddhadharma (the teachings of Buddhism). These words may be disturbing to someone seeking remedies for problems that arise in practice. After all, if there are neither dharmas nor buddhadharma, what guides your practice? Even longtime Chan practitioners wonder what use it all is. This is the wrong attitude. Do not worry whether practice is useless; just focus on the practice itself with no other thought, especially that of enlightenment. Practice is like a dream in which you may walk slowly or quickly, go near or far, but when you awaken you realize it never really happened. How fast or far you walk in your dream has nothing to do with waking up. One does not practice to become enlightened, but when it happens it is like waking from a dream.

Practice Is Life Itself

Coming and going without beginning;
Sought for, it is not seen.

You can tie a piece of meat on the end of a stick and then tie the stick to a dog’s back so that meat dangles in front of its face. No matter how much the dog chases the meat, he won’t get it. Seeking results in meditation is like this. Here is another analogy: wherever you walk, your shadow follows, so why get disgusted when you can’t get rid of it? Trying to get rid of vexations is the same. One more analogy: pet hamsters often have treadmills to keep them occupied. The faster the animal runs, the faster the treadmill turns; but the hamster never gets out of its cage, and the wheel doesn’t go anywhere. That is where your practice is going with an anxious, expectant mind—nowhere. The same analogy applies to trying to escape from death and vexation. Who is it that wants to escape? It is the ego, but how can the ego escape vexation if the ego is vexation?

One person in the east looks westward and calls it west; another in the west looking eastward calls it east. They are looking at the same thing—it is relative; there is no ultimate east or west. If you run to the west to find its origin, you will be running forever. Trying to pinpoint enlightenment is like trying to find the origin of west or east. You want to get enlightened; you want to see your true nature; you want to be rid of vexation. How is it possible for you to get enlightened if it is you who can’t let go?

Some people hope for blessings or power to practice from a bodhisattva, or the Buddha. Others wish to practice so they can use what they learn to help others. There are still others—and this is the best approach—who see practice as just their entire life. Outside of cultivation there is nothing—life itself becomes practice. They do not try to do anything, yet everything gets done; and when asked, they will say they have done nothing. We should aspire to be this type of practitioner. This is what Niutou is talking about.

Some practice to gain something; others resolve to manifest bodhi (awakened) mind, become bodhisattvas and help sentient beings. Niutou wants us to go one step further and practice without seeking anything.

What Is True Liberation?

No need to do anything;
It is bright, still, self-apparent.

From sentient beings’ point of view, the Buddha exists, but the Buddha has no conception of being a buddha. If the Buddha thought that he was helping sentient beings, he wouldn’t be a buddha. As Master Linji said, trying to become an enlightened patriarch is samsaric karma—a product of the ego.

People who have gotten something from practice often tell me, “Thanks for giving me so much. I’ve gotten so much benefit.” Yet it is my hope that by practicing, you get rid of everything you have, and go away with nothing. The more you obtain, the more trouble it will be for you. If you take home all that has been said, and all that you have been through here, you will take home a lot of trouble. It is useful to listen to what I say at this time, but it is meant for this time; there is no need to keep on thinking about it, or to cling to it.

When you meditate, begin by isolating yourself. First, isolate from your daily life and your daily concerns. Second, isolate from the people and things around you. Third, isolate yourself from your previous and future thoughts and stay in the present moment. There is nothing else to do, because if you are not bothering with your next thought, then you are not chasing after anything.

There is a story about an old Chan monk who was dying. Because his virtue and merit were so great, all the heavenly realms were open to him. He could have encountered bodhisattvas and buddhas, but he realized that if he went to heaven, it would just be a self that goes. He thus decided that there was no place to go or not go.

Just then a demon from hell appeared and said, “I have orders from the king of hell to take you with me.”

The old monk said, “I’m not here, so go ahead and take me if you want.”

True liberation does not come from wanting to be liberated; in true liberation there is nothing to want, nothing to discard, no place to go, and no place to avoid. It means not being moved by the environment, not having likes and dislikes.

Clinging to the Past

The past is like empty space;
Know anything and the basic principle is lost.

Without the accumulation of experience, knowledge and views, there would be no illusory mind. If you never learned the name you were given at birth, you would not know your name today. If you cut yourself off from the past, you won’t have any illusory thoughts. In fact, you won’t have any thoughts at all, since there are no illusory thoughts in the present moment. Thoughts arise because of attachment to the past and anticipation of the future. We connect these thoughts to make comparisons and judgments. I’m sure all of you were thinking today while sitting on your cushions. Some of your thoughts were of the future, your job, plans, families, friends and so on. All of these thoughts come from the past. If I scold you for thinking, you might be sad, angry or happy. Let’s say you were happy. This happiness also comes from past experience. You know what to expect from me, and my guidance makes you happy.

The Song of Mind says the past is like empty space. Your previous thought is no longer present; neither is the thought before that one, and on and on. There is nothing in the past, which is already gone. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the past continued to exist? If a car went down a street and the past continued, then instead of going from one point to another the car would form a continuous entity and block the street. How could we do fast-walking meditation if the past existed? However, even though the past does not exist, we can’t seem to stop thinking about it. There is nothing substantial about our past fortunes, misfortunes, successes and failures; yet, we cling to them.

The argument you had the other day is gone, a thing of the past. Why dwell on it? If we can grasp the principle that the past is like empty space, then one second of practice is all we would need to succeed. There would be no illusory thoughts to deter us.

Today someone said to me, “If the unmoving mind is buddhanature, I’ll just tell my mind not to move.” Unfortunately, when you tell your mind not to move, you are moving it. If you say that your mind isn’t moving, who is thinking that thought? The mind that feels or thinks these things is moving. It is difficult to have an unmoving mind because we carry so much of our past with us. We may intellectually agree that the past is illusory, yet we hold dearly to it. We are not wholly convinced that our past, our thoughts and our mind are illusory. That is why we use a practice method—as an illusion to replace our other illusions.

A line of the Diamond Sutra reads: “There should not be anywhere that the mind abides.” In other words, the mind should not stick to anything. This is wisdom. The second line of the verse above says, Know anything and the basic principle is lost. If the mind abides on anything, that would be illusion, attachment and vexation. Thoughts of money, work or loved ones are vexation, but so are thoughts of enlightenment, wisdom or buddhahood.

Someone approached me about attending a retreat. She said, “I’m very old. I don’t know how much time I have left, so I’m anxious about getting enlightened.”

I asked her if she knew how to meditate.

She said, “Yes, but I want to find a master who can help me get enlightened.”

I replied, “When people come here I tell them not to think about getting enlightened. Do you still want to come?”

She answered, “If there’s no enlightenment here, then I won’t attend the retreat. But that’s impossible. You say in your books that there is such a thing as enlightenment.”

“That’s right, but I don’t tell people to get enlightened.”

The woman thought my words were strange, but they are not strange at all. If you seek after something, that itself is vexation. Seeking enlightenment is vexation. Wherever there is attachment, there also is vexation. If you were to fall in the ocean, of course you would want to hang on to something to survive. Think about this: all around you is a vast ocean, but you don’t want it. You are desperately looking for something to hang on to. As long as there is an ego or self that you hold on to, you cannot be liberated. If you let go of your ego, that is liberation. If you had fallen from the boat and instead thought, “Great. I’m now free from that little boat,” you would not be seeking to grasp anything. On the other hand, you may fall into the ocean and think, “I’m dead.” That is not liberation; that is death. Someone is truly liberated only if they have no attachments. When there is no attachment, there is no aversion and no fear.

What Is in the Enlightened Mind?

Casting a clear light on the world,
Illuminating, yet obscured.

The previous lines say the mind does not exist in time or space. These lines say that the enlightened mind does function, yet there is nothing real or substantial in it that one can point to. An enlightened person still has the will or vow to help sentient beings. Sentient beings perceive a mind to be present, but the enlightened person does not. The mind functions—that is all.

Someone during a lecture asked if enlightened people got angry.

“Yes,” I replied.

“That’s strange. They shouldn’t have any vexation.”

I said, “Ordinary people get angry from within, but enlightened people get angry because other people cause them to do so.”

The person asked, “How can others make them angry? Their minds should be unmoving, not be affected by others.”

“Enlightened people simply reflect things,” I answered. “If others are present, then enlightened people will reflect their presence, but there is nothing in them.”

When ordinary people get angry, they don’t forget. But enlightened people forget their anger the moment that the cause disappears. There is nothing left in them. After a thunderstorm, the sun comes out and everything is beautiful again. The thunder and rain are gone. All that is left is the beautiful day. If, after the weather cleared, it continued to rain and thunder, that would be strange.

There is a priest in Taiwan who is the president of a university. One of his students said that this priest gets angry, but afterward, it is as if nothing happened. Perhaps because he is a cleric, he only argues for other people’s sake. Since it has nothing to do with him, why should the anger linger? Cultivating this skill would be good, but it is difficult because of our attachments. When we fight with our loved ones, it is hard to forget because they are part of us. If someone takes your money, you cannot forget because you think the money belongs to you.

If the mind does not exist in time and space, then there is nothing in the mind. Whatever happens in the mind can be put down so that nothing remains. It’s now halfway through the retreat. Do you still have things you cannot put down? You may say, “I am meditating well, and I feel good. I guess it’s all right if I think about other things for a while.” Then things change; you’re not counting your breaths well and you think, “I’m doing poorly now.” These thoughts arise because your mind clings to the past and thinks about good and bad.

I have been talking about throwing away the past, but you should throw away the present as well. Realize, however, that throwing away the past and present doesn’t mean having a blank mind. You are still aware of things, yet the mind is clear and unattached.

One-Mind Is Still Attached to Self

If one-mindedness is impeded,
All dharmas are misunderstood.

You came to this retreat in hopes of improving your practice and clearing your minds through meditation. If you had greater expectations, perhaps I discouraged you when I said that meditating has nothing to do with becoming enlightened. One of you wondered what the point of meditating is, if it does not lead to enlightenment. The answer is that while meditation does not lead to enlightenment, if you do not meditate you will never be enlightened. It is true that some rare people can get enlightened without practicing. This is called “liberation through wisdom.” Shakyamuni Buddha’s first disciples became liberated when they heard him expound the four noble truths. The scriptures speak of people getting enlightened after hearing a few words from the Buddha.

While getting enlightened does not depend on meditation, sitting is still useful for calming the mind. This is because our minds are usually so scattered that enlightenment is impossible. What if your mind is not scattered? What if, as one of you told me, you sometimes don’t have any thoughts? Your awareness of having no thoughts is itself a thought. At the very least, you still have a concept of self. I venture that you have thoughts even when you think you have none, except that you are unaware of them. The Buddha said that in the mind of the ordinary person, no less than sixty-four thoughts come and go every ksana, a fraction of a second. These thoughts arise because we are influenced by the three poisons (kleshas) of desire, aversion and ignorance. Because of them, our minds cannot help but constantly move. Only by transcending the three poisons can the mind stop moving.

Now I will say something that may seem like a contradiction to my previous words, but in fact, agrees with Niutou. Even if your mind stops for an instant—regardless of what it stops on—that is still an obstruction, and you have lost direction. In this condition, no dharmas can be understood. A mind that stops on something, whether internal or external, is not an unmoving mind because it is attached to that something. The mind will always be attached either to an object, or to the self. Either case presupposes that a self is present. But as long as a self is present, dharmas cannot be understood.

When the mind stops on external phenomena and internal wandering thoughts, it is still scattered. There is “I,” “you” and “it,” a subject and its environment. Amidst these diverse phenomena, a self must be present. But even when there is no object for the mind to stop on, when there is no environment and nothing relative to the self (as in deep samadhi, or meditative absorption), a sense of self still exists. This is also not enlightenment.

If the mind stops on anything, there is no enlightenment. However, practitioners, especially beginners, need to hold on to something to collect the mind. This is why we have a method: an object for the mind to attach to, pulling the mind toward one point. This is still attachment, but it is a necessary requirement in the early stages of practice.

I have often outlined the stages of practice in the following way: we start with a scattered mind and no method. With a method we can eventually work toward a concentrated mind. With diligence and determination, concentration will improve until quite naturally, we evolve to the one-mind state of samadhi. However, in samadhi the mind still stops on one-mind, or the self. We must go beyond one-mind to no-mind. Here the mind truly stops on nothing. Only here can one truly be in accordance with all dharmas.

Song of Mind (Xin Ming) by Niutou Farong (594-657)

The nature of the mind is non-arising,
What need is there of knowledge and views?
Originally there is not a single dharma;
Why discuss inspiration and training?

Coming and going without beginning;
Sought for, it is not seen.
No need to do anything;
It is bright, still, self-apparent.

The past is like empty space;
Know anything and the basic principle is lost.
Casting a clear light on the world,
Illuminating, yet obscured.

If one-mindedness is impeded,
All dharmas are misunderstood.
Coming and going thus,
Is there need for thorough investigation?

Arising without the mark of arising,
Arising and illumination are the same.
Desiring to purify the mind,
There is no mind for effort.

Throughout time and space nothing is illuminated;
This is most profound.
Knowing dharmas is non-knowing;
Non-knowing is knowing the essential.

Using the mind to maintain quietude,
You still fail to leave the sickness.
Birth and death forgotten—
This is original nature.

The highest principle cannot be explained;
It is neither free nor bound.
Lively and attuned to everything,
It is always right before you.

There is nothing in front of you;
Nothing, yet everything is as usual.
Do not belabor wisdom to examine it;
Substance itself is empty and obscure.

Thoughts arise and pass away,
The preceding no different from the succeeding.
If the succeeding thought does not arise,
The preceding thought cuts itself off.

In past, present and future, there is nothing;
No mind, no buddha.
Sentient beings are without mind;
Out of no-mind they manifest.

Distinguishing between profane and sacred,
Their vexations flourish.
Splitting hairs deviates from the eternal.
Seeking the real, you give up the true.

Discarding both is the cure,
Transparent, bright, pure.
No need for hard work or skill;
Keep to the actions of an infant.

Clearly knowing,
The net of views increases
Stillness without seeing,
Not moving in a dark room.

Wakeful without wandering,
The mind is tranquil yet bright.
All phenomena are real and eternal,
Profuse, yet of a single form.

Going, coming, sitting, standing,
Don’t attach to anything.
Affirming no direction,
Can there be leaving and entering?

There is neither unifying nor dispersing,
Neither slow nor quick.
Brightness and tranquillity are just as they are.
They cannot be explained in words.

Mind is without alienation;
No need to terminate lust.
Nature being empty, lust will depart by itself.
Allow the mind to float and sink.

Neither clear nor clouded,
Neither shallow nor deep.
Originally it was not ancient;
At present it is not modern.

Now it is non-abiding;
Now it is original mind.
Originally it did not exist;
“Origin” is the present moment.

Bodhi has always existed;
No need to preserve it.
Vexation has never existed;
No need to eliminate it.

Natural wisdom is self-illuminating;
All dharmas return to thusness.
There is no returning, no receiving;
Stop contemplating, forget keeping.

The four virtues are unborn;
The three bodies have always existed.
The six sense organs contact their realms;
Discrimination is not consciousness.

In one-mindedness there are no wandering thoughts,
The myriad conditions harmonize.
Mind and nature are intrinsically equal;
Together, yet one does not necessarily lead to
the other.

Without arising, complying with phenomena,
Abiding, hidden everywhere.
Enlightenment arises from non-enlightenment.
Enlightenment is non-enlightenment.

As to gain and loss,
Why call either good or bad?
Everything that is active
Originally was not created.

Know that mind is not mind;
There is no sickness, no medicine.
When in confusion, you must discard affairs;
Enlightened, it makes no difference.

Originally there is nothing to obtain;
Now what use is there in discarding?
When someone claims to see demons,
We may talk of emptiness, yet the
phenomena are there.
Don’t destroy the emotions of people;
Only teach the cessation of thoughts.

When thoughts are gone, mind is abolished;
When mind is gone, action is terminated.
No need to confirm emptiness;
Naturally, there is clear comprehension.

Completely extinguishing birth and death,
The profound mind enters into principle.
Opening your eyes and seeing forms,
Mind arises in accord with the environment.

Within mind there is no environment;
Within the environment there is no mind.
Use mind to extinguish the environment
And both will be disturbed.

With mind still and environment thus,
Not discarding, not grasping,
Environment is extinguished together with mind.
Mind disappears together with environment.

When neither arises,
There is tranquillity and limitless brightness.
The reflection of bodhi appears
In the eternally clear water of mind.

The nature of merit is like a simpleton:
It does not establish closeness and distance.
Favor and disgrace do not change it;
It doesn’t choose its abode.

All connections suddenly cease;
Everything is forgotten.
Eternal day is like night,
Eternal night, like day.

Outwardly like a complete fool,
Inwardly mind is empty and real.
Those not moved by the environment
Are strong and great.

There are neither people nor seeing.
Without seeing there is constant appearance.
Completely penetrating everything,
It has always pervaded everywhere.

Thinking brings unclarity,
Sinking and confusing the spirit.
Use mind to stop activity
And it becomes even more erratic.

The ten thousand dharmas are everywhere,
Yet there is only one door.
Neither entering nor leaving,
Neither quiet nor noisy.

The wisdom of sravakas and pratyekabuddhas
Cannot explain it.
Actually there is not a single thing;
Only wonderful wisdom exists.

The original face is limitless;
It cannot be probed by mind.
True enlightenment is no enlightenment,
Real emptiness is not empty.

All buddhas of the past, present and future
All ride on this basic principle.
The tip of a hair of this basic principle
Contains worlds numerous as the Ganges sands.

Do not concern yourself with anything;
Fix the mind nowhere.
Fixing the mind nowhere,
Limitless brightness shows itself.

Tranquil and non-arising,
Set free in boundless time and space.
Whatever it does, there is no obstruction.
Going and staying are equal.

The sun of wisdom is tranquil,
The light of samadhi is bright.
Illuminating the garden of no forms,
Shining on the city of nirvana.

After all relationships are forgotten,
Spirit is understood and settled in substance.
Not rising from the dharma seat,
Sleeping peacefully in a vacant room.

Taking pleasure in Dao is calming,
Wandering free and easy in reality.
No action and nothing to attain,
Relying on nothing, manifesting naturally.

The four unlimited minds and the six paramitas
Are all on the path of one vehicle.
If mind is not born,
Dharmas will not differ from one another.

Knowing arising is non-arising,
Eternity appears now.
Only the wise understand,
No words can explain enlightenment.

From Song of Mind: Wisdom from the Zen Classic Xin Ming, by Chan Master Sheng Yen. © 2004 Dharma Drum Publications. Used by permission of Shambhala Publications.



Master Sheng-yen (December 4, 1930 – February 3, 2009) was a Chinese Buddhist monk, teacher of Chan Buddhism, and the founder of Dharma Drum Mountain.