Throwing Out The Furniture

An interview with scholar Mu Soeng and an excerpt from his new book, Trust in Mind

Trust in Mind:
The Rebellion of Chinese Zen
Mu Seong
Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004
199 pp.; $16.95 (paper)

Mu Soeng, Director of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts, is a well-known scholar whose work includes commentaries on two important Mahayana texts, the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. Now, in Trust in Mind: The Rebellion of Chinese Zen, the former Zen monk turns his incisive mind to Xinxinming (Hsin Shin Ming)—Trust in Mind—a sixth-century C.E. poem attributed to Sengcan (Seng-t’san), the third patriarch of Ch’an (later known as Zen in Japan). Historically significant as a window into Zen’s Taoist-Buddhist roots, the poem is a perennial favorite among practitioners. As Mu Soeng writes in the preface, “Trust in Mind continues to inspire countless admirers with its intimations, intuitively perceived, of the nature of a life lived in freedom.”

The book includes eight different English translations of the classic text, for scholars and poetry lovers interested in comparative analysis. In his commentary, Mu Seong concentrates on Richard B. Clarke’s translation. But whatever the translation, the opening lines of Trust in Mind are among the best loved in Chinese poetry:

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set
    infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth,
then hold no opinions for or
    against anything.
To set up what you like against what
    you dislike
is the disease of the mind.

Tricycle editor-at-large Joan Duncan Oliver recently talked with Mu Soeng about the enduring message of Sengcan’s “song of enlightenment” and the relevance of its central teaching—letting go of our addiction to our preferences—“as a corrective to our civilization of greed.”

Why is this poem, Trust in Mind, so important? The poem may be an expression of Sengcan’s own personal realization. There is a long history of Zen teachers and masters trying to express their realization in poetic form. And these works are inspirational to later generations.

Several schools of Zen speak of realization as “sudden enlightenment,” but they have different ideas as to what that means. Korean Zen speaks of “sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation.” To me, Trust in Mind is a tool for gradual cultivation.

When I read a certain song of realization at a certain time, especially in a retreat situation, some kind of deep listening takes place, some mind-to-mind connection. The great value of this poem is that its meaning is not static. It is something very alive that speaks to the reader in different ways at different times.

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