Zen Master Shitou (ancestor series 01)

J♡shin Digital Illustration, Zen Ancestors

Digital pencil, pen and ink; (homage to a historical woodblock print) | Sketchbook Pro

Entering the Grass Hut

I’m looking forward to the moment that the Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery, Zenshinji (Zen Mind Temple), will open again for its next practice period, hopefully in post-pandemic Fall 2021. Tassajara is the oldest Japanese Buddhist Sōtō Zen monastery in the United States. The monastary is very isolated, more than 16 miles (26 km) from the nearest paved road, and only accessible via a narrow, steep, one-lane mountain dirt road. I’ll travel this mountain road for a period of intensive monastic practice. During the Fall (September–December) and Spring (January–April) practice periods, Tassajara is closed to the public. The rigorous schedule is a defining feature. Activity revolves around zazen (meditation), study, and work. In the Fall, if it opens to practitioners, I’ll travel there to live and practice in community for 3 – 6 months (or longer) to train in the Soto zen monastic tradition.

I intend to cultivate the Empty Brush Zendo practice within the training container of the Zenshinji practice life. I’ll practice and study with all of the other living beings there, as well as the zen ancestors that came before. One of whom is ancestral zen master Shitou the author of the enlightenment poem “Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage”. This poem is less known than his often chanted masterpiece poem of zen awakening: the Harmony of Difference and Equality ( Download PDF), but it is no less a masterful illumination of awakened teaching. I’ll be sure to travel with a copy of the poem with commentary from the book Inside the Grass Hut: Living Shitou’s Classic Zen Poem by Ben Conelly.

Song of the Grass-Roof Hermatage
(Translated by Taigen Dan Leighton and Kazuaki Tanahashi)

I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it is completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it’s been lived in – covered by weeds.

The person in the hut lives here calmly,
Not stuck to inside, outside, or in between.
Places worldly people live, he doesn’t live.
Realms worldly people love, he doens’t love.

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten feet square, an old man illumines forms and their nature.
A Great Vehicle bodhisattva trusts without doubt.
The middling or lowly can’t help wondering;
Will this hut perish or not?

Perishable or not, the original master is present.
Not dwelling south or north, east or west.
Firmly based on steadiness, it can’t be surpassed.
A shining window below the green pines –
Jade palaces or vermilion towers can’t compare with it.

Just sitting with head covered, all things are at rest.
Thus, this mountain monk doesn’t understand at all.
Living there he no longer works to get free.
Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice

Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned
away from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their
Bind grasses to build a hut, and don’t give up.

Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations,
Are only to free you from obstructions.
If you want to know the undying person in the hut,
Don’t separate from this skin bag here and now.