Trust in Mind:
The Rebellion of Chinese Zen
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
If you wish to see the truth,
then hold no opinions for or
To set up what you like against what
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 Mindis 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.
Bodhidharma, the Indian monk credited with bringing Ch’an/Zen to China, famously described Zen as direct transmission “without depending on words.” How can language describe realization, especially to someone who hasn’t experienced it? This poem is trying to articulate the experience of sudden realization through the language of nonduality. It’s speaking of emptiness, of nonduality, in a very nonideological manner. It’s not trying to put it into the context of any metaphysics or ontology. It’s just saying the experience itself is nondual, and that’s what life itself is all about. So I see the poem making a connection between the reality of our life and the realization into that reality that we have from time to time.
If we look at what actually happens in our meditation experience, we find that we can’t hold on to anything at all because thoughts, feelings, imagination are changing all the time. And that’s the experience that Sengcan is talking about, and that the Buddha is talking about: we try to hold on to our longings and clingings, and in the process we distort ourselves.
If we have a realization that this is what we’re doing to ourselves, and step out of that, then the question becomes: how do we live our lives? If we go through this radical deconstruction and find that we can’t hold on to anything at all, then the only choice is to very carefully reconstruct a life of upaya—skillful means. That’s the bodhisattva model: that the only thing left to do is live a life of skillful means, for yourself and other people.
What the Buddha was saying is that nonclinging is the means to freedom—or, as I like to call it, “psychological homelessness.” I think these are the two polarities of human life: psychological homelessness and greed. To me, the subset of longing, clinging, becoming—links eight, nine, and ten of the twelve links of dependent arising—is the core of the Buddha’s teaching. If this subset is directed toward psychological homelessness, that is how a life can be lived in freedom. The life of greed is a life of bondage.
In the book you suggest that most of us aren’t really looking for freedom or psychological homelessness so much as “solace for our conditioned existence.” In the Buddha’s time, his followers were wandering all over, and the rule was that they could not stay in any place more than three days at a time. That kind of physical homelessness cultivated psychological homelessness. In our bourgeois spirituality, we’re trying to accumulate some kind of resume that says, “I’m a spiritual person,” but we don’t want to lose our comfort zone, and we cling to whatever we do to create that comfort zone. To actually live a life of psychological homelessness is really difficult to do. One of the metaphors I use is that the Buddha was inviting us to throw all the furniture out of the living room, but all we really want to do is rearrange it. The biggest pieces of furniture are our views—about the self and the world.
So how do we get the courage to let go of the furniture? By cultivating a trust that there is some kind of container to hold you—a trust in the inner spaciousness, so you don’t need to depend on the furniture. “Trust in mind” basically means trusting your own deepest experience. You take refuge in the utter contingency of life itself. But this trust becomes a Catch-22: in order to trust the contingency of life, you have to trust the trust itself. And that’s the hardest part.
Is Trust in Mind a poem for our times, for twenty-first-century America? Yes, because we have built a civilization of greed, which, left to itself, leads to aggression and violence and indifference to the plight of other people. I see the Buddha’s teaching and Sengsan’s poem as an antidote to this greed that we glamorize and worship and feel is the only way to be in the world. It is possible to create a civilization of kindness and compassion, but until we let go of the greed in our own lives, we can’t expect society to change. When we are all in the midst of a paradigm of greed and aggression, as we seem to be, then we are creating both collective and individual karma. The value of a mindful community is that when the community is aware of what greed does to the human mind, it lets go of its collective greed and allows the individual members to cultivate kindness and compassion.
Mu Soeng’s commentary on what he calls “probably the most important line” in the classic Ch’an poem,Trust in Mind
“Do not search for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.”
Searching for the Truth-with-a-capital-T ends up only reinforcing the sense of a separate self. The realization or direct apprehension of the nature of things is transformative (within the mind-body holos). We have been conditioned to believe that there is a Truth out there, and each religion claims to have a revelation that has some sort of copyright on this Truth. For Ch’an [Chinese Zen] and Buddhist traditions, by contrast, in the phenomena flowing endlessly like a mighty river there are only moments of realization when the curtain of ignorance is lifted and we are able to see clearly and directly that everything is dependently arisen, and nothing is self-sustaining. Radical transformation is indeed nothing more than ceasing to cherish opinions.
Not searching for the Truth and ceasing to cherish opinions are notcatatonic states, but rather conscious, vigorous engagements with our opinionated accumulations. The Taoists would call it wei wu-wei or “the doing of not-doing,” which is a proactive state of letting go of all views and opinions in a state of serenity or equanimity.
An alternate translation of this line—“Rather than focus on knowing the truth, simply cease to be seduced by your opinions” – speaks forcefully to our habitual patterns and behavior. Each one of us gets so seduced by our opinions about things large and small that this seduction itself becomes one of the core organizing principles of our lives. Western culture especially puts so much emphasis on cultivating and expressing opinions that it becomes the only acceptable way to be in the world. What would it be like if we could train ourselves to softly note “this is a deluded mind at work” each time an opinion is formed in the mind?
From Trust in Mind: The Rebellion of Chinese Zen, © 2004 by Mu Soeng. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications.
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