Hsin Hsin Ming Part 1 (With Commentary)

The Hsin Hsin Ming (The Trust in the Heart-Mind Inscription) is one of my favorite Zen texts. 

It was supposedly written by Sengcan, the Third Chan Patriarch. Legend has it that, when he was in his forties, he met the Second Patriarch—Bodhidharma’s former student Huike.

He begged Huike, “I’m very ill, please absolve me of my sins.”
“Bring me your sins and I will take them from you,” Huike replied.
After a deep pause, Sengcan said, “I can’t find them anywhere.”
“There, I have absolved you. Now live by the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.”

With that, Sengcan Woke Up and soon became Huike’s Dharma heir. Fuck, it’d be nice if it was that simple to Wake Up these days. It’s possible that the “illness” Sengcan spoke of was mental, and that he blamed himself for his condition.

We don’t know much about Sengcan. It’s said that he was a kind and gentle person who gave lectures on the Lankavatara Sutra, which was the first text that Zen practitioners really vibed with.

The Hsin Hsin Ming is basically a summary of the Lanka, and it’s meant to be a practice and meditation guide as well. I’m translating it from Chinese using the MDBG dictionary, which has been extremely helpful for me when trying to look at the different possible meanings behind classic Zen works.

I would use a version that’s already been translated, but I’d rather not get sued. Also, I’m a control freak. “No, no, no, let’s not use that word, Suzuki.”

One

The Great Way is not extremely difficult
It only criticizes picking and choosing
But if you can neither hate nor love
This cave will certainly be unblemished and bright

But deviate the width of a hair
And heaven and earth are held apart
If you want it to appear before you
Do not be subservient or rebellious

To pit obedience and defiance against each other
Indeed causes the heart and mind to grow sick
Not understanding the profound purpose
The practitioner labors to silence thoughts

The Way is complete like vast emptiness
Without excess or lack
When you have a reason to accept or reject
There is no place for Suchness

Commentary

The Great Way is not extremely difficult
It only criticizes picking and choosing

The Great Way is both the practice, our mindset when we’re practicing, and things as they are—Suchness. Like Taoism, Zen is about studying the natural way of things, identifying how we live out of tune with that way, and then tuning up and living in harmony with it.

That Way is often called, “True Emptiness and Wondrous Existence.” To see this, the method is sitting and emptying out picking and choosing. We’re no longer pitting thought against thought, weighing and comparing. And we’re no longer making any thought in particular the center of our attention. We can’t see the flow of moments if we don’t let ourselves flow.

Picking and choosing halts this process, or at least it appears to. When we pluck a thought from the stream and form an opinion on it, we dam up our minds, we interfere with our own enlightenment. Like I said, that’s how it appears anyway. That’s not actually what’s happening.

But if you can neither hate nor love
This cave will certainly be unblemished and bright

Hate and love here mean aversion and fixation, pushing and pulling. If we neither push away thoughts we don’t like or pull thoughts in that we do, then our minds will naturally move toward clarity and rest.

But deviate the width of a hair
And heaven and earth are held apart
If you want it to appear before you
Do not be subservient or rebellious

But the second we push or pull, that jagged split between us and everything else appears. Most of us live our lives like we’re stuck behind a wall. There’s us over here, and then everything else on the other side, including our own thoughts and feelings. Anything we can refer to and precede with a, “mine,” or, “not mine,” is on the other side of that wall. What remains is what we consider ourselves, that elusive, “me.”

The entire backbone of practice is to see through that wall, to see that it isn’t really there.

Most translations go with, “For or against,” for subservient or rebellious, but that doesn’t quite fit with the grammar in the text. The overall meaning is if we abide by the conditions of the conventional world or reject them in favor of some other, more Absolute world, then we’ve missed the mark.

So the text is telling us that, if we want to naturally be in tune with the Way of things, then we should neither seek satisfaction in worldly or spiritual things, neither in division or wholeness. Because if we find something called, “Wholeness,” then we’ve already divided it from, “Separateness.” If you really stumble on the Way, you won’t be able to hang any distinctions on it.

To pit obedience and defiance against each other
Indeed causes the heart and mind to grow sick
Not understanding the profound purpose
The practitioner labors to silence thoughts

Most of us seek the spiritual, existential, or philosophical because we’ve tried finding happiness in the material and we came up empty-handed. If you’re practicing Buddhism, then odds are you had insight into the first Noble Truth before you even committed yourself to the Path. Life involves suffering. Life involves a lot of problems and unpleasantness.

Many of us probably came to Buddhism to find a relief and balance that the world just doesn’t seem to offer. But Sengcan is saying that if we use practice as a means to bliss out and censor day-to-day life, then we’re just setting ourselves up for even more suffering. If we give worldly life the finger because it’s a piece of shit and expect to find peace in emptiness, then we’re not gonna be able to actually understand or experience the world or emptiness (Newsflash: They’re not-two).

To sit and turn ourselves into living corpses isn’t Zen. We can’t very well see the true nature of thought if we’re not thinking.

The Way is complete like vast emptiness
Without excess or lack
When you have a reason to accept or reject
There is no place for Suchness

We can’t see things the way they are (Suchness) if we keep imagining that they’re some other way. Trying to make them into something else reinforces that confusion.

Whenever we see a problem, it’s always about something being too much or not enough. If it’s not enough, we want more; if it’s too much, we want less. If we look at all of the problems in our lives, their “problemness” relies on that desire. Without that, problems aren’t problems anymore; they’re just situations to respond to.

But even now, even among our problems, even among our picking and choosing, the Way is still just the Way. Excess and lack are just thoughts. Everything is already perfectly balanced, all we have to do is see that clearly. Of course, if you get pulled over for driving 20mph over the speed limit, “There is no lack or excess,” probably isn’t gonna convince the cop.

Part Two

<Meditation Exercise>

8 thoughts on “Hsin Hsin Ming Part 1 (With Commentary)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s