Introduction: In Great Master Hānshān’s (憨山大师) ‘Song For Awakening The World’《醒世歌》, he wrote a string of universal reminders and admonitions for spiritual practice. Being timelessly relevant, the teachings encapsulated in his following ten verses should be deeply contemplated upon by all.
Song [For] Awakening [The] World
[With] red dust [and] white waves both [obscure and] boundless,
patience [with] gentleness is [the] wonderful prescription.
Everywhere according [with] conditions, prolonging [the] years,
[with] lifelong knowing of one’s place passing time.
Note (1): The great ills of the heavily defiled and clashing nature of this convoluted world requires harmonious forbearance as its cure. To survive well peacefully, where precepts are not broken, let things be by according with the conditions, but also to change them for the better whenever possible, while knowing and keeping your eye on your dedicated mission in this short life.
Stop being [with] oneself’s mind’s field concealed,
[and do] not have other persons’ faults propagated.
Cautious [and] prudent [during] social interactions, [be] without vexations,
patiently doing matters, [be] good [for] discussions.
Note (2): If there is ‘need’ to hide one’s intentions, it might mean one has evil intentions, that might manifest as evil speech and actions. Thus is it better to be upright and aboveboard. Unless others are unrepentant, and whose transgressions endanger more, they should be privately and kindly advised to change their ways for everyone’s good. As it is difficult to find totally like-minded ones, when with others, be prepared for differences, and to be negotiable, but without breaking your core moral principles.
[It is] always [the] hard bowstring [that] first breaks,
[with] very often seeing [the] steel knife’s blade easily injuring.
Stirring up trouble only because [of] idle talk’s tongue,
provoking [and] offending [is] mostly because of [the] cruel heart.
Note (3): Being too headstrong can lead to suffering swiftly, while much flashing of threats can lead to actual harm to oneself and others, be it rashly and/or accidentally. Groundless and destructive gossip will lead to self-harm karmically, be it by direct retaliation or indirectly in other ways, such as by losing others’ trust, by being gossiped about in return. The loose tongue is a dangerous knife, that cuts without drawing blood.
[On] rights [and] wrongs, need not [having] fighting [between] others [and] oneself,
[with] each other, why should [there be] discussing [of the] bad [and] good?
[The] world’s matters originally [are with] many flaws,
[with this] illusory body, how [can there be those] spared [from] impermanence?
Note (4): There is often no need to fight over many worldly and somewhat arbitrary rights and wrongs, that are inconsequential in the long run. Although one should better the world, one should also realise that this is after all a defiled land, not a Pure Land, thus with many faults naturally. With this form that deteriorates in time, why not strive to have immeasurable life in Pure Land, to master how to purify the defiled perfectly?
Suffering some losses, dwelling originally without obstacles,
retreating [and] yielding [for] three parts [is] also without harm.
[In] spring days then seeing willow’s green,
[in] autumn’s wind again seeing chrysanthemum flowers’ yellow.
Note (5): ‘Great (wo)men of character are able to bow and submit, and to stand tall’ (大丈夫能屈能伸). For the big picture, in order to advance, there might be need to retreat at times. Be willing to give in a little as long as your precepts are not broken, with your original noble goal still in mind. With the impermanent nature of worldly conditions, even cold winter will give in to warm spring, just as hot summer will give in to cooling autumn.
Glory [and] splendour [in the] end are [the] third watch’s dream,
wealth [and] honour [are] also like [the] ninth month’s frost.
[Of] ageing, sickness, death [and re]birth, who [is able to] get [a] substitute?
[Of the] sour, sweet, bitter [and] hot, oneself [has to] bear [them].
Note (6): Present worldly grandeur will become as unsubstantial as last midnight’s fleeting dream, as elaborate as it seems, with it as impermanent as snow and dew that vaporises quickly in sun. Remembering that only oneself is responsible for facing the twists and turns in the cycle of birth and death, one should endeavour to awaken from this nightmare now.
People follow clever plans [to] flaunt [their] quick wits,
[while the] heavens naturally follow [and] hold definite assertions.
[Those] flattering, [with] greed [and] anger fall [into] hell,
[while those] fair [and] upright immediately [rise to the] heavens.*
Note (7): Those who do not deeply believe in cause and effect (深信因果) might try to outsmart others for personal gain with their limited intelligence, imagining they will get away. The universe however, operates naturally, impeccably and unrelentingly with the law of karma. Those evil with much of the Three Poisons of greed, hatred and delusion will fall into the lower realms of hungry ghosts, hells and animals respectively. Those with Faith and Aspiration mindful of Amitābha Buddha (Āmítuófó) will be swiftly born in his Pure Land instead.
Musk deer, because [of their] fragrance heavy, [have their] bodies first killed,
silkworms, because of [their] silk [being] much, [have their] lives prematurely killed.
First [take a] dose, [for] regaining composure, calming stomach’s powder,
second [a] small bowl, [for] harmonising qì, two-olds’ soup.
Note (8): Do not envy those who are more wealthy, famous and powerful in worldly ways, for they often had a steep price to pay to get to their current state, and continue to pay much to maintain it. Being ones always envied also places them at great risk before the secretly covetous and jealous. With contentment, it is better to be physically and spiritually calm and composed, than to seek more of what one does not really need.
[When] alive before, [with] vain intentions [for] ten million [times],
[when] dead after, leaving empty a pair [of] hands.
[With] sorrows, joys, departures [and] unions, every day disturbing,
[with] lifespans fleeting, [the] poor [and] prestigious, [are] every day busying.
Note (9): One should plan for actualising realistic and lasting goals, staying focused all the way. All worldly achievements, great as they might be, cannot be brought along to the next life, other than their eventual karmic results, for better or worse. If so, why follow the crowd to be caught up in worldly emotional ups and downs, comings and goings? Why not be more diligent in spiritual practice, which will have stable and lasting benefits?
[You] should not contend for victory, come [to] fight [to] win,
[as in a] hundred years, all over are [these] dramatic scenes.
[The] moment once sounding [of] gongs [and] drums stops,
not knowing where [your] hometown is.
Note (10): Life is too brief to keep competing for short-lived worldly victories, with all these episodes of struggles, dramatic as they might be, mostly fleeting in nature and impact. This life is like a limited stage show. When the accompanying fanfare of musical instruments, which represent supportive conditions cease functioning, the true questions that remain when you have to depart are – ‘Where are you going to? Will be for better or worse? Why not reach Pure Land, to “come home” to your Buddha-nature?’
Great Master Hānshān
* [With] Faith [and] Aspiration mindful [of] Buddha, [in his] Pure Land [be] born
Namo Amituofo : Translation and notes by Shen Shi’an
Great Master Hānshān’s ‘Song On Wasting In Vain’