This is a famous poem by a very respectable Zen monk, Master De Qing (德清大师) from China (Year: 1546-1623) To date it remains my favourite. I’ll try to share it bit by bit based on my current level of studies.
The poem is meant as an advice to the world in general, arising from the great master’s wisdom and compassion. In Chinese Buddhism, unenlightened people are commonly described as being in a dream.
Thus the title of the poem also meant to awaken the world.
It can also be interpreted as an advice for enlightened living.
The full poem in Chinese is appended below.
The first part goes like this.
and it can be roughly translated as follows;
紅塵白浪兩茫茫- Amongst the endless bellowing dust and churning waves of samsara,
Bellowing dust and waves are caused by the disturbance of earth and water. It is meant to convey a sense of limitless turmoil in our society. These chaos and turmoil, mired by negative human emotions are caused by the 3 poisons of craving, hatred and ignorance.
So in a way the poem starts by staging the world with its endless turmoil as a backstage.
People fighting against one another for their own selfish benefits. Between families, friends, colleagues, nations etc, the fighting had never ceased since the beginning of time.
More importantly, it also refers to our inner turmoil. It is our inner turmoil that manifest into physical quarrels and fighting we see in life, in the world.
Therefore in a way, this 1st stanza already convey the 1st noble truth that was being taught by Buddha. The sufferings of the world.
忍辱柔和是妙方 – Patience and gentleness is a skilful means
The second stanza starts to advice the world on the best practical solution. Master De Qing wrote this poem with the intention of public education. It is meant to be an advice to his disciples that can be easily recited and remembered. That way it can be taught from one to another easily. When read in Chinese it almost resemble an advertising jingles.
According to the second stanza, Master De Qing advised us to exercise patience and gentleness when we encounter the turmoil of the world. In this world, everybody wants to win. Everyone needs to have the last say in an argument. Anger and violence flare easily. Without being educated in Buddhist wisdom, people are controlled by their ego and emotion. They have no control over themselves. We read many reports of how violence erupted during football matches, during an arguments etc. Reading the world news, it is evidential that world leaders are also facing similar challenges.
Being a Buddhist and having been educated on how to control our emotions, it becomes a skilful responsibility for us to back off. This does not mean that we subject ourselves to abuses. It simply tell us not to become an accomplice to the turmoil in this world.
Faced with difficult people and circumstances, one exercise patience and gentleness, we master our emotion and deal with the situation wisely. Similar to how an elder brother/sister would care for their younger charge who is throwing tantrum.
If it takes two hands to clap, let us not be the other hand to make evil possible.
Patient endurance: the foremost austerity.
Internally, one is always having inner turmoil. Patience and gentleness is also applicable with ourselves. We have to give ourselves amble time to mature, accept our own flaws and give ourselves a chance to transform.
Therefore, when we are meditating or chanting or doing any spiritual practice, we have to remember to be patience and gentle with ourselves without being lazy.
到處隨緣延歲月- We face life joyously wherever it is,
In Chinese Buddhism, we often encounter the word 隨緣. It is commonly translated as living in accordance to our fate or karma and some even think it means to resign to one’s fate. I think that will be incomplete and will give rise to misunderstanding..
I think the 2 words (隨緣) convey a Buddhist attitude of
- living along with one’s circumstances and
- with happiness in our mind. (positive attitude)
According to Buddhist teaching, our past karma (action) has some implicating results on our present life (not 100%). When we encounter any situations in life, we accept them bravely, knowing that life is impermanent anyway.
However, by telling ourselves that an event in life might be due to our past karma, we turn the spotlight on ourselves instead of others. For a bad experience. We basically try to tell ourselves, “let’s not blame others, it could be the result of our past karma. So let’s deal with it. So what should I do next”?
It is a Buddhist attitude to face life bravely without aggression, retaliation or causing harm to others.
Here’s a bit of side track:
When a fellow Buddhist tells another Buddhist who is facing difficulty in life; that it is a result of their karma. They meant it to be an encouragement; to embrace life and face the challenge.
It should never be used as an excuse to refuse helping others. Remember, we will be creating our own future misfortune by refusing to help others. That refusal to help becomes our negative karma.
Back to the poem:
Therefore, this part of the poem is encouraging us to embrace life and live with a positive attitude.
終身安份度時光 – Contentedly we pass our time in this existence.
The next stanza seems to be striking a balance to the previous one. Facing life bravely and joyously is a good motto in life. Full of zest and enthusiasm, we fight for our happiness. We strive for a better future.
However, the happiness that most people know of, is rooted in the pursuit of Senses gratification (CRAVING) or avoidance (AVERSION AND HATRED) or for promoting personal ego such as fame (IGNORANCE)
Sometimes such endeavours resulted in the opposite results and cause much suffering to oneself and family.
Remembering contentment is happiness, one can live life with happiness.
When one is contented, a small little flower beside the road draws a smile on our face. When craving arise, we can travel thousands of miles to search for the biggest flower field, only to be disappointed that it could be better if the field is bigger or the flowers denser.
That’s my limited translation and interpretation of the 1st prose. (to be continued…..)
醒世歌 (poem of awakening)