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Lohan from Nan Hua Si 

Song of the Placard Carrier

The Seventy-first Year (1616-1617)

In spring, in the first month, I returned to Hu Dong and learned that the body of Master Da Guan, my old Dharma friend, was going to be ceremonially cremated sometime near the end of the year. Immediately after his death, Master Da Guanís body had been placed in a coffin which my disciple Da Yi had carried to Jing Shan so that his disciples and fellow monks could pay their respects to him at Zhi Zhao An. Twelve years had passed and I had still not gone there to pay my own respects to him. With shame, I acknowledged that I had not even sent incense or condolences. Now I learned of the impending cremation ceremony and the formal interment of the funerary urn. I decided that nothing would prevent me from attending the ceremony.

Also in the spring there was a succession ceremony at Hua Yue Temple which I attended. I went to Mei Xue Hall and paid my respected to Chan Master Shun An.

That summer, in the fourth month, I arrived at Wu Chang where, after prostrating myself before the great statue of the Buddha, I visited Jiu Feng.

In the sixth month, I arrived at Xue Yang and visited Dong Lin Temple where I wrote a poem in honor of the ancients. I then climbed Kuang Lu Mountain and paid my respects to late Master Qie Hong.

While staying on the Jin Zhu plateau to get away from the summer heat, I wrote a commentary on Zhao Lun. The scenery was so fantastically beautiful that I decided I ought to think about building myself a little retirement home there.

In the seventh month, I visited Gui Zong and climbed Gold Wheel Peak where, writing a poem to mark the occasion, I paid reverence to Sarira Stupa.

At that time, a monk kindly offered me Wu Yu hall to use for a retreat and I went up to look at the place. Even though the hall was rather small, the scenery was spectacular, and I accepted his offer. A scholar named Jiang Lai Ci, who had been a disciple of Master Da Guan, offered to donate money to finance my retirement there. Advisor Chen Chi Shi also came to visit me and when he learned that I intended to retire there, ho took a vow to act as Dharma Protector.

That autumn in the eighth month, I left Kuang Shan mountain, going to Huang Mei where I paid reverence to the Fourth and Fifth Chan Patriarchs. I also went to Zi Yun Shan and stayed there for ten days so that I could visit with Prefect Wang who had kindly offered to build a vihara on Kuang Shan for me. After leaving Prefect Wang, I went to Xiang Cheng where Wu Guan Wo and Wu Ben Ru also offered to build a temple for me if I wanted to retire there. Later, I visited Fu Shan and crossed the river to climb Jiu Hua Mountain.

Early in the tenth month, I arrived at Tung Chan temple at Jin Sha where I met with Upasakas Yun, Wang, and Sun. I then left for Shuang Jing Mountain. Passing through Wu Jiang where Upasaka Yen Sheng and his followers invited me to dinner and gave me money to defray my travel expenses.

On the fifteenth day of the eleventh month, I arrived at Zhi Zhao Temple, and on the nineteenth day. I performed the funeral services for the cremation of Master Da Guanís remains. In loving memory of him, I wrote a eulogy. On the twenty-fifth day, I personally put his ashes in an urn and supervised the placing of the urn in the Manjusri tower. In Master Da Guanís honor, my disciple Fa Kai erected a stupa, for which I wrote the memorial inscription. All that I did was but a small measure of the loyalty I owed my true Dharma friend.

I stayed on to pass the New Year and wrote The Importance of Chan Practice for the monks there. Since Fa Kai had asked about the Dharmalakshana teachings, I wrote The Relationship of Noumenal and Phenomenal. I answered all inquiries I received about the Dharma. I also wrote The Song of the Placard Carrier.

Song of the Placard Carrier

Preface by Han Shan

Since the days when Da Hui revived Lin Jiís methods and transmitted his Chan doctrine in the Dharma Cave on Jin Shan Mountain, each new generation that received the Doctrine flourished and raised our sect to new heights of accomplishments. Sadly, this great tradition has dwindled. The pathway to the Dharma Cave has become overgrown with weeds. It is hidden now from view.

Those who practice Chan must gather in the wilderness, far away from Da Huiís guidance. Without a teacher, they fall into error. Many think that their first experience of enlightenment has brought them safely to the end of the struggle. Having no Master to correct this assumption, they persist in regarding this single experience as their crowning achievement. They will not remove their crown in order to bow to the Dharma. But a single experience is not a crown, it is a yoke. So dangerous is a little knowledge when it seduces the believer into burdensome ignorance! Truly it is said: it is easier to walk on thorny ground than it is to turn oneís face away from moonlight.

Those who achieve success by the lightning flash of chance can lay no claim to wisdom. The insight gained becomes a toy, a trifle of shadows to be played with in memory. They cease to practice, finding no further need of it. In their leisure, they slip into worldly ways, calling others to follow.

To correct their error, to warn them of danger, and encourage then to be steadfast in their pursuit of that true and distant goal, I have written The Song of the Placard Carrier.

Huckster!! False Advertiser!! Deceiver and deceived! That big placard is so heavy in your arms you canít think about anything but how youíre going to keep on holding it up. You havenít even noticed how your ankles are shackled.

You struggled towards a moment of clarity; but when you got there you announced your arrival with a sign so big you couldnít see what else lay before you. So that other people can see your advertisement, you obstruct your own view.

The blank side is all you can see. In its blankness your imagination draws a thousand things. You sketch a building and think you are walking towards a Deva palace. You see lightning in a cloudless sky. Whether your eyes are opened or closed, you see nothing but illusion.

Drop your sign! Youíre carrying around a rotting toad! You canít sell fish eyes for pearls!

That sign is a cangue on your neck. Youíre in the stocks and you wonít get anywhere until you free yourself from those confining bonds.

Once free, you can follow a good road. The way is easy and as plain and level as a balanced scale. Donít stop at any sideshows and youíll enter the Imperial City in no time at all.

Move on! Move on! Your legs will carry you. You wonít need to be reborn as a horse, a camel, or a donkey.

Throw that heavy sign away! Itís an unfurled sail that obeys the wind. You have to put all your energy into controlling it.

Itís a huge mirror that reflects only worldly things. Drop it and shatter the great earth, the mountains, and the rivers. In a broken piece youíll find a reflection of your Buddha Self. Then, when you look again, all the pieces will reflect that Self, an image infinitely produced. Seek the Infinite and turn your back towards the Gate of Death.

The Seventy-second Year (1617-1618)

That spring, in the first month, I went to Shuang Jing Mountain to pay my respects to the late Master Yun Qi.

More than a thousand monks and lay disciples were waiting for me when I arrived. All were so eager to learn about Chan that I was truly puzzled. I had always regarded Master Yun Qi as an accomplished Chan master and wondered why his disciples should know so little about Chan. I then learned that he had confined his instruction to the methods of the Pure Land Sect. I suspected that the reason he had done this was his fear that he would expose his disciples to the terrible dangers of incomplete enlightenment. Chan was in decline and the few Chan masters who remained were all aware of this. They feared that once they departed this world, they would not be replaced by other masters who could lead their followers on to the True Destination.

When his disciples came to me enthusiastically asking question after question about the methods of our sect, I answered them fully, even though I was aware of the risk involved.

Then one evening when they were all assembled, I told them what a fine Chan master their Master had been and how, no doubt out of love for them, he had declined to expose them to the bitterness of failure. Many were moved to tears to learn this. Master Yun Qi had given them no hint that he had achieved so much.

After spending three weeks with Master Yun Qiís disciples, I traveled to Jing Ci Temple in order to lecture on Mahayana Precepts. Thousands of people attended these lectures and it was deeply gratifying to see so many virtuous people gather by the lakeside to learn about the Dharma.

I then journeyed to several beautiful places: Ling Yin, San Zhu, and Xi Shan where I was pleased to observe the Fish-Freeing service. In order to demonstrate their consideration for all living things, the Buddhists there would purchase fish that had been caught and liberate them during this ceremony.

In the fifth month, I arrived at Wu Hu. There Officer Liu Yu Shou invited me to stay with him so that we could discuss some remarkable dreams he had been having.

When I returned to Kuang Shan, I found that Perfect Wang had already given money for the construction of a vihara. I therefore instructed my disciple Fu Shan to supervise the construction. The building was completed by the end of the tenth month and thus I had both a dwelling and a suitable place for giving lectures. My first topic was The Surangama Sutra.

The SeventyĖthird Year (1618-1619)

This year I devoted myself to the task of repairing the Buddha Shrine Hall and the Chan Hall. In the third month, counselor Chen Chi Shi of Fu Liang came to the mountain and with the help of Bao Zong Su formed a committee of ten friends to raise the necessary funds. In the twelfth month of that winter, the repairs were finally completed.

The Seventy-fourth Year (1619-1620)

That spring, in the first month, I started reciting The Avatamsaka Sutra. Each time I recited it I found more to admire. But while favored this instructive scripture, others, including my disciples, found it too long. I complied with their requests to lecture on my Commentary on The Lotus Sutra, The Surangama Sutra, The Awakening of Faith, The Diamond Sutra, The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment and The Vijnaptimatrasiddhi Shastra. Still, I regretted that no one ever requested The Avatamsaka Sutra.

In autumn, in the seventh month, I made the necessary arrangements to create a home for wandering monks who had reached the age of retirement. I remembered the time when I was a boy and several of these monks had called at my home looking for a meal. My mother had treated them so reverently when she gave them food; and I had been inspired by their holiness. I had often wondered what these monks, who were not attached to any monastery, would do when they became too old to go about begging for substance. Now I could give them a place to live.

On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, I went into seclusion in order to meditate. Following the method of Dharma Master Hui Yuan, I used incense sticks to measure time and concentrated on repeating the Buddhaís name in the manner of the Pure Land School. But no matter how I tried to keep my mind on the Buddhaís name, my mind would become filled with worry about the fate of The Avatamsaka Sutra. Everyone complained that Dharma Master Qing Liangís commentary was too difficult to understand and that the Sutraís complexity and length made itís profound meaning impossible to find. I resolved, therefore, to write a condensed commentary entitled The Essentials of the Avatamsaka Sutra in which I would present a general idea of the Sutraís meaning. This would help readers to understand and appreciate the Sutra.

During my seclusion, I began the outline of this work.

The Seventy-fifth Year (1620-1621)

In the spring of the first month, I came out of seclusion, and complied with my attendant Guang Yiís request that I explain again The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment and The Awakening of Faith. He also asked me to lecture on The Seven Chapters of Zhuang Zi Metaphysics which I happily did.

That summer I began to suffer problems with my feet. The pain was often intense. While I was convalescing, Provincial Inspector Wu, who had been transferred to the post of Chief Justice of Guangdong, went to Cao Ji to pay reverence to the Sixth Patriarch. He was so impressed by the repairs and renovations I had made to the monastery buildings that he announced his intention to become Dharma Protector of Cao Ji. Accordingly, he wanted detailed biographical accounts of all the Patriarchs and asked the monks there to request me to compose them. During my illness, I wrote these accounts, complete with appropriate eulogies.

Cao Ji was something else that I couldnít get out of my mind. Eight years had passed since my sorrowful departure from the Sixth Patriarchís beautiful monastery. Often I had received requests from the monks there to come back and live with them again. Even members of the local gentry and some officials, too, had written, asking me to return but I had always refused.

Now, Chief Justice Wu also wrote to me asking that I return to Cao Ji, but this time I was able to refuse this request on the grounds that I was simply too ill to travel.

The Seventy-sixth Year (1621-1622)

In the summer I lectured on the Commentary on The Lankavatara Sutra and in the winter, once again, I was asked to return to Cao Ji. This time, Superintendent Zhu and Chief Justice Wu came personally to formally request my return. Again I declined because of my illness.

The Seventy-seventh Year (1622-1623)

I continued my work on The Essentials of the Avatamsaka Sutra and was finally able to complete it.

Again Chief Justice Wu wrote to me expressing his sincere desire that I returned to Cao Ji to retire. This time, at the request of Official Chang of Shao Yang, his letter was delivered to me by the abbot of Cao Ji Temple. Knowing that I could no longer decline the invitation, I agreed to return to Cao Ji. And on the tenth day of the eleventh month, I left Kuang Shan.

During my return journey, I wrote poetry and met with many old friends. It was such a happy journey that, as I crossed Da Yu Peak, I thought my heart could not contain more joy; but then, on the fifteenth day of the twelfth month, I arrived at Cao Ji. And when I saw the lines of people eagerly waiting to welcome and embrace me, my heart overflowed with happiness.


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
This work courtesy of Grandmaster Jy Din Shakya
Published by the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun, 1998