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The Aspects Of Zen Buddhism In The Poem Song Of The Grass-Roof Hermitage

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In the current capitalist social climate, happiness is controlled and fueled by greed. Happiness merely becomes a myth with the lack of material possessions. Without physical possessions to curb desire, one can easily fall into material lust. The desire and consumption of material goods, in turn, becomes fundamental human nature. In his poem, “Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage”, Zen Buddhist master Shitou challenges this viewpoint and suggests that as humans, people have the capacity to ignore material value and live minimalistically. He does this subtly throughout the poem by using the ideals that lie at the core beliefs of Zen to project a subdued view of Buddhism.

The beginning of “Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage” provides an easy-to-follow introduction into Zen, stating, “ I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value”(Foster & Shoemaker 40). This line speaks to Shitou’s simplistic style, drawing influence from the Indian Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. The focal object of the poem, the “grass hut”, represents multiple identities. It can symbolize the physical body, the metaphysical mind, the universe, or even just a meekly structured shack. The second half of this line describes material objects as impermanent, and therefore the grass hat invaluable. The Buddha speaks of impermanence in three marks of existence, where it is explained that nothing stays the same, creating constant change to fit the environment, changing in relation to other things. This concept is expressed by the hut, symbolizing the short-lived body, the ever changing mind and universe with the mention of “weeds” (lines 2-3) that overtake the hut. These weeds symbolize the change in the mind, body, and even a shift in the universe as well as the impermanence of state of the hut. As weeds are often known to grow when there is a change in the environment, whether its a dropped seed from an animal or a lack of upkeep, the growth of weeds is change in the surroundings. Understanding when an object is temporary and the value and attachment suddenly becomes temporary as well allows for the desire to cease, therefore breaking material attachments that lead to suffering.

The concept of attachment continues in the next stanza while also introducing teachings based in Daoism. There is a visible switch in point of view when Shitou writes, “the person in the hut lives here calmly” (line 5), symbolizing the detachment of oneself in order to focus on guiding others toward enlightenment. Using “I” represents a conditioned feeling of individual awareness. Because there is no single, permanent “I,” it shows the narrator’s ability to recognize their own impermanence in the universe. Alongside the change of perspective, there is a nod to a Daoist influence in the use of “calmly.” Daoism focuses heavily on serenity, while being at peace, doing nothing. Zen Buddhism and Daoism both emphasize relaxation, stillness and silence as a passage to achieve nothingness.

Shitou then explains the process of achieving nirvana and enlightenment. He contradicts the Mahayana Buddhist idea that nirvana is only accessible from embarking on a treacherous, long journey into the school of sudden enlightenment. This is seen in the second stanza: “not stuck inside, outside or in between” (line 6). The path to enlightenment and nirvana is presented differently throughout different sects of Buddhism, but Shitou conceptualizes that enlightenment can be presented at any time, and the student must attempt to create a connection with nirvana. The “inside” that Shitou explains represents the mind and the ego that confines the mind to the small thoughts of one’s individual self. The “outside” entails the world beyond suffering and time: nirvana. Though it seems effortless to find the path to enlightenment, Shitou shows the self-inflicted difficulties of material attachments, stating, “though the hut is small, it includes the entire world” (line 9). An individual can easily be trapped by material tethers and desires, keeping them “inside.” Societal duties and human needs can become restraints on the journey to enlightenment, so therefore it is imperative that one not get “stuck” living in the small-minded world and be open to the glimpses into nirvana.

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There is also pre-Buddhism influences in Shitou’s teachings, which is presented in the next stanzas. It is expressed in the lines “places worldly people live, he doesn't live./Realms worldly people love, he doesn't love” (lines 7-8). This line speaks back to the origins of Buddhism when sramana, or seekers, would isolate themselves from laymen and submit themselves to extreme temperature, along with food and deprivation with the hope of encountering a spiritual experience. The sramana practiced rejecting societal norms and refused to participate in the material and physical world, thus embracing the spiritual world to become aware of their own consciousness, therefore leading to a state of enlightenment.

Although Shitou focuses on detaching from the material world, he further emphasizes the idea of impermanence. He writes, “will this hut perish or not?/Perishable or not, the original master is present, /not dwelling south or north, east or west” (lines 13-15). Though the question is posed if the hut is perishable, the end state of the hut is ultimately irrelevant, a doctrine taught and emphasized by the Buddha, or the “original master.” The term Buddha Nature, as seen in Mahayana Buddhism, is utilized to explain that everyone is capable of becoming the Buddha and it is possible that one might already be the Buddha. Shitou is therefore not describing a manifestation of Buddha in a person, but instead a oneness with the Buddha. This idea of oneness does “not dwell south or north, east or west” (line 15), but within the mind. Although there is no physical location for oneness, this concept cannot be comprehended by the“middling or lowly”, the kind of people who value “ jade palaces or vermillion towers” over a “a shining window below the green pines”, or “proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests” (lines 16, 17, 21). Here, Shitou describes the people that are not able to achieve singularity with the Buddha. Because Shitou creates a restriction on who can experience this oneness, he creates the difference between Mahayana Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism encourages people of all dharmas to embark on the journey to nirvana and even simplifies the teachings of traditional Buddhism to allow a more accessible path to enlightenment. Zen Buddhism is more exclusive to those with a more favorable dharma and values practice and hard work. Though they target different groups of people, they both incorporate the school of sudden enlightenment and require years of practicing to achieve the slightest grasp of enlightenment.

As the poem ends, Shitou actually entails instructions on how to be more receptive to the Buddha as well as reaching enlightenment and nirvana. He writes that one must “let go of hundreds of years and relax completely” and to“open your hands and walk, innocent/...If you want to know the undying person in the hut,/Don't separate from this skin bag here and now” (lines 25, 26, 29, 30). These lines describe the core of Zen Buddhism, in which one must mentally ready themselves to release their centuries of karma and ultimately revert back to a constant and continuous state of relaxation. By entering a state of stillness and peace, one can achieve a mindset of nothingness. Zen Buddhism centralizes on the idea of determination to revert their own dharma with “open hands,” leaving them in a vulnerable state, ready to accept nothingness, and strive for final enlightenment. Shitou also uses a shocking description of one’s physical body, referring to it as a “skin bag.” Throughout the beginning of the poem, Shitou’s main focus is on the hut, but never draws focus to the human individual. By calling the physical body as a “skin bag” he reiterates the idea that the body holds nothing of value in the journey to nirvana. Though he continuously reminds the readers that physical attachments hinder the full completion towards enlightenment, Shitou writes that one should not “separate from the skin bag” (line 30). This explains that in order to achieve any state of mindfulness, a deep connection with the body must be accomplished first, before acknowledging the impermanence of the physical form.

Zen Buddhism has been created from a culmination of Indian, traditional Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Doaist teachings, producing an assemblage of differing ideals. With a mixture of Buddhist concepts, focusing on impermanence of physical attachments, and the path to enlightenment, Zen Buddhism created a new form of Buddhism that goes beyond its respective influences. Different masters and teachers, such as Shitou, Dogen, and Ikkyu designed their own schools of thought while various dynasties, art movements, and certain Japanese values all uniquely produced Zen Buddhism into a religion of its own. In his poem, “Song of the Grass-Root Hermitage”, Shitou is able to encompass the variety of influences, and their extent, on Zen Buddhism all while the main concepts of Zen are still present and visible. Although Zen Buddhism started with rigid structures, doctrines, and monasteries, it transformed into a religious practice that could be found anywhere, making it one of the most popular forms of Buddhism in modern times.

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