The Song of the Grass Roof Hut

We are in retreat at the moment at Appamada, and we are using a poem written in the 8th century by the Chinese teacher Shitou (Sekito Kisen in Japanese) as our source for study and practice. Shitou was also the author of another very famous poem that is often chanted in Zen temples and monasteries (Sandokai or Merging of Difference and Unity), but this poem is very personal. It is accessible and speaks of a modest hut and everyday affairs. I offer it here for your enjoyment. Please stay with it, read it, let it work on you, meet the person in the hut, and find your way through the grasses and weed of daily struggles.

Song of the Grass Roof Hut

I've built a grass hut where there's nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it's been lived in—covered by weeds.
The person in the hut lives here calmly,
not stuck to inside, outside, or in-between.
Places worldly people live, he doesn't live.
Realms worldly people love, he doesn't love.
Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten feet square, an old man illumines forms and their nature.
A Mahayana bodhisattva trusts without doubt.
The middling or lowly can't help wondering;
Will this hut perish or not?
Perishable or not, the original master is present,
Not dwelling south or north, east or west.
Firmly based on steadiness, it can't be surpassed.
A shining window below the green pines—
jade palaces or vermillion towers can't compare with it.
Just sitting with head covered all things are at rest.
Thus, this mountain monk doesn't understand at all.
Living here he no longer works to get free.
Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?
Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can't be faced or turned away from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instructions,
bind grasses to build a hut, and don't give up.
Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations,
are only to free you from obstructions.
If you want to know the undying person in the hut,
don't separate from this skin bag here and now.

For a wonderful reflection on the poem, see Ben Connelley's new book Inside the Grass Hut: Living Shitou's Classic Zen Poem