Song of the Grass Roof Hut

Sekito Kisen was one of our early Chinese Zen Masters who lived from 700-799. He was called one of Zen's "great jewels." His well-known writings are the Sandokai or Merging of Difference and Unity and Song of the Grass Roof Hut. Mario Poceski writes, "Sekito does not appear to have been very influential during his lifetime. He led a reclusive life and had relatively few disciples. Sekito built and resided in his grass roof hermitage near his larger temple at Nan Monastery where he trained students. The hut was built on rock and he was called Priest Rock Head. Sekito encourages a spacious sense, a small hut that includes the whole world."

Taigen Leighton says, "The Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage or hut, offers a clear, helpful model for actual practice, and how to create a space of practice. Lines of this poem were used in koan collections, but the poem as a whole work was mostly neglected. It is now finally receiving some the of attention it deserves." In 1985 Taigen and Kaz Tanahashi translated it into English, and Josho added it to our chant book some years ago. I want to share it today because I find it encouraging for practice. I have always resonated with its simplicity and images.

Taigen says, "The flavor of Sekito's practice is not to worry about attainment or accomplishment. His small hut includes the entire world. The point of Zen practice is to relieve suffering and promote liberation for all beings. Sekito tells us such universal liberation involves relaxing completely." Studying the poem, what struck me profoundly is that Sekito didn't follow the norm for an Abbot of a temple. He actually chose to build and live in the simplest hut behind the temple, and perhaps moving to his grass roof hut came later in his life. It would allow him to step away from temple busyness, and sit in his hut without distraction.

Ben Connelly, a priest in Katagiri Roshi's lineage, published a series of essays on this poem in a book called Inside the Grass Hut. He said, "he is not trying to explain it, but to engage with the lines." The poem begins," I've built a grass hut where there's nothing of value. After eating I relax and enjoy a nap." In an age of great temples, Connelly says, "building a grass hut doesn't give us a sense of durability. A strong storm could destroy it." The hut itself addresses impermanence and points to how our suffering arises from ignoring this truth. The very first lines describe living at ease, moment to moment, not by building the perfect sanctuary, but by living aware of impermanence and uncertainty."

We can know impermanence is true and still forget it so easily. I expect to see my house standing there at the end of the driveway when I come home. I don't always greet the house's problems with the roof, the AC, the septic system with this understanding of impermanence and change. My usual response is to see these difficulties as obstacles, rather than life and time arising and passing. I'm learning to not be too attached to what I thought I was going to do today, and instead be open to what arises.

Connelly mentions how "In ancient times, Buddhist monks lived lightly on the land, ate little, and wore discarded rags. Not to save the planet's resources, but because Buddha taught renouncing worldly goods would help free us from suffering." The line, "where there is nothing of value" points to not complicating our life with so much stuff. How can we have a simple ordinary way of life that is good enough? Connelly says, "Withdrawal from material things is common in many spiritual practices."

Giving up our stuff can be difficult, or freeing. During sesshin, I enjoy the freedom from all my stuff and the welcome simplicity of the zendo, a seat, a set of bowls and a chant book. Yet, Sekito's hut is more than his abode, but the way he trains his mind. Sitting zazen, letting go of all thoughts, allows the mind to slow down. In sitting, we can take a break from picking and choosing. Allowing our mind to feel that everything has equal value, is the mind at peace without judging, comparing, and wanting.

Sekito's poem says, "After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap." This is one of my favorite lines. And not a teaching I've seen anywhere else. The word "relax" is mentioned a few times in the poem. There is also, "calmly at rest" and "relax completely." Connelly says, "This is Sekito's invitation to be at ease. The middle way is not extreme asceticism or indulging in desires." We live in a very material world, so influenced by the internet, Instagram, TicTok, so much endless stuff, but we try to be aware of what we really need. "Sekito is reminding us of an old saying, eat when you are hungry, sleep when you're tired. He's not sitting on his cushion until it turns into a diamond, he's sitting and enjoying a nap after lunch. He shows us his practice of living very simply and being at ease."

I appreciate these references to relaxing, and being at ease. Though he mentions a nap, I don't think he's talking about putting your feet up after a long day. I think he is pointing to relaxing as in letting go. Letting go of thoughts and worries, so your mind can be present, open and available to what is right here, now.

I usually feel busy and overwhelmed with my to-do list. I wonder how I can get to "after eating, I relax and enjoy a nap?" It helps me to try to focus on, What's the most important thing? If I have a long list, I try to stay with just the task at hand, not the entire list. Then it is easier to find balance and ease. Some days after lunch, I start back slowly, and just focus on the next task. Being at ease is also taking care of yourself, taking a nap if you need to, finding time to enjoy a walk, or something that rejuvenates and nourishes you. Sekito reminds us that to be at ease, increases our present moment awareness of how things are right now.

The next line, "When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared. Now it has been lived in, covered by weeds." Connelley says, " Even though we cultivate our mind to be free from discrimination, living at ease in the present with impermanence, fresh weeds continue to appear. The hut is covered by weeds. Thoughts continue to arise. We don't live in a thought-free zone. It is not our teaching to be blissed out, because we need to stay in touch with the suffering of all beings." We practice letting thoughts go, but as they go, new ones reappear.

Next the poem says, "The person in the hut lives here calmly, not stuck to inside, outside or in between. Places worldly people live, he does not live. Places worldly people love, he does not love. Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world. In ten square feet, an old man illumines forms and their nature."

I found another translation of the poem by Alain Liebmann, a priest ordained in the Kodo Sawaki lineage who lives in Galway. About the small hut, he says, "The infinitely small contains the infinitely big and visa versa. Like a seed, itself small, it already contains all the potential of a tree, it's branches, roots and leaves. It also contains the animals that will depend on it, birds, squirrels, and insects. The more we penetrate the infinitely small, the more we discover the universal immensity."

Connelly comments, "The promise of Buddhist tradition is if you devote your life to meditation, simplicity, let the mind settle, liberating insights will arise. Our old monk isn't just looking to Buddhist texts for knowledge, but at what is right in front of him in just 10 square feet. In other religions, many practitioners retreat to a small room or cell to find their spiritual way. In contrast, we live in a world of technology that allows us to know what happens all over the earth. Most people check their phones and news feeds all day long. This seeking takes us away from what is right in front of us. Our attention is pulled here and there."

Meditation training in being still, it requires some effort to let go of all the interesting things pulling us from the present moment. It's always obvious to me when I sit, how the stream of thoughts and opinions is endless. Practice allows us to return to what is right in front of us, which can help us see things as they are, the impermanent nature of forms — their arising and passing. It's not that the present moment is special, but it helps us see that everything is perfect as it is. Even when it's uncomfortable, being present helps us be available to respond consciously.

The image of 10 square feet reminds me of sitting on a zabuton during sesshin. It's the grass roof hut, utterly simple and uncluttered. Most everything happens right there on my chair or cushions, with my bowls and chant book. Returning to my seat 6 or 7 times a day, my space becomes so familiar. Just returning to it, helps me relax and let go. Each person's place is a little different. In less than 10 square feet, each space is expressing someone, their bowls, shawl or blanket, rakusu, and cushions. Each of us is supported by our cushions and sangha, looking deeply as the vast world arises in our minds. Time set aside to live simply in sesshin is a challenge, a comfort to me. Having a few things and a schedule eases my mind.

Next Sekito writes, "A Great Vehicle bodhisattva trusts without doubt." The great vehicle is the translation of Mahayana, that carries all beings to liberation from suffering.

Connelly says, "A Great Vehicle bodhisattva is a deity, a supernatural embodiment of Buddhist's highest ideals; ….it is you when your heart is devoted to the way of liberation from suffering. He says, "The trust in this line is not trust in any truth, idea, or ideology. We might say it is trust in 'things-as-they-are.' It's a trust that includes and goes beyond anything we can experience or understand. Trust here, is about a condition of consciousness that is completely at ease. It is about the absence of anxiety; it is about being at rest. I encourage you to observe fear and anxiety in your mind and see if they help you and others. If not, just recognize them for what they are. This is actually the beginning of the bodhisattva's trust — to have enough confidence to turn the light inward and look at the fear itself, rather than the shadow it is casting. The bodhisattva's trust includes the knowledge that all things that come into being will pass away; it includes the knowledge that suffering is an inherent aspect of existence….it includes not knowing what is going to happen….It is possible to let go into not-knowing and let all things we like and don't like, appear and disappear. This is what we practice in meditation…..practice trusting what is,….open your heart to trusting the nature of things."

Another line, poetic to me, describes the hut, "A shining window below the green pines, jade palaces or vermilion towers cannot compare with it." I have always loved the soft light from a candle. The candle in the zendo reminds me to relax in a nonverbal way. Our family camped when I was young, and I have wonderful memories of quiet nights around the campfire. Accompanied by chirping crickets and frogs, along with lightening bugs flashing against the quiet. A perfect invitation to relax.

About this line, Leibmann describes, "A hut in a pine forest, with a window shining into the night." He wonders, "Is it an old monk studying a sutra or sitting zazen or making his meal?Despite living simply, his life is far more pleasant than those wearing silk jackets and sleeping in palaces."

Sekito writes, "Just sitting with head covered all things are at rest. Thus, this mountain monk does not understand at all. Living here he no longer works to get free." This sounds like Suzuki Roshi's "not knowing." We all know a lot, our minds are full of facts, and we try to continuously understand. When I feel sure about something, things look a certain way, I've learned that I might be overlooking something. After 40 years of sitting, you might imagine that I understand how to do it, but sadly no, or actually "I don't know." However, not knowing is a way to open your mind, take a second look, to see what is right in front of you. Our practice isn't for ourselves, but for everyone we meet so we can respond with awareness.

One of the lines, Taigen Leighton likes is, "Turn around the light to shine within, then just return." He says, "This line marvelously contains all of Buddhist practice and its primary rhythm in just one line. Sekito is describing the oscillation between realizing the ultimate, through meditation, and returning to functioning responsively in the world, often expressed with the Bodhisattva's vow to save all beings."

Connelly noticed the Chinese characters for this line include 'return", "shine", "with ease" or "calmly". He comments, "Come back to this place, this hut, just return. Let your light illuminate this moment with simple radiant awareness. Shine the light within meditation and return to practice kindness and non-harming."

Liebmann comments, "(to)Meditate means to dive into ourself….abandon what's happening. It is not necessary to understand or analyze. You must understand without understanding….see without seeing…thinking without thought. Come back to the source…the source is infinite and inconceivable. We may never understand because words are not strong enough."

One line that surprises me is, "Bind grass to build a hut, and don't give up." The part I find surprising is "don't give up." It surprises me because it seems rare to find such blatant encouragement in a teaching. Yet not giving up is essential. Finding time for meditation isn't easy, sitting practice is challenging, wanting a quiet mind in the midst of streams of thoughts. It's hard to feel you are making any headway. Subtle change can occur over the years, by practicing letting go and accepting things as they are. Sangha, our community, can encourage and give us strength. We are not expected to go it alone. Every time you show up, you are supporting everyone else. Remember this line, "don't give up." If you get off track, just return.

Liebmann comments, "Building a strong hut for winter will be tough. Numerous problems will appear. Those difficulties which you have to pass through will make you stronger. It is like putting a sword blade into the red coal fire, the blacksmith hammering the blade in order to make it stronger." So don't give up.

The next line is, "Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely." When I chant this line, I feel lighter, like a weight is lifted off my shoulders. All the worry, anticipation, frustrations are like a heavy bag, I can set down.

Connelly says, "from hundreds of years of acting out our habitual reactions, that is the hundred years showing up, or our karma. To let go of hundreds of years is to bring our mind to this moment for a fresh response. We relax completely and then we can respond consciously rather than repeating our karmic habits. As you have noticed, relaxing completely, being at ease is a theme of this poem. This being at ease is not just for ourselves, it helps everyone in contact with us. If everyone in the world could be more relaxed, can you imagine how that might feel?You have to be willing to see things as they are, and allow them to be, relax around it without trying to control it."

The poem ends with, "Thousands of words, myriad interpretations, are only to free you from obstructions. If you want to know the undying person in the hut, do not separate from this skin bag here and now."

Connelly says, "We can think of the grass roof hut as our self. We build a self image, our shelter. This is part of human development and what through practice, we try to see it as something we constructed, it's not real. According to the Dhammapada, when Buddha experienced enlightenment, he said, 'House builder, you have been seen. You shall not build the house again.' Buddha saw that we build a sense of self, and then we feel separate from other things. In this poem Sekito builds a simple hut and doesn't become attached to it."

Connelly continues, "What about this undying person? It doesn't mean immortality. Undying means more like indescribable or unborn. Buddha said everything that arises passes away. The phrase, 'what is your face before you were born?' points in the same direction as the undying person in the hut. Something not bound by concepts of time or existence. Sekito is undying. He's long gone, but as we chant this poem, he is right here."

Like Connelly, I resonate with all the natural imagery in this poem, like the old man in his grass roof hut, the shining window below the green pines, binding grasses, jade palaces, and the wave like repetition of the themes of ease and calm, the flows from the hut and 10 square feet to the vast inconceivable source, they come together and arrive in our heart. It shows how our small human effort connects us to the vastness of everything and everyone with Sekito's repeated encouragement to be here and now. Soon we will sit sesshin. We'll get familiar with our 10 square feet, our hut. Maybe some of these images from the poem will arise and encourage you. Remember, 'don't give up'. When you find your mind thinking, planning, or worrying, remember that worrying/thinking is usually about a future that will never come as you expected, or a past you cannot change. Let go of it all, and be at ease and present. This is a way we can learn to live. It just takes practice.

© 2022 Jakuko Mo Ferrell