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What Could be Easier than Zen?

For over a thousand years, the Song of Enlightenment 证道歌 has been one of the most popular Zen texts in all of East Asia. Composed in verse, it has also become one of the most chanted texts at Zen temples worldwide.”

(Red Pine at hometown in 2019)

“Like a lot of what I’ve been working on lately, Yung-chia’s Song was not something I ever expected to translate, much less publish. In 1974, when I was living at Taiwan’s Haiming Monastery 海明寺, the abbot gave me a copy of the poems of Han-shan 寒山, or Cold Mountain. It was an edition he has financed, and it included the pirated English translations of one-third of the poems by Burton Watson. With the help of an accompanying Chinese commentary and Watson’s translations, it was just my speed. Later that year, Abbot Wu-ming 悟明 also gave me a copy of Yung-chia’s Song of Enlightenment, which was not my speed. The Buddhist references and the meaning were beyond me, and my attempts at translation only made me appreciate Cold Mountains even more. I put it aside and hadn’t looked at it again until two months ago.

As I was finishing a Pure Land chapbook, Why Not Paradise, my friend Isaac Gardiner asked me what I was going to do next. When I didn’t have an answer, he suggested Yung-chia’s poem. That was the answer he had received himself seven years earlier from Abbot Jinghui 净慧. Isaac was staying at Fourth Patriarch Monastery 四祖寺 near Huangmei 黄梅 at the time and asked Jinghui what Zen text he would recommend Westerners study. That was all I needed to hear. I figured I may as well get started repaying my own debt to Jinghui. So here it is. I don’t know why it took me forty-five years to give Yung-chia’s Song another look. It’s so much clearer now. After all, it’s just Zen. And what could be easier than Zen? Everything else is so complicated.”

(From the Translator’s Preface in Yung-chia’s Song of Enlightenment, translated by Red Pine, published by Empty Bowl 2020.)