This is a book of epigrams, epigrams that encapsulate the teaching the Buddha first transmitted 2,400 years ago when he held up a flower and Kashyapa smiled. They’re that simple. The Chinese call them ming 銘.
I considered translating it half a dozen times. The language is so simple. It begs to be translated. And it has. No Zen text has been translated more. I would be surprised if there weren’t a dozen versions in English alone. Normally I wouldn’t consider adding to an already crowded field. But whenever I’ve read the text, I’ve wanted to combine the couplets differently, differently from how I did the previous time I read the text or differently from how others combined them. The reason for this is that the Hsinhsinming is made up of rhymed couplets that doesn’t necessarily rhyme anymore. The pronunciation of Chinese has changed. Hence, reading the text today, it’s unclear which couplets go with which couplets. Are they quatrains or something else?
As for the poem’s meaning, it means about as much as any Zen text. In short, it doesn’t mean. It isn’t a finger pointing to the moon. If Seng-ts’an were alive, I can imagine him saying, “Where do you get this finger-moon business?” Seng-ts’an’s poem is about non-duality. I remember when I first encountered this odd, cumbersome word. It was the Fall of 1972. I had dropped out of graduate school a few months earlier and had just arrived at the Buddhist monastery in southern Taiwan known as Foguangshan 佛光山 (Buddhist Light Mountain). The young monk who was showing me around my new home was Hsin-ting 心定.
One of the questions I asked was about the wording above the monastery’s main gate. Written across the top were the characters 不二門, the Gate of Non-duality. What did that have to do with Buddhism, I wondered? Hsin-ting said that was the heart of Buddhism. I must have missed that page in the books I had been reading. I asked again, “If Buddhism means ‘not two,’ why not just say ‘one,’ why not the Gate of Oneness?” Hsin-ding said, “No, ‘not two’ doesn’t mean ‘one’. ‘One’ would only give rise to ‘not one,’ and we would have ‘two’ again. So we say, ‘not two’ and stop there.” And as far as I can tell, that is what this poem is about.
(From the Preface of Trusting the Mind, translated by Red Pine, published by Empty Bowl Press 2019.)