The Song of the Skin Bag
Written by Master Xu-Yun in his 19th year
From “Empty Cloud: The Autobiography of the Chinese Zen Master”.
Translate by Charles Luk. Rev. and edited by Richard Hunn
The Song of the Skin Bag, (1) the skin bag is sung. Before the empty aeon (2)
it had neither name nor form,
After the Buddha with awe-inspiring voice (3) it became a hindrance.
Three hundred and sixty tendons are linked within the body (4)
Enclosed by four and eighty thousand pores.(5)
Divided it splits into heaven, earth and man,
United it combines the four elements.
It supports heaven, props up earth,
But what of its mettle?
Understand cause and effect, discern the times
Survey the stupidity of past and present.
Because of wrong clinging to illusory forms,
Parents are involved and wife and children loved.
By vain indulgence in delusion karma is left behind,
The Song of the Skin Bag, the skin bag is sung.
Drinking wine and eating meat upset the mind-nature,
Indulgence in pleasure and desire leads to utter ruin
When officialdom is strong to oppress the innocent(6)
And traders artful against their consciences, how long
Will their wealth and power last, the their pride and their extravagance?
The poor and lowly will not so last while there is cruelty and violence.
Discrimination between self and others leads to inequality,
Destroying living beings as worthless things.
Thinking and discerning cause desire, stupidity and hatred,
While becoming lost in heresies invites self-destruction..
Killing, stealing, adultery and lying have no end,
And rude behavior to others increases attachment and aversion.
To scold the wind and curse the ram is disrespectful to the gods,
While depression comes from ignorance of birth and death.
When leaving a cow’s womb to enter a mare’s belly
Who will sing of or lament your change of form?
Many evil acts without a good deed will make
Aimless and toilsome your transmigration.
Entering the three evil realms, falling into hell (7)
Causes suffering to animals and hungry ghosts.
The ancient sages would oft repeat their warning,
Likewise the morning bell and drum at eve are to change your bean.
Good and evil karma bring certain retribution,
Escape then, worldly men, from the five periods of impurity.(8)
The Song of the Skin Bag, the skin bag is sung;
If the owner of form is not entangled by it,
For illusory matter to interdependence owes its name –
He can readily turn his mind within
To contemplate in sovereign case.
With no desire for fame and for wealth no craving,
Cut off all liking and from the world retire.
With no love for wife and no affection for children
Enter a monastery to keep the discipline;
Look for learned teachers, seek out their teaching
On Chan practice and meditation to O’er-leap the three worlds.(9)
Store what you see arid hear, forsake all causal clingings
To escape for ever from the worldly way.
By taming the six senses and stopping all your thoughts,
With neither self nor other, no trouble will remain,
Unlike worldly men who sigh when mist and dew disperse. (10)
With one robe to cover you and food enough
To satisfy your hunger, keep yourself in shape.
Give wealth away, sacrifice your body and life
Without a second thought as when you spit or sneeze.
Keep pure the discipline, be without fault
And correct in your deportment.(11) Be not angry
When insulted, bear no hatred when you are beaten,
Forget all derison by enduring the unendurable.
Without deviation, without interruption
Hold for ever the one thought of Amitabha.
Let there be no dullness, no confusion,
But like the fir and cypress defy the bitter cold.
Doubt no more the Buddha, doubt no more the Dharma;
With innate wisdom look clearly into what you see and hear,
Bore the paper, cut the hide(12) and go back
To the source, for self-liberation means
Returning to the spring and source of reality.
There is neither ‘non-existence’ nor emptiness
Exposed is the potentiality divine, wondrous and inconceivable
When you reach here al lgrievance ends.
Hurrah, for now you realize the goal.
With the ten titles of Buddha (13) you will teach a myriad worlds.
Aha, that same leaking shell (14) is now
The omnipresent Buddha-body. (15)
Clearly good and evil karmas are infallible, so why
Rely on falsehood instead of practicing the truth?
When the absolute is split the two extremes appear,
The spiritual mind turns into heaven and earth.
Kings and ministers are noble owing to their past karmas,
None are rich or noble, poor or humble without previous cause
Where there is birth – there will be death,
Why grumble since this is known to everyone?
For wife, children (and self), for happiness and wealth
All prospects are spoiled by anger and desire.
For what fame or gain did I trifle
Away my last nineteen springs? (16)
Frustrations of a thousand, nay ten thousand kinds
Harass and make your life yet more unbearable.
When you grow old with failing sight and snow-white hair
You will have vainly passed a lifetime ignorant of virtue.
From day to month, from month to year in vain will you
Regret that months and years turn like a wheel.
Who is an immortal in this world of ours?
‘Tis better to revere once more the cloud of compassion (17)
Ánd on a famous mountain or in some renowned place
To live at ease in transcendental bliss
Do not you know how fast the temporary flies?
Respectfully ponder a few expedient sentences,
Recite Amitabha’s name, see clearly into birth and death,
Then enjoy happiness beyond the reach of others.
Practice Chan, seek out its aim; the pure
And the spiritual are only this.
With clear tea and vegetarian food the mind
Errs not enjoying Dharma night and day.
Forsake both self and other, relinquish ‘you’ and ‘I’
Treat friend and foe alike forgetting praise and censure
When the mind is free from hindrance and disgrace
Do Buddhas and Patriarchs regards its Oneness as being without use?
The World-Honoured One renounced his love to climb the snowy mountains(18)
While Avalokitesvara left home to become a son of the Buddha. (19)
In the days of Yao and Shun(20) lived Zhao and Yu,(21)
When the throne was offered to Zhao he washed his ears.(22)
Remember Zhang Zi-fang and Liu Cheng-Yi
Who cast away their glory, retiring from the world.
In this period of termination when troubles lie ahead, (23)
Why do you not awaken to vie with the ancestors?
To indulge in ignorance, commiting the ten evils
Exhaust your ingenuity and wins the world’s contempt.
Wars, epidemies, droughts and floods are frequent,
Dearth, famine and strife succeed each other and
When weird tales prevail misfortune follows.
‘Midst earthquakes, landslides and tidal waves
What will you do in order to escape?
Evil acts in past transmigrations
Cause present falsehood and frustration
When poor and in trouble virtue should first be cultivated,
Then in a monastery worship with virtuous heart the King of the Law,
Repentance and reform from past wrong deeds improve your lot.
Call on learned teachers, seek your experience to seal,
First learn, then leave both birth and death to realize the Mind-nature,
Impermanence exposed reveals eternity.
Path lies in path within your practice.
the saints and sages left clear sayings to reform the world,
Slight not then the teaching of the Tripitaka.
With earnestness and deep sincerity
I urge all human beings to be righteous
Take not my words as idle nor forget them,
for self-cultivation leads to perception of self-nature.
Hasten your practice, be ever zealous,
For the sowing of Bodhí is the direct cause of awakening.
the nine stages alter rebirth in the lotus are testified by the Buddha,
An Amitabha will take you to the Western Paradise.
Lay down your bag of skin, leap en the Vehicle Supreme.
This is the Song of the Skin Bag, hearken to it friends !
1. The human body is likened to a skin-bag which obstructs our realization of the truth.
2. The empty aeon is regarded as coming after that of the destruction of the world systems and preceding that of their formation, the latter being followed by that of ‘existence’.
3. Bhimsa-garjita-ghosa-svara-raja (short form Bhímsa-raja) or the King with awe-inspiring voice, the name of countless Buddhas, successively appearing during the aeon free from misery, decay, calamities, epidemics, etc.
4. The digit 3 symbolizes the past, present and future, or time. The digit 6 stands for the six worlds of existence and the six directions north, south, east, west, the zenith and nadir, or space.
5. The digit 8 stands for the eight consciousnesses and the digit 4 for the four elements: earth, water, fire and air which constitute the human body.
6. The Master’s father was an official.
7. The three evil realms: hungry ghosts, animals and hells.
8. The five periods of impurity: (1) the aeon in decay when it suffers deterioration giving rise to form; (2) Deterioration of views, selfishness etc., arising; (3) Passions and delusions arising from desire, anger and stupidity in which pride and doubt prevail; (4) the subsequent increase in human miseries and decrease in happiness and <5) the gradual shortening of human life to ten years.
9. The Triple realms’ of Desire, form and formlessness.
10. All worldly men are grieved about the impermanence of things which are likened to mist and dew.
11. That is, while walking, standing, sitting and reclining.
12. Bore the paper of the sutras to extract the correct meaning and pierce the ox-hide ignorance to realize the truth.
13. The ten titles of a Buddha are: (1) Tathagata, He who comes thus as do all other Buddhas; the absolute ‘coming’; (2) Arhat or one worthy of worship; (3) Samyak-sambuddha, Omniscient; (4) Vidyacarana-sampanna perfect knowledge and conduct; (5) Sugata, the well-departed; (6) Lokavid, knower of the world; (7) Anuttara, the peerless lord; (8) Purusadamya-sarathi, the tamer of passions; (9) Sasta deva-manusyanam, teacher of gods and men; (10) Bhagavat or Lokanatha, the World-Honoured One.
14. The illusory human body.
15. The spiritual body appearing in full.
16. Xu-Yun complained that he had wasted his time until his 19th year before succeeding in escaping from home.
17. The over-spreading, fructifying cloud of compassion, the heart of the Buddha.
18. The Himalayas. According to the Chinese Buddhist tradition, this symbolizes the Buddha’s renunciation ascent on the Bodhi-path.
19. A bodhisattva, son of ‘the Buddha’s family’.
20. The golden age of Chinese history when the country was ruled by the wise Emperors Yao and Shun.
21. Yao knew that Zhao and Yu were two sages and offered to abdicate in their favour but both declined,
22. When Zhao heard of Yao’s offer the throne to him, he went to the river bank to wash his ears from the ‘impurity’ of the offer.
23. The present period of the Dharma-ending age.
24. The nine stages of progression as described in the Sutra of Amitabha.