Faith in Mind



Master Sheng-yen (1931-2009) is a renowned teacher of Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism. At the age of 13, he left his home near Shanghai to become a monk. During the period of Communist unrest, he went to southern Taiwan and spent six years in solitary retreat. Later, he continued his formal study, earning a doctorate in Buddhist Literature from Rissho University in Tokyo. He has received transmission in the two major branches of Ch'an: the Lin-chi (Rinzai) and Ts'ao-tung (Soto) schools.

He now divides his time between New York, where he is the Resident Teacher at the Ch'an Meditation Center he Founded, and Taipei, where he is the abbot of two monasteries.

Master Sheng-yen offers a guide to Ch'an practice based on the poem Faith in Mind. His words are transcribed from lectures given during a series of retreats spanning several years.

"Since the talks were given within the context of intensive meditation practice, I did not adopt a scholarly point of view or analytical approach. It is not a formal commentary on the text; rather, I use the poem as a taking-off point to inspire the practitioner and deal with certain issues that arise during the course of practice."

"The phrase 'faith in mind' contains the two meanings of 'believing in' and 'realizing' the mind. Faith in mind is the belief that we have a fundamental unmoving, unchanging mind. This mind is precisely Buddha mind."


In the records of Ch'an masters, there is no full account of the life of Seng Ts'an, the Third Patriarch, who died in A.D. 606. He is mentioned, however, in the T'ang dynasty (618-907) Kao Seng Chua (Biographies of Eminent Monks) written by master Fa Ts'ung; "After Ch'an master (Hui) K'o, there was Ch'an master (Seng) Ts'an." The Leng Ch'ieh Shih Tzu Chi (Records of the Masters of the Lankavatara Sutra), which contains early historical material of the Ch'an school, says that after entering retreat in the mountains Seng Ts'an never emerged, nor did he ever write about or transmit the Dharma. This statement is problematic considering that the Sui dynasty history, in Er Shih Wu Shih (The Twenty-five History Books) states that in 592 he transmitted the Dharma to Tao Hsin, the Fourth Patriarch. It also calls into question the authorship of the poem Faith in Mind, which has historically been attributed to Seng Ts'an. Contemporary scholars doubt whether he was, in fact, the author. Niu T'ou Fa Jung, a disciple of Tao Hsin, wrote a poem entitled Song of Mind. Noticing the similarity between the two poems, some suggest that Faith in Mind was actually written after the time of the Sixth Patriarch, Nui Neng, as an improved, condensed version of Song of Mind. The thought expressed in Faith in Mind is indeed better organized, more concise and seems complete compared to Niu T'ou's poem.

The question of attribution, however, has no relevance to my commentaries on Faith in Mind. The importance of the poem to us lies in its value as a guide to Ch'an meditation, and its significance in the history of Ch'an (Zen), both in China and Japan. Among the many poems on enlightenment, the most highly regarded are Yung Chia's Song of Enlightenment, and Faith in Mind, because of the clear guidance they provide on the method of Ch'an.

For this reason, I do not comment on Faith in Mind on ordinary occasions. I choose to lecture on it only during the seven-day Ch'an retreat. The twenty chapters of this book are based on translated lectures spanning four retreats, subsequently edited for publication. Since the talks were given within the context of intensive meditation practice, I did not adopt a scholarly point of view or analytical approach. It is not a formal commentary on the text; rather, I use the poem as a taking-off point to inspire the practitioner and deal with certain issues that arise during the course of practice.

There are at least five published English translations of Faith in Mind. All have their merits. I offer a new translation which is similar in many respects to previous ones; however, portions of it are quite different, reflecting my own understanding of the poem. When commenting on Faith in Mind, I often say to my students, "Now that you are practicing, it matters little whether or not I speak on Faith in Mind. But I am using the poem to instruct you on the method of practice." The progress and condition of a given group of practitioners differs from day to day and from retreat to retreat. Thus I adapt my discussion of the poem to the situation at hand, while remaining within the scope of the text. I believe these talks can serve as a helpful guide both to the aspiring and experienced practitioner. It has also helped me personally, by giving me new insights into the poem as various situations arose.

The phrase "faith in mind" contains the two meanings of "believing in" and "realizing" the mind. "Mind" is especially emphasized in Ch'an. True faith in mind is the belief grounded in realization that we have a fundamental, unmoving, unchanging mind. This mind is precisely Buddha mind; it is also Tathagatagarbha (womb of Tathagata) in every sentient being. But the mind experienced by ordinary beings in the midst of vexations is deluded mind, not true mind. Those who seek to rid themselves of vexations imagine that there is a true mind to attain. However, from the perspective of Buddha mind, there is only one mind, neither true nor false. There is no need to discriminate, for everything, everywhere, is mind everlasting. When we fully realize Buddha mind, the believing mind and the mind which is believed in merge into one; since they are the same, the need for mere belief in this mind disappears.

The paradox is that one must be enlightened to have true faith in this mind. The author is speaking from a deeply enlightened perspective to the practitioner who seeks to discover true mind. Seng Ts'an shows us how to transform our ordinary discriminating mind into the Buddha mind which does not discriminates; how to get from existence to emptiness, from defilement to purity. He tells us how we should practice and what kind of mental attitude to avoid during practice: we should not give in to our likes and dislikes, neither trying to negate our vexations nor seeking enlightenment. The practice should be pursued for its own sake, but while there should be no other purpose, in the end the mind of equanimity (ping deng hsin is realized - there is no discrimination, no need for language (yen yu tao tuan), or, indeed, of practice.

The poem contains phrases that will later on assume importance in the Ts'ao Tung (Soto) sect of Ch'an, for instance, "One thought for ten thousand years" (i nien wan nien), which expresses the idea of one thought not moving and yet illuminating. This idea is to become the hallmark of Hung Chih Cheng Chueh's Silent Illumination Ch'an. This tendency is also repeated in the only other written record of Seng Ts'an's teachings which was found on a stone tablet commemorating him. The essence of the inscription is: Simultaneously practice stillness (chi) and illumination (chao). Carefully observe, but see no dharmas (phenomena), see no body, and see no mind. For the mind is nameless, the body is empty, and the dharmas are a dream. There is nothing to be attained, no enlightenment to be experienced. This is called liberation.

Faith In Mind

The Supreme Way is not difficult
If only you do not pick and choose.
Neither love nor hate,
And you will clearly understand.
Be off by a hair,
And you are as far from it as heaven from earth.
If you want the Way to appear,
Be neither for nor against.
For and against opposing each other
This is the mind's disease.
Without recognizing the mysterious principle
It is useless to practice quietude.

The Way is perfect like great space,
Without lack, without excess.
Because of grasping and rejecting,
You cannot attain it.
Do not pursue conditioned existence;
Do not abide in acceptance of emptiness.
In oneness and equality,
Confusion vanishes of itself.
Stop activity and return to stillness,
And that stillness will be even more active.
Merely stagnating in duality,
How can you recognize oneness?

If you fail to penetrate oneness,
Both places lose their function.
Banish existence and you fall into existence;
Follow emptiness and you turn your back on it.
Excessive talking and thinking
Turn you from harmony with the Way.
Cut off talking and thinking,
And there is nowhere you cannot penetrate.
Return to the root and attain the principle;
Pursue illumination and you lose it.
One moment of reversing the light
Is greater than the previous emptiness.
The previous emptiness is transformed;
It was all a product of deluded views.
No need to seek the real;
Just extinguish your views.

Do not abide in dualistic views;
Take care not to seek after them.
As soon as there is right and wrong
The mind is scattered and lost.
Two comes from one,
Yet do not even keep the one.
When one mind does not arise,
Myriad dharmas are without defect.
Without defect, without dharmas,
No arising, no mind.
The subject is extinguished with the object.
The object sinks away with the subject.
Object is object because of the subject;
Subject is subject because of the object.
Know that the two
Are originally one emptiness.
In one emptiness the two are the same,
Containing all phenomena.
Not seeing fine or coarse,
How can there be any bias?

The Great Way is broad,
Neither easy nor difficult.
With narrow views and doubts,
Haste will slow you down.
Attach to it and you lose the measure;
The mind will enter a deviant path.
Let it go and be spontaneous,
Experience no going or staying.

Accord with your nature, unite with the Way,
Wander at ease, without vexation.
Bound by thoughts, you depart from the real;
And sinking into a stupor is as bad.
It is not good to weary the spirit.
Why alternate between aversion and affection?

If you wish to enter the one vehicle,
Do not be repelled by the sense realm.
With no aversion to the sense realm,
You become one with true enlightenment.
The wise have no motives;
Fools put themselves in bondage.
One dharma is not different from another.
The deluded mind clings to whatever it desires.
Using mind to cultivate mind
Is this not a great mistake?

The erring mind begets tranquillity and confusion;
In enlightenment there are no likes or dislikes.
The duality of all things
Issues from false discriminations.
A dream, an illusion, a flower in the sky
How could they be worth grasping?
Gain and loss, right and wrong
Discard them all at once.

If the eyes do not close in sleep,
All dreams will cease of themselves.
If the mind does not discriminate,
All dharmas are of one suchness.
The essence of one suchness is profound;
Unmoving, conditioned things are forgotten.
Contemplate all dharmas as equal,
And you return to things as they are.
When the subject disappears,
There can be no measuring or comparing.

Stop activity and there is no activity;
When activity stops, there is no rest.
Since two cannot be established,
How can there be one?
In the very ultimate,
Rules and standards do not exist.

Develop a mind of equanimity,
And all deeds are put to rest.
Anxious doubts are completely cleared.
Right faith is made upright.
Nothing lingers behind,
Nothing can be remembered.
Bright and empty, functioning naturally,
The mind does not exert itself.
It is not a place of thinking,
Difficult for reason and emotion to fathom.
In the Dharma Realm of true suchness,
There is no other, no self.

To accord with it is vitally important;
Only refer to not-two.
In not-two all things are in unity;
Nothing is excluded.
The wise throughout the ten directions
All enter this principle.
This principle is neither hurried nor slow
One thought for ten thousand years.

Abiding nowhere yet everywhere,
The ten directions are right before you.
The smallest is the same as the largest
In the realm where delusion is cut off.
The largest is the same as the smallest;
No boundaries are visible.
Existence is precisely emptiness;
Emptiness is precisely existence.
If it is not like this,
Then you must not preserve it.

One is everything;
Everything is one.
If you can be like this,
Why worry about not finishing?
Faith and mind are not two;
Non-duality is faith in mind.

The path of words is cut off;
There is no past, no future, no present.