Breeze Through Willows, No Chill on My Face


Translated By Tara Lau

During the Song Dynasty, Zen Master Zhinan wrote a poem about dwelling in the mountain, describing his transcendent state of mind while walking in the wind and rain:

“Below the shadow of ancient trees, a boat is knotted to a dock; the cane gets me cross the east side of the bridge. The rain of apricot blossoms soaks my clothes. Although the wind blowing through the willow tree is brisk, I feel no chill on my face.”

“The rain of apricot blossoms soaks my clothes. Although the wind blowing through the willow tree is brisk, I feel no chill on my face.” These two lines are written with a serene spirit of Zen. In spring, when apricot blossoms are in full bloom, they gather and fall like precious flowers from the sky, accompanied by drizzling rain. However, Master Zhinan remains untouched by this floral rain, as if he is in the state narrated in the seventh chapter of the Vimalakirti Sutra where it recounts the “the Goddess of Heaven Scattering Flowers”.

The Goddess of Heaven makes her appearance and scatters upwards a basket full of flowers. The flowers fall on those gathered. When they fall on the Bodhisattvas, they slide down their bodies and end up on the ground. When they fall on the bodies of the disciples, they remain attached to them, and no matter how hard they try, they cannot be shaken off.

The goddess said “the flowers do not stick to the Bodhisattvas because they have already eliminated all thought of delusions and attachments. Hence they will not be entangled by external form, sound, fragrance, taste and touch. Once a person has done away with all such defilements, the flowers will not stick to him and will fall right on the ground.

The rain of apricot blossom seems like it is going to wet the robe of Master Zhinan, but it is unable to do so – this is a metaphor for how external circumstances cannot pollute the pure heart of a Zen practitioner. The six senses do not generate delusions and attachments to the six types of dust (note 1), gradually attaining the state of “seeing all aggregates as empty.”

“Although the wind blowing through the willow tree is brisk, I feel no chill on my face” because the practitioner is not moved by the eight winds (gain, loss, defamation, praise, fame, ridicule, suffering and pleasure) (note 2), let alone a breeze that does not bring coldness to the face.

My friends, “the rain of apricot blossom tries to wet the robe, and although the wind blowing through the willow tree is brisk, I feel no chill on my face.” This is the realm of Zen. Recite and contemplate it often, allowing the mind to transcend worldly matters and eliminate afflictions.

Note 1: The six sense faculties refer to the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. The six types of dust refer to the six external realms corresponding to the six sense faculties: form, sound, fragrance, taste, touch, and dharmas. And the six senses refer to the six types of perceptual awareness produced by the six sense faculties relative to the six types of dust: eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness and mind consciousness. The six sense faculties, six types of dust and six types of awareness are collectively called the Eighteen Dhatus, which are the totality of the spiritual world of all sentient beings.

Sentient beings are deluded and their heart’s obscured because they are led by their six types of awareness which are connected to six types of dust and their six sense faculties are polluted. This leads to negative actions such as greed, anger, delusion, killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. Therefore, the six realms are like thieves that can rob all our virtuous qualities.

Note 2: The eight winds refer to (1) gain, which refers to anything beneficial to oneself, (2) loss, which refers to anything detrimental to oneself, (3) defamation, which means speaking ill of someone due to aversion towards them, (4) praise, which means speaking well of someone due to liking them, (5) fame, which means being highly regarded by others for one’s virtues, (6) ridicule, which means mocking and slandering someone due to aversion towards them, (7) suffering, which means subjecting someone to physical and mental pain through oppression, and (8) pleasure, which means experiencing joy and delight when encountering favorable conditions.

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