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Translation Notes

The Stanza Competition Poem by Shen-hsiu (605-706) (also sometimes, Shenxiu), a translation:

Let's start out by examining Shenxiu's Chinese original character by character:

body.gif (189 bytes)is.gif (189 bytes)ti.gif (219 bytes)tree.gif (238 bytes)

heart.gif (155 bytes)like.gif (182 bytes)clear.gif (200 bytes)mirror.gif (241 bytes)

shi.gif (205 bytes)shi.gif (205 bytes)diligent.gif (233 bytes)clean.gif (210 bytes)

dont.gif (194 bytes)let.gif (196 bytes)attract.gif (231 bytes)dust.gif (228 bytes)

This already gives us a pretty good idea how best to approach the poem. The most faithful translation would be something like the following:

The body is the bodhi tree
The heart is like the clear mirror stand
At all times diligently wipe it clean
Do not let it attract dust

The poem rhymes in the original Chinese. In order to convey that without losing too much in the process, I changed the above into the form you read in the story:

Body is the bodhi tree
Heart is like clear mirror stand
Strive to clean it constantly
Do not let the dust motes land

Okay, so how have other people handled it? Let's take a look at a couple of examples:


The first example is the translation by Philip Yampolsky in Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (Columbia University Press, 1967). It has been quoted by William Powell, professor of Chinese religions at UC Santa Barbara, and other academics, who accept it as the definitive translation:

The body is the tree of Awakening
The mind is like a clear mirror.
At all times we must strive to polish it,
And must not let the dust collect.

Now that you have seen the original translated character by character, you can see how the above came about. You can also see the places where it is less than optimal. For instance, it's not a great idea to render bodhi tree as "tree of Awakening." The bodhi tree is an actual plant and requires no further interpreting. The fact that "bodhi" means "great awakening" really belongs in a side note. Perhaps Yampolsky changed "bodhi" into "Awakening" within the body of the poem for the benefit of readers who may not know what a bodhi tree is, but that's really stretching the definition of what a translator does and is, frankly, not really necessary.

The second problem is that "heart" in the second line has turned into "mind." Now this is admittedly the most common way to handle this type of translation, and we can probably all agree that in the context of the original, one can interpret "heart" as refering to the mind and not the rhythmically beating organ inside the chest cavity. So now the question is, does the English word "heart" lack that particular definition so that clarification by the translator is necessary?

The answer is no. The word "heart" has always had the same connotation in English as it does in Chinese. When we describe someone as having a "heavy heart," we mean a sad or depressed state of mind rather than some interesting medical condition where the actual organ gains weight. Likewise, when you say "I've had a change of heart," you are talking about changing your mind, and not a revolutionary surgical procedure you've gone through. Therefore, "heart" can be translated directly. No embellishment is necessary.

The final problem is that Yampolsky has changed the original meaning from the heart being the stand to the heart being the mirror. Shenxiu's implied meaning in the original is that the soul is the mirror and the heart is the stand that holds it up. This parallels the image from the first line, where the implied soul stands next to the body/bodhi tree, contemplating enlightenment. In both lines there's the interplay of the tangible and the intangible. See the beauty of it? By assigning the heart to the mirror and totally doing without the stand, Yampolsky has obliterated this deeper message.


Our second example comes from the translation by A.F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam in The Diamond Sutra and The Sutra of Hui Neng (Shambhala Publications, Inc.,1985):

The body is the wisdom-tree,
The mind is a bright mirror in a stand;
Take care to wipe it all the time,
And allow no dust to cling.

The problems with this translation are similar to the ones with the first example. "Bodhi tree" and "heart" and "stand" continue to be sticking points. Perhaps these scholars plagiarize one another?

In my opinion, "widom-tree" is even further away from bodhi tree than "tree of Awakening." What's a wisdom tree anyway? Is there a connection with wisdom tooth? Perhaps this treatment imparts an aura of mystical significance to the poem, but the the reader who encounters it without knowledge of the Chinese original really has no way of figuring out Shenxiu's true intent.

Aside from the two problems with "mind" in the second line, Price and Wong have also chosen to do away with the "like" or "similar to" meaning, and changed "clear mirror" into "bright mirror." We can be fairly certain that "clear" is better than "bright" in this case, because the context in the original is definitely that of clarity rather than brightness.

Altogether there are four issues with this one line: 1) "heart" would be better than "mind"; 2) the context is "is like" or "is similar to" rather than "is"; 3) "clear mirror" not "bright mirror"; 4) the heart is like the stand, not the mirror in the stand.


The soon one day to be Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Hui neng (638-713), understood instantly where Shen-hsiu (Shenxiu) fell short. There was another level of wisdom beyond that described in Shen-hsiu's poem. Hui neng knew how to express this understanding in a poem --- but being illiterate, did not know how to write it down. He ended up asking another monk to write it for him on the same wall:

Bodhi really has no tree
So where can the dust motes land?
Nor is clear mirror the stand
Nothing's there initially


Fundamentally no wisdom-tree exists,
Nor the stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is empty from the beginning,
Where can the dust alight


The above represent my opinions only. No more, no less. My views may or may not be congruent with those of the Temple. Feel free to form your own opinion - that's what this is all about!