Awakening to Transcendence: Saikontan

The Roots of Wisdom: Saikontan draws from three major faith streams of China: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. ‘Saikontan’ means “vegetable root discourse”—that is: nothing fancy, just plain-spoken reminders to be awake to this present moment.

Mt. Rainier. Photo by JTClimbing
to high elevations
makes the heart
Looking out
on flowing waters
takes one’s thoughts
far away.

Looking at
the single shred of cloud
or the crane in the field
Wakes one’s thoughts
to transcendence.

If you can just sit
with a lute and a book,
Wherever you are becomes
the realm of the sages.

Late at night,
when others are at rest,
Sitting alone
I look deep into my heart.

In every human heart there is
one volume of the book of Truth,
But all is packed away on the shelves,
pages here and pages there.

Be fully open
and put up no barriers.
In this way
you become one substance
with the origin of the universe.

If the spirit is
fully in bloom,
One will obtain
the harmonious energy
of the universe.

Look peacefully in the garden
as flowers bloom and flowers fall…
Ramblingly follow the sky
as clouds fold up
and clouds stretch away.

Watching the reflection of the moon
in the clear deep pool,
I get a glance at the body
beyond this earthly shell.

Listening to the sound
of the bell in the peaceful night,
I am called into sobriety
from my dream within a dream.


(1) The word “Saikontan” is a rendering of original Chinese title, “Caigentan,” which means “Vegetable Root Discourse.” … “Isobe clarifies the title as meaning ‘Talks by a man who lives on vegetable roots’, or more freely, ‘Talks by a man who lives a plain and humble life’.” (

(2) This book was written in the late 16th century. The full citation for the translation cited is:  The Roots of Wisdom – Saikontan, by Hung Ying-ming, tr. William Scott Wilson (Tokyo, New York and San Francisco, Kodansha International, 1985). It is a top favorite among all the spiritual books that I have perused along the way.

(3) Saikontan is the translation that I first encountered. I was dazzled by it. Here are three other translations of this text, each delightful in its own way:

Vegetable Roots Discourse: Wisdom from Ming China on Life and Living / Caigentan, by Hong Zicheng, tr. Robert Aitken with Daniel W.Y. Kwok (Shoemaker and Hoard, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group, Inc., 2006)

Back to Beginnings: Reflections on the Tao, by Huanchu Daoren (the Taoist name of Hung Ying-ming), tr. Thomas Cleary (Boston and London, Shambhala Publications, 1990)

A Chinese Garden of Serenity: Epigrams from the Ming Dynasty ‘Discourses on Vegetable Roots’, tr. Chao Tze-chiang (Mt. Vernon, NY, The Peter Pauper Press, 1990)

(4) Citations for the numbered quotes as excerpted from from Saikontan: The Roots of Wisdom:

1.     II, 114
2.     II, 107
3.     II, 9
4.     I, 9
5.     I, 57
6.     I, 171
7.     II, 88
8.     II, 70
9.     II, 6
10.   II, 6


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