contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Ch’an Buddhism

POEM: SENT TO A HUA MOUNTAIN MONK

I do not know of a Druid or Pagan currently living contemplatively in a mountain cave. But I would not be surprised to learn of one, somewhere in the world. The poem below comes from the contemplative culture of ancient China, where the Taoist and Ch’an Buddhist traditions, in some ways rivals, developed in a mutually influencing way. I believe that there is something for contemplatively inclined Druids and Pagans to appreciate and learn from these traditions. I like this poem because it is a nature poem as much as a contemplative one. Even the meditative turn towards mind is embedded in its natural setting, as the distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ is softened to the point of vanishing.

“From afar,

I know your white-rock hermitage,

hidden in a haze

of evergreen trees.

When the moon sets,

it’s mind-watching time;

clouds rise

in your closed eyes.

Just before dawn, temple bells

sound from neighbouring peaks;

waterfalls hang thousands of feet

in emptiness.

Moss and lichen

cover the cliff face;

a narrow, indistinct path

leads to you.”

Poem Sent to a Hua Mountain Monk from When I find you again, it will be in mountains: selected poems of Chia Tao (2000) Somerville, MA, USA: Wisdom Publications. English translation by Mike O’Connor.

Chia Tao (779 – 843) an erstwhile Ch’an monk, became a poet during China’s Tang Dynasty. Ch’an was the Chinese predecessor of Japanese Zen.

POEM: SILENT ILLUMINATION

 

Silently and serenely, one forgets all words,

Clearly and vividly, it appears before you.

When one realizes it, time has no limits.

When experienced, your surroundings come to life.

Singularly illuminating this bright awareness,

Full of wonder is the pure illumination.

The moon’s appearance, a river of stars,

Snow-clad pines, clouds hovering on mountain peaks.

In darkness, they glow with brightness.

In shadows, they shine with a splendid light.

Like the dreaming of a crane flying in empty space,

Like the clear, still water of an autumn pool,

Endless eons dissolve into nothingness,

Each indistinguishable from the other.

 

Chan Master Sheng-Yen The Poetry of Enlightenment: poems by ancient Chan Masters New York: Dharma Drum Publications, 1987

This is the first section of a longer piece by Hongzhi (in this text transliterated as Hung Chi), who lived in China from 1097-1157. He developed a version of what we now call mindfulness meditation called Silent Illumination.

 

GUANYIN 1940

Childhood inspiration in a traditional Chinese Buddhist setting ….

“My early sense of spirituality was also derived from my mother. She was a member of the local Guanyin Society, twenty or thirty women who met three times a year to chant to Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of the Great Compassion, who hears and responds to the cries of all living beings. Most of the women, like my mother, could not read, so they just chanted simple prayers in a melodic drone.

“The women wanted me as part of the group because there was a common belief in China that children – pure of mind and unsullied by unwholesome thoughts such as greed – have a clearer connection to the life of the spirit than adults. But I also think that in subtle and unconscious ways my mother wanted me to chant because she was directing me toward a spiritual life.

I’d chant – a scrawny, sticklike kid among the sturdy peasant women in their padded jackets and pants, who laughed at my bumbling attempts to follow along. We met in different women’s living rooms by night, our activities lit by an oil lamp, sitting on wooden benches around a rough wood table. In the center of the table was a statue of Guanyin, in front of which we placed offerings of incense, fruit and candles.

“The women’s laughter was indulgent and spurred me on. I chanted with great energy. I grew to love chanting and would often chant on my own while doing chores or walking. I don’t think it is an accident that later in life, when I became a monk, a core part of my practice involved prostrations to the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion. I believe that it is because of good karma in previous lives that I started chanting Guanyin’s name as a child. The karmic connection with Guanyin continues to this day. It is the foundation of everything I do.”

Chan Master Shen Yeng Footprints in the Snow: The Autobiography of a Buddhist Monk New York: Doubleday, 2008

Shen Yeng was born in 1930 and grew up by the shores of the Yangzi River. He was the last of six children in a poor rural family, but got the chance to enter a Buddhist monastery in his early teens. It was a time of civil war and Japanese occupation in much of the country.

In 1949 he was a monk in Shanghai and. along with other young monks, pragmatically recruited into the fleeing Nationalist Army as a means of reaching the safety (for a Buddhist monk) of Taiwan. He was not to see any of his family again until 1988. By this time both his parents were dead but he met up with an older brother, who had news of them and other family members.

On his discharge from the military in 1960 he resumed his life as a monk, became a well-known figure in Taiwanese Chan Buddhism, studying also with Zen practitioners for a period in Japan. Invited to teach in the U.S. in the mid 1970’s, eventually establishing a base for the ‘Western Chan’ in New York. From this beginning the Friends of the Western Chan, where people don’t necessarily have to become Buddhist to benefit from Chan teaching, have become established in several English speaking countries.

HEADLESS ZEN?

“Let go of emptiness and come back to the brambly forest. Riding backwards on the ox, drunken and singing, who could dislike the misty rain pattering on your bamboo raincoat and hat.” Chan Master Hongzhi.

Recently I came across Susan Blackmore’s Zen and the Art of Consciousness (1). Blackmore, though not a Buddhist, works experientially within the Chan tradition (Chan being a Taoist influenced form of Chinese Buddhism, and the precursor of Japanese Zen). It’s how she does her first-person, subjective lifeworld inquiry into consciousness, which she also studies as a cognitive scientist. The book shows her working through ten questions, starting with: ‘Am I conscious now’?

Question 3 is ‘Who is asking the question? Here she brings in Douglas Harding of the Headless Way* and uses some of his experiments. I worked with these last year. I didn’t maintain an ongoing connection with the Headless family for long, mostly because of Harding’s tilt towards self-identification with/as the One cosmic consciousness, as the means dis-identification from ‘self’ at the human level. I’ve discovered that I can’t align myself with it. I don’t want to be God. Yet the ‘headless’ experience and its value have stayed with me. After completing my first Headless Way* pointing experiment, I reported: “pointing out – ‘curtains, folds, blueness, a crack showing light. Right arm. Flesh, tattoos, patterning. Pointing in: nothing: a relief, really, and a joy.” As that work continued, the joy only grew when the exterior view rushed in to fill the space. I say ‘view’ rather than ‘world’ because the world I perceive is a co-creation of the (presumed) outside world and my own (presumed) senses. A bat would have a completely different experience. Still, there was a sense of ‘everything’ filling my nothing at the centre.

Blackmore’s version is this. She describes meditating and looking towards a flower bed. “I paid open attention to everything I could see and hear, and in the space at the top of my shoulders I found no head, only forget-me-nots. I looked for the self who was looking at the forget-me-nots, and simply became them. It was very simple; very obvious”. Blackmore’s subsequent understanding – “what I see is what I am’ – does not as I read it make ‘I am God’ cosmic consciousness claims. Indeed, she is influenced by the philosopher Dan Dennett, who thinks of ‘consciousness’ itself as not just a reification (turning a process into a substance) but an altogether redundant idea. He’s the opposite kind of monist to Douglas Harding.

Some people like to have a line to follow. I like openness, and the possibility of multiple perspectives. I like the gleeful return to the commonsense world indicated by the 12th century Master Hongzhi above. It’s in Blackmore’s book, as part of feedback from her own Chan teacher at a time when she was in relentless pursuit of the problem of consciousness, and may have needed some rebalancing and lightening up in her role as sentient being. I also like the Interbeing approach mapped out in Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary on the Heart Sutra (2) and more recent works such as his Love Letter to the Earth (3), with ‘We are the Earth’ as its first section and ‘Healing Steps’ as the second.

I will give the last word to a member of the Headless Way community. This is in the form of a poem by Colin Oliver called the Oneness of Things (4), which for me captures the ‘headless’ experience seamlessly, and – as only poets can – finds room for all of the above:

The sun low over the beach:

shining wires of dune grass,

stones and the shadows of stones.

On the shoreline, the rush of foam

mirrored in the wet sand.

In the oneness of things

I am nowhere in sight.

 

* www.headless.org/

(1) Susan Blackmore Zen and the Art of Consciousness, Oneworld Publications, 2014 (ebook edition)

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1988

(3) Thich Nhat Hanh Love Letter to the Earth, Berkeley, CA: Parallex Press, 2013

(4) Colin Oliver Nothing but this Moment: selected poems London: Shollond Trust, 2013

POEM: STAYING OVERNIGHT AT WILLOW BANK INN

When are my travels ever going to end?

My old body has come to this inn again.

The roadside pines and junipers are ten years older,

Once short, but now tall and stately.

The place where I stopped last night is far away;

And tomorrow, tonight will be last night.

In just an instant the present has become the past –

I’d have to be a saint not to drink wine.

From Yang Wan-li Heaven my Blanket: Earth my Pillow: Poems from Sung Dynasty China New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1975 (Translated and introduced by Jonathan Chaves

THE GOLDEN FLOWER

 

“Naturalness is called the Way. The Way has no name or form; it is just the essence, just the primal spirit.” (1)

The Secret of the Golden Flower is a lay manual of Buddhist and Taoist methods for clarifying the mind. It was first published in China towards the end of the eighteenth century. It is the product of the ‘Complete Reality’ School of Taoism (2), which synthesized the internal alchemical arts of longevity, the meditation techniques of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and Confucian ethics. Its key texts included the Tao Te Ching (3) the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra (4) and a later Taoist work which translates as Cultivating Stillness (5).

The golden flower itself symbolizes the quintessence of the paths of Buddhism and Taoism, as understood by this school. Gold stands for light, the light of the mind itself; the flower represents the blossoming, or opening up, of the light of the mind. Thus the image evokes the awakening of the real self and its hidden potential. Primal spirit is a mode of awareness subtler and more direct than thought or imagination, and it is central to this blossoming. The Secret of the Golden Flower is devoted to the recovery and refinement of primal spirit in the practitioner.

“The beauties of the highest heavens and the marvels of the sublimest realms are all within the heart: this is where the perfectly open and aware spirit concentrates. Confucians call it the open centre, Buddhists call it the pedestal of awareness, Taoists call it the ancestral earth, the yellow court, the mysterious pass, the primal opening.”

In 1920 a thousand copies were reprinted due to a demand by an “esoteric circle” in Beijing according to Richard Wilhelm, who brought it to Europe in a German edition a few years later with a foreword and commentary by C. G. Jung (6). An English edition translated from the German by Cary F. Baynes appeared in 1929. These editions included fragments from a second work, also from the Complete Reality School, called Hui-Ming Ching (7). This adopted the Chan idea that there is no separation between original nature or wisdom-mind (hui = Sanskrit prajna) and stillness (= Sanskrit Samadhi). At the same time hui-ming means uniting wisdom-mind with the energy of life (ming). Contemplative stillness is to be complemented by a system of energetic movement, drawn from Chinese energy arts (chi gung) – an approach consistent with the Taoist understanding of the Tao as simultaneously the underlying permanent reality and the changing flux of things in transformation.

Modern translators recognize the importance of the pioneering Wilhelm/Jung  work, whilst expressing dismay at its level of inaccuracy and misrepresentation. In relation to the Hui-Ming Ching Eva Wong, who was able to translate a complete copy with illustrations, says: “Baynes’ translation is severely biased by Jungian psychology and does not present the work from a Taoist spiritual perspective … the historical and philosophical connections with its major influences … [are] … ignored … we cannot appreciate the spiritual value of a text if we impose a particular perspective, especially one that comes from a different culture … we need to yield to the text and let it speak on its own terms”. Thomas Cleary is equally unhappy on behalf of The Secret of the Golden Flower, using his own notes on the text to compare the older version unfavourably with his own and asserting that “Wilhelm was not familiar with even the most rudimentary lore of Chan Buddhism”.

In a way, Wilhelm and Jung suffer from the downside of being pioneers. Their successors are bound to know the territory better, partly thanks to them. But they were also men of their time in other ways, in their view of the mystic orient. Jung’s introduction began with a section on Difficulties encountered by a European in trying to understand the East. He expressed admiration for Chinese recognition of the “paradoxes and polarity inherent in what is alive. The opposites always balanced each other – a sign of high culture. One-sidedness, though it lends momentum, is a mark of barbarism”. He also used the opportunity to express pleasure that the West was now learning to value feeling and intuition and thereby widen Western consciousness and culture beyond a narrow “tyranny” of intellect. But he also made (to us) embarrassing statements like “measured by it [Western intellect], Eastern intellect can be described as childish … it is sad indeed when the European departs from his own nature and imitates or ‘affects’ it in any way”.

We are now in a globalizing 21st. century where large numbers of Westerners are working with Buddhist meditation and Chinese energy arts and finding them entirely accessible and transforming. China and its place in the world are also very different. We can let go of any residual notion that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. I’ve had a personal involvement with Buddhist meditation and Tantric traditions that have incorporated chi gung exercises.  I do not find them alien. My Western Way is a result both of a personal choice, and perhaps of a personal call. It could easily have been different.

I can learn directly from the East and I find that Taoism has a particular attraction – both that of the early classics and of the much later Complete Reality School: its attempts at inclusivity, its dialogue with Chan, its cultivation of the energy of life, and a Taoist/Chan sensibility in poetry and painting all speak to me. I am aware of a cultural note that is different to mine, yet I can incorporate key lessons directly into my practice. When working with breath, I have become increasingly conscious of a simultaneous movement of the breath and a stillness in the breath. For me this is both an experience and a metaphor. In my terms it feels very Sophian, and I believe I owe the insight to my acquaintance – however superficial – with Taoist tradition.

 

  1. The Secret of the Golden Flower: the Classic Chinese Book of Life (1991) Translated by Thomas Cleary, with introduction, notes and commentary New York: HarperCollins
  2. Eva Wong (1997) The Shambhala Guide to Taoism Boston & London: Shambhala
  3. Lao Tzu (1998) Tao Te Ching: a Book about the Way and the Power of the Way New version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton Boston & London: Shambhala
  4. The Heart Sutra: the Womb of the Buddhas (2004) Translation and commentary by Red Pine Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint
  5. Cultivating Stillness: a Taoist Manual for Transforming Body and Mind (1992) Translated with an introduction by Eva Wong Boston & London: Shambhala
  6. The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Chinese Book of Life (1962) Translated and explained by Richard Wilhelm with a Foreword and Commentary by C. G. Jung, and part of a Chinese meditation text The Book of Consciousness and Life with a foreword by Salome Wilhelm. London & Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul (revised edition)
  7. Liu Hua-Yang Cultivating the Energy of Life (1998) A translation of the Hui-Ming Ching and its commentaries by Eva Wong Boston & London: Shambhala

WHAT IS POETRY?

Yang Wan-li’s poem ‘What is Poetry?’ asks the question from the Buddhist and Taoist influenced perspective of Sung Dynasty China (the poet lived in our 12th. century – a little younger than Geoffrey of Monmouth, a little older than Gerald of Wales). It is also timeless.

Now, what is poetry?

If you say it is a matter of words,

I will say a good poet gets rid of words.

If you say it is simply a matter of meaning,

I will say a good poet gets rid of meaning,

“But”, you ask, “without words and without meaning

Where is the poetry?”

To this I reply: “Get rid of words and get rid of meaning,

And there is still poetry.”

From Yang Wan-li Heaven my Blanket: Earth my Pillow: Poems from Sung Dynasty China New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1975 (Translated and introduced by Jonathan Chaves)

POEM: SUDDEN FOG

Setting out at dawn, I gaze at the distant mountains;

I can count the peaks in the clear air.

But the budding hope in my heart

arouses the jealousy of the Mountain Spirit.

Swiftly he exhibits his divine powers

in a startling display of transformation.

He fills the air with cotton clouds

then tears them into sheds of silken mist.

They enfold the earth from everywhere

and hide the sky from view.

The sun, like a plate of rose quartz,

hangs at a height beyond calculation –

it shines down through the haze, red beams penetrating the white fog.

In the fog are human forms

coming and going in great confusion.

Each of them is holding some implement

but I cannot see clearly what they are.

Next, as if this weren’t strange enough,

there appear even stranger sights:

a roadway lined with pearl-studded banners;

mountains covered with trees of jasper.

A golden bridge arching across the sky;

a jade pagoda surging up from the earth.

But while I stare in astonishment

everything is suddenly swept away.

Amazed, I rub my eyes,

and finding myself standing on the same old mountain road.

Who can say if this was fantasy or reality,

whether I was dreaming of awake?

Once I travelled to Mountain Omei in my imagination

And laughed at Buddha for deceiving the ignorant.

Laugh at deception and be deceived –

Then Buddha will have the last laugh.

From Yang Wan-li Heaven my Blanket: Earth my Pillow: Poems from Sung Dynasty China New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1975 (Translated and introduced by Jonathan Chaves)

According to our reckoning Yang Wan-li lived from 1127-1206. Mount Omei in the western province of Szechwan was a holy place for Buddhist devotees, particularly associated with the bodhisattva P’u-hsien, or Samantabhadra, to give his Sanskrit name.

Of this poem the translator says: “Yang may have been influenced by Ch’an Buddhism” (i.e. a purist, philosophical kind, parent of Japanese Zen) “in his discussion of poetry and his perception of the world, but ‘Sudden Fog’ refers to a different kind of Buddhism, a popular, devotional religion in which the devotee can hope to experience visions of his favourite Buddha or bodhisattva. Certain mountains in China were associated with these apparitions, and Buddhists would make pilgrimages to them seeking visions or mystical experiences.

POEM: PASSING SHAOLIN HERMITAGE

PASSING SHAOLIN HERMITAGE – TO FRIENDS IN THE CAPITAL

I reined in my horse below a pine ridge

and hiked to the lookout on top

the trail appeared impassable as I started out

but once I arrived I wished it were longer

from the summit I heard a chorus of winds

in the woods I bathed in a secluded stream

the sound of a bell roused me on the Way

the evening chime cleared the clouds and mist

though my visit was brief

I finally saw what caused my troubles

but when I thought about building a hut

I knew it would have to wait for old age.

 

From In Such Hard Times: the Poetry of Wei Ying-Wu translated by Red Pine, Port Townsend: WA, USA: Copper Canyon Press, 2009

Wei Ying-wu was a poet of the later 8th century CE, as we count time. It was a period when the later-remembered-as-glorious T’ang dynasty had begun to unravel. Translator Red Pine says that “Wei lived his life wondering what went wrong”, giving a melancholy tinge to many of his poems. He was distantly related to the Imperial family, a scholar in both the Buddhist and Confucian traditions who spent many years as a state official without much enjoying it.

This poem was written in 771. (In Britain, that’s 22 years before the Viking sack of the Christian monastery at Lindisfarne.) Shaolin Temple was built in the fifth century for a monk from India in a high mountain basin at the foot of Sungshan’s Shaoshih Peak. The trail from the temple to the top went right by the cave where Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan (Japanese Zen) Buddhism spent nine years in meditation.

The chime to which Wei refers was used in Chan monasteries to mark the end of a meditation period. The use of the term ‘the Way’ (Tao) wasn’t confined to Taoists – ‘Tao’ was also used by Confucians, and by Buddhists as a translation of Sanskrit ‘Dharma’. The last two lines of the poem show a tension between Wei’s Buddhist and Confucian trainings – whether to let go of worldly attachments, or whether to stay in his post and “wait for old age” before building his hut.

OVERNIGHT STAY WITH K’O-KUNG

For me, this poem by Chia Tao is a contrasting twin to Poems Just Dotted Down in my last blog. On the one hand it is more self-conscious and struggling, and on the other more poignant and touching with the human face revealed. I like to read them together.

For ten li

I’ve been searching for the hidden temple

Up branches

Of the cold stream.

Monks sit Ch’an,

One with the snowy night;

Wild geese, approaching Ts’ao-t’ang,

Fly within hearing.

With lamp flames dying,

Our words are subdued;

The rest of our lives

Should be clouds and high peaks.

Up to now,

I’ve been sick a lot,

And the Enlightened Prince

Does not know my name.

From When I find you again, it will be in mountains: selected poems of Chia Tao (2000) Somerville, MA, USA: Wisdom Publications

Chia Tao (779 – 843) an erstwhile Ch’an monk, became a poet during China’s Tang Dynasty. Ch’an was the Chinese predecessor of Japanese Zen.

English translation by Mike O’ Connor.

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