contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Chinese Buddhism

MAP AND TERRITORY

The Empress Wu Zetian ruled the Chinese empire alone from 690-705, the only woman ever to do so. It was the time of the Tang dynasty, when China was open to central Asian and Indian cultural influence. Wu herself had a strong Buddhist commitment.

She was curious about the world view of an esoteric Buddhist school, the Hwa Yen. In this view, all the universes were seen as a single living organism, characterised by mutually interdependent and interpenetrating processes of becoming and unbecoming. The Empress asked for a simple and practical demonstration of this complex vision.

The Hwa Yen sage Fa-tsang was given a palace room in which he placed eight large mirrors, each at one of the eight points of the compass. He placed a ninth mirror on the ceiling and a tenth on the floor. Then he suspended a candle from the ceiling in the centre of the room. The Empress was delighted at the effects thus created. ‘How beautiful! How marvellous!’ she cried. Fa-tsang explained how the reflection of the flame in each of the ten mirrors demonstrated the relationship of the One and the many, and also how each mirror also reflected the reflections of the flame in all the other mirrors, until myriad flames filled them all. The reflections were mutually identical. In one sense they were interchangeable; in another sense they existed individually. Then Fa-tsang covered one of the reflections to show the significant consequences this had for the whole. He described the relationship between the reflections as ‘One in All; All in One; One in One; All in All ‘.

Hwa Yen Buddhists also spoke of ‘The Great Compassionate Heart’. They understood it as a quality of awareness that sees all phenomena including ourselves as arising out of Emptiness, remaining part of the Emptiness whilst assuming a temporal form, and finally falling back into Emptiness and being reabsorbed. “It is a quality of awareness that quite naturally expresses itself in acts of deepest, yet quite unsentimental reverence and compassion for all that is, the just and the unjust, humans, animals, plants and stones”.*

Fa-tsang was careful to provide a ‘the-map-is-not-the-territory’ caveat. “Of course, I must point out, Your Majesty, that this is only a rough approximation and static parable of the real state of affairs in the universe – for the universe is limitless and in it an all is in perpetual, multidimensional motion”. Yet he had still taken care to provide his Empress with a beautiful, memorable and instructive map. Such maps, and the sense of ‘Great Compassionate Heart’ which they foster are of great value. They can nourish the seeker and illuminate the way, for rulers and non-rulers alike.

*Richard Miller Yoga Nidra: a Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2005 (A more extended version of the story is included in this book.)

A SMALL GOD OF THE EARTH ATTAINS BUDDHAHOOD

IMG_20191011_101101_kindlephoto-8745263

I have had this statue for awhile, and intend to pay it more attention. He might be a small god. or he might be a human priest or shaman, acting as guardian of a sacred place. I imagine it as including a waterfall and springs, with  rocks and earth and trees. Either way he would be eligible to become, or realise that he latently is, a Buddha or Taoist Immortal, to use another framework from his culture of origin.

There are even rumours of his being Maitreya, the next world saviour, on account of his laughing, ecstatic demeanour. For me, this works best in a model where we could all be prompted into saving the world together. I’m not sure how best to name and describe him – what words to use, or references to make. So I took this picture instead.

DOVE ENERGY

Guanyin is the Bodhisattva of compassion, who hears the cries of the world. In Chinese iconography, she is sometimes portrayed as seated on a lotus, holding a jar that contains pure water. It is the divine nectar of life, compassion and wisdom. She also has a small willow branch, to sprinkle on devotees and bless them with spiritual and physical peace. The willow teaches the wisdom of knowing how to bend rather than break, and has a history of use in Chinese shamanic and medical practice.

Often depicted as a woman in white (signifying purity and maternity) Guanyin may also have doves flying towards or around her. Doves are associated with fecundity, marital fidelity and longevity. There was a tradition of awarding a jade sceptre with the figure of a dove to people who reached the age of 70. Ritualized dove releases were used as a means of warding off evil. The Lotus Sutra (1) contains a chapter on the transformations of Avalokitesvara, Guanyin’s male alter-ego, travelling the world and “by resorting to a variety of shapes”, conveying beings to salvation.

I feel increasingly that Guanyin represents the same archetypal energy as Sophia, the Gnostic “mother of angels” (2). In my icon of Sophia, she holds a chalice at heart level, and a dove sits in it, facing out. When I had a Temple of Sophia practice, she often appeared in dove form rather than anthropomorphically. She inherits dove symbolism from the Goddesses of the Eastern Mediterranean, and from Jewish culture, again with dove symbolism, derives the role of revealing God’s inward thought, and communicating insight and knowledge to mankind.

For me it is as if a dove energy has relocated me to a new practice community. The opportunity to work more systematically on lovingkindness and compassion than heretofore, yet in a gentle unforced way. Hence the cultural change of garment from ‘Sophia’ to ‘Guanyin’. Early this year I had two episodes of active imagination (open waking dreams rather than structured guided meditations). In the first, I was a mouse in the talons of an owl, flying over water to an unknown destination. I knew that the owl was Sophia. In the second, I was under the tutelage of Sophia on a small ocean-going yacht. Here too, I didn’t know the destination. I remember her asking me to contemplate my existing resources, and I thought of Russel Williams talking about “stillness, pure consciousness, emptiness of being – based on sense-feeling, and filling the emptiness with lovingkindness” (3).

Some months later I contacted the Community of Interbeing. It’s a Mahayana Buddhist community, and so under the aegis of Guanyin, and is proving a good place to be. Beyond its regular meetings, there have been two spin-offs. The first is my Mindful Self-Compassion course (4). The second is a recent retreat with members and friends of my sangha. The theme was ‘embodiment’. The purpose was to make Buddhist practice more somatically aware and Earth honouring. We spent a significant amount of time outside and making use of local topography. It was very like my outdoor experiences of contemplative Druidry and included the same sensitivity to the politics of Deep Ecology In terms of Dove guidance, I feel that I have landed now, and I simply go on from here.

(1) The lotus sutra: saddharma-pundarika Translated by H. Kern, 1884 (Kindle edition)

(2) Jean-Yves Leloup The gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the gnosis of the sacred union. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2003 (Translation and commentary from the Coptic. English translation, Joseph Rowe. Forward by Jacob Needleman)

(3) Russel Williams (2015) Not I, Not Other than I: the Life and Spiritual Teachings of Russel Williams (Edited by Steve Taylor) Winchester & Washington: O Books

(4) https://centerformsc.org/

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.

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

POEM: A WITHERED TREE

Not a twig or leaf on the old tree,

Wind and frost harm it no more.

A man could pas through a hole in its belly,

Ants crawl searching under its peeling bark.

Its only lodger, the toadstool which dies in a morning,

The birds no longer visit in the twilight.

But its wood can still spark tinder.

It does not care yet to be only the void at its heart.

 

By Han Yü (768-824)

From: Poems of the Late T’ang translated from the Chinese with an introduction by A.C. Graham Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965

Han Yü was primarily an essayist and polemicist, and initiated an ultimately successful Confucian revival at a time of Buddhist cultural dominance. When writing verse, he adopted devices traditionally confined to prose and to fu (prose poems) and sought to attend to the social and human content of poetry.

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.

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