Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review: The Poetry of Zen, by Sam Hamill & J.P. Seaton

Want a small, concise yet decent collection of Zen poetry? Then this is what you're looking for. The translator & editors of The Poetry of Zen, Sam Hamill & J.P. Seaton, have produced a work worthy of any bookshelf (or pocket). In it, they have translated poems by Lao Tzu, Han Shan, Li Po, Tu Fu, Saigyo, Dogen, Basho, and Issa, not to mention many, many other greats of oriental verse. Here's an example of Hamill's efforts in rendering the original Chinese of Lao Tzu into English:

"Heaven is eternal. The earth endures.

The reason for heaven's eternity and eat=rth's endurance
is that they do not live for themselves only,
and therefore may live forever.

The sage steps back but remains in front,
the outsider always within.

Self is realized through selflessness."
(The Poetry of Zen, p.23)

The book is divided into two parts covering Chinese poems and Japanese poems respectively. The poets themselves were not all of the Zen school of Buddhism (Saigyo was a member of the Shingon sect and Issa was a Pure land Buddhist, for example), and some not even Buddhists  (Tu Fu was a Confucian, and Lao Tzu the founder of Daoism). But, this does b=not mean that the spirit of Zen is not to be found in their poetry, and as they argue in the introduction, "Zen is Taoist Buddhism. Or: Zen is Buddhist Taoism." (Ibid. p.11) This broad approach to their subject matter has enabled Seaton & Hamill to include much wonderful poetry in this current volume which otherwise would have been omitted merely because it didn't come from the Zen school itself. The reader should be grateful for this decision, as the verse by Lao Tzu above illustrates, as does the one below by the lesser know poet Liu Ch'ang Ch'ing (710-785?), translated by J.P. Seaton:

"Searching for the Taoist Monk Ch'ang at South Creek

The way is crossed by many paths,
the moss by sandal tracks.
White clouds lean, at rest on the silent island.
Fragrant grasses bar the idle gate.

Rain past, observe the color of the pines.
Out along the mountain, to the source,
flowers in the stream reveal Ch'an's meaning:
face-to-face, all words gone."
(Ibid. p.49)

So, in the first section of The Poetry of Zen, the poets are Chinese, and cover a timespan from Lao Tzu (4th century BCE) to Po Ching (1884-1918). Obviously, in all that time there have way more poets writing on Zen themes than could be included in a small book like this one, but the authors have done an excellent job in sifting through this great tradition and coming up with gems from recognized poetical giants as well as less well known figures. These include Buddhist monks (Hui Yung, 4th to 5th centuries), Confucianists (Tu Fu, 712-770), and  less easily classified poets such as the "Zen tramp" Han Shan (8th century). The following is a poem of the latter's, translated by Seaton:

"Idly, I wander to the flowering peak.
Morning sun: its glory blazing
All around, in sunlit emptiness
White clouds, and cranes, fly."
(Ibid. p.34)

In the second part of the book we are introduced to the Zen poetry of Japan. This, again, covers a long period of time, 8th century (the Priest Mansei) to the 19th century (Kobayashi Issa). In its introduction, this section of the book leads the reader through the history of Zen and its poetical expression in Japanese history in a concise and interesting manner. It uses the work of Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), the most famous of Zen poets and promoter of what became known as the haiku, to show how Japanese Zen & poetry differ from their Chinese origins. Basho is given center stage among the Japanese poets with a full twenty pages of the book, including prose as well as the poetry which it often accompanied in his work:

"It was mid-Autumn under threatening skies when I made up my mind to begin a journey. Windblown leaves reminded me of all the uncertainties a wanderer faces.

A wanderer,
let that be my name - 
the first winter rain."
(Ibid. p.143)

The Poetry of Zen is  a tremendous book that is quite likely to be the definite work of its size and scope. The two translator / editors deserve all the credit going for presenting such a rich & inspiring collection of poetry to the world. And, you don't have to be a Buddhist, or even a Zennist, to appreciate the poems in The Poetry of Zen. For, as the six excerpts in this review illustrate, Zen poetry can be beautiful, even sublime. The poets that composed these verses may or may not have been enlightened - and it seems that most were certainly not - but their poetry is most enlightening to say the least…and most worthy of our attention. Let's finish with two typically delicate pieces, the first translated from the Japanese, the second from the Chinese:
Soin (1604-1682) translated by Sam Hamill:

"Settling, white dew
does not discriminate,
each drop its home"
(Ibid. p.132)

Yuan Mei (1716-1798), translated by J.P. Seaton:

"Sitting at night by the west window,
rain everywhere.
Before my eyes the rule of nature's bitter,
hard to fathom.
The lamp's gentle gleam becomes a pyre:
from all about, moths come,
flight upon flight,
into the fire."
(Ibid. 79) 

The above book is published by Shambhala Publications, and can be viewed here: The Poetry of Zen

Thursday, November 22, 2012

It's Raining Dharma

"When the rain comes, they run and hide their heads..."

Sitting here in our house in the Northeast of Thailand, my wife and I gaze out at the falling rain. ‘Falling’ isn’t necessarily the most accurate word to describe this monsoon rain, however, as it cascades down from the heavens. Maybe ‘a deluge of rain’ might be a better description, or perhaps ‘a blitz of rain.’ (If you're someone who’s into his biblical tales, you might prefer the word ‘flood.’) All this might invite the question “What’s this obsession with the fact that it’s raining, anyhow?” And one answer could refer to my being British, and a national preoccupation that comes from living in a country where the weather consistently changes on a minute-by-minute basis. And there’s probably some truth in that explanation: but there is another reason.

A short time ago, it was a bright, sunny afternoon, and my wife and I had ideas to go out and enjoy our day off together around the city. But, as with all things, the good weather wasn’t to last, and now we’re stuck in the house, watching the torrent of water spilling from above, flooding the street. (It often floods in our street if it rains really heavily – the sewers overflow into the road, and the water rises to ankle level or higher.)

Still haven’t worked out where I’m going with this? Well, in a word, anicca. For any readers not familiar with this Pali term, we can use impermanent, instead. The sudden wet weather is indicative of a world where anything can change any moment, and on some level, constantly is changing. This is a basic insight that Buddhists endeavor to consistently cultivate moment to moment. Everything in is flux; nothing stays the same forever.

So, looking up at the grey sky with its watery invasion of the land, we live in the knowledge that this will change too, at some point, for it is impermanent like all else. One moment it’s sunny, the next cloudy, then it begins to rain. But, soon enough, the sun will break through the cloud, and the rain will dry up, and we can think again of venturing out into this beautiful city that we call home. True, enough, nothing stays the same forever, including ourselves. There’s something to ponder there as the rain starts to let up, and thoughts turn to the daily process of this body ‘drying up’ like the rain, and one day ceasing for good. What will we do with each moment, in the meantime?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Forest Haiku III

Observing leaves in the forest can be an enlightening experience...

scattered leaves
are thoughts

green canopy

birds chirping
sunlight rested
on the leaves

language of trees
a rustling of life

a monk sweeps
the temple floor
falling leaves

crumpled leaf
stiffened with age
and faded

his words fade
into those leaves

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Third Experiment in Awareness

In recent posts, two experiments in awareness have been presented, the first centered on sights, the second on sounds. In this third experiment in awareness, the focus will be on thoughts. This will reveal that what the British philosopher called ‘seeing-who-we-really-are’ isn’t dependent upon the physical senses, despite being so efficacious when applied to them. So, as with previous experiments, please follow the instructions whilst keeping an open mind along the way.

This experiment can be done with eyes opened or closed, although the latter method will probably work best for most experimenters, particularly at first. Take a few moments to quieten down and withdraw attention from the physical world. What are you thinking at this precise moment? Is it a quick succession of thoughts or is your thinking quite slow and steady?

When awareness loses touch with the thinking process gently bring it back to the thought(s) arising at present. Again, analyze the nature of the thinking process; is it fast or slow, is it constructive or rambling? Try to remain with the present train of thought for a minute or so, maintaining aware of its nature. Note that thoughts, although not physical, still have particular ‘shapes’ or forms, and that they are things.

Next, turn attention to that which is conscious of thoughts. Is it classifiable in the same way as its contents are? Is it fast, slow, systematic or rambling? Can it be said to have any shape or form? Here, I find a clear awareness that is awake to the thoughts that arise in it, but isn’t one of them. In fact, it is nothing like them, because it is not a thing – it is no thing at all!

In response to the previous experiments, the question arose, “What’s the point?” This question is very important, for if there’s no reason to experiment with awareness, then why bother? Well, speaking from my own experience with these techniques, I can vouch that they can be very effective in loosening the bonds of identifying with, and attachment to, the ego-self that I normally take myself to be. Not only is this a more accurate understanding of what we truly are, but it is also conducive to an increase in happiness or contentment.

Allied to the above benefits, which could be seen as somewhat selfish, even though they involve a reduction in self-identification, is the fact that other people may well benefit as well. This is because to practice this form of mindfulness results in the crumbling of the self-made barriers that usually separate human beings. Looking back here and finding nobody home means that there’s no self interest to get in the way of the perception of others. In fact, they are experienced as part of this awareness, and as such are not recipients of the usually self-centered attitudes that color our attitudes and actions towards other people.

These three experiments have featured three different elements of the human experience: vision, hearing, and thinking. There are other senses that can be explored in the light of awareness, which include touching, tasting and smelling. The Buddhist satipatthana mindfulness practices supply more potential subjects for us to view in relation to awareness, which encompass feelings (positive, negative and neutral), the state of the mind (greedy, generous, hateful, loving, etc.), The Four Noble Truths (suffering, its cause, its ending, and the Path to its ending). No doubt you can think of other ways to experiment with awareness and its contents yourself. (For more on satipatthana, click here: 4 Focuses of Mindfulness)

So, all in all, ‘seeing-what-we-truly-are’ (my variant of Douglas’ well known description of this technique quoted above) can be an effective way to practice insight. It can transform our relationship to the world and the myriad beings that we encounter in it. Above all, it gives us a valuable, simple, and direct method to let go of greed, hatred, and delusion, leading to a more awakened life. Give it a go and let me know how you get along.

To view the two previous similar posts click below:

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What is Essential, by Dr. Rahula Walpola

"The question has often been asked: Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? It does not matter what you call it. Buddhism remains what it is whatever label you may put on it. The label is immaterial. Even the label “Buddhism” which we give to the Teaching of the Buddha is of little importance. The name one gives it is inessential.

In the same way, Truth needs no label: it is neither Buddhist, nor Christian, nor Jewish, nor Hindu, nor Moslem. It is not the monopoly of anyone. Sectarian labels are a barrier to the independent understanding of Truth, and they produce harmful prejudices in men’s mind.

This is true not only in intellectual and spiritual matters, but also in human relations. When, for instance, we meet a man, we do not look on him as a human being, but we put a label on him, such as English, French, German, American, or Latino, and regard him with all the prejudices associated with that label in our mind. Yet, he may be completely free from those attributes which we have put on him.

People are so fond of discriminative labels that they even go to the length of putting them on human qualities and emotions common to all. So, they talk of different “brands” of charity, as for example, of Buddhist charity or Christian charity, and look down upon other “brands” of charity. But charity cannot be sectarian; it is neither Buddhist, nor Christian, nor Hindu, nor Moslem. The love of a mother for her child is neither Buddhist nor Christian — it is motherly love. Human qualities and emotions such as love, charity, compassion, tolerance, patience, friendship, desire, hatred, ill-will, ignorance, conceit, etc., need no sectarian labels; they belong to no particular religion.

To the seeker after Truth, it is immaterial where an idea comes from. The source and development of an idea is a matter for the academic. In fact, in order to understand Truth, it is not necessary even to know whether the teaching comes from the Buddha, or from anyone else. What is essential is seeing the thing, understanding it."

The above extract is from a wonderful book by the Venerable Doctor Walpola Rahula. To download a free pdf copy of the book, click here: What the Buddha Taught
For a review, click here: Review: What the Buddha Taught

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Second Experiment in Awareness

Following on from a previous post that featured an experiment in awareness, here’s another (albeit brief) exploration of what the British philosopher Douglas Harding called ‘seeing who we really are’. The previous experiment focused on awareness in relation to the visual sense, this one features the auditory sense.

Close your eyes. Listen to an external sound, maybe a dog barking or traffic passing by. Notice its volume level, its pitch, and whether it’s constant or intermittent.

Next, focus awareness on another noise, this time something closer to you; perhaps music, voices, or a whirling fan. Again, take note of the specific characteristics of the sound, observing them one by one.

Now listen to a sound emanating from yourself. Your breath will do, as it enters and exists from your body. How loud is it? What’s its tempo: is it long and slow or short and swift.

Finally, turn your attention to that in which all these various sounds occur in. Can this said to be loud or quiet? Intermittent or constant? Is it fast or slow? Here, all audible phenomena arise in a silence. That they have particular qualities is the very stuff of what they are made of, but the silent awareness in which they are born, live and die is peace itself, a tranquility that hosts everything.

So, as with the experiment in awareness in the last post, if you don’t do it, but merely read about it and think about it, you’ll miss the whole point. If you did do it, but still appeared to miss the whole point, there’s no harm in repeating the exercise, is there?

This experiment is one of many pioneered by Douglas Harding, a wonderful man that I had the pleasure to meet several times in the Nineties. He himself continued to tour the world promoting ‘seeing who we really are’ to anyone who showed an interest well into his own Nineties, passing away at the ripe old age of Ninety-seven in 2007. His vigor and enthusiasm for what he also called ‘in-seeing’ – in this instance ‘in-listening’ might be more appropriate – reflect some of the benefits of practicing this technique in mindfulness.

Buddhists, if we are open-minded to the experiments and their results, can find great use in them. They naturally lend themselves to everyday mindfulness, enlivening each and every moment that the space here is paid attention to, as well as being conducive to meditation practice. Sitting and just looking at the spacious awareness to all that is seen, or listening to all that is heard, is a simple and insight-producing activity. It reveals something about our nature, as it is in this very moment, rather than from reading a book or philosophizing (as useful as these endeavors can be).

What exactly does it reveal, however? It shows that beneath (or alongside) all the things that exist in human experience, whether they be visual, auditory, mental or whatever, there is this peaceful knowing that not only is aware of everything, but is also somehow one with them. This means that whatever distracting or upsetting things are happening in awareness, awareness itself remains no such thing; it is the no thing that is host to all things. Isn’t it worth a look – or a listen?