Monday, February 27, 2012

Forest Walking

The dirt track leads off into the trees, wrapping thoughts with foliage. A green canopy renders the sun impotent, a protective sheath against its heat. The beckoning path is followed into the cocoon of trees and bushes, and in this cool serenity, the mind relaxes, dispersing into its environs, leaving nothing here but the forest.

Forest walking
Falling from nowhere

An old hut seems abandoned to this peace, its sad facade a reminder of mortality. Only a brief stop to witness its decrepitude before it is deserted once more, left to fade into the forest. Coming to a fork in the track, a choice must be made. To carry on or turn left. Feet do the thinking and walk on before a decision rises in this mind, slow footsteps on the dry earth. 

Forest walking
Monks' hut
But no monk

This path seems to lead to no place in particular, so a retreat is called for. On the way back, stranded leaves catch the eye. They are aged, gone crispy, and their colour is draining away. On closer examination, they have a certain beauty contained in their brownness, and a pathetic appeal in the holes that riddle them. They have had their best day, and now fade into time, as younger, vibrant leaves are clung to by the trees, until they too will lose their lustre.

Forest walking
Dead leaves
For companions

Gazing upwards, a dark heaven awaits in the form of the silhouetted foliage. A break in its blackness reveals the clear sky beyond, a blue promise of clarity. The small sun sparkles through another gap in the trees, a jewel grasping attention. This is a brief distraction from the path itself, however, and feet walk on, following the curve of the track. 

Forest walking
Sunlight winks
Through the trees

The forest flows through awareness, the track eaten up by this hungry traveller. Green flits by into nothingness as the end of the path is reached. Ah! Back into the worked of people, concerns, important things. And yet, they are all falling leaves, plummeting through the verdure of this mind. Every moment can be forest walking, for the message contained in fauna and flora is found in concrete and metal, too. 

Forest walking
Through me
Stillness everywhere

Related post: Forest Walking II

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Review: Masaoka Shiki Selected Poems, by Burton Watson

This is a really beautiful little book. The translator, Burton Watson, has done a wonderful job rendering the Japanese poetry of Masaoka Shiki (1867 - 1902) into English. Primarily working with Shiki's haiku - there are over 140 in this collection - Watson has seemingly transcend the problems of translating such an idiosyncratic art form into English. Shiki's poetry breaths on every page, lighting up the mind of its reader, leaving a genuine feeling of nowness. Take a look at the following examples to see what this reviewer means:

"Sudden downpour - 
and all these maids
hauling out storm shutters"
(Masaoka Shiki Collected Poems, p.26)
"Stone Buddha standing there - 
fallen leaves settled
in his hands"
(Ibid. p.31)
"Fluttering, fluttering,
butterflies yellow
over the water"
(Ibid. p.35)
It's as if we are with Shiki as he watches the rain and the maids' efforts to put the shutters in place. Perhaps he is watching them in the safety of a dry abode, but the reader can almost feel drenched as if caught in the rain also. In a quieter moment, we can reflect with Shiki as he notices the leaves in the palm of the Buddha statue, contemplating the fleeting nature of this existence. The third example is perhaps the most engaging of the three, however, as it really inspires the image of those butterflies flitting to and fro above the water. How delightful!

Returning to Burton Watson's efforts, we might take a moment or two to consider the Introduction. Despite being all-to-brief, it gives us a glimpse of Shiki's life and art. Shiki suffered severe illness in his short time on earth, and this is referenced in his haiku frequently, but even here Watson brings our attention to the poet's delicate grasp of life's beauty, stained as it is with the colours of suffering. And, although the poems stand up on their own with perfect poise, the insights that Watson flavors them with adds to their impact, allowing the reader to evaluate their impressive qualities all the more.

"The curious interrelations or seeming interrelatedness of phenomena is often a key element in his work, assign the famous poem:
I eat a persimmon
and a bell starts booming - 
Buddhism is a religion profoundly concerned with causes and conditions, and the poem is set at one of the oldest and most venerable of the country's Buddhist temples, Horyu-ji in Nara. Is Shiki telling us that there is some arcane connection between the eating of the permission and the sounding of the bell?"
(Ibid. p.8)
Buddhism is an important, or perhaps crucial, aspect to Shiki's poetry. For, as Watson notes above, it is through his Buddhist understanding of the world that much of Shiki's poetic work was shaped. With the Dharma to guide him, it's possible that much of his poetry would not have had the profoundly meditative quality that it undoubtably possesses. Moreover, there are more philosophical Buddhist ideas that come through in Shiki's haiku that give them a depth that is amazing for an art form so very brief.

Shiki did not only quite haiku, however, although this is what he is widely renowned for. For, despite being a reviver of haiku when they had fallen far from the heights of Matsuo Basho (1644 - 1694), and the man that gave them their modern name haiku, Shiki wrote much more besides. He was an essayist and reporter for the Japanese newspaper Nippon, and he also composed two other forms of poetry: tanka (somewhat longer equivalents of haiku), and kanshi (poetry written in Chinese rather than his native Japanese). For the purposes of this review, a few tanka should suffice:

"Orange tree by the window
where I lie sick - 
its blossoms open and scatter,
its fruits appear,
and still I lie here sick"
(Ibid. p.95)

"Red shoots of roses
reaching out two feet -
their thorns are soft 
in the falling 
spring rain"
(Ibid. p.103)

Burton Watson has given us a wonderful work. It is full of Shiki's sensitive reflections on life, illness, and beauty, despite its relative brevity at 126 pages. And, for those of us that are Buddhist lovers of poetry, it does so in a way that's in tune with the Dharma, whilst still portraying Shiki's experiences with a lightness of touch that would appeal to someone who knows nothing of the Buddha's teachings. Moreover, the insights that these poems contain hint at a deeper reality lying beneath the surface of our every day experiences, one that we come closer to with each syllable. This book will be frequently referred to by this reviewer in the years to come, and it comes highly recommended. Thank you, Masaoka Shiki; thank you, Burton Watson!

The above book is published by Columbia University Press, and is available from their website at: 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review: Zen Sourcebook, by Stephen Addiss, with Stanley Lombardo & Judith Roitman

If you want a general introduction to Zen literature, or you're a seasoned Zennist, this book's for you. It's an incredible collection of Chinese, Korean and Japanese texts from many of the most important masters and teachers of Zen, from Bodhidharma, the founder of the sect in China, to Kyong Ho, a more recent exponent of this intriguing school of Buddhism. The three authors, Stephen Addiss, Stanley Lombardo, and Judith Roitman deserve immense gratitude from the English-speaking Buddhist world for this unique compilation. Not only have they chosen such central texts from the history of Zen, but they have also translated many of the texts themselves, with both Buddhist sensitivies and literary finesse. Some of the works contained are not translated by the authors, with extracts from John Blofeld's rightly applauded rendition of Huang Po's sermons a fine example.

So, with such a wide-ranging and varied selection of writings, where to begin? Well, the beginning is as good a place as any to start, and that's where we'll look first. The Introduction is written by Paula Arai, Associate Professor of Religion at Louisiana State University. She gives a lucid account of both the history of Zen Buddhism, as well as an account of its practices, such as the koan, a device that features extensively in the book, not least in the wonderful (and complete) translation of Wu-men's Gateless Barrier, rendered into English by Stephen Addiss. Let's take quick peek at Addiss's efforts:

"Wu-tsu said, 'Suppose a water buffalo passes by a window. The head, horns, and four legs go past - why can't the tail pass by?'
Wu-men's Verse
If it passes by, it falls in a ditch;
If it goes back, it is destroyed;
But this little tail,
How wondrous it is!"
(Zen Sourcebook, p.107)

The translation here is clear and to the point, even if the koan itself may be somewhat more confusing! This is a feature of the translations featured in the book; easy to comprehend (at least intellectually!), and yet at the same time, not without an awareness of the importance of the value of the writings as pieces of literature. Other translators whose work appears here include J. C. Cleary (Tai-hui, Swampland Flowers & T'aego, Collected Sayings), Anne Dutton (The Awakening of Mugai Nyodai), James Green (Chao-chou, Recorded Sayings), and Norman Waddell (Bankei, The Ryumon-ji Sermons). Now, even if, like the present reviewer, you already posses some of these translations, the collection as a whole has so many different works included that there's bound to be much that's new to you. One example of this for the reviewer is 'The Biography of Miao-tsung' by Miriam Levering:

"At the time Ch'an master Chen-hsieh was living in a small cloister at I-hsing. Miao-tsung went directly to see him there. Chen-hsieh was sitting upright on a rope mat. The instant Miao-tsung was inside the door, Chen-hsieh said: 'Are you ordinary or a sage?'
Miao-tsung said: 'Where is the third eye?'
Chen-hsieh said: 'The real thing appears right in front of your face - what is that like?'
Miao-tsung held up her kneeling and bowing cloth.
Chen-hsieh said: 'I did not ask about that.'
Miao-tsung said: 'Too are - it's gone!'
Chen-hsieh shouted: 'Ho!'
Miao-tsung also shouted: 'Ho!'"
(Ibid. pp. 127-128)

The sheer scope of the book is something that should be noted here also. It starts with two important texts chanted in Zen monasteries the world over: the Heart Sutra & the Kanzeon (Guan Yin) Sutra, translated by Addiss & Lombardo. Next, comes the early Zen figures Bodhidharma, Seng-ts'an, and Hui-neng (Sixth to Eighth Centuries AD). Other Zen greats not already mentioned include Lin-chi, the P'ang family, Dogen, Ikkyu, So Sahn, and Hakuin. Another important personage featured is the Korean monk Chinul (1158 - 1210), translated by Lombardo:

"Where everything is empty, luminous awareness is not obscured, and this empty, calm, luminous mind is your original face. It is also the Dharma-seal transmitted in direct succession by all the Buddhas, Patriarchs, and enlightened beings of the past, present, and future. If you awaken to this mind, there are no steps in between, no stairs to climb. You go directly to the stage of Buddha, and with each step you transcend the three worlds.You will return home, all doubts resolved. Filled with compassion and Wisdom, you will be the teacher of Heaven and Earth. It will be as if gods and humans offered you thousands of gold coins every day, with the promise of more. You will indeed have finished the great work of life and death."
(Ibid. p.139)

Such priceless teachings are abound in this book, and personally having little knowledge of Korean Zen, the works from Korea such as the one above are of particular interest. The clarity of both Chinul's Zen and Lombardo's translation are dazzling. The description of the "empty, calm, luminous mind" is enough to spark a direct experience of the original face. 'Zen Sourcebook' is chockablock full of writings designed by expert Zen masters to inspire our awakening. We are privileged to have access to them, and the way that Addiss, Lombardo & Roitman have worked to assemble them together for our enjoyment and enlightenment is worthy of much praise. I wholeheartedly recommend this wonderful book, for in its 275 pages are such words as split heaven asunder and leave the light of the Buddha shining in our minds.

The above book is published by Hackett Publishing Company, and is available from their website at: Zen Sourcebook

Friday, February 17, 2012

Forest Haiku II

On a recent visit to Wat Pa Nanachat, Thailand...

The forest is full
Of chanting voices
And yet still...

He pours water
Upon a tree
Forest sings back

Golden Buddha
Stares impassively
Quieting this mind

Light dances
On dark foliage
Catching the eye

Falling leaves
Are messengers
From the Buddha

Cannot catch leaves
With this camera
Moment is lost

Squirrels leap
Through the forest
Of this mind

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Review: Awesome Nightfall, by William R. LaFleur

This book is superb. In fact, it lives up to its title, being an awesome account of the 'nightfall' of a poet into old age, as well as the descent of feudal Japan into unprecedented civil war. The translator, William R. LaFleur has done an excellent job, not just of translating the Japanese verse into English, but of setting the scene in such a clear historical context in the first part of the book. If he didn't receive any awards for his fantastic efforts in producing 'Awesome Nightfall,' it's something of an injustice, to say the least.

As hinted at above, the book is divided into two parts, the first being called 'The Life and Times of Saigyo,' and the second 'Poems of Saigyo.' Sometimes introductory sections of books can be somewhat dry, even boring - occasionally superfluous - to the main course. Not with this book. LaFleur clearly has a great love of his subject, and has spent decades studying Saigyo, also. This gives him an insight into an otherwise mysterious figure that many translators would never have. Which, in turn, sheds light on the poems themselves, and helps the reader to make more sense of them. He sums Saigyo up neatly thus:

"Much of the time Saigyo, originally a samurai, grappled with the implications of having become a monk. And, because he lived in 'interesting' times, he struggled to understand and articulate the connection between his religious tradition and the social chaos he witnessed firsthand. Rightly known to many Japanese today as an unusually perceptive celebrant of nature's beauty, Saigyo's sensitivity toward human conflict was equally deep. War was much on his mind. And he wrote about it more than any other poet of his era."
('Awesome Nightfall,'  p.1)

Saigyo (1118-1190) was an intriguing character. As La Fleur admits, the information that we have of the poet is sketchy, and without corroborating sources, it's difficult to know if even this is true. What is undisputed is that Saigyo was born into a samurai clan, and that when still a young man he decided to become a Buddhist monk, something that cannot have been easy. Even before this, he wrote poetry, which was popular in the court of retired - but still very powerful) Emperor Toba. After ordination, Saigyo adopted the life of a wandering monk, contemplating Buddhist teachings and composing poetry. He has been the inspiration for numerous Japanese poets since, most notable the greatest of them all, Basho.

Many poems appear in the long section referred to above, where LaFeur explores them with his expert eye, explaining the significance of a phrase here and a proper name there, as well as detailing the historical context in which they were written. They are all waka, a Japanese form of five line poetry that has enough brevity to contain elements of vagueness (mystery), and as well as enough room for more descriptive prowess than found in that more famous Japanese form of verse, the haiku. LaFeur's analysis of the poems in full of interesting insights:

"I wish I knew 
the fate of my father,
and I'd like
to know too if his place
in flames will also be mine.
There seems to be something more here than the quasi-formalized sentiments of a dutiful son. Saigyo, who can be assumed to have performed rites to pacify his deceased warrior father, Noriyasu, seems to be existentially worried that the warrior, in a killing profession by definition, may have a karmic burden so great that it cannot be easily removed. And that, in turn, makes him anxious about his own future."
(Ibib. p.46)

As to the poems themselves, LaFeur has translated them beautifully, retaining both the meaning and the feeling of the originals, as far as this reviewer can tell. Saigyo's sensitive nature and worries come through aplenty. As do his love of cherry blossoms, his Buddhist worldview, and the conflict that he felt between the two, as he appeared to believe he was overly attached to the former. 

As encouragement to practice, and a source of reflection, this work is of much value to Buddhists, who might even achieve a direct experience tof this present enlightened moment through its words. For both Buddhists and poetry lovers alike, this book is wonderful. Meticulously researched and superbly written, it stands as work of art in itself, lit by the light of the unique talents of Saigyo and LaFleur. It comes highly recommended by this reviewer, who cannot praise it enough. Below are a selection of verse from the book to give the reader a taste of its beauty.

"Waking me up
to the spring that's come,
water trickles down
the valley, and long crag-bound ice
now cracks open, slides free."
(Ibid. p.74)
"This leaky, tumbledown
grass hut left an opening for the moon,
and I gazed at it
all the while it was mirrored
in a teardrop fallen on my sleeve."
(Ibid. 86)
"Nothing lost…
since in satori everything
thrown away
comes back again: the life
given up for an 'other'"
(Ibid. p.111)
"Yoshino Mountains:
blossoms tumble to the foot
of trees, fastening
my heart there with them
waiting still for my return."
(Ibid. p.126)
"In early winter's rain
I'm pleased when up at the peak
clouds spread open
to show me the moon I longed to see:
a storm that knows compassion."
(Ibid. p.146)

The above book is published by Wisdom Publications, and is available from their website at: