View Full Version : Commentaries on Zen quotes

09 Jun 18, 11:09
This thread will be, as far as I can research, based on traditional Zen quotes, poems, and so on. I like Basho and have just finished reading various books about his poem-writing travels.

"Even in Kyoto-
Hearing the cuckoo's cry-
I long for Kyoto" Basho

Of the half-dozen or so translations I managed to track down I think this is one of the best. The cuckoo in Japan is the herald of summer, but has other meanings too. It stands for longing, melancholy and mourning, and is used in art to deal with large blank spaces on the page. It can also be understood as the spirits of the dead, desiring return to their loved ones. With these in mind, the poem also talks of Kyoto, the ancient capital of the island, and a center of Buddhist and Shinto shrines.

For me it comes together as an exercise in letting go. After all, how can you long for a place you are already in? Is he recognising his attachments to an ideal that Kyoto represents, or to something in his own past? Perhaps something which holds him back from seeing things such as Kyoto, or himself, in a different way, as they could be seen using insight gained from Zen practice.

The poem shifts the plea to let go from the reader to the poet, allowing the reader space to reflect on the idea, in a different way to if someone had merely told them to do so: "I long for Kyoto" rather than "You long for things, and you need to let go of that longing."

15 Jul 18, 13:39
The sound
of water
what I think.

- Chuang Tzu

Interesting to listen to the seeming chaotic sounds of a waterfall or a stream over stones, or even the fountain in my pond as it desperately tries to keep the water aerated in this summer's heat in the UK. We are hard-wired to look for patterns in seemingly random sensory data, so it's not surprising we occasionally seem to 'hear' murmuring or babbling voices when we listen to water.

Chuang Tzu seems to be pointing to the randomness of the sound as a meditation, that if we can stay away from imposing our own patterns on things, then we change how we interact with everything around us. Which is, after all, what Zen is all about.

16 Jul 18, 16:28
If you have developed great
Capacity and cutting insight,
You can undertake Zen
Right where you are.
Without getting it from another,
You understand clearly
On your own.
— Yuanwu

An interesting thought. In other words this is, 'When do I leave the raft behind?' Is there any other religion, if that is what Buddhism is, that has a stated ultimate aim of not needing the living structure of that religion after a certain point? It may be the case, but I haven't read anything like this outside the writings of outlier visionaries.

17 Jul 18, 18:14
I've read ten thousand books
and plumbed the truths beneath the sky
those who know, know themselves
no one trusts a fool
rare are the idle followers of the Way
who escape the hooks of this world
who realize what is important
doesn't come from somewhere outside
— Wang An-shih (1021-1086)

After he 'retired' from high office, Wang An-shih devoted himself to Zen Buddhism and wrote his most important poetry. This one is a plea to 'know yourself' rather than to rely on the work of others. In a Zen sense, of course.

21 Jul 18, 10:34
I built my hut beside a path
but I hear neither cart nor horse
you ask how can this be
when the mind travels so does the place
picking chrysanthemums by the eastern fence
I lose myself in the southern hills
the mountain air the sunset light
birds flying home together
in this there is a truth
I'd explain if I could remember the words.

— T'ao Yuan-ming (365-427)

I'm interested in this poem because it presents a kind of dilemma. When we meditate, should we be 'travelling' to some place, so that the sounds of traffic fade and die, or should we be accepting of such distractions as we meditate and make them part of the meditation? I think that there is a place for both as they each have their own qualities as meditations. BTW, feel free to add comments to these musings of mine.

23 Jul 18, 10:36
A tile made of clay is a poor lowly thing
but it works just fine with a brush
and some ink
everything has its use
whether elevated or base
gold is certainly precious
and jade invaribly hard
but using either to make ink
can't compare to a broken tile
of course it's a lowly thing
but its value is hard to deny
and not just a piece of rubble
since ancient times people too
— Ou-yang Hsiu 1037

I presume this refers to sun-baked clay which eventually returns to mud which can be usefully used to create ink more easily than gold or jade. A useful reminder that everything and everybody has value, it just depends on your point of view.

27 Jul 18, 17:29
To glorify the Way what should people turn to?
To words and deeds that agree.
But oceans of greed never fill up
and sprouts of delusion keep growing.
A plum tree in bloom purifies a recluse
a patch of potatoes cheers a lone monk,
but those who follow rules in their huts
never see the Way or get past the mountains

— Stonehouse

The 14th Century Chinese hermit. A nice take on the relationship between the intellectual and the practical in terms of Zen practice.

03 Aug 18, 10:29
What is this mind?
Who is hearing these sounds?
Do not mistake any state for
Self-realization, but continue
To ask yourself even more
What is it that hears?

— Bassui (1338-1500)

I like this quote as a reminder that whatever insight experiences we go through we are still human, still need to ask such questions, even if we think we have some answers. However much we change, we never get to an unchanging state and so need to work on ourselves as a continuing project.

Incidentally, Bassui was an interesting character who, according to Wiki, saw both too much attachment by some monks and masters to ritual and dogma as well as too much attachment by some monks and masters to freedom and informality. In an important work he related the Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism to names for the nature of the mind:
'... so you should realize that all the names of the Bodhisattvas are just different names for the nature of mind. As an expedient in the World-Honored-One's sermons, he defined things using certain names, and with these names he pointed to the truth. Ordinary people, unaware of this truth, become attached to the names and, in the hopes of attaining Buddhahood, seek the Buddha and Dharma outside their minds. It's like cooking sand in the hopes of producing rice.'

08 Aug 18, 10:21
Well versed in the Buddha way,
I go the non-Way.
Without abandoning my
Ordinary man’s affairs,
The conditioned and
Name-and-form all
Are flowers in the sky.
Nameless and formless,
I leave birth-and-death.
— Layman P’ang

I like the works of Layman P'ang. As his name suggests he was convinced that people could be fully awakened without having to lead a monastic life, without having to 'abandon my ordinary man's affairs.' On the other hand, deliberately sinking all of your family possessions on a boat in a river seems a bit extreme. He could at least have given it to deserving causes?

11 Aug 18, 09:48
The past is already past.
Don’t try to regain it.
The present does not stay.
Don’t try to touch it
From moment to moment.
The future is not come;
Don’t think about it
Whatever comes to the eye,
Leave it be.
There are no commandments
To be kept,
There’s no filth to be cleansed.
With empty mind really
Penetrated, the dharmas
Have no life.
When you can be like this
You’ve completed
The ultimate attainment.
— Layman P’ang (740-808)

I like to read this while thinking about the Heart Sutra. I think there is a match there.

16 Aug 18, 10:07
Living deep in the mountains
I’ve grown fond of the
Solitary sound of the singing pines;
On days the wind does not blow,
How lonely it is!
— Rengetsu

Ōtagaki Rengetsu was a Buddhist nun who is widely regarded as one of the greatest Japanese poets of the 19th century. Beautiful poetry but what a sad story. She became a Buddhist monk after burying two husbands and five children. As a woman she could only stay in a monastery for two years, then spent much of her life in small huts. Brought up by ninjas she was an expert in martial arts as well as painting and pottery.

20 Aug 18, 16:12
Don’t seek a Buddha, don’t seek a teaching, don’t seek a community. Don’t seek virtue, knowledge, intellectual understanding, and so on. When feelings of defilement and purity are ended, still don’t hold to this nonseeking and consider it right. Don’t dwell at the point of ending, and don’t long for heavens or fear hells. When you are unhindered by bondage or freedom, then this is called liberation of mind and body in all places.

— Pai-chang (720-814)

Somewhat ironic in view of the fact that he set the rules for Chan monastic discipline. He is famous for the Fox koan, which I might put here if I ever get to understand it.

27 Aug 18, 10:28
Thus the Diamond Cutter Scripture says, “Do not grasp truth, do not grasp untruth, and do not grasp that which is not untrue.”
It also says, “The truth that the buddhas find has no reality or unreality.”

— Pai-chang (720-814)

After the Heart Sutra the Diamond Sutra comes a close second to me, or rather they are two sides of the same coin. The Diamond Sutra does have a bit more to say about the 'mental state' that brings with it stream entrance, filling in a gap the Heart Sutra seems to have. In this state it is, “Impossible to retain past mind, impossible to hold on to present mind, and impossible to grasp future mind for in none of its activities does the mind have substance or existence.”

A state where the ego we think is permanent is to be understood like this:

"As a falling star, or Venus chastened by the Dawn,
A bubble in a stream, a dream,
A candle-flame that sputters and is gone."

Which is why they call it dying on the mat I guess, as this is a good description of our brief lives. Back to the saying of Pai-chang, it really sums up the arguments around what truth may be and what the truth found during insight is, or rather isn't.

07 Sep 18, 10:29
'Consider that nirvana is itself no other than our everyday life'

Unfortunately, to understand this we have to experience it for ourselves, as an insight into the fundamental nature of reality. Easy to say but hard to see.

12 Sep 18, 09:49
It is as though you have an eye
That sees all forms
But does not see itself.
This is how your mind is.
Its light penetrates everywhere
And engulfs everything,
So why does it not know itself?

Zen Master Foyan (1067-1120)

A central question in Zen. Can the mind know itself? Are we incapable of knowing from the inside, as it were, or is there a way of breaking free, letting go even of the self, so that we can finally know our own minds?

(This went on the wrong thread last time)

18 Sep 18, 10:27
“When you find peace and quiet in the midst of busyness and clamour,
then towns and cities become mountain forests;
afflictions are enlightenment,
sentient beings realize true awakening…
You have to actually experience stable peacefulness before you attain oneness;
you cannot force understanding.”

Zen Master Foyan

This is interesting in that it highlights one of the problems that some people have with Zen, that of expecting to be able to force 'sudden' enlightenment. Foyan does a good job of explaining the kind of mental state needed in order to make progress. You have to work on being able to develop 'stable peacefulness' no matter what the surroundings you find yourself in. Sudden enlightenment does come suddenly but usually only after many years of effort of this kind.

26 Sep 18, 10:22
Calm yourself, quiet yourself,
Master your senses.
Look right into the source of mind,
Always keep it shining bright,
Clear and pure.
Do not give rise to an indifferent mind.
— Hongren (602-675)

Hongren was one of the founders of East Mountain Teachings. Wiki gives a nice explanatory quote, "View your own consciousness tranquilly and attentively, so that you can see how it is always moving, like flowing water or a glittering mirage. …until its fluctuations dissolve into peaceful stability. This flowing consciousness will disappear like a gust of wind. When this consciousness disappears, all one’s illusions will disappear along with it."

16 Oct 18, 10:27
The sound of a swollen
Mountain stream rapidly rushing
Makes one know
How very quickly life itself
Is pressed along its course.
— Saigyo (1118-1190)

it's good to be reminded about the death that is coming, if only to be reminded about the life that is here.

06 Nov 18, 11:40
Zen practice is not clarifying conceptual distinctions, but throwing away one’s preconceived views and notions, the sacred texts and all the rest, and piercing through the layers of coverings over the spring of self behind them. All the holy ones have turned within and sought in the self, and by this went beyond all doubt. To turn within means all the 24 hours and in every situation, to pierce one by one through the layers covering the self, deeper and deeper, to a place that cannot be described.

— Daikaku (1213-1279)

I like the idea that Zen practice is more about getting rid of things that are holding us back than about learning stuff.

20 Dec 18, 11:39
What is this true meditation? It is to make everything: coughing, swallowing, waving the arms, motion, stillness, words, actions, the evil and the good, prosperity and shame, gain and loss, right and wrong, into one single koan.

— Hakuin

According to Wiki, "A kōan (公案) is a story, dialogue, question, or statement which is used in Zen practice to provoke the "great doubt" and test a student's progress in Zen practice." Of course, the above quote can be aimed at judging your own progress too. What is it about how you react to whatever happens in your life that shows that your are thinking or doing something different to, say, two years ago?

Koans can also be used as a tool to bring about change, "a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke enlightenment" (Google dictionary). It seems to work by building up a tension brought about by trying to solve something without any solution, or at least no solution acceptable by the Zen teacher. As the tension builds, something has to give, and hopefully what gives is whatever was holding you back from making progress at the time.

So perhaps 'true meditation', according to Hakuin, is a continuing process of change, evaluation, and further change brought about not just through meditation but through whatever is happening to you and around you at the time.

05 Jan 19, 12:25
Dogen: "What is dropping off body and mind?"

Rujing said: "Studying Zen is dropping off body and mind. Without depending on the burning of incense, bowing, chanting Buddha's names, repentance, or sutra reading, devote yourself to just sitting."

"Dropping off body and mind is zazen. When you just sit, you are free from the five sense desires and the five hindrances."

- Dogen

For me, this is the heart of Zen. If everything else was lost apart from just sitting there would still be Zen. Zen is, in essence, just sitting.

08 Apr 19, 11:58
Careful! Even moonlit dewdrops,
If you’re lured to watch,
Are a wall before the Truth.
— Sogyo (1667–1731)

I like the analogy of taking what is refracted by a dewdrop to be a 'true' vision of reality. It is a version of what is real, and is embedded in reality, but it is only one version after all, and evaporates in the morning sunshine. However we perceive reality it will only be a version of the truth, but that doesn't matter if we understand this. This analogy even works for the Dhamma in this quote, as the moon is often used in Zen to show that mere reflections of things can still be useful.