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Thread: Commentaries on Zen quotes

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    Commentaries on Zen quotes

    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."

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    The sound
    of water
    says
    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    What is this mind?
    Who is hearing these sounds?
    Do not mistake any state for
    Self-realization, but continue
    To ask yourself even more
    Intensely,
    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.'

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    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?

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    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
    Beforehand.
    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.

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