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《Ten Talks on Poetry Appreciation: 4_禪詩》__ Kong Shiu Loon (53)

(4) Chan, Poetry, Being Free

China is the kingdom of poetry. It is so because we Chinese love poems and being free, in body and mind. Fortunately, we also live a Chan () way of life, caring for self and others, mindful of Nature and things, and knowing life and death in cosmic meanings.

All cultures have poems and songs to express human emotions and aspirations. Only the Chinese culture has poems and songs to do so in the spirit and wisdom of Chan, integrating the wisdom of all ancient sages and Buddha.

What is Chan? To tell it simply, Chan matures in Hui Neng (638-713) (慧能), the Sixth and final Patriarch of the religious Buddhist Institution in China. From then on, it flourished as a Chinese way of life, practical, striving, accepting, creating, and integrating Nature with human beings, to accomplish with satisfaction, to be free and serene.

Hui Neng was an apprentice pounding rice in the temple when he heard that the Fifth Patriarch(五祖) had announced his retirement, and that his scholarly assistant Shen Xiu () was about to succeed him. The latter wrote a poem on a wall to express his understanding of Buddhist wisdom. It read:

“Our body is the Bodhi tree身是菩提樹

Our mind is mirror on platform see心如明鏡臺

Polish the reflections frequently時時勤拂拭

Allow no dust to gather on surface” 勿使惹塵

Hui Neng thought differently. But, being illiterate, he could not write. He sung a poem on his own understanding of the Buddhist spirit, and asked a friend to write it on the wall. It read:

“Bodhi has nothing nor tree菩提本無

Mirror images not illusion free明鏡亦非

Emptiness is not material本來無一

On what could dusts settle” 何處惹塵

Earlier, the Fifth Patriarch did not think much of Shen Xiu’s poem. Now, when he saw what Hui Neng had shown, he was very pleased, because it represented the true Buddhist wisdom. He quickly erased the writing and went to see the little apprentice that night. He gave him the Red Robe representing Buddhist authority, and urged him to flee the temple to avoid the jealous monks. He was confident that, in time, this chosen successor would emerge in South China to lead the Buddhist Institution.

Thirteen years had passed. There was no news on the new Patriarch. One day, a young man arrived at a big temple in Guangzhou. Many monks and lay believers gathered there to attend a lecture by Master Yin Zong(印宗法). Bright colorful pennants were waving everywhere. Presently, a noisy debate went on the temple square, arguing if the wind or the pennant that was making the motion. The young man stepped forward and said: “No, it is our mind that is making the motion.”

People were very surprised. A monk led the young man to meet Master Yin Zong, who instantly realized that the visitor could be the missing Sixth Patriarch. After his identity was verified, Hui Neng was invited to stay at the temple, preaching that the true nature of human beings is in the mind, pure and free. A year and a half later, he was shaven to become a monk. His understanding of the Buddhist wisdom soon became integrated with the traditional Confucian thought of man and the universe being one, a belief which had been passed down from the book Zhou Yi (周易) to guide the Chinese people, in practice and spiritually.

The study of the mind flourished in all circles hence. It peaked in the Song () Dynasty, when Wang Yang Ming (王陽明) began the formal and comprehensive study of psychology, long before psychology became an academic study in the West.

The Chinese conception of the mind is not limited to its nature and functions. It also includes the interaction between the mind and the cosmos. Such a conception is often seen in Chinese poems, especially in Chan poems, featuring emptiness in solitude and serenity. Here, let us read Liu Zong Yuan’s River in Snow(江雪)

“A thousand hills where no birds fly 千山鳥飛

Ten thousand paths no man in sight  萬徑人蹤 

A man in a straw-cloak sits in a boat孤舟蓑笠

He fishes in a river frozen in snow” 獨釣寒江

A few years ago, I gave a copy of Lasting Songs of Chinese Poets to my dentist, Dr. Ju who ran a clinic with four Japanese assistants in Toronto. No sooner than when I was put on the dental chair that I heard their giggles fighting to read the above poem in the book. They told me that it brought back fond memories of their high school days learning it in Japan. I promised to give each of them a book if they would share with me their appreciation of the poem. Cindy, the Head Assistant said as my teeth were being cleaned: “The first two lines depict a complete emptiness in the universe. It was simple, clear and beautiful. In the last two lines, the poet turned to express the solitude of a fisherman in contemplation. He was by himself yet being a part of the grand cosmos. Fishing helped him to think and feel, even when it was not materially productive.” To conclude, Cindy said: “The poet used ten Chinese words to

express the power of the human mind to grasp the facts of life, with its possible

meanings. ” I wished to applaud her interpretation. But I was strapped to the dental chair. I recalled how much the Japanese people and society had been influenced by the import of Chinese Chan and poems since the Twelve Century.

The Han language is not easy to learn, especially the classical version. Many words have multiple meanings and grammatical usages. But the oral language is simple and meaningful to everyone. This is why, as we can see above, the illiterate Hui Neng was able to understand many Buddhist sutras by listening to them. He was also able to say oral poems in response to what Shen Xiu had written about the Buddhist spirit. His poem won the heart of the Fifth Patriarch.

Let us look at Hui Neng’s poem. The first line says Buddhist wisdom impacts the mind directly. The second line says, while each person understands the wisdom in his/her ways, it is not the only truth, because what is seen may be an illusion. The final lines reinforce what was said and conclude that the human mind absorbs and perceives everything, and it directs all human actions. Therefore, Buddhism is not a religion with supernatural powers, but a way of life for ordinary folks. Whoever lives a Chan way of life is a Buddha.

Readers can now turn to appreciate many Chan poems in our blog. The one I like a lot is《農夫問道by Cotton Bag Monk of the Tang Dynasty布袋和尚().

“I plant a rich paddy field tender shoots in hand手執青秧種福
In the water the sky smiles at me as I bow my head低頭便見水中
Keeping my mind serene I surely see the Way六根清淨方為
Every backward step means forward progress made” 退步原來是向

Quietly and slowly read the second line, and you may derive the double meaning that doing productive labour, such as planting rice, is as meaningful as knowing something high in the sky. I especially like the metaphor used to denote progress in the fourth line. It shows that, often, stepping backwards is a good way of making progress. I recall a vogue saying in the 1960s among educational researchers in Toronto, when we were experiencing speedy changes in all aspects of life. It says “We need to break before making a breakthrough”. It almost matched the Chan proverb “Step back a little, and you will see an open sky and a vast sea”(退一步海濶天空).

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