Tag Archives: zen

Shiwu Mulls Things Over, Wang Wei Goes on a Hike

After yesterday’s holiday excesses, some Classical Chinese poetry seems like just what the doctor ordered. Granted, these verses may not cure your hangover, but a dose of Chan (Zen) sensibility is about as good a counterpoint to the unfolding insanity of Black Friday as anything else I can think of. First, here’s an untitled poem by Shiwu (石屋), a Yuan-dynasty poet and hermit.

Somebody asks me when I first came to live here –
I sit in meditation until the answer comes:
the peachtree my hands planted outside my door
has come to blossom some twenty springs.

Here’s another one, by Wang Wei (王維), hands down my favorite poet in the canon. It’s an example of the classic eight-line, five-character-per-line lushi  (律詩) form and is, I think, the most beautiful piece to appear in the seminal Three Hundred Tang Poems (唐詩三百首) collection. The title, “Passing Xiangji Temple” (過香積寺) refers to a Pure Land sanctuary some fifteen miles from old Chang’an, and the motif of passing-by, of peripheral encounter, suggestively recurs and builds throughout the piece. In fact, it’s unclear from the very first line if Wang Wei actually physically gets to the temple – whether he ‘knew’ or ever got to ‘know’ it remains one of those undecidable things that makes Classical Chinese such evergreen fun to render into English.

I did not know Xiangji Temple.
I moved beneath many li of low clouds
old trees and deer runs
from deep in the mountain, somewhere, the sound of a bell
the muffled call of a swallow from beyond the rocks
the sun’s cold white on the blue pines.
In the evening, at the bend of a mountain stream,
I sit in meditation and tame the poison dragons of mind.

In addition to my own halting versions, you can find these poems and many more like them in various places; I recommend this volume and this one, both put into English by Bill Porter (“Red Pine”), who in addition to being a superlative translator is also just a lovely person and great poet in his own right.

On Indebtedness


After kicking things off with a footnote and a historical picaresque, I’m going to share something else: an acknowledgement of indebtedness by way of a translated epigram.

The text I’m translating from is the Anthology of Passages from the Forests of Zen (Zenrin-kushū  or ZRKS, 禪林句集), a crucial text in the Rinzai (臨濟宗) school of Japanese Buddhism. Compiled by Tōyō Eicho (東明英朝, 1428-1504) the ZRKS is a sort of miscellany that draws upon the canon of Classical Chinese poems, puzzles, and epigrams to present a series of what are called “capping-phrases” (jakugo 箸語). The ZRKS and the jakugo it contains serve as a kind of study guide for use in conjunction with Rinzai’s koan practice. Basically, the way it works is that after being assigned a koan to contemplate, a practitioner will select a jakugo that best reflects whatever insight they’ve achieved and bring that quote back to their teacher.

Some of these jakugo are reminiscent of pithy idioms we frequently use in English. 一箭兩垛, for example, means “one arrow, two targets” — almost exactly the same thing as the classic “two birds, one stone.” Other jakugo refer to stories that would be familiar to Japanese or Zen audiences, but not to most secular or Western ones. Thus, for example, and while we’re still on the subject of metaphorically killing hapless animals, 一刀一斷 can be glossed as “one blade, one slice” and is a reference to the parable of Nansen’s Cat. Juxtaposing this with the next jakugo in the collection (一刀兩斷,  “one blade, two cuts”), can give you a sense of how jakugo can carry a enigmatic, idiosyncratically “Zen” feel. That feeling is further reinforced by the accompanying commentary — for example, Zen Master Dōgen glosses the former with: “The whole universe, which the knife is in, so one piece results, whether the knife actually cuts or not.” That, for my part, I can’t quite understand, but, hey, who knows, maybe the bisected cat gets it.

Anyway, the ZRKS is organized with jakugo appearing in order of increasing length, and while the one I’m translating today isn’t quite as short as the ones above, it’s nowhere near as long as the ones at the end, either — whole poems that offer considerable resistance to my horribly rusty Gǔ Wén. But this one, for all its middling length, carries a meaning I’d like to share.

Here it is in the original: 知恩方解報. Read aloud, that runs zhī ēn fàng jīa bào ēn.

Now as with pretty much everything in Literary Chinese you can translate this in a whole bunch of different ways. Thus, in the edition I’m using, the translator, Zenrin Robert Lewis, has: “Be aware / of your debt of gratitude / to see how to repay it.” Taking a slightly different tack, the accompanying commentary by Eido Tai Shimano* offers: “If you know being really grateful, you won’t fail to requite the gift of it.”15077

I prefer a rather more concise rendering.

To know your debts is to repay them.

What does this mean? Clearly there are many kinds of debt, some good, some good bad. Despite the classic injunction to neither a borrower nor a lender be, we all carry debts – if not necessarily direct financial ones, then certainly historical, intellectual, and personal ones. Such is the basic condition of our interdependence.

Some debts can be repaid in specie, and others, depending on whom you ask, require a lifetime of sacrifices and commitments that are no less real for being intangible.

Some debts liberate and can never receive repayment in kind — nor do they ask for such; others are abhorrent and demand redress — not repayment.

But in every case we must know the debt in order to know how to respond to it, how to honor it. And even if we can never truly comprehend the full extent of everything that we owe each other — for this too may also be the condition of our interdependence, particularly in our contemporary moment — we can at least strive to learn of our debts what we can, and at all times to remain mindful of our basic situation of indebtedness to each other.

For my part, I owe family, teachers, students, colleagues, friends, and others for more than I can express. I try and will try each day to repay what I can. Within the more narrow context of this blog, and for the fact of this blog itself, I owe my friends Christian and Phil for steadily encouraging me to write, and I owe Christopher for coming up with its name, his invention. And I owe Katherine for putting up with me while I work on it.

Thank you, all of you, for these things, and thank you, out there, whoever you are, for reading this.

*For better and for worse, I feel obligated to append to any citation of Eido Roshi the caveat that, for all his Zen insights, and his influence on my own experiences of Rinzai, his legacy and leadership remain deeply problematic. Acknowledging an intellectual debt to someone – with gratitude or otherwise – demands, I think, precisely such candor.
I took all these photos at Plum Village Monastery in the Dordogne. I owe those folks a lot. There was a cat there, too.
15041In case you’re worried, he turned out fine.