A Chinese Garden

My friendly neighborhood thrift shop has a nice used book section. Six huge bookcases full, which is quite a lot I think for that kind of store. And dirt cheap. Hardback books almost brand new go for $3.50 and paperbacks for 50 cents.  I’ve found some first editions that I wanted to collect in there, and quite a few old paperbacks mysteries. You might get some better deals on Amazon but I doubt it and anyway who wants to wait the two weeks it usually takes to ship? Besides, browsing online is just not the same experience.

One great thing about this thrift shop is there is constant turn over and you can go in a couple of times a week and find new things. It’s a heck of a lot of fun to go to a shop not looking for anything in particular, just browsing, and then find something wonderful, or at long last, that book you have been looking for.

The other day I bought a neat little book called A Chinese Garden of Serenity, Reflections of a Zen Buddhist. This slim volume (a mere 60 pages) was translated by Chao Tze-chiang and published in 1959.

The text is a translation of Epigrams from the Ming Dynasty ‘Discourses on Vegetable Roots’. The original author was Hung Tzu-Ch’eng,  or Hong Zicheng, (1572-1620), a Chinese philosopher about whom virtually nothing is known. Even though there have been a number of other translations, most notably by Thomas Cleary in 1990, and Robert Aitken and Daniel W. Y. Kwok in 2006, the work was new to me.

It’s a collection of yulus or ‘recorded sayings’ based on “The Three Teachings” (Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism), and there are some real gems.

Here are a few:

In every human heart, there is a Book of Truth, bound with worn-out strings and torn bamboo-papers. In every human heart, there is also a Symphony of Nature, drowned out by sensual song and voluptuous dance. A man must sweep away all externals and search his inner being in order to experience joy.

Natural scenery – such as the azure mists on the hills, the ripples on the water, the shadow of a cloud on a pond, the hazy gleams among the grass, the expressions of blossoms under the moon, or the graceful manners of willows in the wind, all of which are existent and yet non-existent, half real and half unreal – is most agreeable to the human heart and most inspiring to the human soul. Such vistas are the wonder of wonders in the universe.

Since the Void is not void, a fond illusion of life is not true, and a bitter disillusionment of life is also not true. Let us ask Shakyamuni what to do. Since to live in the world is to retreat from the world, an indulgence in desires is a suffering, and a suppression of desires is also a suffering. So we must in good faith hold on to our integrity.

Whether time is long or short, and whether space is broad or narrow, depend upon the mind. Those whose minds are at leisure can feel one day as long as a millennium, and those whose thought is expansive can perceive a small house to be as spacious as the universe.

Human feelings are frail; the ways of the world are rugged. When a man cannot go forward, he should know how to take a step backward; but when he can go on, he ought to have the grace of yielding a little.

Virtue is the master of talent; talent is the servant of virtue. If one has talent and no virtue, one is like a family without a patriarch in which a servant may act as he pleases. How then can there be no mischief like that of an elf?

When a man is at peace, he ought to be alert as if he were in trouble; so he can forestall an unforeseen contingency. And when he is in trouble, he ought to be a calm as if he were in peace; thus he can bring to an end his crisis.


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