Throwback Thursday: Bamboo Mind

This is an edited version of a post published in 2013.

In “Discourses on Vegetable Roots” Hung Tzu-Ch’eng, wrote,

Human nature is frail; the path of life is far from being smooth. Where a journey is hard, therefore, wayfarers should know how to take a step backward; on the other hand, where it is not so difficult and it is possible to go on, one should have the grace of yielding a little.”

chinese-bamboo1cWe humans can learn how to yield by observing nature. For instance, bamboo stalks are brittle and can easily snap off from the force of a strong wind. But, they are also flexible and they bend to the wind. By yielding in this way, the bamboo finds success. It survives. For human beings, advancement is not always progress. Sometimes withdrawal, taking a step back, is progress. By knowing when not to advance, and when to bend, we can get through life successfully. We can learn from the way of bamboo.

The way of bamboo is similar to the way of water. The ancient philosophers of the Tao and of Ch’an Buddhism often advised emulating the adaptability of water. For instance, the Tao Te Ching tells us that nothing is more soft and yielding than water, and yet it overcomes things that are hard and rigid. Water benefits all things, and yet it does not strive.

In terms of Buddhist practice, yielding means we should not be too rigid in our approach and cling to any one point of view. It is difficult to perceive the true nature of reality, the nature of others, or even our own nature, when we stubbornly cling to positions and opinions. Attachment to a view is drsti-paramarsa, which itself is a sort of perverted or false view. Nagarjuna said, “One who does not accept the view of another and clings to his or her own construction is devoid of wisdom.”

What applies to Buddhist practice, also applies to daily life, for ultimately there is no separation between the two.

The species of bamboo known as Giant Bamboo can grow over 100 feet in height. Giant Bamboo are one of the fastest growing plants in the world, and their stalks are hollow. By being empty inside, bamboo is able to absorb more energy and yet use less energy. If the stalks were solid, they would not be able to grow as fast, or as tall.

Those who resist the urge to coerce satisfaction from life only through relentless advancement and by trying to force things, will find truer satisfaction and greater success at the end of the journey. This is one way to understand what it means to “become empty,” and it is what Hung Tzu-Ch’eng meant when he wrote,

Let us make the mind as empty as the interior of a bamboo . . . When the mind is empty, one’s nature reveals itself in its true state. A person trying to look into his or her own nature without without putting their mind at rest is like trying to see the reflected moon by disturbing the water.”


Renunciation and Nirvana

Regular readers of this blog probably know by now that the title, The Endless Further, is borrowed from the Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (see About). He was not a Buddhist. He was Hindu, and he believed in God. Nonetheless, he had great respect for the Buddha’s dharma, which does not include teachings about a supreme being. Tagore, also accepted many of the same concepts that Buddhism adheres to, although his understanding of them differed according to his religion and his own sense of things.

The way I use “Endless Further” is changed slightly from the way Tagore used it, and yet, I have not strayed too far from his intended meaning. For him, the spiritual work of an individual was to realize an oneness with God, or to awaken to the presence of God within. To have that realization was the same as becoming infinite.

“Infinite” was also Tagore’s understanding of the meaning of Nirvana. But, it was not, in his mind, a goal or the end of one’s effort.  Nor was it realized solely from the practice of austerities.  As Mohit Kumar Ray tells us in Studies on Rabindranath Tagore, he “never did set Nirvana as his goal. He has repeatedly and explicitly stated his faith in the great joy of release which can be attained within the innumerable bonds and ties of life instead of abdicating the earthly for the ethereal.”

Most religious philosophies concern themselves with a division between the “sacred” and the “profane.” Tagore did not see a division; instead, he beheld the two in a dynamic relationship. The sacred is manifested through the profane, and through the profane, it is possible to find the sacred. Renunciation is a state of mind. So, too, is Nirvana.

Each moment is new and ends in a new moment. We should not strive to attain Nirvana in some future moment. This is what Zen master Dogen meant when he declared that practice is not a means to Nirvana, it is Nirvana. Every activity no matter how mundane is Buddha activity (butsu-ji). Each moment is Nirvana, and infinite.

Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.”

Tagore, Gitanjali


Walk Alone

This blog’s title, The Endless Further, comes from a phrase used by Rabindranath Tagore during a series of lectures at Manchester College, Oxford in 1930.  Tagore was a Bengali poet, philosopher, artist, playwright, composer and novelist. India’s first Nobel laureate.

On this date 101 years ago, November 18, 1913, he wrote a letter to a man named William Rothenstein. Rothenstein was English, and among other things, a painter. He had visited the Tagore family home, Jorasanko, in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) during a trip to India in 1912 and drawn a series of portraits of Tagore.

Rothenstein and Tagore2bRothenstein was English, and among other things, a painter. He had visited the Tagore family home, Jorasanko, in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) during a trip to India in 1912 and drawn a series of portraits of Tagore. The two had become close friends and Rothenstein was one of Tagore’s most ardent champions (Yeats first heard of Tagore through Rothenstein). The poet dedicated his poetry collection Gitanjali to the painter. In fact, Tagore wrote this letter to Rothenstein only four days after receiving the Nobel Prize for Gitanjali.

In the letter, Tagore wrote, “The very first moment I received message of the great honour conferred on me by the award of the Nobel Prize, my heart turned towards you with love and gratitude”.

As Michael Collins (University of Oxford, UK) points out in his article History and the Postcolonial Rabindranath Tagore’s Reception in London, 1912-1913: “Clearly, the extent to which his fame and fortune in the West was due to the assistance given to him by his Western, largely British, friends was an issue that was uppermost in his mind.” An issue, or rather a debt, he rightly felt he needed to acknowledge.

And now I must acknowledge that I have gone way around the mulberry tree and used this November 18 th historical connection merely as an excuse to present one of Tagore’s poems. It’s one of my favorite Tagore poems and it was the favorite of Mahatma Gandhi, only he used to sing it, so it was also his favorite song.

From Gitanjali, “Walk Alone”:

Tagore sketched by Sir William Rothenstein
Tagore sketched by Sir William Rothenstein

If they answer not to thy call walk alone,
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,
O thou of evil luck,
open thy mind and speak out alone.

If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness,
O thou of evil luck,
trample the thorns under thy tread,
and along the blood-lined track travel alone.

If they do not hold up the light
when the night is troubled with storm,
O thou of evil luck,
with the thunder flame of pain ignite thine own heart
and let it burn alone.


When God Moves To Another Star

Tagore in 1925 - note the Buddha statues in the background
Tagore in 1925 – note the Buddha statues in the background

Today is the 152nd anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and philosopher whose phrase “the Endless Further” I borrowed for the title of this blog. Tagore was not a Buddhist per se, but he had great respect for the Buddha and his teachings. In Rabindranath Tagore His Life and Work, historian and translator Edward John Thompson, wrote, “He [Tagore] is almost more Buddhist than he is in sympathy with many forms of Hinduism that are most popular in his native Bengal.”

In The Religion of Man, Tagore wrote of our “constant struggle for a great Further.” This “further” is not mere knowledge, for as Tagore explained, “the further world of freedom awaits us there where we reach truth, not through feeling it by our senses or knowing it by our reason, but through the union of perfect sympathy.” By union, Tagore meant realizing the “eternal” within one’s own life. He called it an “inner inter-relationship.”

Although he often referred to God, Tagore’s God was different from our common conception. In The Religion of Man, he also talked about the “idea of the humanity of our God, or the divinity of Man the Eternal.” For Tagore, God was a “divine principle of unity,” the inner inter-relationship previously mentioned. Within this ideal of unity, we realize the infinite within life and appreciate the boundlessness of human love: “The unity becomes not a mere subjective idea, but an energizing truth. Whatever name may be given to it, and whatever form it symbolizes, the consciousness of this unity is spiritual, and our effort to be true to it is our religion.”

Tagore described his personal faith as “a poet’s religion.” I suspect he intended to mean that whatever one conceived as the Ultimate was ineffable and therefore expressible only through a language resembling poetry. The freedom mentioned above “is for expressing the infinite; it imposes limits in its works, not to keep them in permanence but to break them over and over again, and to reveal the endless in unending surprises.” As well, it is freedom from the bondage of suffering, or experiencing the infinite.

In experiencing the infinite, an individual is only realizing his or her own true nature, for we are already infinite in the sense that we participate in the timelessness of time. Our lives are moments in that time, and the space we occupy is a particle of infinite space. We are a part of the infinite, but we cannot be the whole of it, and whether we call the whole of everything – time, space, life – Ultimate Reality or give it the name of God, our journey to realize it will always remain incomplete.

In a story attributed to Tagore, a man goes searching for God, a search he has been on since the beginning of existence. Once in a while, he sees God on a faraway star, but by the time he reaches the star, God has moved to another star. This symbolizes the futility of searching for God or the Ultimate Reality outside of our lives, and trying to conceive God as a being or even as Being. The infinite is infinite, God is everywhere, as is Buddha, which is just a name for awakening, and the Ultimate is ultimately unknowable. Yet this does not negate the value of the journey, the searching.

In his collection of poetry, Gitanjali, Tagore wrote,

The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own,
and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.

My eyes strayed far and wide before I shut them and said `Here art thou!’
The question and the cry `Oh, where?’ melt into tears of a thousand
streams and deluge the world with the flood of the assurance `I am!’

Without the search, without wayfaring, we can never know ourselves, and least that much we can know. We search for unity with the infinite within ourselves. We maintain “the search, enjoy the very journey, the pilgrimage” understanding that it too is infinite, and will remain incomplete, never exhausted, and that the union we seek is a continuous coalesce.

The searching is our religion, and you can give it any name, call it God if you wish, but know that God is the Endless Further.


Sadhana and the Big Fish

I thought that today I would say a few more words about Rabindranath Tagore. I don’t remember how I came to be aware of Tagore. It was probably from some reading on Gandhi, as they were friends, and Tagore was somewhat of a mentor to the Mahatma, even though they had their disagreements. First, I was bowled over by his poetry. Those of you who read last Thursday’s post can understand why. Then I read about his life in Rabindranath Tagore The Myriad-Minded Man by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson. His multifaceted mind and personality were the products of his intelligence and a certain amount of restlessness. Tagore wore many hats: family man, teacher, poet, playwright, novelist, painter, singer, musician, art and literary critic, businessman, fundraiser, composer of dance and opera, philosopher, political thinker, religious and social reformer.

Rabindranath-TagoreHe first drew the world’s attention as a poet, then as an essayist. In 1913 he published Sadhana – The Realisation of Life, a collection of essays drawn from lectures he gave at Harvard University that same year. The title explains much about Tagore’s philosophy of life. The word sadhana means “realization,” but it also refers to “spiritual practice.” My feeling is that Tagore’s spiritual practice of choice was prayer and the ways he prayed were as myriad as his mind.

In one of his poems, he wrote, “We live in this world when we love it.” Love is a prayer, song is a prayer, life is a prayer. Tagore revered the Upanishads, the collection of texts that form the basis for Indian religion, even as he felt they did not “sufficiently explore the approach to Reality through love and devotion.” Nonetheless, they left a deep impression and helped form the basis of his unique approach to reality. In Sadhana, he wrote,

The attitude of the God-conscious man of the Upanishad towards the universe is one of a deep feeling of adoration. His object of worship is present everywhere. It is the one living truth that makes all realities true. This truth is not only of knowledge but of devotion. ‘Namonamah,’—we bow to him everywhere, and over and over again.

I do not share his faith in a higher being, a “Him” (or “Her”), yet I am envious of Tagore’s sense of devotion, his reverence for life, his awe of nature, and his appreciation for the wondrous beauty to be found in the world. It comes through in nearly every word he wrote, be it poetry or prose. It makes my own feeling for the same seem puny by comparison.

I first read the following in the biography mentioned above. It’s from Sadhana, and is a simple story, beautifully told, that relates a great and profound realization:

One day I was out in a boat on the Ganges. It was a beautiful evening in autumn. The sun had just set; the silence of the sky was full to the brim with ineffable peace and beauty. The vast expanse of water was without a ripple, mirroring all the changing shades of the sunset glow. Miles and miles of a desolate sandbank lay like a huge amphibious reptile of some antediluvian age, with its scales glistening in shining colours. As our boat was silently gliding by the precipitous river-bank, riddled with the nest-holes of a colony of birds, suddenly a big fish leapt up to the surface of the water and then disappeared, displaying on its vanishing figure all the colours of the evening sky. It drew aside for a moment the many-coloured screen behind which there was a silent world full of the joy of life. It came up from the depths of its mysterious dwelling with a beautiful dancing motion and added its own music to the silent symphony of the dying day. I felt as if I had a friendly greeting from an alien world in its own language, and it touched my heart with a flash of gladness. Then suddenly the man at the helm exclaimed with a distinct note of regret, “Ah, what a big fish!” It at once brought before his vision the picture of the fish caught and made ready for his supper. He could only look at the fish through his desire, and thus missed the whole truth of its existence.