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.”

Share

A Walk in a Garden

It has been quite a while since we took a stroll through the Chinese garden . . . the garden I refer to is actually a book, “Epigrams from the Ming Dynasty ‘Discourses on Vegetable Roots’” by Tzu-Ch’eng (1572-1620). It was translated by Chao Tze-chiang and published in 1959 as A Chinese Garden of Serenity, Reflections of a Zen Buddhist.

Not only is it a garden of serenity, it’s also a garden of wisdom . . .

751b2Looking at the busy bees in a fragrant and luxuriant garden, one may become disillusioned about the life of the senses and the ways of the world. Beholding the sleeping swallows in a quiet and humble hovel, one may arouse in oneself a cool pleasure and a deep contemplation.

When a bird is frightened out of its wits or a flower splashes its tear-drops, they both embrace ardor and zeal. How can they calmly appreciate the chilly wind or the gelid moon?

When a man has realized the essential nature of his mind, he can speak of enlightening his mind. And when he has exhausted the ordinary ways of the world, he is able to discourse on his seclusion from the world.

Those who prefer quietude to noise retreat from people into solitude, but they do not know that to be alone is a self-obsession and to aim at quiescence is the root of action.

A taste derived from tranquility and ease is dilute, but lasts longer.

IMG_2623bLife’s fortunes and misfortunes are caused entirely by the mind. Shakyamuni [The Buddha] said, “A burning desire for gain is a pit of fire, and an indulgence in greed is a sea of suffering. Once our mind is purified, a flame is turned into a pool; and once our mind awakens us from a dream of worldliness, our ship of life is anchored along the shore of the Great Beyond.” Hence, a slight change of the mind can suddenly make a different situation. Should we not be careful?

Previous walks in the garden of serenity are here, here, and here.

Share

When the wind blows through the scattered bamboo,

they do not hold its sound after it is gone . . . So the mind of the superior man begins to work only when an event occurs; and it becomes a void again when the matter ends.

Today I’m going to take a walk through a lovely Chinese garden. You’re invited to come along.

It has been a while since I’ve visited this place. It is an unusual garden, a garden of words, where the leaves are paper and the walkways are thoughts.

I’m referring to A Chinese Garden of Serenity, Reflections of a Zen Buddhist, a rather small book of 60 pages, by Tzu-Ch’eng (1572-1620), a Chinese philosopher about whom virtually nothing is known. It’s based on Epigrams from the Ming Dynasty ‘Discourses on Vegetable Roots’, translated by Chao Tze-chiang, and published in 1959.

The book is a collection of short observations that are sometimes humorous, sometimes provocative, but always shot with wisdom.

When I wander in this printed garden, I take a random stroll. I open the book to any page, and it’s like taking a turn along a narrow path and not being sure exactly what you will encounter around the bend.

Others have translated the book besides Chao Tze-chiang. Robert Aitken and Daniel W.Y. Kwok produced a translation in 2007, Vegetable Roots Discourse. In the forward, Aitken described how he discovered the text:

I first encountered quotations from the “Caigentan” (pronounced tsaiguntan) in R. H. Blyth’s Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics while interned in Kobe back in the spring of 1943. Later in a Tokyo bookshop I found Yaichiro Isobe’s translation titled Musings of a Chinese Vegetarian, published in 1926. It became one of my favorite ‘little books.'”

It’s one of my favorite little books, too. I found my copy in the used book section of my friendly neighborhood thrift shop.

Alan Watts was also a fan of the book. In one of his talks, he said,

I have got here a curious old text called Ts’ai-ken T’an  . . . I thought I’d like to read some of this to you. And to get into the right mood, I suggest that you try to become a little stupid. That is to say, childlike, as if you hardly knew how to talk and didn’t really know very much about anything that is going on. Just listen . . . as you would listen to the wind.”

Well? Shall we walk over in this direction where the sun is shining softly through the leaves, and we can become a little stupid and just listen . . . to the wind . . .

In sweeping winds and driving rains, birds feel melancholy; under the radiant sun and in the light breezes, grasses and trees flourish cheerfully. Hence we know that, even for one day, there should not be absence of harmony between the heavens and the earth or banishment of joy from the human heart.

chinese-garden-pond-dmrileyOver there is a pond, the water looks so tranquil . . .

A drop of water has the tastes of the water of the seven seas: there is no need to experience all the ways of worldly life. The reflections on the moon on one thousand rivers are from the same moon: the mind must be full of light.

If we go this way, by the pavilions, I think we will find something interesting . . .

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.

It is easy to dodge the arrow of an enemy, but difficult to avoid the spear of a friend. It is also easy to escape from the pitfall of suffering, but difficult to get out of the snare of pleasure.

Unfortunately, the pleasure of this garden must be gotten out of for now. Before we leave, though, a few words about the author, whom as I said, we know very little. It is said that when he was young, Tzu-Ch’eng led a self-indulgent life, but when he reached middle-age he became a Ch’an (Zen) monk. In his introduction to A Chinese Garden of Serenity, the translator had this to say about him:

The tenor of this book is thus indicated by its title: simple, homely, symbols of spiritual truths, as they have to come to an unpretentious man.”

– – – – – – – – – –

Share

“In every human heart, there is a Symphony of Nature”

A couple of weeks ago I went with a friend to The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena. It’s a private nonprofit collections-based research and educational institution established in 1919 by Henry E. Huntington. He was a railroad magnate and among his many holdings and operations were the famous “Red Car” trolleys here in Los Angeles.

Since our interest that day was on the Botanical Gardens, we just breezed through the library at the end. The collection is rather eclectic. Apparently, it’s the only library in the world with the first two quartos of Hamlet. They also have the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a Gutenberg Bible on vellum, the manuscript of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, the first seven drafts of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and the double-elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America. And then to show that they’re not snobbish when it comes to literature, there’s a collection of manuscripts and first editions of works by Charles Bukowski.

We didn’t see any of that stuff. We did check out Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, though. When Huntington purchased it for $700,00 in 1921, it became the second most expensive painting in the world. Number One was da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Neither are even in the Top Ten Today.

But we went The Huntington to stroll through the gardens and they’ve got more than a dozen of them, including the Desert Garden, with more cacti than you can shake a stick at; the Japanese Garden, with a Zen rock garden and a bevy of bonsai trees; a beautiful Rose Garden; and the Liu Fang Yuan or “Garden of Flowering Fragrance.”

It was a typical June Gloom day with grey skies overhead, but that didn’t stop me from taking beaucoup photos. Today, I’ll just share three. You can see the rest at my photo site here. The text is from “A Chinese Garden of Serenity” translated by Chao Tze-chiang.

In every human heart, there is a Symphony of Nature . . .

Natural scenery – such as the azure mists on the hills, the ripples on the water, the shadow of a cloud on a pond . . . all of which are existent and yet non-existent, half-real and half-unreal – is the most agreeable to the human heart and most inspiring to the human soul. Such vistas are the wonder of wonders in the universe.

When the wind blows through the scattered bamboos, they do not hold its sound after it has gone . . . So the mind of the superior man begins to work only when an events occurs; and it becomes a void again when the matter ends.

A drop of water has the tastes of the water of the seven seas; there is no need to experience all the ways of worldly life. The reflections of the moon on one thousand rivers are from the same moon: the mind must be full of light.


Share

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.

Share