Summer in the Mountains

From Chuang Tzu:

mountains-b1bWandering on the sunny side of Yin Mountain, T’ien Ken came to the banks of the Liao River and met a Man with No Name.  He asked this man, “Could you tell me how to govern the world?”

The Man with No Name said, “Get away from me, peasant! What kind of stupid question is that! I’m busy doing nothing.  You have a lot of nerve coming along with this talk of governing the world and disturbing my mind.”

But T’ien Ken asked his question a second time.

The Man with No Name replied,

“Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, and follow along with things the way they are.  Rest only in inaction.  Relax your body, expel your intelligence, release both body and mind, and all things will return to their root.  Then the world will be governed.”

By “inaction” the nameless man is referring to wu-wei, which means not to struggle with things, to find a more natural way, to let your spirit flow like a gentle summer breeze.

Li Po, the Chinese poet from the 8th century, like Chuang Tze before him, liked to portray himself as lazy.  More than likely it was partly true, but I suspect the representation was also used as a metaphor, as in this poem, “Summer Day in the Mountains”:

Too lazy to wave a white feather fan,
sitting stripped to the waist in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a overhanging rock;
the wind through the pine-trees brushes my bare head.

Happy Summer, y’all.  Have fun, and remember to take it easy.

– – – – – – – – – –

Chuang Tzu and Li Po adapted from translations by Burton Watson, Arthur Waley and D. Howard Smith


The Ox-Blade Incident

Several years ago, Alice Walker, activist and author of the novel The Color Purple, made the following comment in an interview with Democracy Now:

Life is abundant, and life is beautiful. And it’s a good place that we’re all in, you know, on this earth, if we take care of it.”

I’m sure you agree that not only should we take care of our planet, but we should also take care of life itself.

All spiritual traditions teach that life is precious. In Buddhism, human life is called the “precious human rebirth” because the traditional teachings say it is a rare thing to be reborn a human being, and as the Dalai Lama tells us, “[One] has unique possibilities to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth.”

Not everyone is on board with rebirth. Whether you are on the bus or off is incidental to the matter of sustaining life. Chuang Tzu had some thoughts about it in a passage I’ve adapted from some translations:

Human life is limited, but wisdom is limitless. To use the limited to chase what has no limit is dangerous; and to suppose that one really knows can be fatal!

In doing good, avoid fame. In doing bad, avoid disgrace. Find the middle course and use it as your compass. This way you will guard yourself from harm, preserve your life, fulfill your duties to friends and family, and live a full life.

ox_2Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. With his every movement, he sliced in perfect rhythm, and this caused Wen-hui to say, “Your skill amazing.”

Cook Ting put the knife down and said, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began to cut up oxen, I saw before me whole animal. Now, after three years’ practice, I no longer see the ox at all. Now I am able to work with my mind and not with my eye. Insight and training have been replaced by instinct, which alone guides my movements. I follow the natural structure of the ox and slice in the big grooves. Then I move my blade through the large openings, and follow things as they are.

“A good cook will only change his knife once a year because he cuts, and an ordinary cook, once a month, because he hacks. I’ve had this knife for nineteen years and it is just as good as it was when it first came from the grindstone. Whenever I come to a place that is tough, I gauge the difficulties, steady my hand, and gently glide the blade. And when I am done, I wipe the knife off with a degree of satisfaction and put it carefully away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to nurture life!”

Unlike some cooks I’ve met, Ting was not a perfectionist, and yet, by following the path of natural action and abiding in a state of detached equanimity, he found a level of perfection. Life is precious and beautiful and it is a process of constant change. So we say that the best way to nurture life is to flow with its natural rhythm, letting things be themselves, letting go.

You can find the Alice Walker interview, along with her poem, “Democratic Womanism” at Democracy Now.


Two Roads and a Fork

We’re deep into the Major League Baseball post-season and I’ve seen some exciting games. It would be more exciting if my beloved Yankees were still playing. For a while I thought my guys might be able to go all the way, but it was not to be, not this year, again.

By the way, on this date in 1923 the NY Yankees beat the New York Giants 4 games to 2 and won their 1st World Series. They’ve won 27 since. In fact, again on this same day but in 1964, the Yanks beat the Cardinals to win 9 of the last 16 World Series. What a team . . .

A few weeks ago, we lost the great Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, who passed away at the age of 90. Besides a legendary ball player, he was also famous for his “Yogisms,” his little sayings that have become part of the American  lexicon, like “Déjà vu all over again” and “You can observe a lot by watching.”

fork-road4bAt first, they seem a bit fractured but sometimes they sound very Zen and Taoist. I think my favorite is “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

I don’t believe this is to be confused with the “fork in the road” near the Slauson Cutoff in L.A. (a minor spur of the 405 to Marina Del Rey) that Art Fern, host of the old Tea Time Movie, points out in the photo.

But it does remind me of this story found in the Chuang Tzu:

One day, Tzu-ch’i said to Tzu-yu, “You know, you can wear out your brain trying to make things into one without knowing that they are all the same. I call this ‘three in the morning.’”

“What do you mean by ‘three in the morning’?” Tzu-yu asked.

“When the monkey trainer was handing out nuts, he told the monkeys ‘You get three in the morning and four at night.’ This made all the monkeys angry. ‘Okay, then,’ he said, ‘you get four in the morning and three at night.’ Hearing this, monkeys were happy. Now, they still got the same amount of nuts each day, he just changed the order around, and yet one way made the monkeys upset, the other joyful. “

“I don’t get it.”

“Instead of arguing with the monkeys, the trainer used skill and wisdom to placate them. You see, a wise man will keep everything equal, and harmonize with both right and wrong. I call it walking two roads.”



Harmonizing Time and Change

I haven’t shared a story from Chuang Tzu in some time, so I thought I would share one today. For those unfamiliar with the name, Chuang Tzu, (369—298 BCE) was a Taoist philosopher. Also known as Zhuang Zhou or Zhuangzi, he worked as a minor official for a small town in China. His writings are collected in a book called Chuang Tzu, one of the classics of Chinese literature. Some of the stories are about Chuang Tzu himself, and some are other people, both historical and fictional. This tale comes from the 6th chapter, “The Great and Honorable Teacher”, and concerns an old man named Yu.

One day Yu became ill. His good friend Ssu happened by to see how he was doing. “It is simply amazing.” Yu replied.

“What is?”

“Well, look how crooked I have become. I’m a deformed old man, a hunchback.”

It was true. Yu’s internal organs were pushed up into his chest, his chin was bent over his belly, and his shoulder was higher than his head. Not only that, but when he breathed, his inhalations and exhalations were in gasps.

He hobbled over to the well and saw his reflection and said, “Yes, the years have certainly changed me.”

What amazed Ssu was how calm his friend seemed. He asked, “Aren’t you upset by this?”

IMG_4877c2Yu answered, “Not at all. What is there to be upset about? Maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up to find my left arm has changed into a rooster and I’ll crow at the dawn, or, perhaps my right arm will become a crossbow and I’ll go out and hunt for my supper. Maybe my butt will turn into cartwheels and I’ll be able to take myself for a ride. I might become a horse tomorrow and then I’ll never need another steed.”

Ssu just shook his head. Yu laughed and said, “When we are doing what there is to do, there is time enough for it.  When you resist the natural way of things, you lose what is most important to you.  I was born when it was time to be born, and I will die when it is time for me to die. That’s the way things are, how they have always been. I am content with whatever life brings my way and therefore untouched to either sorrow or joy. That’s why I’m not upset.”

I can relate to this story because age is changing me, and I am not too happy about it. Yu had something his friend didn’t have, and something I need more of: inner peace. What’s more, Yu was in harmony with time and in rhythm with change.

It doesn’t matter how old you are, time is changing you. It’s easy to lose yourself in the changes. Just as it is easy to get caught up in the various problems we encounter in daily life. I’ve learned it’s best to harmonize time, and to work with problems, rather than work against them.

Read more of the Chuang Tzu stories I’ve shared here.


The Need to Win and Flight from Shadow

Later this week (Jan. 31) we can celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton. I wrote about Merton last year at this time, and I began that post by explaining that he was a “Trappist monk considered a major spiritual thinker of the 20th century. Author of more than 60 books, he was an influential Catholic writer. He also had an impact on the religious culture of America through his embrace of Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies. He pioneered inter-faith dialogue, engaging with such people as D.T. Suzuki, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh.”

So if you didn’t know why folks interested in Buddhism should be aware of Merton, now you do.

merton-800b2As noted above, he was a prolific writer. I’ve read the biography by Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, but only a handful of Merton’s own writings, those that deal with Buddhism. He explored other spiritual philosophies, yet he never lost his Christian perspective and that’s why I am not in agreement with everything he had to say about Eastern thought. But one of his works I can find little to complain about is his interpretation of Chuang Tzu, the classic Chinese writings attributed to an early Taoist philosopher.

I’ve presented selections from Chuang Tzu in previous posts, and in one from 2011 I included part of Merton’s interpretation of a passage from the “Mountain Tree” chapter. I assume, since the best known translations (by Arthur Waley, Lin Yutang, and Burton Watson) are in prose form, that was how the text was originally composed. But I could be entirely wrong about it. For me, part of what makes The Way of Chuang Tzu unique and interesting is the way in which Merton interprets much of the text as poetry. It also makes for a great introduction to the Chuang Tzu’s somewhat abstruse writings, heavily invested with satire and paradox.

Here are a couple of selections:

The Need to Win

When an archer is shooting for nothing, he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle, he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold, he goes blind or sees two targets —
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize divides him.
He cares. He thinks more of winning than of shooting–
And the need to win drains him of power.

Flight from Shadow

There was a man who was so disturbed by the sight of his own shadow and so displeased with his own footsteps that he determined to get rid of both. The method he hit upon was to run away from them.

So he got up and ran. But every time he put his foot down there was another step, while his shadow kept up with him without the slightest difficulty.

He attributed his failure to the fact that he was not running fast enough. So he ran faster and faster, without stopping until he finally dropped dead.

He failed to realize that if he merely stepped into the shade, his shadow would vanish, and if he sat down and stayed still, there would be no more footsteps.

The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton, New Directions, 1969