Not Knowing

In Buddhism, we say that the root of sufferings is our fundamental ignorance or avidya, a fundamentally flawed way of viewing the world, as I wrote in the last post, not knowing the true nature of reality.

There is a flip side to “not knowing” and that is the wisdom of knowing that you know nothing. Both Zen Buddhism and Taoism place a great deal of emphasis on the value of not knowing.

There’s the famous Zen story about the student who asked a teacher, “What is the essence of Buddha-dharma?” The teacher replied, “Not attaining, not knowing.”

The Taoist sage, Lao Tzu wrote in Chapter 71 of the Tao Te Ching, “It is beneficial to know nothing. Pretending to know is a disease.”

schultzNot-knowing is not the exclusive providence of Eastern philosophy, even Western philosophers such as Rudolph Steiner have weighed in on the subject. He once said, “You are right to think you know nothing; but this is not because you are incapable but because the whole world is unable to know anything.” *

I can’t speak for Steiner but as far as Buddhism and Taoism are concerned, the purpose of a teaching like not knowing is to help us unlearn, for developing wisdom is partially a process of disabusing ourselves from the many false notions we have held all our lives. It’s letting go of our preconceived ideas and awakening to a more natural and direct understanding of how things are. Lao Tzu called this “illumination” (Ch. ming).

Of course, there is always some wiseacre who comes along, like the Tang dynasty poet Po Chu-i:

“Those who speak don’t know,
Those who know don’t speak.”
It is said that these words
Were written by Lao Tzu.
Now, if we are to accept
That Lao Tzu was one who knew,
Then why did he compose a book
Of five thousand words?

– – – – – – – – – –

* Rudolf Steiner, From Beetroot to Buddhism: Answers to Questions : Sixteen Discussions with Workers at the Goetheanum in Dornach Between 1 March and 25 June 1924, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1999, 188

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Top 5 Searches 2012

People find The Endless Further in a variety of ways. For instance, from Facebook, or from seeing it listed on another blog’s blogroll. Quite a few folks find me through online searches. As my fellow bloggers know, every blog and website has access to statistical reports on “traffic,” i.e. how many visitors you have each day, how many subscribe to your feed, etc. These stats also give you information about the keyword searches used to find your blog.

Most of the keywords and phrases are about what you’d expect: “buddha,” “samsara is nirvana,” “shantideva,” and so on. Some folks have found The Endless Further by searching for such things as “was bruce lee a Buddhist” (not a practicing Buddhist, but Buddha-dharma had a significant influence), and since I am a rather eclectic blogger, with searches like “who was known as the poet laureate of harlem” (Langston Hughes). I’ve blogged about Bruce Lee and Langston Hughes several times. Some searches are a bit off the wall, like “cape wrath deckhouse,” which results in a post I did about Hurricane Irene that contained the three words but not in succession. And a few are downright bizarre. Someone was searching for “naga sex scene.” Naga is the Indian word for serpent or dragon, and while I’ve mentioned nagas on occasion, I don’t recall anything about them having sex. Another strange one: “cortical gyrification meditation.” I don’t even know what that is, and frankly, I’m not sure I want to find out.

I thought it would be interesting (at least to me) to post the Top Five Keyword Searches that brought visitors to The Endless Further in 2012. Here they are:

No-self? Nah, Invisible Man.
No-self? Nah, Invisible Man.

A tie for Fifth Place with “taiji” and “invisible man.” Taiji or Tai Chi is an internal Chinese martial art and a form of exercise. I wrote about the Eights Truths of Tai Chi in 2011. When I Googled “invisible man,” I did not see The Endless Further come up in any results, not in the first 20 pages at any rate. There are a few posts where I have the word “invisible” contained in the text, but I suspect that most people landed on the blog from Google images, finding a post from Nov. 29, 2012 titled “No-self.”

Number 4 is “Lao tzu leadership.” When I searched this on Google, The Endless Further was the third listing with Dictators and Lao Tzu’s Principles for Leadership.

“Po chu-i” comes in at Number 3. Po Chu-i was one of the great classical Chinese poets. I blogged about him in The Chan Poetry of Po Chu-i.

Weighing in at Number 2 is “heart sutra chant.” Again, The Endless Further came up as the third result when I Googled this phrase. The short video in Chanting the Heart Sutra in English that I originally posted on YouTube has been viewed at least 4,067 times. I’ve seen it embedded on other blogs and websites, and I’ve gotten some good comments about it. It is gratifying to know that many people have enjoyed it and found it beneficial. The video appears at the end of this post.

And now, the Number 1 keyword search that brought folks to The Endless Further in 2012 is (drum roll) . . . “charlie chaplin”!

Charlies as "The Little Tramp."
Charlies as “The Little Tramp.”

I’ve mentioned Charlie Chaplin quite a few times, as he is a historical figure I greatly admire. Chaplin first appeared on film nearly 100 years ago, in Mack Sennet’s 1914 short Making A Living, and the Little Tramp character he created soon thereafter lives on today, a universal icon. His films have endured as well, the best of which were silent, and because they were silent they spoke a universal language. In a post about The Religious Sect That Worships Charlie Chaplin, I wrote,

From the late teens of the last century and into the 1920’s, he was arguably the most beloved man in the world. Almost everyone could relate to Charlie in one way or another, especially everyday people, working class people, folks who were closer to the bottom than the top. Charlie represented them. When he kicked a cop, tricked a bullying boss, or hit a pompous rich man in the face with a custard pie, he was doing what they wanted to do – strike a blow against authority. Charlie’s Little Tramp character was usually  left with the short end of the stick, rarely got the girl he loved, and at the end of many of the films, he wandered off alone, lonely and a little sad.

Chaplin’s silent films were loved the world over because the title cards, which he used sparingly, could be easily translated into another language. Walt Disney based his most famous character, Mickey Mouse, a bit on Charlie. He once said, “I think we are rather indebted to Charlie Chaplin for the idea. We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin — a little fellow trying to do the best he could.” Film critic Leonard Maltin has said, “Shakespeare wrote great plays that we’re still watching all these years later. Charlie Chaplin made great comedies and they are still as funny today as they ever were.” I couldn’t agree more.

Here is my video of the Heart Sutra chanted in English:

May you have a joyful, peaceful, and productive 2013!

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The Ch’an Poetry of Po Chu-i

It’s still National Poetry Month, which is sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, so that means more poetry. Today, the quintessential Chinese poet,  Po Chu-i

Po Chu-i (772-846) was a government official who was a popular poet during the Chinese Tang dynasty. And a rather prolific one – he supposedly wrote over 2800 poems. He was also a member of the Hanlin Academy (“brush wood court”), an elite scholarly institution founded in the 8th century that lasted until 1911.

However, Po Chu-i himself was not elitist. He wrote deceptively simple poetry that was often sympathetic to the troubles and concerns of common people. He wanted to make his work accessible and it is said that if any of his servants could not understand one of his poems, he would immediately rewrite it.

A serious student of Ch’an, Po, like most Chinese Buddhists, also studied Taoism. The Taoist influence is evident in his poetry’s realistic quality and how it reflects the theme of harmony with nature and between people. However, the Ch’an influence was the greater of the two.

In his introduction to The Selected Poems of Po Chu-I, David Hinton writes, “Po’s poems often include the explicit use of Ch’an ideas, indeed he is the poet who really opened mainstream poetry to Buddhist experience, his work becoming a major source of information on Buddhist practice in his time.” (Which should tell you how little we know about Buddhism then.)

Burton Watson, translator of Chinese and Japanese literature, in his book Po Chu-i: Selected Poems, says that Po was most famous for his “simplicity of language” and for “an abiding desire to portray himself, whatever he may have been in real life, as a connoisseur of everyday delights, a man confronting the world, particular in the years of old age, with an air of humor and philosophical acceptance.”

Here is a poem that Hinton chose to translate almost verbatim, without any additional words, capturing Po’s simple poetic style:

Flower No Flower

Flower no flower
mist no mist

arrives at midnight
and leaves at dawn

arrives like a spring dream – how many times
leaves like a morning cloud – nowhere to find

Po also wrote poems of social protest. Early in his career, his politically flavored poetry caused him to be exiled to Hsun-yang where he served as Chief Magistrate. This poem from the Hsun-yang years was translated by Arthur Waley:

Visiting the Hsi-Lin Temple

I dismount from my horse at the Hsi-Lin Temple;
I hurry forward, speeding with light cane.
In the morning I work at a Govermnment office-desk;
In the evening I become a dweller in the Sacred Hills.
In the second month to the north of K’uang-lu
The ice breaks and the snow begins to melt.
On the southern plantation the tea-plant trusts its sprouts;
Through the northern crevice the view of the spring ooze.

This year there is war in An-hui,
In every place soldiers are rushing to arms.
Men of learning have been summoned to the Council Board;
Men of action are marching to the battle-line.
Only I, who have no talents at all,
Am left in the mountains to play with the pebbles of the stream.

Here are two poems that I translated myself:

Rain on Autumn Night

Cold, cold this third night of autumn
Rain makes me sleepy
Alone, this old man is contented and idle
It’s late when I extinguish the lamp and lie down
To sleep, listening to the beautiful sound of rain
Incense ashes still glowing in the burner
My only heat in this lodging
At daybreak, I will stay under the quilt to stay warm
And the steps will be covered by frosty red leaves

Lao Tzu

“Those who speak don’t know,
Those who know don’t speak.”
It is said that these words
Were written by Lao Tzu.
Now, if we are to accept
That Lao Tzu was one who knew,
Then why did he compose a book
Of five thousand words?

This poem, inspired by Po, was written by the great American poet William Carlos Williams, circa 1920:

To the shade of Po Chu-I

The work is heavy. I see
bare branches laden with snow.
I try to comfort myself
with thought of your old age.
A girl passes, in a red tam,
the coat above her quick ankles
snow smeared from running and falling –
Of what shall I think now
save of death the bright dancer?

W. S. Merwin, also a serious student of Buddhism, whom I wrote about in this post, composed this poem just last March:

A Message to Po Chu-I

In that tenth winter of your exile
the cold never letting go of you
and your hunger aching inside you
day and night while you heard the voices
out of the starving mouths around you
old ones and infants and animals
those curtains of bones swaying on stilts
and you heard the faint cries of the birds
searching in the frozen mud for something
to swallow and you watched the migrants
trapped in the cold the great geese growing
weaker by the day until their wings
could barely lift them above the ground
so that a gang of boys could catch one
in a net and drag him to market
to be cooked and it was then that you
saw him in his own exile and you
paid for him and kept him until he
could fly again and you let him go
but then where could he go in the world
of your time with its wars everywhere
and the soldiers hungry the fires lit
the knives out twelve hundred years ago

I have been wanting to let you know
the goose is well he is here with me
you would recognize the old migrant
he has been with me for a long time
and is in no hurry to leave here
the wars are bigger now than ever
greed has reached numbers that you would not
believe and I will not tell you what
is done to geese before they kill them
now we are melting the very poles
of the earth but I have never known
where he would go after he leaves me

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