Reversing the Light to Shine Within

In my readings of Buddhist and Taoist literature over the years, I have often run across variations of a certain phrase, “turning the light around,” translated differently with slight changes of meaning changes depending on the context. The phrase comes from the Chinese huiguang, “turn around light”.

MP8776In the Taoist classic The Secret of the Golden Flower (as translated by Thomas Cleary, 1991), “turning the light around is a means of refining the higher soul, which is a means of preserving the spirit, which is a means of controlling the lower soul, which is a means of interrupting consciousness.” In Ch’an, originally known as the Inner Light School, it’s a term for the process of meditation: “Now when you turn the light around to shine inward, the mind is not aroused by things.” (Lu Yan 829–874).

Huiguang is also linked in Ch’an to hua-t’ou, literally “source” and essentially refers to the mind in its natural state undisturbed by thought, but often associated with kung-an (Jpn. koan) practice. In the Korean Zen of Chinul, the phrase is “tracing back the radiance,”* a specific practice of seeing the radiant nature of the mind within the present moment and then tracing the radiance back to its source. Chinul connects the practice to a method associated with Avalokitesvara (“Hearer of the Cries of the World”) of tracing hearing back to its source within the mind.

Hsuan Hua (1918-1995), the great Chinese teacher who played a leading role in bringing Ch’an to America during the 20th Century, presents a different take on this phrase, one that shines a bit more directly on our state of mind in daily life, in his commentary, “The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra.”  In this treatment of the Heart Sutra, Hsuan Hua comments on a line or few words from the text with a verse he composed and then a short explanation. Here he analyzes the first three words of the “shorter” Heart Sutra:

When Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva


Reversing the light to shine within,
Avalokiteshvara enlightens all the sentient beings; thus he is a Bodhisattva.
His mind is thus, thus, unmoving, a superior one at peace;
With total understanding of the ever-shining, he is host and master.
Six types of psychic powers are an ordinary matter,
And even less can the winds and rains of the eight directions cause alarm.
He rolls it up and secretly hides it away;
And lets it go to fill the entire world.


The name Avalokiteshvara is Sanskrit; in Chinese it is rendered guan zi zai, “Contemplating Ease”. To be at ease is to be happy about everything and to be without worries or obstacles. To be unimpeded is to contemplate ease. If you are impeded, then you are not contemplating ease. Reversing the light to shine within is contemplating ease. If you don’t reverse the light to shine within, you’re not contemplating ease.

What is meant by “reversing the light to shine within”? Regardless of what the situation is, examine yourself. If someone has wronged you, you should think to yourself, “Basically, I was wrong.”

If you say, “When people don’t act properly toward me, I don’t look to see whether I’m right myself; I just smash them right away, smash their heads in so that blood flows” – then you haven’t won a victory, but have only shown your complete lack of principles and wisdom. To reverse the light to shine within is to have principles and wisdom. Reverse the light and contemplate whether or not you are at ease.

I will explain the two characters zi zai, which together mean “ease”. The zi is oneself, and the zai is where one is. I’ll say it word for word. Are you right here (zai), or aren’t you? In other words, do you have false thoughts, or not? If one has false thoughts, then one (zi) is not right here. It’s very simple. To reverse the light to shine within is simply to see whether you have false thoughts. If you have false thoughts, then you aren’t at ease. If you don’t have false thoughts, then you are at ease. That’s how wonderful it is.

“The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra” with “Verses Without A Stand” and Prose Commentary of the Venerable Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua, English translation by the Buddhist Text Translation Society

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* Robert E. Buswell, Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen, University of Hawaii Press, 1991


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.”

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Death of a Zen Poet from the Heartland

stryk-lucienThis is somewhat belated, but I just learned over the weekend that Lucien Stryk, an acclaimed Zen poet and long-time English professor at Northern Illinois University, passed away in London on Jan. 24th at the age of 88.

NIU English instructor and fellow poet, John Bradley told the university’s news service, “He was a world class-translator of Japanese poetry, especially Zen poetry, both Haiku and other forms. There’s an art to being able to pull off a translation. To really make it feel like an English poem takes great skill, and Lucien was very good at it.”

Bradley noted that Zen influenced Stryk’s own poetry: “He’d write about ordinary objects and places and make the ordinary extraordinary.”

According to NIU Today,

Stryk was born in Kolo, Poland, in 1924, and moved at a young age to Chicago with his family. After serving in the U.S. Army in the South Pacific during World War II, he studied at Indiana University, and later at the Sorbonne in Paris, London University and the University of Iowa.

At NIU, he served on the faculty from 1958 until his retirement in 1991, teaching courses in creative writing and Asian literature.

Lucien Stryk was more than a “Zen” poet. He was also a prairie or Midwest poet. Many of his poems reflected Midwestern American themes, which resonated with me since I am from the Midwest, and his work as an editor of poetry, especially with his two anthologies, Heartland I (1967) and Heartland II (1975), “put the Midwest on the literary map.” Another anthology of his has a cherished place on my bookshelf, World of the Buddha: An Introduction to Buddhist Literature (1994). Actually, I should say that it has two or three places on my bookshelf, as mine is an old paperback edition that has come apart and is now in several pieces.

Unfortunately, I don’t know a great deal about Stryk’s life, like how he encountered Zen, but I know enough to say that his translations of Buddhist poetry and his writings on Zen made him a prominent figure in our Western Dharma.

Here is one of Stryk’s best known poems, inspired by Chekhov’s short story “Gooseberries.”

(after Chekhov)

Because I sit eating cherries
which I did not pick
a girl goes bad under

the elevator tracks, will
never be whole again.
Because I want the full bag,

grasping, twenty-five children
cry for food. Gorging,
I’ve none to offer. I want

to care, I mean to, but not
yet, a dozen cherries
rattling at the bottom of my bag.

One by one I lift them to
my mouth, slowly break
their skin—twelve nations

bleed. Because I love, because
I need cherries, I
cannot help them. My happiness,

bought cheap, must last forever.

And this is a translation of a poem by one of Japan’s greatest poets, Shinkichi Takahashi (d. 1987), from Triumph of the Sparrow, 1986.

Shinkichi Takahashi

Time oozed from my pores,
Drinking tea
I tasted the seven seas.

I saw in the mist formed
Around me
The fatal chrysanthemum, myself.

Its scent choked, and as I
Rose, squaring
My shoulders, the earth collapsed.



View from the Celestial Terrace

While scholars still debate the historicity of Bodhidharma, considered by many the “father of Zen,” one real father of that school is Chih-i, the Third Patriarch and actual founder of the Chinese T’ien-t’ai (“Celestial Terrace”) tradition, whose historicity is not in doubt and whose teachings on both doctrine and meditation paved the way for the development of Ch’an/Zen.

c-ichikuan9g2bChih-i was one of the giants of Mahayana Buddhism. In the West, it seems that there is little knowledge or appreciation of his tremendous influence. Many of the Eastern Mahayana schools, and their Western extensions, still study the meditation manuals attributed to this great master, so at least for them, his philosophy lives on.

I often see remarks by non-Asian Buddhists to the effect that Chih-i’s meditation teachings are too complex and the practices he laid-out too time-consuming to be of much use in this modern age. But if that were entirely true, then why are his manuals still studied and his influence so highly-regarded in the East? I think a lot of it has to do with bad PR. Chih-i’s school in no longer in existence, so he hasn’t had any modern day champions, as Bodhidharma has, and while the Japanese offshoot of T’ien-t’ai, Tendai, from which Japanese Zen emerged, is still in operation, it is so insular it’s become irrelevant. The Nichiren traditions do acknowledge Chih-i’s influence and rely on his teachings, but merely as a backdrop to Nichiren’s philosophy, and they largely misinterpret the doctrinal aspects while they ignore the meditation teachings entirely.

It was that latter group of teachings that had such a great influence on Chinese Ch’an, Pure Land, and especially, Japanese Zen, but during Chih-i’s time (the Sixth Century CE), there were no Ch’an/Zen schools to speak of; however, the term ch’an, being the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word dhyana, was in use as a general term for Buddhist practice. Paul Swanson, a professor at Nanzan University in Japan, and a specialist in the area of T’ien-tai/Tendai Buddhism, says in his essay, “Ch’an and Chih-kuan,” that Chih-i moved away from the use of ch’an in his teachings because it focused narrowly on the chih (cessation or samatha) aspect of meditation, at the expense of the kuan (contemplation or vipassana) aspect:

Chih-i (based, to a great degree, on his understanding of the teachings of the Lotus Sutra) is critical of an unbalanced emphasis on “meditation alone,” portraying it as a possible “extreme” view and practice, and offering instead the binome chih-kuan (calming/cessation and insight/contemplation, samatha-vipasyana) as a more comprehensive term for Buddhist practice.”

It might be a mistake for us to view chih-kuan simply in terms of it being the Chinese translation of samatha-vipassana. Kuan-ting (Chih-i’s student), in his introduction to the monumental work on Buddhist practice attributed to Chih-i, the Mo-ho Chih-kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”), wrote, “The luminous quiescence of stopping and seeing [chih-kuan] was unknown in former ages until The Wise Teacher [Chih-i] expounded it,” suggesting that Chih-i’s concept of meditation differed from the established teachings at the time, and that his intention was to take Buddhist meditation into a new dimension, one of balance and inclusiveness.

Chih-i disapproved of “masters” who advocated one-sided practice, “claiming that their teaching and practice is unbalanced and perhaps even dangerous.” Swanson quotes from the Mo-ho Chih-kuan:

If people rely exclusively [on either cessation or contemplation, or on only one teaching or practice] to attain understanding, then what was the reason for the Buddha to offer such a variety of teachings? The heavens are not always clear; a doctor does not rely exclusively on powdered medicine; one does not always eat rice.”

Peter N. Gregory, suggests that Chih-i’s form of samatha-vipassana was to some extent “samatha-prajna or meditation and wisdom, as vipasyana may be understood as the teaching aspect of the practice brought into meditation) . . .” (Sudden and Gradual: Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought).

Naturally, from this, we should not form the impression that teaching and study was the limit of Chih-i’s kaun/vipassana, or what we call “insight” meditation. As I’ve noted in previous posts, and it bears repeating considering the increasing numbers of Buddhists and “un-Buddhists” who are quite dismissive of meditation practice nowadays, that Chih-i stressed the importance of striking a balance between practice and study, or meditation and wisdom.

And as I’ve quoted before, in “Chih-kuan for Beginners”, he states:

[The Lotus Sutra] says ‘The practice of dhyana [meditation] alone, while prajna [wisdom] is disregarded causes delusion, and the practice of wisdom alone, while meditation is disregarded, causes infatuation’ . . . Although delusion and infatuation differ from each other in a minor way, their contribution to misunderstanding is the same. Thus, if meditation and wisdom are not in equal proportion, the practice is deficient.”

Those guys look more like Curly, Moe and Shemp to me.
Those guys look more like Curly, Moe and Shemp to me.

Study is subsumed under the rubric of wisdom, and Chih-i compared practice and study to two wings of a bird and two wheels of a cart. Without two wings, a bird cannot fly. Without two wheels, a cart cannot move. In the same way, both practice and study are required if we are to progress in our faring of the Buddha way. For a cart, or nowadays, a car, two wheels also provide balance. When the wheels on our car are balanced, it allows for a smoother ride and extends the life of the tires. In the same way, balance between practice and study makes wayfaring more even and extends the life of the journey.


Zen Scandal, Zen Practice

In recent years, revelations of long-standing sexual misconduct on the part of several Zen teachers have shaken the Zen community. The most recent, involving 105-year-old Joshu Sasaki, founder and head abbot of the Mount Baldy Zen Center, here in California has more or less erupted into an online firestorm.

Over the past month, I’ve read many of the blog posts dealing with the Sasaki issue and I’ve read quite a few of the comments to those posts. It is a difficult problem, and without a doubt, sexual misconduct by those in a position of leadership or authority is wrong.

From the material posted online I’ve seen the ethical approach, the organizational policy approach, the clinical psychology approach, and from Stephen Batchelor, a sort of historical approach. This week, things got pretty nasty, when several Zen teachers starting sniping at one another. I’ve seen precious little of the dharma approach, the faith and practice approach.

I can’t help but feel this is a mistake, one that does Zen folk, their tradition, and the Buddhist community at large, a huge disservice. Unless I’ve missed it, there hasn’t been any discussion about how this issue could be an opportunity for all to deepen their practice and understanding of Buddhism. Except for one or two people, I really haven’t seen anyone talk about taking responsibility, and to my mind, everyone in this situation should be responsible to some extent, if only for contributing to the creation of a climate where misbehavior could take place, and for allowing it to continue. After all, they built it, together.

From my understanding, Buddhism teaches that no one is allowed to escape accountability for anything. Both victimizer and victim must assume responsibility – the victimizer for his or her wrongful behavior, and the victim for the internal cause that drew them to such an experience.

It seems to me that the women preyed-upon are not the only victims here. Everyone in the community is a victim because the situation has had such a wide-ranging negative effect. So, I direct my comments today to that aspect.

There is both an internal and external cause* for every experience. Why did we have to meet a person who would mistreat us? An internal cause help put us in that situation. We can call it a potential or a disposition planted in the psyche of the individual, or we might call it temperament. According to Helen Fisher, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today several years ago about the ‘laws of chemistry’ that help determine who people find themselves attracted to, “[It] is now believed that 50 percent of variance in personality is due to “temperament”—our predisposition to think and act in certain ways. Cross-cultural surveys, brain imaging studies, population and molecular genetics, twin studies—all suggest that the traits of temperament are universal and tied to our genetic makeup.”

If we are drawn to certain types of people, in both matters of the heart, and for other relationships, then it would seem to follow that we are also drawn to certain situations and experiences, and even though this temperament has a genetic link, that doesn’t mean that it’s set in stone.

If there is no self-reflection, no recognition of an internal cause, but instead, only blame towards another party (no matter how justifiable), then there is no real possibility of changing the fundamental suffering. External changes may help, but in the long run they are somewhat cosmetic. After self-reflection, there should be the vow or determination to change the internal cause, to modify our temperament, to transform. Then, most crucial of all, is to take action, to use practice to overcome the suffering.

Kunzang Pelden, one of the great scholar-monks of Tibet, called it “the strength of remedial practice.” The spirit of taking responsibility for everything that happens to us, regardless of our lack of culpability or distance from the situation, should lead us to this strength. If we are truly Buddhist, then we must truly believe in a dharmic solution.

And this is what I have not yet seen in all the online discussion over this issue. Next to nothing about how to use the practice of Buddhism to overcome the suffering. If meditation is only for calming the mind, and not also for the development of wisdom, and for understanding how to apply that wisdom to every problem of daily life, whether it be an individual or group problem, then, I say an opportunity has been missed. It’s a waste of time to follow a philosophy and not use it.

But, it’s certainly not up to me to tell anyone how to conduct their affairs, especially a community that I am not a part of, and yet at the same time, sometimes outsiders can offer a fresh, objective point of view. And, they are discussing the issue publicly. No one has asked my opinion, but if they did, I would suggest that perhaps there’s been enough of the clinical talk, the discussion of authority and who’s a Zen teacher and who’s not, and certainly enough of the misguided parodies and taking umbrage. Perhaps, it’s time for dharma.

This reminds me of something the Dalai Lama said in Los Angeles in 1997,

Given that dharma is like a medicine of the heart and mind, one must utilize it in the correct manner. When we are ill, we use medication and the medication is aimed at not only eliminating the symptoms but also by getting at the root of the conditions that cause the illness. Similarly, we should be able to use the dharma at the right instance, when it is needed the most, through constant self-awareness, mindfulness, and self-investigation. When one confronts a situation where, within the mind, there is any possibility of even an inkling of an arousal of negative emotions or non-virtuous thoughts – it is at that moment the dharma should be able to counter-act these disruptive forces.

Because negative action is an expression of the negative motivation or negative states of mind, if you are able to apply dharma at the right instance, before it becomes expressed in negative action, then you will be able to deal with it at that time. Otherwise one’s practice will become as [one] master said, “sometimes for some people, the dharma can only been seen when things are fine.” There is a verse that reads that some can only be a practitioner when their stomach is full and everything is like sunshine, but the moment he or she encounters a crisis, the dharma goes out the window and they are complaining and blaming everybody and they act worse than someone who has no belief in dharma practice. This is not how we should do.”


* The concept of internal or primary cause (Jp. nyo ze in) comes from the “Ten Suchnesses” of T’ien-t’ai Buddhism, based on a passage in the 2nd chapter of the Lotus Sutra where ten categories of all reality are presented: “That is to say, all existence has such a form (nyo se so), such a nature (nyo ze sho), such an embodiment (nyo ze tai), such a potency (nyo ze riki), such a function (nyo se sa), such a primary cause (nyo se in), such a secondary cause (nyo ze en), such an effect (nyo ze ka), such a recompense (nyo ze ho), and such a complete fundamental whole (nyo ze honmak-kukyoto).” [The Threefold Lotus Sutra, Bunno Kato]