Mar 122013
 

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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