Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Fundamental Truth

What's so fun

About being demented?

Eager office seekers

Claim to be,

Washed in the Blood

Of the Lamb.

But who would trust

Their precious flocks

To the care of

Such hungry wolves?

There are some days that I just shouldn't open the newspaper. I originally included a second, very angry verse here, but after a few moment's calm reflection I decided to redact it from this page. Angry words, like angry deeds, have a way of bouncing around and coming back to one. We could all do well to keep that in mind. I'll keep trying.

Disturbing image is from

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Zen's Chinese Heritage

"A monk asked, "Why did the First Ancestor come from the west?"
Sansheng said, "Spoiled meat draws flies."

Wait, did he just compare Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen, to a rot seeking fly?


These irreverent words were the response of Sansheng Huiran, prominent disciple of Linji Yixuan. Sansheng was a well-traveled Zenist, having sharpened his abilities with the likes of Yangshan, Xiangyan, Deshan, Daowu and many other well-known teachers of the Tang Dynasty Chan, or Zen, milieu. The words of all of these illustrious characters and many, many more may be found in the pages of the new revised edition of Andy Ferguson's monumental "Zen's Chinese Heritage".

Americans with only a casual familiarity with it may be forgiven for thinking that Zen is a Japanese creation. The art and architecture, calligraphy, tea ceremonies and the tranquil gardens of the famous Japanese monasteries are all familiar images to Westerners today. It's fair to say the the Japanese culture has deeply absorbed many of the values and perspectives of Zen into its' very core.

Zen was first transmitted to these shores by pioneering Japanese masters, its' foundational texts such as the classic koan collections "The Blue Cliff Record" and the "Gateless Barrier" came to us through Japanese texts, texts that used the traditional Japanese names for the seminal Chinese masters.

But Chinese they were and Ferguson has delved into the pages of the previously untranslated and unavailable Chinese Chan classic Wudeng Huiyuan (Compendium of Five Lamps) as well as several other similar sources to bring to life twenty-five "generations" of Chan masters from the years 480 to 1260 C.E.. Some of these stories are already familiar to serious students in slightly different form from the previously mentioned koan collections and Japanese "Lamp Transmissions", many more will be brand new to all western readers.

The last few days I have been staying home, recuperating from my latest liver biopsy, a yearly event in the transplant world. This, coupled with the long Labor Day holiday has given me a golden opportunity to dive into this marvelous book in an unhurried fashion, getting to know the ancestors of Zen. As the book is chronologically arranged, the reader can trace the development of the vocabulary and traditions of the various schools from master to student down the line.

I've been lying around for hours reading and making notes for myself in the margins. I've been reflecting and pondering and laughing an awful lot, these old Chan johnnies were a hilarious bunch by and large. Here, laughter and enlightenment go hand in hand. Indeed, the soul of humor is the sudden breaking of mental barriers and realization of surprising new perspectives, and what else is Zen after all?

Just as Andy Ferguson has gone straight to the source to bring us this text, you can go straight to the source to purchase a copy. Publisher, Wisdom Publications, has a great on-line deal on the book, 20% off cover price. Click right here for a link to them if you want. (By the way, this is not any sort of paid ad, I just really like this book and I would like to share my pleasure with you, my gentle readers.)

Let me leave with two stories that particularly tickled my fancy.

This one's for my old friend James Ford over at Monkey Mind.

Baoshou asked a monk, "Where did you come from?"
The monk said, "From West Mountain."
Baoshou asked, "Did you see the monkey?"
The monk said, "I saw it."
Baoshou said, "How clever was it?"
The monk said, "I saw that I was not the least bit clever."
Baoshou hit him.

This other is a classic case of an hapless monk asking a damnfool question and having it turned back on himself. The reader can well imagine the sudden sweat and look of terror on the face of the poor fellow!

A monk asked, "What is the talk that is beyond the buddhas and ancestors?"
Qianfeng said, "I ask you."
The monk said, "Master, please don't ask me."
Qianfeng said, "If I ask you, it doesn't make any difference. So I ask you, what is the talk that is beyond the buddhas and ancestors?"