The Sinosphere blog of The New York Times has published an interview with Bill Porter, who also publishes translations of Chinese texts under the pseudonym of Red Pine, upon the release of his Yellow River Odyssey, a travel journal written just prior to China’s emergence into the modern world. His extensive photographs of the trip capture a China that has largely disappeared. Many of Red Pine’s books are now bestsellers in China, after being translated from English into Chinese, including his translations and commentaries on Buddhist poems and sutras. The interview is by China correspondent Ian Johnson, and can be read here.
Yellow River Odyssey is published by Chin Music Press.
Ruben Habito, my Zen teacher for many years, who will always be a core presence in my life, continues on his path, bringing Zen to Texas, writing his many books on Zen, and opening himself and his zendo to teaching anyone who seeks a way into Zen practice or a way to experience their own religion more intimately. Over the years, his students have been agnostics, Jews, Christians, and members of other faiths, all seeking to experience life more deeply and simply.
This interview, which appeared in Tricycle, is typical of Ruben, gently building bridges that can lead Christians and others into Zen practice, pointing to the connections that bind us all to each thing. I wrote a chapter on Ruben in my travel/memoir, which is sitting silently now unable to find an agent or publisher.
If for no other reason, I would like the book to be published if only to spread the word about Ruben’s unique life, profound understanding of people, and his unwavering commitment to compassion. As more years pass without seeing him, I miss him more and more while at the same time feeling his presence grow even deeper.
“Mountains walking is just like humans walking. Do not doubt mountains walking even though it does not look like human walking.” – Dogen, Jan. 19, 1200, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan.
Where else better to take a thoughtful walk than in Kyoto, home to so many worthies who have graced its streets and paths. Ted Taylor and Michael Lambe have put together a paean to walking through Japan’s most intimate city, savouring the ancient temples and today’s artful graffiti. The anthology, Deep Kyoto Walks, includes Pico Iyer and others, and this is one of those books that takes you to where you didn’t know you wanted to go. Sixteen writers who know Kyoto pay tribute to life in the city of “Purple Hills and Crystal Streams,” offering a testament to the art of contemplative city walking.
“I had to acknowledge that I had to come to Japan in order to see that a 7-Eleven here was just as Japanese — as foreign — as any meditation hall, and no less full of wonder…” – Pico Iyer, Into the Tumult
About That Bowl
Round it is, the bowl I placed
in a hut in a mountain valley.
For a moment, its dominion
arises, a matter of form and space,
or so one thinks – that bowl and
emptiness – giving and taking
like nothing else.
But it’s not about one or the other –
or wilderness or hearth. In usefulness,
wildness is swept away,
for a moment, but then it returns
like nothing else.
When my eyes open at dawn’s light
the question naturally arises,
whose arms are these – flaccid pink
skin draping off brittle bones?
On the pillow there’s some long hairs – mine
or the two dogs, Roxy and Daisy, sleeping on
the bed? Before, the long hairs were always
a woman’s, her body pressed close
in the morning chill.
Now part of my lung is gone, infiltrated
by swarming molecules hungry to
devour my breath. It’s rationed now.
My heart beats harder to help
its neighbor. My heart’s comforting
sound fills my chest, but my morning
cough sounds like a sick man.
One beat, one breath….
Good practice for a lazy man.
As Su Tung p’o said,
“I’m a tired horse unharnessed at last.”
Minding My Time
Awash in mind time. Mind’s always mattering,
mothering: words, sensations, feelings always
forming stuff. Words always mattering
in Universe of Matter. That’s all (not really for
Roy & Laddawan and the Thai band playing Eric Clapton).
Mind called self is just the go-between
for no-body. Big Self mothers every thing
– knows like a bone every thing’s just co-
existing meaning-matter like mothering sky.
Right now in Chiang Mai at 1:18 a.m.
as a tiny candle lantern rises golden
in the night like a star.
There are two very interesting articles in the new Edge issue. The first, by Terence McKenna, ranges freely all over the map and makes many interesting observations about the chemical processes that involve mind, cognition, language and blissing out…lots of attention is given to the role of ego, its development, non-development, etc. It’s imminently worth reading for its many gem-like insights.
Also, see the article by Edward Slingerland (scroll down on the Edge website) on the role of wu-wei, sometimes deceptively called “non-action,” in Chinese culture. He’s the author of Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China. It’s actually a process of checking on the ego…something the world, the politicians and each of us needs to give ever greater attention. His website is here.
The two articles, in many ways, complement each other.
Here’s a taste of where Slingerland is going with his latest (2014) book on wu-wei, Trying Not to Try.
“In a lot of my recent work I’ve been arguing that these early Chinese models of ethical reasoning, ethical training are psychologically much more, from a modern perspective, more plausible than some modern Western ideas. In some ways I’m arguing that the early Chinese got some stuff right that we got wrong in the Western philosophical tradition. They like to hear that. And I believe this is true. They were very sophisticated moral psychologists, and they’ve got some insights into the way that we reason about morality and the way we train people that I think are a really important corrective to the way we’ve been thinking about ethics in the West.
“But on the other hand I am a critic of certain aspects of the modern Chinese state, and I also worry about the rate of development. I was there in the 80s in mainland China, and going from Taiwan to mainland China was like going in a time machine. Taiwan was relatively modernized. I don’t know how I got to Hong Kong, but I took a boat up the Pearl River from Hong Kong to Canton, to Guangzhou. It was an overnight boat, and I got out in the morning and it was like I’d gone back in time 100 years; there were no cars, no motorcycles, everyone was riding bikes. It was an unbelievable change. Now I go back to Guangzhou and there’s these superhighways and these huge buildings, and it all happened—well, that was not that long ago. So the rate of change is wild. It’s just incomprehensible. I just wonder about how sustainable it is, because it’s creating a lot of wealth inequality and a lot of dislocation.
“I still have my area that is my specialty and now I’m going to bring these new tools to bear on that specialty. A good example is that Effortless Action book back in 2003 that was my transformed dissertation. I have an argument there that one way to look at the trajectory of Chinese thought is that it’s driven by this tension I call “the paradox of wu-wei.” Wu-wei is effortless action or spontaneity. They all want you to be wu-wei, but none of them think you are right now. You’ve got to try to be wu-wei, but how do you try not to try? How do you try to be spontaneous?
“So, I call it the paradox of wu-wei, and I argue it’s at the center of all their theorizing about other things. Their theories about human nature, their theories about self-cultivation, their theories about government—these are all ways of grappling with this central tension that’s driving a lot of the theorizing. That claim got criticized, so my former advisor wrote a very scathing critique of it. A lot of people didn’t buy this claim that, first of all, it’s really a paradox, and second of all that it really has any kind of central prominence in early Chinese thought.
“One of the things I’ve been able to do to with the new knowledge I’ve gained from the sciences is come back to this, revisit this topic again, and say, look, from a cognitive neuroscientific perspective, we actually understand why this is a paradox, why using cognitive control to shut down cognitive control is tricky—it’s inherently tricky. We have a lot of evidence from social psychology and sports science and other areas that show that in fact effortless, spontaneous action is very desirable, because hot cognition is very powerful. Work on the power of the unconscious, the adaptive unconscious. We also, from an evolutionary perspective, have an understanding of why the fact that the paradox is a paradox is why it gets focused on.
“Essentially in our theories about where large scale societies come from, the crucial role is played by trust and commitment. It’s really crucial, if we’re going to cooperate I’ve got to believe that you’re committed to this religion or belief system that we are sharing and not just in it for your own good. There’re lots of ways I can assess your commitment. One of them is whether or not you’re being spontaneous. If I see evidence of cognitive control in you, I start to think that maybe something’s going on, because when we’re being conscious and using cognitive control, we’re often doing it to deceive or lie or figure out what’s best for us. The Chinese believe when you’re in wu-wei, you have this power called “de”. It’s like a charismatic virtue. People like you, people trust you. I’m arguing that we can understand this from a naturalistic perspective as the attractiveness someone who is spontaneous kicks off, and for very good game theoretical reasons. Basically you can relate it directly to evolutionary concerns about cooperation.”
Scorpion tails and wolf hearts overrun the world everyone has a trick to get ahead but how many smiles in a lifetime how many moments of peace in a day who knows a toppled cart means try another track when trouble strikes there is no time for shame this old monk isn’t just talking he’s trying to remove your obstacles and chains
- From The Zen Works of Stonehouse: Poems and Talks of a 14th Century Chinese Hermit, translated by Red Pine (Counterpoint 1999).
Peter Matthiessen is one of the rare greats, a man who took both spirituality and writing seriously. He never soft pedalled his Zen training and practice, and he wrote about it in his two perhaps most famous, or widely read, books: The Nine-Headed Dragon River, about a pilgrimage to Japan with his Zen teacher, and The Snow Leopard, about a trip to Nepal. This is from an NPR radio interview in 1989:
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The publication of Peter Matthiessen’s final novel “In Paradise” is coinciding with his obituary. He died in April  at the age of 86. We’re going to listen back to an excerpt of my interview with him. Matthiessen was a naturalist, as well as writer, and his fiction and nonfiction books were often inspired by his travels to remote regions, including mountains and rainforests. His books include “The Snow Leopard,” “Men’s Lives,” “At Play in the Field of the Lords” and “Far Tortuga.”
Along with George Plimpton he was a founder of the literary magazine The Paris Review, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that a documentary film revealed he was working for the CIA at the time and he used the Paris Review as his cover. I spoke with Matthiessen in 1989, before that revelation, and asked about a subject that was central to his life and his writing, Zen Buddhism.
He was initially reluctant to write about Zen. I asked him why.
PETER MATTHIESSEN: Well, I think it almost – in the nature of Zen, to speak about it is already kind of missing the point because Zen, the whole teaching depends on the immediacy and the spontaneity of this present moment. And the minute you talk about it, you’re introducing ideas and concepts that get in the way of seeing directly, which is the whole basis of the training.
And then to see behind it another way of looking at reality, which is what happens through meditation practice and really enhances one’s life. So there’s a built-in contradiction in writing about it. On the other hand, even the meditation is a tool, and the writing is a tool, and it helps people, prepares the ground for this sort of insight and training.
GROSS: Did you seek out Buddhism, or did you happen into it?
MATTHIESSEN: No, I didn’t seek it out, nor did I happen into it. I was – during the ’60s, very early on, my then wife, who since died, we were very interested in finding a teacher of some kind, and we couldn’t – there weren’t really any around in the early ’60s. And we got into experiments with LSD, and we did a lot of LSD during the ’60s not as a recreation but as a way of seeing something else, seeing things another way.
And that kind of wore out for her pretty early. I went on with it a bit longer. And she went over to Japanese tea ceremony and then from there, through friends, to a Zen teacher who was then working in New York City. And, I, a year or two later did the same thing and found that it was far more effective and far closer to what we originally had in mind than the drug use was.
GROSS: Had you ever asked any of your teachers what they thought about taking LSD?
MATTHIESSEN: I don’t think – I think they feel that any chemical is a screen that gets in the way, and I think that’s true. I think these drugs, if properly used, and if you knew what you were getting, which you don’t anymore – in the old days of LSD it was quite different because Sandoz Chemicals in Switzerland was making it, and you knew exactly what the dose was, and they knew exactly what the amount was.
But a Zen teacher, or any spiritual teacher, would be against it simply because you’re seeing things purely. There always is that, finally that chemical screen, even if you are having an extraordinary vision of existence.
GROSS: One of the founders of the school of Buddhism that you practice, Soto, had said that the way to be truly universal is to be particular, moment by moment, detail by detail. And I wonder if you see that as really applying to writing, as well, that to be universal you really have to focus on detail.
MATTHIESSEN: I think so. I think all really good writing is attention to detail. It’s that one detail, that one scrap of dialogue, one color or smell that brings the whole scene to life. You can’t throw in everything. You’d be just writing all day long over one small scene. So you have to find that one thing that the reader can build up from.
For example, William Faulkner, he was extraordinarily skillful. He would pick out one, or at most two, physical characteristics of somebody and then just repeat them over and over again, and the reader gradually builds up a whole character around that one physical detail because the detail is so well-chosen that it serves you in this way you can do it.
GROSS: I want to ask you something else about Zen, and this is from something that you said in your Zen journals book, “Nine-Headed Dragon River.” You were explaining that you were studying to be a Zen monk, studying in the States, and you had passed 13 of 14 checkpoints. You failed the last, which was about the vital expression of the inexpressible. And you said you were only able to come up with a weak intellectual answer.
I found that a fascinating thing to stumble on for a writer, and I was wondering if you’d tell us a little bit about what this means.
MATTHIESSEN: That’s in Koan training, which is part of formal training for the priesthood and so forth. In Soto Zen and also in Rinzai Zen, any kind of Zen, and that’s a very famous Koan, that, the sound of one hand, usually it’s called the sound of one hand clapping, but it’s actually the sound of one hand, what is the sound of one hand?
This is a Koan that stops you dead like an iron wall. I mean, where can you go with that logically? It just makes your whole logical apparatus collapse. And that’s the point of it, that you would see it all from a different way. And nonetheless, you could arrive at a kind of an answer, which would be adequate, a presentation which would be adequate, without quite understanding the subtleties and what’s behind it.
So there are 14 checkpoints of that Koan, and you have to pass all 14 of them, and they’re kind of increasing in difficulty and subtlety and so forth. So finally an intellectual answer is not nearly good enough. You have to manifest that Koan and present it, and this is part of the training.
GROSS: Well, let me ask you again how that connects with your writing. Has that training in not using the intellectual to explain or to understand helped you in your writing?
MATTHIESSEN: I wrote a novel called “Far Tortuga,” which is my own favorite of my books, and one reason it is is because I tried to replace, similarly in metaphor, an image with just these very simple descriptions of the thing itself, of, for example, the feelers of a cockroach coming out from underneath a galley cabin on a ship deck or the water vibrating in the rim of an oil drum on the deck because of the diesel motor, just these things, just to see over the line of birds migrating along the horizon, just if the reader could see those and see the immense mystery and hugeness of existence shimmering behind those very, very concrete details.
GROSS: Peter Matthiessen, recorded in 1989. He died Saturday at the age of 86.
(Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.)
Does a dog have Buddha nature?
This is a matter of life and death.
If you say yes or no,
You lose your mind and body!