Tuesday, November 05, 2013


THE TRANSFORMING ORIGINS OF ZEN “Zen means doing anything perfectly, making mistakes perfectly, being defeated perfectly, hesitating perfectly, doing anything perfectly or imperfectly, perfectly.” Those words were written by Reginald Horace Blyth. Of course, nothing is perfect, so if the word “perfectly” bothers you, use the word “effortlessly” or “naturally.” Let’s start again. Zen means doing anything naturally, making mistakes naturally, being defeated naturally, hesitating naturally, doing anything naturally or unnaturally, naturally. R.H. Blyth was a British-born musician, linguist, and educator who, in 1925, moved to Korea where he was employed as an English professor. At the outbreak of the Pacific war in 1941 he was declared an enemy alien and was confined in Japan. Although Blyth’s personal library was destroyed during the war, he survived, and in 1949 his four-volume work, Haiku, was published. Ever since, the series has been a literary forerunner on Japanese culture and poetry. But Blyth’s Haiku books are more than a collection of poetry. Most of today’s talk is derived from them. In ancient China and Japan there was a gradual mingling of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen that went on for three thousand years. An example of the combination is demonstrated in the Saikontan, literally “Vegetable Root Discourse.” It was a 1590 text written by the Ming Dynasty philosopher Hong Zicheng that brought together Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist teachings. From China it likely went to Japan by way of Zen priests. In case you’re wondering about that “Vegetable Root” business, it comes from a Chinese saying meaning “One who has chewed vegetable roots can accomplish anything.” Blyth suggested that certain parts of Saikontan can apply to religion, poetry, and practical conduct because, in Zen terms, these three are not one, nor are they three. Blyth freely quotes Hong Zicheng, so I quote from both because both are not one, and they are not two. “Strong wines, fat meat, peppery things, very sweet things . . . have not real taste; real taste is plain and simple. . . . A real man is quite ordinary in behavior.” “The true Buddha is in the home; the real Way is everyday life. . . . . Such a man is vastly superior to one who practices breathing control and contemplation.” “The Way is common property. “Water not disturbed by waves settles down of itself. A mirror not covered with dust is clear and bright. The mind should be like this. . . . When what disturbs passes away, happiness comes of itself.” “The shadow of the bamboo sweeps over the stairs, but the dust does not move. . . . If you have grasped the meaning of this, in all your relations with things, you are free in mind and body.” And the last message: “The all important thing is not killing or giving life, drinking or not drinking, living in the town or the country, being unlucky or lucky, winning or losing. It is how we win, how we lose, how we live or die, finally, how we choose.”