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Cold Mountain 3, by Brice Marden

Here’s a thoughtful and provoking passage from one of my favorite blogs, Joe Felso: Ruminations. He references Han-shan, the same poet who inspired Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain series of paintings, who feels similar in spirit to my earlier posting on Master Linji, also from the Tang Dynasty:

I wonder if our reverence for poetry can sometimes trap us into expecting enlightenment, elevation, and disclosure of deep truths that approach revelation. Sometimes a little simple human condition would go a long way.

Poetry can be whimsical. Lately, I’ve been reading poetry by Han-shan, poet of eighth-century T’ang Dynasty. Called “Cold Mountain,” Han-shan was a Buddhist struggling to cut himself off from craving. Still, even in commonplace moments, the magnitude of his longing is palpable… and so is his awareness of that state. The poems have a strangely impish pride and defiance:

As long as I was living in the village
They said I was the finest man around,
But yesterday I went to the city
And even the dogs eyed me askance.
Some people jeered at my skimpy trousers,
Others said my jacket was too long.
If someone would poke out the eyes of the hawks
We sparrows could dance wherever we please!

Deep poetry it is not, but human. Han-shan’s voice does not come from on high. A reader can readily see the way he can’t help being pleased with himself, can’t help wanting to be paid the proper respect, can’t help knowing all of that, can’t help, even in his dejection, seeing humor of failing to impress dogs. For me, the logic of the last two lines is simultaneously ominous and funny, threatening but also ludicrous. The poem may not be oh-worthy, but the speaker is fully present in these few lines…

The most dangerous temptation in poetry is making meaning instead of embodying it. I’m happy Han-Shan reappeared at this stage of my writing—he tells me to pause and listen to how silly I sound.

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I received a book in the mail as a gift from a friend* I haven’t seen for some time: Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Waking Up to Who You Are, by Thich Nhat Hanh. As is often the way these things go, I opened it up to a few passages that had deep resonance for me. While I have many friends who are seriously walking the Buddhist path, my interest and knowledge is more of the sideline variety. But as is the case with most mystical writing, wisdom can speak to anyone regardless of context or commitment.

The book features the teachings of Master Linji, a 9th century Zen teacher. He used the term “the businessless person” to describe the person with nothing to do. “As I see it, there isn’t so much to do. Just be ordinary–put on your robes, eat your food, and pass the time doing nothing.” What a thought. That’s about as far from American consciousness as it goes.

Here is Thich Nhat Hanh’s overview of Master Linji’s message:

Insight can’t be found in sutras, commentaries, or Dharma talks. Liberation and awakened understanding can’t be found by devoting ourselves to the study of the Buddhist scriptures. This is like hoping to find fresh water in dry bones. Returning to the present moment, using our clear mind which exists right here and now, we can be in touch with liberation and enlightenment, as well as the Buddha and all his disciples as living realities right in this moment.

But the following extract is the passage that speaks most poignantly to me. For any artist, the question–the project–is everything. To rethink the concept of a question as something that does not require an answer but has the capacity to destroy obstacles and shift everything–“tear apart the veil of ignorance and liberate us”–is a humbling thought.

In school, when we want to ask a question, we remain seated and put up our hand. We use our head, our intellect, to ask a question in order to get a bit of knowledge in return. But Zen isn’t like that. Here our aim isn’t to find out and store up knowledge about Buddhism; it’s to ask the right question, the question that has the capacity to destroy our obstacles. If we don’t have that question, it’s better not to come forward. Our question should be something that can tear apart the veil of ignorance and liberate us. Maybe it can teach our teacher and the whole community, too.

That’s a project for a life time.

*Thank you to Andria Klarer–seeker, mystic, friend.

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