By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
When we reference the Buddhist cannon, especially the Nikaya’s, we learn that Siddhartha Gotama placed a great deal of emphasis on action and the natural energy associated in both a meditation and a contemplative spiritual practice. The poems of the Korean Zen Master T’aego also expresses this reality. They challenge us to discover something about meeting the phenomenal world in a particular way as spiritual practice. It happens when we make the unknown knowable to our aware state of body-mind. As teachers, the only thing that we can impart to you when teaching about spirituality is the “how to begin” element. In other words, we can teach you how to walk, but it is up to you “where you walk”. Because, you see, how spirituality is manifest is unique to the individual. So spirituality is a journey too. Today is my continued attempt to awaken your inner self to this reality.
There are four poems, all only four lines each. Zen had an important formative influence on the way many Chinese and Japanese poet-monks thought about writing poetry. One thing these poets had in common was there use of nature, or worldly themes, to awaken the mind to the richness of an inner spiritual life.
The first is called: How Can I Speak?
All phenomena are beyond names and forms
The sounds of the streams and the colors of the mountains are closest
What is “closest”?
You can only please yourself: how can I speak?
The first line, “All phenomena are beyond names and forms,” offers an interesting statement. It reminds us of the Heart Sutra, a fundamental sutra for both Ch’an and Soto Zen traditions. Usually, when we think about spirituality and meditative practice, a certain erroneous notion arises that we should get to a place of complete silence and stillness, a place apart from and beyond all names and forms. But here T’aego says that all phenomena themselves are already beyond names and permanent forms. Think about it, the sun never says ‘I am the sun’ or the moon says ‘I am the moon’. So all phenomena are beyond names and permanent forms. I ask you now, are we different from the sun and the moon? Are not we, the sun, and the moon expressions of the same Universe? We learn in science class that we humans are also made from stardust. Why then do humans want to make a distinction?
The poems’ second line says, “The sounds of the streams and the colors of the mountains are closest.” Sometimes we see the word closest used in this kind of poetry. Closest has the connotation of intimate connection, of becoming ‘one with’ sort-of-thing. To become completely ‘intimate with’ is to become close. So we might read that line as, “The sounds of the streams and the colors of the mountains are most intimate.” Closer than the word stream or mountain, or the pictures we hold in our minds of them. Just hearing the sounds of the stream and seeing the color of the mountain, brings the image into thought and makes it more real, much more intimate. We don’t literally take a stream or a mountain into our being like we would an apple. However, we experience them though sounds and color. This is when the inner observer steps aside and lets the spiritual process take over.
This is all nice talk, intimacy, and closeness. But then T’aego throws in one more line: “What is ‘closest’?” Now this is when the poem becomes a koan. What is closest is, in fact, the very not-knowing, the question itself. Great doubt is given space to arise in our reasoning efforts. If you use the word closest, what is that? If you talk about intimacy, what does that mean? I bring up frequently the teaching associated in Indra’s Net to explain relationships. In this poem, and in T’aego’s use of the word closest he is talking about relationships. In fact, when we have spiritual moments, we are experiencing some kind of relationship.
The last line of the poem reads: “You can only please yourself: how can I speak?” You have to find it yourself, I have no words to give you about this. Look deeply into it. My spiritual moments can only come from my ripe body-mind. Mine are different from yours, and yours are different from mine. There is no words I can use to express that microsecond of realization I experienced when the bird landed on the fence before my mind recognized the implication of the event. And in that split-second, I was closest to my true nature expressing itself. Looking at it’s self. You will have to find these moments on your own. Continue reading