April 4th, 2017

Books!

"Breaking apart empty space"

Sometimes I have little bookmarks pointing out things that I'd like to use in these reviews, sometimes I have ones pointing to on-line resources, and sometimes I have them noting books that I want to check out. This one got into my hands due to the latter scenario, as it had been mentioned several times in a book I recently read on Korean Zen. I was, however, somewhat surprised when I got into J.C. Cleary's (a well-known translator of Zen texts) A Buddha from Korea: The Zen Teachings of T'aego, as I was anticipating a collection of the writings of the 14th Century Korean Zen Master T'aego, possibly with some contextifying commentary, but that's not what this book is. This is pretty much two books, the first being an extensive essay on T'aego, Korea in his era, the history of Buddhism, Zen, and other traditions in Eastern Asia, what was happening in the geopolitical world at the time, etc., and the second being the translation of 131 bits and pieces penned by T'aego.

While the initial essay (which takes up half the book) is interesting, it only got one of my bookmarks, perhaps reflecting that I'd picked up the book to delve deeper into the teachings of T'aego, and not into 14th Century Korean culture/politics, etc. I would have likewise preferred it if the material in the second half was presented with commentary. The following is the one thing I marked in the front part of the book, and it has more to do with my interest in books than anything about T'aego:

Many East Asian Buddhists made the long hazardous journey to Central Asia and India to bring back authentic texts. Temples collected copies of scriptures, and rulers sponsored vast compendium editions by paying for the printing blocks and arranging for copies to be printed and distributed to major temples. The first printed books were Buddhist sutras.
While I can appreciate that doing a walk-through of the material dilutes the immediacy of the Zen teaching, so much of this is so lacking in context (specific to the particular texts), that it leaves things remarkably vague, where some clarity would be easy enough to provide, if at least in the form of defining mentioned characters, or noting where things would have been “common knowledge” at the time. For an example, here's a bit for text 6. The Supreme Truth:

… Old Shakyamuni said, “The enlightenment of all the buddhas is far beyond all the words and talk.” So how could the work in our supreme school's vehicle use doings or words? Contrived doings are playing with the spirit. Words are the dregs. As for the true correct way of showing [reality], all the buddhas of past, present and future “hang their mouths on the wall” and all the generations of enlightened teachers hide their bodies in the weeds. Linji shouted when they entered the gate; Deshan hit them: what child's play!
      Knowing early on that it is like this, I was forced to take my empty hands and wander like a cloud over the world seeking teachers and inquiring after the Path. It was like putting a head on top of a head. It also attracted suspicion from people. Looking back on it coldly, it embarrasses me to death. In the past in my native land I hid myself in the mountain valleys and did not sell the Buddha Dharma cheap to worldly people, or bury the wind of Zen [in worldly concerns]. I have just gone on this way, totally at ease, expansive and free, independent, happy, alive.
There are some parts of these which do set up where/when/who for the quotes, which appear to be in the originals, if converted into current forms (such as noting “the fifteenth day of the first month of 1357”). However, this isn't defined as such, and there are various parts which are 3rd person reports of T'aego's activities. Also, a lot of the pieces are focused on the rulers of the time, with copious praise being ladled out, and official business being conducted within the text. Here's one that starts there, but then gets “very Zen”:

      When the rescript had been read aloud, T'aego picked up the whisk and said: “Is there anyone who is truly worthy of the vehicle of the school that has come down from antiquity? All the scriptures of the twelve-part canon of the five teachings and three vehicles are just piss left behind by an old barbarian. The buddhas and patriarchs were just guys talking about a dream in a dream. If you discuss them by making up reasons, you bury the vehicle of the school If you discuss them in terms of conventional truth, you are turning your back on the former sages. This way won't do, otherwise won't do, 'won't do' also won't do. If you are a legitimate patchrobed monk, you can see it beyond all the permutations of affirmation and denial.”
Needless to say, this is getting into that “don't know” territory … I keep waiting for him to say (like some of his current-day dharma descendants) “I hit you with stick!”. There are various “classic” Zen elements in here, and I'm not sure which ones preceded T'aego, and which came from him. The following is from a piece that was a teaching requested by the King, requiring T'aego to present the “essence” of Zen. This is just a small bit, but I thought it was worth passing along:

      At this moment you should look carefully at your original face before your father and mother were born. As soon as it is brought up, you awaken to it: then, like a person drinking water, you know yourself whether it is cool or warm. It cannot be described or explained to anyone else. It's just a luminous awareness covering heaven and earth.
This next one is from a letter sent to a layman student that starts out with the classic “Does a dog have buddha-nature or not?” the answer being “No.”, but:

… This word No is not the No of existence and one existence. It is not the No of true nothingness. Ultimately, what is it?
      When you arrive here, you must abandon all with your whole body, and not doing anything, not doing not-doing-anything. Go straight to the empty and free and vast, with no pondering what to think. The previous thought is already extinct, the following thought does not arise, the present thought is itself empty. You do not hold to emptiness, and you forget you are holding on. You do not reify this forgetting: you escape from not reifying and the escape too is not kept. When you reach such a time, there's just a spiritual light that's clearly aware and totally still, appearing as a lofty presence.
While, as these Zen things go, this passage is reasonably straight forward {note: that "one existence" is in the text, yet I'm guessing it's a transcription error for "non-existence", but, obviously, I could be wrong}, I still feel that a paragraph or two of explanatory copy would be quite useful for most of these. The reader is not sitting at the feet of the Master and getting full-on transmission, so some wordless gesture is unlikely to manifest indicating sudden enlightenment ... I, at least, would appreciate having bits of this predigested somewhat by framing them in how they've played out over the centuries of pedagogical use. A few of these pieces are long-ish (at 3-4 pages), and many hover around a page, but about half of them are simply 4-line "poems" (there's no indication if the original Korean had a rhyme structure, and Cleary certainly doesn't attempt to impose one on them) which are frequently just "word pictures" of things in and around T'aego's mountain retreat. I figured I'd toss in one of these (albeit more "philosophical" than descriptive) for illustration:

86. "THE PATH OF EMPTINESS"

This emptiness is not empty emptiness
This Path is not a path that can be considered a path
Where peaceful extinction is totally extinct
Perfect illumination is complete and final
Anyway, while I got quite a lot out of reading A Buddha from Korea, it wasn't exactly what I went into it looking for. Will you like it? Well, "don't know" ... just keep in mind the "two books" idea here, with the broad strokes of T'aego's world in 14th Century Korea up front, and the writings simply presented by themselves following. This is still in print (probably as a text book?), so you might well be able to get it via your local brick-and-mortar, which considering the online big boys have it going for full cover price (and I appear to have snagged the last cheap used one!), might be your best bet.


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