Zen and the Art of Poetics

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…a language that helps you to remove concepts

Talking about poetry, different modalities and Keat’s Negative Capabilities; Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the limitations of language, and the use of a different language in Zen. He talks of a language that is not made of concepts, a language that helps you to remove concepts.

Words cannot express things;
Speech does not convey the spirit.
Swayed by words, one is lost;
Blocked by phrases, one is bewildered.

Two Zen Classics: Mumonkan & Hekiganroku, p. 110
Translated with commentaries by Katsuki Sekida

He goes on to say that that from time to time he uses such language himself, and he relates that famous example of when he was in Philadelphia in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, the only Buddhist monk at an anti-war demo. A reporter asked him if he was the North or South of Vietnam, so if he says the North, he is anti-American, if he says the South he is with the Liberation Front aligned with the North, or he is betraying the cause of anti-communism. These were the two boxes he was given to ‘check’ as he puts it, tick.

As he steps masterfully between the horns of the dilemma he announces;

Gentlemen, I am from the Centre!” . Bulls eye! I hear a gentle hint of humour in his voice as he says this, but this may just be my search image. Sweet as. He then unpacks that statement a little saying how he wonders if the reporter is intelligent he will ponder this and will he enquire about the way of reconciliation, transcending the conflict, considering both parties as one?

“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darueber muss man schweigen” Whereof we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence…

Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 85

Noble Silence Deep Silence
Thich Nhat Hanh, discusses a couple of time when the Buddha observes noble silence, ‘deep silence’ as he puts it. A learned philosopher comes and asks many, many questions. (This guy reminds me of the American professor In Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, who are the transcribers, begin with that famous tale of Zen master Nan-in overflowing a visiting professor’s tea cup to illustrate how filled the professor is with himself, so filled he cannot learn anything new.) He asks about the doctrine of no- self and this and that. After he finally leaves, frustrated, Ananada opines that the Buddha had taught them the doctrine of no-self and why had he not confirmed this. The Buddha said he did his best to protect the philosopher from wrong views.

Another time an ascetic comes before the Buddha and asks about ultimate reality, again the Buddha observes deep noble silence. Silence, dog barking in the distant village, a slight breeze ruffles the leaves of the trees, the moon rises and sets. After a very long time the ascetic finally satisfied does dundapranam, lying out completely before the Buddha, three times… and makes an offering of fruit for the teachings. After his departure Ananda is astounded and says, he respects you alot. The Buddha replied with a twinkle in his eye ” Ananda with a good horse you do not need a whip.

Cypress Trees Art Print by Jean Miele
Cypress Trees by Jean Miele

A Little Story About A Cypress Tree
He concludes with a little zen story about a Cypress Tree, a well known story in Zen circles.

One day a student of Zen came to his teacher.

“Teacher I have been here three years but you have not told me about the true meaning of Bodhidharmas coming to the West, about ultimate reality.”

Ultimate reality? Well difficult to tell the monk, how could I show the monk ultimate reality, the essence of Bodhidharma going to the West. So the teacher looked to the front yard, points his finger:


“Monk do you see the Cypress in the front yard?”

The monk looked at the Cypress, nothing particular, nothing special. And that is all the teacher said that morning, he refused to say another word.

To me, Thich Nhat Hanh explains, it is very important to notice the presence of the Cypress in the front yard, the monk had been living three years in the monastery. He might have passed the Cypress maybe a thousand times, but has he really had the chance to stop, and touch and be aware that the cypress is there?

If he does not practise Mindfullness in the presence of the Cypress and everything that is in the present moment, how could he touch the ultimate reality?

Can you touch the ultimate reality without touching the Cypress?

Mindfulness in your daily life is a dharma door and if you don’t have the door, how can you open to ultimate reality? Experiencing the the Cypress tree, eating your breakfast mindfully, washing the dishes is the ‘kung fu’ of the everyday. Kung fu, he says, means daily practice not martial art!

So he picks up the story of the Cypress tree once more:

Then the story of the Cypress tree became very well known. And people thought that there is a very deep, deep meaning in it; and that you had to make it into a subject of contemplation ~ a koan.

And there is another monk who lived thousands of kilometeres from the temple, and he heard about the fame of the Cypress tree. So he wanted to come to the teacher in order to enquire about the Cypress. Unfortunately when he arrived the teacher has passed away, and he cried.
No more chance to to enquire about that wonderful, deep theme of meditation.

The teacher is no longer there, but his senior disciple is still there. Why don’t you go to him and enquire about the Cypress? So the monk went through so many formalities in order to obtain an interview with the senior monk.

And after listening to the visiting monk, the senior monk asked:

“I don’t know about it!”

So our visiting monk could not believe it!:

“The whole country has heard about the Cypress. It has become a sacred topic of talk in Zen circles. It is a very important, very deep subject of meditation, how could you say that!?”

“Are you really the senior disciple of the master?”

And the Abbott said:

“I am! My master never said anything about the Cypress you had better not slander him.”

When I listen to that, Thich Nhat Hanh relates, I saw the very intention of the senior disciple, to kill the Cypress. For the sake of, the goodness of the people. Because many people got caught into it. If you are actually in the situation you can understand it, but once it is related as a story, it becomes a myth. The senior disciple did not want people to get caught in it.

His intention is to kill the cypress in order to open another path.
So killing the Cypress is a new koan. And if the visiting monk is intelligent he can get enlightened by this new anti-cypress.

‘Cypress is a dharma door, but anti-cypress is another one very fresh’, he says.

That is something about the language of Zen, when you are trained you get used to that kind of talking.

So there are two dimensions to Right View, to insight.

The first dimension, the historical dimension, you can talk about right view; impermanence, non-self, emptiness and the 4 Noble Truths and the 8 fold noble path.

But the ultimate dimension, nothing can be said about of it.
And this you find in the Heart Sutra .

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
The teaching is a raft to the other shore, do not get caught by the raft.


2 responses to “Zen and the Art of Poetics

  1. Pingback: The Excluded Middle Way « both/and

  2. Form also in not other than emptiness
    Emptiness is not other than form


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