Taoist cosmology and Chinese poetry

[green_message] Although radically different from the Judeo-Christian worldview that has dominated Western culture, this Taoist cosmology represents a world-view that is remarkably familiar to us in the modern Western world Inc doubt part of the reason the poetry feels so contemporary): it is secular, and yet profoundly spiritual; it is thoroughly empirical and basically ac-cords with modern scientific understanding; it is deeply ecological, weaving the human into the “natural world” in the most profound way (indeed, the distinction between human and nature is entirely foreign to it); and it is radically feminist—a primal cosmology oriented around earth’s mysterious generative force and probably deriving from Paleolithic spiritual practices centered on a Great Mother who continuously gives birth to all things in an unending cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

By the time the mature written tradition began around 400 C.E,, Buddhism had migrated from India to China and was well established. Ch’an, the distinctively Chinese form of Buddhism, was emerging in part as a result of mistranslation of Buddhist texts using Taoist terminology and concepts. Chan was essentially a reformulation of the spiritual ecology of early Taoist thought, focusing within that philosophical framework on meditation, which was practiced by virtually all of China’s intellectuals. Such meditation allows us to watch the process of tzu-jan in the form of thought arising from the emptiness and disappearing back into it. In such meditative practice, we see that we are fundamentally separate from the mental processes with which we normally identify, that we are most essentially the very emptiness that watches thought appear and disappear.

Going deeper into meditative practice, once the restless train of thought falls silent, one simply dwells in that undifferentiated emptiness, that generative realm of absence. Self and its constructions of the world dissolve away, and what remains of us is empty consciousness itself, known in Ch’an terminology as “empty mind” or “no-mind.” As absence, empty mind attends to the ten thousand things with mirror-like clarity, and so the act of perception itself becomes a spiritual act: empty mind mirroring the world, leaving its ten thousand things utterly simple, utterly themselves, and utterly suflicient.This spiritual practice is a constant presence in classical Chinese, in its fundamentally pictographic nature. It is also the very fabric of Chinese poetry manifest in its texture of imagistic clarity. In a Chinese poem, the simplest word or image resonates with the whole cosmology of tzujan.

The deep structure of the Taoist/ Ch’an cosmology is shared not only by the poetic language but by consciousness as well. Consciousness, too,
participates as an organic part of the dynamic processes of the cosmos, for thoughts appear and disappear in exactly the same way as presence’s ten thousand things.And the generative emptiness from which thoughts arise is nothing other than absence, the primal source.

Consciousness, cosmos, and language form a unity, and in the remarkably creative act of reading a Chinese poem we participate in this unity, filling in absence with presence, empty mind there at the boundaries of its true, wordless form:

David Hinton
Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)

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