The Poetry of Zen in China

J.P. Seaton [tooltip content= “Poetry of Zen, Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton, Shambhala 2007”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]

Zen is Taoist Buddhism. Or; Zen is Buddhist Taoism: at least when talking about Ch’an, the Chinese version of Zen, the ancestor of the ]apanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and the various evolving Western versions of this branch of Buddhist practice. The association of Ch’an with the arts, from the martial arts, as in hand-to-hand combat and archery, to the powerful civil arts of poetry and painting, begins in China, from the association of these arts with the Taoist practice of meditation and the Taoist emphasis on wei-wu-wei, doing non-doing, doing without doing, or doing, through practice and concentration, with total freedom and absolute creativity.

Zen is Taoist Buddhism. Or; Zen is Buddhist Taoism: at least when talking about Ch’an, the Chinese version of Zen…

Maybe to the dismay of newcomers to American Buddhism who expect a pure and fundamentalist Zen, of one particular school or another (like the Rinzai and Soto sects of Japan, which have been arguing for several centuries over whether the koan should be central to Zen meditation practice)˘, we start our selection of Ch’an poems with excerpts from the Taoist book Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, a book  known to orthodox Ch`an men like Han Shan (now there`s a fundamentalist!) as “The Five Thousand Character Classic” or “The Five Thousand Words.” Lao Tzu`s insights and his penchant for putting them into verse are certainly two sources of the Ch’an stream.

We bow in thanks first not to poets themselves, but to the monk-translators who came to their work of translating the holy books of Buddhism from their original Indian languages into Chinese from a background in Taoist philosophy and poetic art. Our first Chan poet, Hui Yung, although he wrote nearly a thousand years after Lao Tzu, must technically also he pre-Chan, since he died more than a hundred years before the purported arrival in China of the first patriarch of Chan, the Indian monk Bodhidharma. As a translator, Hui Yung favored the practice of translating Buddhist terminology from the Sanskrit, wherever possible, with preexisting Taoist terms. Another school of translators preferred to render these in “transliteration” only. Hui Yung’s approach brought many educated laypeople immediately into contact with Buddhist thought, and began the process of making Buddhist ideas comfortably Chinese.