New Age Fiction - Resounding silence
by Harvinder Kaur
The sun had set, leaving behind a trail of mellow gold. The air seemed ripe,
and ready to receive whatever the Enlightened One had to bestow.
Bhikkus sat on the mountaintop clad in saffron, the color of holiness
and healing, awaiting in eager silence the Master's sermon.
Then the master came. The air changed. Dust settled within and without. Everyone waited for his divine lips to part, for the soul of wisdom to find the flesh of words. But the Master spoke not. He only held aloft a golden lotus, his eyes speaking of the unfathomable. All were silent, and bewildered. What did the Master mean?
Then Mahakashapa, the blessed disciple, smiled. He had understood and partaken of the Master's message. What transpired between Mahakashapa and the Buddha? This silent eloquence of the Buddha during 'the flower sermon', which only Mahakashapa understood, carries in itself the secret of Zen.
Bewildering? Welcome to the world of Zen-the unspeakable way. In 520 BC Bodhidharma carried dhyana (meditation) to China, where it came to be known as from India chan. By the 12th century it spread to Japan where it was called Zen. So essentially Zen has its roots in the Indian tradition of Meditation.
At the surface, it is yet another way of life, a path to the Ultimate. What is Zen in reality? This is a question to which Masters have seldom given straightforward answers, if any at all. The reason-an explanation is simply impossible. It is like asking someone to give you a bucketful of light in a hall of darkness! Words and language are an ineffectual medium to convey the ineffable. And Zen is nothing if an ineffable experience.
In Edwin Arnold's Light of Asia-the story of the life of the Buddha in verse-the Buddha's opening lines of his first sermon after Enlightenment express the same: Om Amitayam, measure not with words the immeasurable, Nor sink the string of thought into the fathomless, Who asks doth err, who answers errs. Say naught!
Back home, in Kabir's dohas (couplets), we find the same helplessness, about being unable to express the inexpressible. Jo dekhe so kahe nahi, kahe so dekhe nahi, Sune so samjhave nahi, rasna, drig, sravan kahi, and Had mein batha kathat hai, behad ki gam nahi, behad ki gam hoagi, tab kachu kathna kahi. (Sitting within limits he speaks, knowing nothing of the limitless, When the limitless is known, then what will be there to speak?)
Thus, language has no value in the world of Zen. Words are but signposts to another world. You cannot reach the sun of Realization on the waxen wings of words. This is reflected in poetry from different times and different climes. So when Walt Whitman invites you in his Leaves of Grass to: 'Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems' it is an invitation to the world of Zen, where the true taste is perceived by your own tongue. Whitman's poems naturally elucidate and explain the pithy, tight-lipped Zen philosophy-You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, /nor look through the eyes of the dead, /You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, /You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.
The essential feature that differentiates Zen texts from other sacred scriptures is that while scriptures are supposed to transmit spiritual truths, in Zen the transmission is outside the scriptures. In order to facilitate experiencing the beyond-mind state, the Zen master often resorts to strange and bewildering methods. Even more bewildering than Buddha's silent gesture. While one Master may raise a single finger to answer, another may kick a ball, while yet another may just give you a tight rap on the head. So if you think that Zen is absurd, crazy, irrational, # * $ =^mind-boggling, you are dead right.
However, poets like Emily Dickinson would find sense in Zen's seeming nonsense: Much madness is divinest sense/To a discerning eye;/Much sense the starkest madness. /'Tis the majority/In this, as all, prevails./Assent, and you are sane;/Demur, - you're straightway dangerous,/And handled with a chain.
Huston Smith in The World's Religions says: "Entering Zen is like stepping through Alice's looking glass. One finds oneself in a topsy-turvy wonderland where everything seems quite mad-charmingly mad for most part, but mad all the same." However, as with Hamlet there's 'a method in their madness'.
Tradition says the Zen Master will give you a hard blow when you're least expecting it. This 'blow' can take various forms-shocking acts like killing an innocent animal by way of answering a question, or a rebuff or beating as feedback on your progress, or a less violent but equally bewildering koan. Zen koans are a prime example of the Zen shock methods. The word 'koan' literally means a problem. Here words could give you that elementary nudge that pushes you off the cliff.
So beware if the Master asks you: What is the sound of one hand clapping? Or: A cow passes by a window. Its head, horns and four legs all pass by. Why did not the tail pass by? An appropriate koan was given to a seeker by the Master according to his need at that particular stage of development. The disciple was supposed to ponder over the koan for a certain period of time, which could be one, two or many years, as the Master thought fit. The koan-which often took the form of 'absurd poetry' bordering on the nonsensical-bears an uncanny resemblance with some of Kabir's dohas.
So in Zen texts we find: Stones rise up into the sky, Fire burns down in the water. Or: Samandar lagi aag, nadiyan jal koyla bhayi, Dekh Kabira jag, machli rookh char gayi. (The ocean has caught fire, the rivers have been burnt to ashes, Watch and awaken, says Kabir, the fish have climbed the trees).
With such writings, one must be careful so as not to get caught in the web of the mind. These questions are not meant to be a mere intellectual exercise, nor are they tools to sharpen the mind. Zen is above mental gymnastics. Here, what counted was the experiential perspective. This may happen when your rational mind is provoked to excitement and then exasperated and exhausted, it falls into a state where true insight penetrates.
This often proved to be the moment of Enlightenment. A phenomenon which is sudden and uncontrived, in fact, beyond contrivation. It is said a nun, Chiyono, experienced Enlightenment suddenly when a pail in which she was carrying water split and broke. She wrote, "This way and that way I tried to keep the pail together, hoping the weak bamboo would never break. Suddenly the bottom fell out. No more water; no more moon in the water-emptiness in my hand."
Osho comments on this phenomenon in No water, No moon-Reflections on Zen: "Enlightenment is always sudden. There is no gradual progress towards it, because all gradualness belongs to the mind and Enlightenment is beyond the mind. So you cannot grow into Enlightenment, you simply jump into it. You cannot move step by step; there are no steps. Enlightenment is just like an abyss, either you jump or you don't jump."
While the Zen way of life in no way encourages verbosity, not even fluency, it has however given the world the gift of the haiku. Haikus are small 17-syllabled poems, which may well have a transformatory effect when in the right moment. Somewhere behind the veil of words is the wordless. Reality that surpasses all expression.
While this is seen clearly in haikus, yet they may become a springboard to the world beyond mind. Poetry has always been given a place of dignity, even reverence, in the spiritual world. It wears around itself a halo of the golden light of God. Wordsworth said that poetry is the most philosophical of all writing.
Commenting on the relationship on Zen and poetry, R.H. Blyth states in his preface to Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, "Wherever there is poetical action, a religious aspiration, a heroic thought, a union of the nature within a man and Nature without, there is Zen."
Haikus are almost emblematic of the Zen philosophy. They are not didactic or lyrical talk of the mundane, and very often don't seem to make much sense. How about a few?
Ah, what a pleasure to cross a stream in summer-sandals in hand. -Yosa Buson (1716-1783)
A stonecutter stops to cool his chisels in clear water. -Yosa Buson
On a temple bell it has stopped, and gone to sleep-a butterfly. -Yosa Buson
They were all quiet, the host, the guest, and the white chrysanthemum. -Yosa Buson
Haiku-something pithy and brief-has found its counterpart in English poetry too. We find the soul of wit in Ogden Nash's brief poems, even though they may not have been intended to push you to Enlightenment. REFLECTION ON A WICKED WORLD: Purity is obscurity. THE BABY: A bit of talcum /Is always walcum. JELLYFISH: Who wants my jellyfish /I'm not sellyfish. CANDY Candy is dandy /but liquor is quicker.
In the Zen world nothing is profane, all is Light. It celebrates ordinary life. Divinity doesn't need a special mode to cast itself into. Seeking the extraordinary is the task of the Ego. When it moves in the world of activity, Divine consciousness seeks to perform no miracles. You find this reflected in the writings of modern poets too. Nissim Ezekiel, for instance, in his short poems writes, You read wisdom books in the spirit of the comics, and the comics in the spirit of the wisdom books. And: Whatever you pursue, let it not be happiness. May you find it often resounding in your normal pursuits.
Tagore sings the same tune. For him, Deliverance is not in renunciation. Of course, Tagore does not go as far as the Zen master who says 'kill the Buddha', as being mesmerized by the image of the Buddha may block the Awakening of many a seeker. However, Tagore comes near to it when he denounces the chanting and telling of beads, in Gitanjali, "...there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones. He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust." If you fail to see Divinity in ordinary life, it is because you're not ripe, and your vision is not clear.
A Zen master was once asked how Enlightenment had changed his life. "Well," he said, "before my search began mountains were mountains, the sea was the sea, the moon was the moon. When my search began the mountains weren't mountains anymore, the sea wasn't the sea and the moon wasn't the moon. Now when the search is no more, the mountains are mountains, the sea is the sea and the moon is the moon."
To the man of Divine vision, this world is 'all beauty and all bliss'. Mystic and poet, Sri Aurobindo echoes this in his writings. In 'Divine Hearing', a sonnet, he writes: All sounds, all voices have become Thy voice, /Music and thunder and the cry of birds, /Life babbling of her sorrows and her joys, /Cadence of human speech and murmured words.
In 'Divine Sense', a similar experience has found expression: Surely I take no more an earthly food/But eat the fruits and plants of Paradise! /For Thou hast changed my senses, habitude/From mortal pleasure to divine surprise. What change has occurred here? Evidently not one in the world outside, but in the vision within. It is like taking off dark glasses from one's consciousness, and finding a beautiful world. Or, as Shakespeare would have it: 'Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so'.
In Milton's Paradise Lost, the powers of the mind are extolled. The mind is seen as a magical instrument, one that can "make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven". Likewise, in Zen poetry there is no discrimination between the so-called ordinary or extraordinary. Zen poetry thus rebels against the classical tradition where only 'great' subjects, such as war or love, were chosen for poetic expression. The most celebrated epics in the world-The Illiad, The Odyssey, The Ramayana, The Mahabharata, depict a grand scale war amidst other things.
Why so? R.H. Blyth explains this relationship between poetry about the ordinary things in life and deep religious experience. He says: "To the religious, all things are poetic-eating, drinking, sleeping, going to the looŚnot one more than another. To the poetical, all things are religious, every blade of grass, every stick and stone, the butterfly and the intestinal worms."
It is interesting to note that Walt Whitman called his masterpiece Leaves of Grass. Swami Vivekananda who was in America at the time the book was published remarked that the book had been written by 'a sanyasin' (hermit). Great minds, Divine being at all times and all climes think alike!
The Zen master in Kabir emerges and sings: JO bolun so hari katha, Jo karun so seva (Whatsoever I say is the Divine tale, whatsoever I do is service Divine).
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