Sunday, 26 July 2009

How Not to Burn Incense

This post was written in response to The Weaver of Grass' request for her readers to write about something which -or someone who- inspired them.

This book inspired me when I first read it as a teenager. I mislaid it for years and when I found it again recently, I realised it had often influenced the way I thought about things since I first read it. It did not lead me to become a Zen Buddhist, but it certainly equipped me with Zen-tinted spectacles which I found myself wearing from time to time.

What's it about? It's a collection of Zen stories, poetry, koans (the full text of the Zen classic, The Gateless Gate) and advice on meditation. What's Zen about? It is often said that Zen has been confusingly half-understood in the West and I'm not about to add to that confusion. Let's just say that Zen is not a religion (one can't become a Zennite as such). It would be more accurate to describe it as an attitude to thought.

Let the book speak for itself:

A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

And, my current favourite:

Black-Nosed Buddha

A nun who was searching for enlightenment made a statue of Buddha and covered it with gold leaf. Wherever she went she carried this golden Buddha with her.

Years passed and, still carrying her Buddha, the nun came to live in a country where there were many Buddhas, each one with its own particular shrine.

The nun wished to burn incense before her golden Buddha. Not liking the idea of the perfume straying to the others, she devised a funnel through which the smoke would ascend only to her statue. This blackened the nose of the golden Buddha, making it especially ugly.

I found it quite hard to make my mind up who or what to write about. I almost wrote a post about the chap who painted this "rear view" self portrait...

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Rachel Fox said...

I'm feeling fairly uninspired just now and so am not joining in with this project (plus am reading huge tome that does not allow for much other work...that and school holidays...). Will enjoy reading others' work though. Enjoyed this.


Loren said...

I was feeling guilty because I, too, am a little busy to follow her prompt. Then I realized my ongoing, but currently interrupted, series on Thomas Hardy is exactly what she asked for.

I switched from being a Physics major to a English major because of Hardy's novels and poems.

I wish I'd read a book on Zen earlier in my life than I did.

Lyn said...

When reading a collection of Zen koans I ususually feel that the next one will hold the answer.
I was about 11 when I found the book that changed my life..Seven Years in Tibet..discovered karma and Buddha!

John Hayes said...

I read that book a lot during my undergrad days, & I'd also kind of forgotten about it. Thanks for bringing it up--I'm thinking it might be a good one to re-read at this point.

BarbaraS said...

Ah, these examples are great. So straightforward but still with that lovely kink in them

Poetikat said...

I suspect that Monsieur Hercule Poirot had not a little zen in his attitude.

Don't you love rediscovering an old favourite?


Titus said...

Really enjoyed this, especially as it was about something I know very little about. Written beautifully, and I enjoyed the two stories very much. I will try to ensure the tea one stays with me!

Derrick said...

Hello Dominic,

I would have to join Titus here in the knowledge stakes but thanks for the introduction. I can at least get the tea lesson and the black nosed buddha one that I clicked through to.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Hm! Food for thought here Dom. Thanks so much for joining in - they have all been such an inspiring read.
I am tempted to ask how one could possibly paint a self portrait of one's back view.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments everyone.

RF: Hope you find inspiration in your huge tome:) Is it a good one?

Loren: I should read more Hardy - especially his poems. I should also read more and write less. I didn't realise that searching your blog for "zen" would create a massive 176 hits!

Lyn: Keep meaning to read that.

JH: You too? I think it's a great little book. It has an uncanny way of getting down straight away to the nitty gritty of what it is talking about - no waffle.

BarbaraS: Part of the book is called "101 Zen Stories". On a purely literary level they're all great "flash fiction": what we think of as trendy has usually been done before!

Poetikat: The chap pouring the tea certainly has a touch of HP about him, now you mention it. I wonder if AC was ever into Chinese/Japanese stories?

Titus: Pleased you enjoyed it. The tea story is a good one - but I don't think I'll try it. :)

Derrick: I promised myself I wouldn't make a regular series out of this, but I might pop in one or two more Zen stories, given the interest.

WG: With two mirrors! (Or one, if you've eyes in the back of your head). :)

Totalfeckineejit said...

Great inspirations there, Dominic.I must find this book.And thanks for all your well wishes,I know the helped. :)