Books In Brief

Sam Hamill

ZEN WORD, ZEN CALLIGRAPHY
Text by Eido Tai Shimano
Calligraphy by Kogetsu Tani
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1992.
160 pp., $50.00 (clothbound).

 

THE ZENGO OR ZEN WORDS and phrases in Kogetsu Tani's calligraphy cut right to the heart of dharma. Brief texts by Eido Tai Shimano frame the calligraphy by introducing the word or phrase in English and providing essential commentary on the tradition. At least since the T'ang dynasty, Ch'an and Zen masters have used the calligraphic scroll as a pointer or a reminder, an agent to provoke thought and preparation for zazen, not as a substitute for daily practice. But how can calligraphy and short commentary achieve fuden no den, that is, how can it "transmit the intransmittable" dharma?

Calligraphy becomes an expression of practice reflecting characteristics of the individual master. The fourteenth-century Zen master Ikkyu was noted for his very bold, high-energy hand; the hand of the eighteenth-century "snow country" Zen recluse Ryokan is as spidery as the mountain trails he roamed.

In Zen Word, Zen Calligraphy the authors have achieved a rare balance between inspiration and scholarship. Kogetsu Tani's hand is strong without appearing to be highly "practiced," a style that retains some rough (human) edges. He draws from the (nearly impossible to read) grass or "running hand" a vertical speed and grace in Chinese characters, retaining enough of the more formal and readable "clerk's hand" style that a student can quickly count brush-strokes and enjoy some dictionary work.

One might learn, for example, that a line Shimano translates, "My mind is like the autumn moon," offers other possibilities. The character for "mind" is kokoro in Japanese, shin in Chinese and also means "heart." In Zen philosophy, mind is emphasized; but our (Western) understanding is deepened when we learn that "heart" and "mind" are the same thing. Furthermore, in the Chinese phrase there is no possessive. "Mind is like moon." Ryokan wrote in a poem, quoting Zen teaching, that the finger pointing at the moon and the moon itself are one thing: pure mind.

Shimano also reminds, "Although Zen is not anti-intellect, the profound Zen spirit cannot be grasped by logic and a rational way of thinking. The real is not rational. If Zen were more intellectual and rational, it would have died out centuries ago."

This is an engaging book—good reading and good contemplation. It is a book to dream with.

© 1990 by Theseus Verlag, Zurich, Munich. By arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston

Kyakka O Miyo, "Watch your step." At the entrance of most Zen monasteries, there is a plaque that reads, "Watch your step." Superficially, it is a suggestion: Be careful, watch where you are walking. But the real meaning of "Watch your step" is that in your everyday activities, both physical and mental, you should be ceaselessly mindful. A monk asked Master Kakumyo (1271-1361), "What is the essence of Zen?" Master Kakumyo replied, "Watch your step." © 1990 by Theseus Verlag, Zurich, Munich. By arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

 

TIBETAN ARTS OF LOVE
Gedun Chopel
Introduced and translated by Jeffrey Hopkins
Snow Lion Press: Ithaca, NY, 1992.
282 pp., $14.95 (paperback).

 

SEX IS DISCLAIMED from the mouths of all but it alone is what is liked from the minds of all." According to Gedun Chopel, author of the 1938 "Treatise on Passion" that is the core teaching of Tibetan Arts of Love. Sex manuals of various stripes have been around as long as there have been books, perhaps since the first visionary scratched images on the stone walls of caves.

In our culture, we have until recently turned primarily to fiction for our literary sexual education—at least since Pamela and Clarissa brought titters and Mrs. Bovary scandalized and Lady Chatterley went to court. Asia also has a novelistic tradition, as with The Carnal Prayer Mat and with various "pillow books" like that of Sei Shonagon. The classic sex manual is, of course, the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, who in his sixth chapter warns against "Excessive love/ Excessive pride/ Excessive conceit! Excessive simplicity/ Excessive confidence." Among other excesses.

There are so many points at which I find Tibetan Arts of Love excessively reductive that I will mention only a few:

1) "If a woman has a red mole at the root of her left cheek, though she undergoes difficulties and suffering in her youth, after age thirty, she will attain happiness, comfort, and glory. If the mole is black, after age forty she will become happy." And, among the mole listings, if a woman has a mole in the middle of her neck, "she will undoubtedly [my emphasis] become wealthy." This kind of reductio ad absurdum might fill little boys' and girls' minds with a lot of really silly ideas.

2) To the author's credit, he is somewhat sensitive to a woman's perspective, but even his description of a clitoris is, well...excessive: "A small bit of flesh, about the size of a finger."

3) Jeffrey Hopkins has written a 150-page introduction so stuffed with scholarly quotation that it bulges like a Christmas goose. While so much of his argument is interesting and persuasive, he treats Gedun Chopel's 100-page sutra with more reverence than critical analysis.

4) Meanwhile, as with virtually all traditional sex manuals, similes and metaphors run amok: this, we are told, is "like a bee sucking honey," while that cry "is like the voice of the goose." There is the position called "cowherd lying supine," and there is the "way of the mare."

5) Everything is devotedly heterosexual.

At rock bottom, sex manuals of any kind can offer little more than contemplation on the nature of inserting Tab A into Slot B with a beatific attitude. I admire the contemplation of the author, but am frustrated by his inability to get beyond stereotyping and categorizing even to the point of issuing gross generalities about the lovemaking techniques of women according to geographical region.

Orgasmic bliss may prove to be a glimpse into "the final nature of reality," but I think that "reality" is better expressed in other manuals, and even better yet in poetry and prose that rise above excessive simplicity.

 

FLOWING TRACES: Buddhism in the Literary and Visual Arts of Japan
Edited by James H. Sanford, William R. LaFleur, and Masatoshi Nagatomi
Princeton University Press: Princeton, N.J., 1992.
275 pp., $39.95 (clothbound).

 

WHEN ONE SPEAKS of Japanese "Buddhist" poetry or painting, the standard response is the calling forth of subject matter—images of the Buddha and so forth as a kind of set, like a tea service. The various authors and editors of Flowing Traces intend to correct that fundamentally false assumption. Buddhist arts, the authors argue, were broadly inclusive, utilizing ideas associated with Confucianism, Shinto, and folk traditions.

William R. LaFleur, who has translated the poetry of Saigyo (Mirror for the Moon) and written a marvelous book on Buddhism and literary arts in medieval Japan (The Karma of Words), opens with a close reading of the poetry of Fujiwara Shunzei (1114--1204). LaFleur convincingly disposes of any sense of differentiation between the sacred and the profane, arguing on behalf of a literary tradition that is a manifestation of Buddhist dharma: "The idea is that the various vehicles, even when they have resulted in sectarian developments, are compatible and fundamentally united on a deeper level. The different modes are the consequence of a genius for adaptability that translates dharma into a variety of forms for a variety of people."

But Flowing Traces is not a simple literary-visual exploration for the uninitiated. When LaFleur digresses into a discussion of neo-Platonism in Western religious philosophy and our tendency to apply its assumptions to Buddhist arts, he takes time to refute the Ph.D. dissertation of Clifton W. Royston, and it gets very weighty indeed. When he returns to Shunzei's comparison of dharma transmission with the tradition of Japanese verse, he notes how Buddhist "emptiness" is an expression of the interconnectedness of all phenomena.

Even to regard phenomena as "empty" is, he says, "an activity that needs to be relativized and seen as dependent....The recognition of the perfectly balanced codependence of the void and the provisional as Tendai's third stage [of truth], that of the middle. The middle is not a position midway between the other two, but the holding of both in a state of dynamic and equalized tension. Each way of looking at things is valid, but only because the other is also true: each side gives existence and function to the other." Thus, he says, Shunzei's experience of poetry embraces indeterminacy of meaning so that, as the Zen poet Shinkei observed in the sixteenth century, "Cause produces effect; effect in turn leads to cause."

To Shunzei, there is a "reciprocal flow of meanings between [poetry] and the way of Buddhism, a way that maintains the interdependence of all things." Zen poetry in particular has a long history of poets locating the sacred within the profane, thereby demonstrating Shunzei's principle.

Other essays range through visual and literary hagiographies, Noh drama, and "sermonballads." Flowing Traces offers scholarship of a very high order, but this is not a book for the general reader. Its rewards are reserved for those interested in furthering serious study.

Sam Hamill

 

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