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Man, living in the dust,
Is like a bug trapped in a bowl,
All day he scrabbles round and round,
But never escapes from the bowl that holds him.
The immortals are beyond his reach,
His cravings have no end,
While months and years flow by like a river
Until, in an instant, he has grown old.

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Buddha said: “I consider the positions of kings and rulers as that of dust motes. I observe treasures of gold and gems as so many bricks and pebbles. I look upon the finest silken robes as tattered rags. I see myriad worlds of the universe as small seeds of fruit, and the greatest lake in India as a drop of oil on my foot. I perceive the teachings of the world to be the illusion of magicians. I discern the highest conception of emancipation as a golden brocade in a dream, and view the holy path of the illuminated ones as flowers appearing in one’s eyes. I see meditation as a pillar of a mountain, Nirvana as a nightmare of daytime. I look upon the judgment of right and wrong as the serpentine dance of a dragon, and the rise and fall of beliefs as but traces left by the four seasons.”

han shanHanshan (Cold Mountain) was a chinese buddhist monk and poet who lived in China some time around the 9th century. He is a legendary figure and details of his life are sketchy. He lived as a hermit in the Taishan Mountains and would write his poems on walls, rocks and trees where he travelled. He is said to have written 600 poems however only about 300 have been collected. Little else is known about him. He would occasionally visit the near-by Guoqing Temple to see his friends and fellow monks.

I first discovered Hanshan in one of my favourite books, The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. The main character, Japhy Ryder (who in real life is the poet Gary Snyder) is studying the monk and translating his poems from Chinese into English. Reading his poems, I am taken by his enigmatic and rather magical descriptions of life in the mountains, grounded in metaphors on Zen philosophy.

A thousand clouds among a myriad streams
And in their midst a person at his ease.
By day he wanders throught he dark green hills,
At night he goes home to sleep beneath the cliffs.
Swiftly the changing seasons pass him by,
Tranquil, undefiled, no earthly ties.
Such pleasures! – and on what do they rely?
On a quiet calm, like autumn river water.

When the men of the world look for this path amid the clouds
It vanishes, with not a trace where it lay.
The high peaks have many precipices;
On the widest gulleys hardly a gleam falls.
Green walls close behind and before;
White clouds gather east and west.
Do you want to know where the cloud-path lies?
The cloud-path leads from sky to sky.

Ensemble Nipponia – The Sound Of Wind Through The Bamboo Leaves

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing to steal. Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away. Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.” – Excerpt from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones edited by Paul Reps.

Mukaiji-Reibo excerpt by Goro Yamaguchi

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