Poetry - the difference between Buddhist and western imagery; - Shih-shu's darkness

Foul weather in the air

A tense whispering rises
ever higher decreasingly low
the sea 's all ears:
and listen,
and hear
how past this night
foul weather 's in the air.

(Edithe de Clecq Zubli, Dutch poet.)

Personification is fairly alien to Buddhism, things being what they are and their true nature only to be found by piercing through this 'is-ness'.
In western poetry however, personification of inanimate things abounds (the sea being all ears). In Buddhism the true nature of the natural world is held up as an example to the human race; in western poetry the natural world is hoisted to the human plane on which neither are what they truly are in the Buddhist sense of the word.

An example of this difference between Buddhist and western poetry is to be found among Shih-shu's legacy (17-18th cent.), who was, incidentally, one of those very few monks who composed some of his verses in the romanticizing western style, personifying inanimate things. Nevertheless, here is one of his truly Buddhist utterings:

in the nearby mountains, a green mountain haze
on the distant sea, white sea clouds
the chatter of birds is soundless
the roar of gibbons - absolutely silent.

In the first two lines a realized monk shows the "is-ness" of things: the mountain haze reflects as something greenish, the clouds over the sea are white - that's what he sees: period!
In the last two lines he points at one of the most popular meditations among Eastasian Buddhists: that ofthe bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara as the - to Chan - all-important Surangama sutra (attributed to master Paramiti) explains it. While translating the section on Avalokiteshvara's method in the chapter Self-Enlightenment the translator Lu K'uan Yu sums up this bodhisattva's words with:(p.139) "By discarding the sound to look into the meditator himself, that is into the nature of hearing, he disengages himself from both organs and sense-data and thereby realizes his all-embracing Buddha-nature which contains all living beings." (Clicking through the homepage to the content chapter of the said sutra, you will easily find the passage.)

The Buddha-nature implies that arising, existing and disappearing in ultimate sense are not, since these three are dependent - hence unreal, and not-abiding - hence unreal. Only that which is absolutely independent and abiding is real. True Mind (go see a Chan master to find out what that is) is independent and real. All other sense data as well as our day-to-day discriminating mind are not: they, in ultimate sense, did not arise. How can something that in ultimate sense did not arise give a sound, or how can in ultimate sense a non-arisen sound be heard, or how can a discriminating mind that in the ultimate sense did not arise, nor disappears, hear?
This is the ultra-radical Dharma-teaching of the Chan school.

We should remember that the great example of many a poet and hermit monk was Han Shan Te-Ch'ing who brushed some famous lines on the Surangama sutra; and we may remember that Avalokiteshvara (Quan Yin), both according to legend and to this sutra, at least in part, is said to have gained enlightenment while contemplating the sound of the ocean surrounding the island Putuo Shan where s/he allegedly practiced for many years.

We may find another canonical source for the last two lines of Shih-shu's poem, in the Avatamsaka sutra (Leng Yen Ching), where in the discussion of the ten practices it says: "In all worlds there only exist verbal expression, and verbal expression has no basis in facts. Furthermore, facts have no basis in words. Thus do enlightening beings (bodhisattvas) understand that all things are void, and all worlds are silent: all the Buddha teachings add nothing ..."

And in the book The Ten Stages, belonging to the same sutra, it says: "the "voice of the Buddha is unutterable, free from sound, by nature ultimately silent ..."
Here we must understand that Buddha-nature of Buddha and beings are/is not-two, and that Shih-shu therefore recognized the "unutterable" voice of Buddha which is "free from sound" in those birds overhead.

- Shih-shu's darkness

Another poem by Shih-shu from the same volume:
a charge to students of the Tao:
"nothing to do; nothing to lose"
among the flowers, darkening clouds
above the pines, a sinking sun

spring deepens with urgent birdcalls
autumn declines to the cries of insects
dawn: darkness wrapped in darkness
this, the end of every quest.

In the first lines of this poem Shih-shu lambasts the Taoists practicing along the lines of wu-wei, non-action, in this case not practicing, not meditating at all. (Buddhist and Taoist recluses very often shared the same mountain slopes to build their huts often side by side).
However, he for one, Shih-shu, sat himself down when the clouds were darkening and the sun was sinking. He remained in meditation even when "spring deepen[ed]s with urgent birdcalls", and even when "autumn decline[ed]s to the cries of insects."
Finally he rose from his mat and had the ultimate realization, "the end of every quest ": his enlightened mind was beyond discriminating: "darkness [remained] wrapped in darkness."

What that means the Avatamsaka sutra explains in the book The Ten Concentrations. It says (p. 823): "As for the various dissimilarities - of far and near, of phenomena and time, and so on - the enlightening beings (bodhisattvas) do not create discriminations in regard to them; their minds are not obsessed with them; they do not take them to be dual or nondual, universal or particular. Though they are aloof from these discriminations, yet by expedient techniques of spiritual powers, when they arise from concentration they remember everything and reach the ultimate end."

As such the title of the volume: "the clouds should know me by now" is a perfect example of western personification; the line that is quoted here runs: "the cranes in the clouds should know me by now."

All poems by Shih-shu are translated by J.H. Sanford in "The clouds should know me by now", Wisdom Publications, all translations from the Avatamsaka sutra are by T. Cleary, publ. Shambala.
In the second half of the year 2000, the Surangama sutra has been "digitized". There are now some three or four versions which you could compare. You will find the other versions on Mike T. Lee's site.