Moonlight floods the ocean waters
with a river wide as Amazon;
one small junk, silhouetted,
black and cowled like an ancient spectre
creeps unheeded on the dazzling sea;
rising to the lambent moon
my eyes fix in a kind of ecstasy
which swells and beats
with the grasshopper’s song
and the wavelets sounding
a thousand feet below.
The worst of the rain is over. For hours it has fallen steadily from a laden sky but now, the clouds rising to a greater height and clearing the tops of the hills, only an occasional large drop spatters the road. Thick blankets of fine mist are rolling in from the sea, blanketing the valleys below the camp, filling them up and brimming over the saddles and crests into the hollows beyond.
Around the officers’ mess the mists part for a moment to give us a vista of unparalleled grandeur and strangeness. Everything drips in the saturated air, leaves, eaves, branches, railings. A light breeze from the East, laden with moisture, fans the hills of the islands and, as it rises and cools, the vapours condense, forming shadowy pennants flying from the crests. At sea, the vapour clears now and again to reveal the moving waters; sometimes the tops of a junk’s masts stick up above the mist. Around the waists of mainland mountains clouds form white girdles and plumes of vapour cling to their summits, as if afraid to float away.
Once more the students of Zen assembled in Dr Ronald Ching’s consulting room taking Chinese tea together. Mr Yen dived immediately into his topic.
“It has been said that Buddhism is a belief based on the idea of ‘Mind Only’. Let us see if that is really so and what it might mean. What do you think the mind is? Let us not confuse it with the ‘grey matter’ important for our behaviour though that is. The word ‘mind’ implies experience and is not to do with the material basis at all. Is mind the same as the sense of self? Is it the ‘I’ quality that underlies almost everything we do and every thought we have? Can you find the mind? If you go in search of it directly, much as you might go looking for a goldfish in a goldfish bowl, what do you find? What sort of fish is this? This question ‘What is my mind?’ opens up the whole story of Ch’an, of Zen.
“I will tell you a story,” Mr Yen continued. “When Bodhidharma first brought Zen to China he taught for a while, had that unsatisfactory encounter with the emperor and then went off into the mountains meditating, facing a wall for nine years. He was waiting for his successor to put in an appearance. Eventually a young man came and knelt beside him. After a time Bodhidharma, looking sideways, asked him, ‘And who might you be?’
“‘I seek the dharma,’ was the reply.
“‘O ho!’ said Bodhidharma, ‘And I suppose you think that’s the right way to go about it. Just coming and asking for it. What can you learn that way? Other men have given blood, their lives, their pith and marrow for the dharma. Do you think you can find it merely by supplication?’ and he turned back to the wall and fell silent.
“The young monk was in distress for he had been seeking for a long time and knew Bodhidharma was his last hope. He drew out his knife and cut off his arm. Holding it out with his intact hand, he pushed it towards the sage.
“At length Bodhidharma eyed it ‘O ho – that is something!’ he said and looked at the young man with fresh interest. ‘What can I do for you then?’ he asked.
“‘My mind is weary, worried, uneasy. I have sought for peace everywhere but have never found it. Please, make my mind tranquil.’
“‘Ah, but first you must show me your mind,’ said Bodhidharma. ‘How can I make it tranquil unless you can show it me? Can you do that? It is the first step.’
“The young man pondered for a long time.
“‘But I cannot do that. I cannot even find it.’
“‘There then, it is now tranquil,’ said Bodhidharma.
“And suddenly the young man understood what he was being shown.
“Unless you can see it too, such a story needs some decoding. The young man went into himself to find himself and however deeply he searched he could not locate his mind. He thought there must be something there but, again and again, he came upon empty space. He had not realised that it was possible to set aside all his worries, thoughts and attachments and perceive that which remained when he had done so. All such matters were mere thoughts and emotions floating in the space he could now see for himself. Bodhidharma’s remark jerked him into this realisation. The emptiness in which he had been searching for himself was himself and he had never known it. There was no thing there yet he now knew what ‘no mind’ was. It suddenly became for him the presence of freedom.
“This is an aspect of experience we cover over with all the noise of thought, so that we too rarely recognise it. It is in fact the bowl in which thoughts swim. We sometimes call it the ‘unborn’ because it is that in which thoughts get created. It is prior to thought.
“There is nothing special about this. It seems odd simply because, being so attached to thoughts and feelings, we so rarely recognise it. Yet, when we watch our mental processes closely enough, we can see they are no more than a muddle of ideas or regrets from the past mingled with hopes and desires for the future. So long as we remain in this muddle we cannot come near the timeless truth and realise that all experience floats in experienceable space.
“The truth of this ‘unborn’ spaciousness of mind exists apart from the worldliness of our day-to-day affairs. It pervades them, of course, but, when we are enmeshed by them, we do not see it. We have to withdraw somewhat and watch the process, our reactions in our work and our play, the very mind games that preserve our sense of identity. We have to understand what our minds keep going on about before we can see our root nature. And this root nature is the truth in the sense that it is basic to all and all-sufficient. Anyone who has found it affirms the same insight and, oddly, their stories end at this point for there is nothing else to say.
“And we can say that this ‘unborn’, which is the basis of mind, is also the basis or true nature of everything. It is as much in this table, these walls or the sky as it is in each one of us. Only by standing back, watching and waiting can it be perceived.
“This is the ‘mind only’ of the texts and not the chattering mind of thought. We may say that, when the mind falls into such peace, it begins knowing something of the ‘unborn’ nature so that eventually it may become fully an expression of Buddha nature itself. The world goes on as before and you, too, with it but you have seen the basis. You remain engaged with the world, doing your job, studying, writing, making money, whatever, yet you are also beyond all that because you are aware of the full perspective, the untarnished truth.”
How Mr Yen’s eyes shine when he speaks of these things! His English becomes more fluent, his voice powerful and compelling. I almost believe he knows the state about which he speaks. I feel myself sometimes a doubting Thomas at his feast.
I questioned him about the contrasts between Christianity and Buddhism.10*
“In both Christianity and Buddhism something is renounced or abandoned,” I said. “In Christianity the self is sacrificed in the love for others. In Buddhism the self is to be raised to enlightenment and that enlightenment then spreads a spirit of unifying love among all men. The Buddhist, by his striving for enlightenment, raises the tone of thought, altruism and feeling in all who know him. It works by subtle influence. The Christian, by working for others, achieves immediate practical aims in medicine, nursing and so on and this is his expression of love. Perhaps the Christian gives his soul for others while the Buddhist tries to lose it in an universal love. Which of these is of the greater value?”
Mr Yen thought before replying, “I have much admiration for the positive good in Christianity and you must not think that I deride it in any way. Yet, it seems to me, that in giving the soul for others the Christian is thinking in terms of purposes and achievements and this can only alter material conditions. However good such changes may be they do not lead to tranquillity of mind but only to further search for self-sacrifice. At the back of the mind there is always the idea of a personal salvation in attaining some heaven where all is at peace or at least engaged in some sort of permanent hymn singing. It is necessary to follow the laws of God that are outside oneself.”
“I ask you to what have such practices led? Look at history, the crusades, the inquisition, the many wars of religious intolerance between Christians themselves and missionary aggression, if I may call it that, against other cultures. We have not seen that wanting in China, I have to tell you. Whatever errors may happen between Buddhists such traumatic events do not mar Buddhist history for Buddhists do not think in terms of worldly purposes. The very notions of ‘you’ and ‘me’, ‘mine’ and ‘yours’, ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’, ‘we’ and ‘they’, Christian and pagan is foreign to true Buddhism. In Buddhism a man or woman is simply such, whatever his good or bad qualities.”
“Yes”, I said, “But to return to the practical world of today. We see the sleepers in the streets outside this building and the poverty in the shantytowns. It is perhaps only the purposive, directional love of the Christian variety that can bring about changes in the lives of these people.”
“In the long run, you must know, it is not material comfort so much as peace of mind that is the vital ingredient in human happiness,” continued Mr Yen. “By all means change your houses, set up hospitals and schools, missionary educational centres and so on. They do indeed do much good but it is the mind of the individual which counts rather than mechanical conversion of the masses. You see – if the mind is at peace and a resource unto itself then conditions do not matter so much. Again, even if conditions for the collective are altered, the same personal troubles and neuroses persist because the root of the mind has not been touched. Buddhist love is boundless and not limited by charitable ideals. When rightly understood it embraces all sentient beings.”
“But, surely,” I persisted, “boundless love means a love without direction or goal. Love must be purposive if it is to achieve anything. Simply wishing that love embrace all sentient beings will not help the man in the street very much. It is too abstract to touch him.”
“I am not so sure,” Mr Yen responded. “A coolie can understand and from him it can spread from mind to mind irrespective of education. We are speaking of a surging awareness of a possibility, the peace of mind obtained by knowing the mind. Awareness is a property of the individual, not of a group striving after ideals and good deeds. Awareness is dispassionate and spreads love boundlessly. Directional altruism is good but cannot move the mind to spirituality for it works within the narrower field of emotion. No spiritual person could sing ‘Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war’ with an easy mind. This is the fruit and cause of emotional fervour, the same enthusiasm that produces intolerance, crusades and, maybe, concentration camps!”
Back in camp I fell to musing on our discussion. It seemed to me that the altruism of the Christian and the universal awareness of the Buddhist can both be found in varying degrees in all peoples and races. They are universal possibilities of the expression of human spirit. Yet it is true that the ‘we consciousness’ that Jung feels lies at the base of altruism is indeed on a different level from the pure spirit of Buddhist thought. It is more emotional, less aware, lacks the insight. Spirituality is the time when a man stands utterly alone facing the forces about him and asking who and what he is and how to find peace and happiness. It is a thing of solitude, of hills and monasteries, of the blissful mountains some find within their own minds. And there are also those who have found it in hell itself, prisons or concentration camps.
In the world of practical affairs the drive and purposiveness of Christian goodwill is of paramount importance. This is a material religion of mind rather than soul. In the inmost self it is Buddhism that helps more because it understands so much more, goes so much deeper. Today, peace of mind cannot be found by many in Christianity because the root ideas have become lost, out of favour in a scientific age. New words with which to reinvent the old inspiration seem essential.
In Buddhism ideas of mind and universe relate more easily to those of science. I think a more perfectly understood religion will arise ahead of us in which faith, love and altruism will express themselves through a renewal of spirituality in the West, emanating essentially from the traditions of the East. The heights of such spirituality may be scaled only by the few, yet these few may be of any origin. This is psychology but it passes beyond all words to the infinite experience of being itself.
I was awoken by the light and at first I did not understand the reason for my restlessness. I tossed, turned, squirmed into a ball, lay flat on my back and opened my eyes. A silvery light poured through my windows, casting a long shining beam across the floor, over the table, the armchair and up the wall. The door out on to the wide balcony, which ran all around the building, was open and through it too the brightness poured in cascades of light and shadow across the ridges of my wardrobe doors.
I went outside and leaned on the balustrade. In daylight, with clear sky and good visibility, it is possible to see out beyond Lama Island to Lantao and beyond Lema to the furthest Communist-controlled islands, mere shadows on the horizon off the mouth of the Pearl River. Even on the clearest day it was rare to see so far and, at night, the outlines of Lama and Lema were only marked by the ring of fishermen’s lamps around their coasts. Yet now every detail of the whole, great seascape lay before me, bare and shining in an unearthly pattern of lunar silver and black shadow. There was about it a curious quality of ‘holding the breath’, a waiting for something to happen, a pause on the edge of anticipated excitement. The crepuscular wonder of a slow dawning combined with the awe-filled mystery of early night, when the great shadows slink from their hiding places and cover the land.
The moon was huge, a shining disc difficult to look upon. Below it, a great spreading river of dancing light came cascading all the way from the horizon to the boulder-strewn shore below me. The air was still, with the silence of deep night, yet restless for it seemed that the power of that great orb held the landscape in thrall.
For a long time I stood in the silence gazing up at the moon’s impassive face. I seemed to grow lighter as I watched, as if I had drunk deeply of a powerful and delicious wine. There was a heady tension in all around me. “What is it?” I asked the stars quite dimmed by the brilliance. “What is this unearthly quality that is stealing through this night?”
My whole being seemed on tiptoe, watchful, my eyes sweeping over every detail; moonlit waters; dark islands; the spectre of a great junk stretching its shadow along the track of the moonlit sea. I found I could not penetrate the mystery. I cursed myself. “What are you striving for?” I asked, “What do you expect to see or know? There is only rock and mountain, sea and sky and the eerie moonlight over all.”
Yet the answer did not satisfy. There was a feeling of a great presence moving through the night, as if the moon had taken on some personified quality, as if a goddess herself was gliding between the sparse, enfolding clouds. “Maybe it is God,” I heard myself saying to myself and the reply came, “All the world is God.”
At once the striving ceased for I knew that in the awe and mystery of the night lay its own solution. All I could do was to watch. To try and understand would ruin the wonder of it.
Suddenly a bird, a mynah, cackled in the bushes below, another followed and for a minute or two they jumped about in the branches calling to one another, murmurously, as if sleepy. A shadow darted across the drive – some nocturnal animal. It was as if dawn were near and all creatures were shifting uneasily in the strength of the light.
I do not know how long I sat watching, perhaps for one hour but I believe it was more like two. All mental activity ceased and I thought of nothing, my mind suspended in a kind of awe and wonder. The uneasiness of the night remained about me.
At length I became aware of the moon slowly sinking towards the horizon. It became larger as it went but the light was less strong and changing in intensity. An orange hue was spreading within it becoming almost pink at the last, the moon track fading on the waters. It set in a ruddy orange glow, pulsating on the horizon beyond the furthest island, the mountainous shape of which cut great bites into it as it sank. A strange light hung about the horizon and then the night was dark, the stars shining out more brightly.
I felt a sudden relief as if the tension had left the air. There were no sounds now for all creatures slumbered. The presence had gone and I breathed the night air deeply into my lungs, easing the strain as it flooded out of me. All was solitude and peace. The goddess dreamed below the horizon and, after a while, I fell into a deep sleep upon my bed.