So what’s this all about? Poetry is self explanatory if at all. Yet I feel some closure is necessary here. Why have I written this? Should there be an explanation? For clarity’s sake here goes.
When I was around eleven years old, I felt for a short time that I wanted to be a priest. Something about the atmosphere of a heart-felt church service and the enjoyment of singing hymns took me in that direction. Unfortunately, some might say, when in my early teens at Sherborne School I came up for confirmation in the Church of England, I had begun to ask many questions. My erudite instructor was patient but knew he could not satisfy me because I was already a budding biologist entertaining more questions than theology could answer. It would be good to join the club anyway, he said. So I did - but with increasing unease.
When I was fourteen, I had had an unusual experience alone in the tranquillity of the beech woods of the New Forest. This experience of ineffable beauty had such a strong effect upon me that from time to time I sought some explanation. No one could even begin to help me, it seemed. So, I kept quiet about it. Reading Plato began to open my understanding but the mysterious dichotomy between this experience, what it had shown me, and the intellectual life I was leading continued to cause occasional distress. I found my world increasingly alienating. As the years went by at University, I spent my time embarrassing preachers who inevitably mentioned the word God in their talks. What did that really mean? I wanted to know. No one could tell me in a way that made sense in an increasingly reductionist and utilitarian culture. Sadly, these preachers had no understanding of Meister Eckhardt or “the Cloud of Unknowing”, the texts of which might have saved me for Christianity.
I was sent to Hong Kong for my National Service at the time of the Korean War. As a young officer I was relatively free to explore this new world and culture and eventually met Mr Shi Liang Yen, who was giving Zen teachings in the surgery of a Chinese doctor once a week. I became intrigued and even more so as I began to appreciate the atmosphere of the remote monasteries on the then still roadless Lan Tao Island. Years went by and I attended many talks by Krishnamurti, my wife and I even participating in weekly seminars with him for several months in Poona. I came to know several fine Tibetan lamas then leaving Tibet for the West. Yet, in the end, I returned to Hong Kong. Mr Yen, by this time a leading monk in the colony (Religious name: Yen Wai Fa Si), and as wise as ever, was none the less getting old and very deaf. I realised I needed a younger teacher. In a Chinese Buddhist bookshop, I found just one title in English. And so, I began to study Zen experientially on rigorous retreats in New York with Master Sheng-yen of Dharma Drum Mountain. Today, after receiving transmission of the Dharma from him, I teach Chinese Zen (Chan) for the Western Chan Fellowship of which I was the key founder.
Chan practice gives one insight into human experience from a perspective quite at odds with conventional Western worldviews rooted in the dualisms of the Abrahamic faiths and Cartesian thought in humanist science. Chan insight, based upon that of the Buddha himself, takes a holistic view of life and cosmos. Everything is one mutually enfolding process of causes and effects working their way through time under the conditions that arise. This ‘Law of Co-dependent Arising’ means that everything is in perpetual motion. Impermanence rules, just as it does in science all the way from quantum physics to evolutionary biology.
As the Buddha saw, human suffering is fundamentally based in a failure to accept that this law also applies to the personal self. By forever seeking permanence and those qualities that enhance the self, suffering necessarily arises. A state of permanent satisfaction is quite impossible and the failure to find it produces pain, longing and the creative invention of ways of thought that pretend it is. These illusions are the roots of religious conflict and escapisms of all kinds.
Yet, none of that is at all necessary. This innate ignorance fails to perceive that this self, being a mental construction built up from birth as an inference from experience, is not any kind of ‘thing’ at all. It is rather an appearance totally dependent upon the bodily processes themselves composed of cosmic matter. If one asks in meditation ‘What am I?’ even the deepest search for a self produces no ‘thing’ upon which to rely.
The yogic meditations of Buddhism are quite unlike the introspections of Western psychology. They are not concerned only with thought and emotion but with the nature of conscious awareness itself – sentient being. If one chooses to practice these yogas, which are found alike throughout most of Asia, a remarkable realisation can arise. As the mind is calmed, so the mental structuring of experience in time and space changes. The isolation of the self through time and space disappears and is replaced by an increasing vastness of awareness that may yield bliss, silence and a disinterested love without an object. Thought itself may cease; words are gone. It is as if, when the mind is calmed, the brain mechanisms measuring time and space switch off as likewise do those activated by thoughts of anxiety, loss and personal hurt. Such a clarified awareness may give rise to a sense of being one with the universe itself- which indeed logically it actually is - being co-dependent with the universal process in which it participates.
Such experiences do not solve the ‘objective’ mysteries of the ultimate nature of the universe nor of consciousness itself – the “hard problem” as it is called. Objectively defined questions need the intellectual analyses of science. Even so, yogic experience reveals clearly the dependence of selfing on the processes of nature in complete contradiction to any beliefs in separate selves as things independent of the environment. This holistic experience allied with holistic thinking provides a basis for a whole new worldview taking us well beyond the schizoid mind of the modern West.
This would be no surprise in India. Indeed the Hindu view of the divine is that this is precisely what is experienced in the yogic states of oneness and self loss. The Buddha, suspicious of the reification of words, merely said there was indeed the ‘unborn’ for if not there could not be the ‘born’. Yet what is the ‘unborn’? What meaning can we give to this ‘empty’ concept? How does it relate to life? Indeed what is life? Such questions concern a special sort of problem of general interest but which may become also acutely personal even when often expressed metaphysically and through symbolism. Of such are Koans reflecting moments when the intellectual understanding confronts the paradox of ultimate ineffability and finds resolution in accepting defeat.
When one meditates and the mind becomes less obsessed with thoughts, the simplicity of the presence of the present moment emerges as an awareness of a clarity in which the momentary shines. Such moments reveal the sensory present as the root of experience before thinking and emotional reactions become as it were superimposed. The ability to abide in such clarity becomes a source of joy and inner peace. Yet, words are never far away and arise spontaneously to express the moment. The ‘Occasional moments’ of this book are precisely that and the poems in ‘Samsara’ show what may happen when words are allowed to flow, construct and build an understanding necessarily of the heart since this is not any contrived intellectual game. When poems are ‘corrected’ it is by the aesthetics of heart feeling that this is done.
It has always been the desire of the spiritual intellectual to somehow fix religious experience within a metaphysical system, which, even when known to be an invention, gives security. The Zen mind is however content with mystery for it is in the mystery itself that joy arises allowing love to follow.
There was a Zen master who once received a student in painful agony. “I don’t know! I don’t know!” he was lamenting, tearfully. The master looked him up and down and said “ Stay with the don’t know mind.” Indeed, it is only when the need to know is dropped and the problem of life let go in a living moment that the ‘empty’ wonder of life shines.
One has to stop somewhere, so here’s a final verse to say farewell:
My name is No-eye
Hole in the skull
Servant of silence
Not I, this skull alone
Moves across this dusty plain.
Mountains rise, valleys
Cool winds and waters fall.
Hot rocks glow on the valley floor.
Through this skull
The world moves
Like rivers from the mountain
Snow waters from high ice
Nothing in the way.
There is no path,
No need for dependency,
Only time and the pattern of time unfolding.
In letting the winds of time
Blow this old corpse along
The everyday becomes indeed
And everything must go
Yet, love is having the heart touched
In the valleys of suffering.
Peace, quiet joy,
Servants of Silence.
Ordinary grey rocks of the mountain
In whom deep waters run
On whom by night the moon
By day the sun.
Thursday, April 23, 2020
 Crook, J.H. 1997. Hilltops of the Hong Kong Moon. Minerva. London.
 See: Crook, J.H. & Low J. 1997. The Yogins of Ladakh. A pilgrimage among the hermits of the Buddhist Himalayas. Motilal Banarsidas. Delhi.
Crook, J.H. (Ed) 2002. Illuminating Silence. Teachings of Master Sheng Yen. Watkins. London.
 See: Crook, J.H. 2009. World Crisis and Buddhist Humanism; End Games - collapse or renewal of civilization. New Age Books. Delhi .
 Written in Zangskar, Ladakh.