So I’ve been studying Buddhism over the last year or so, after merely paying attention to it in my peripheral vision for the last decade. For me, that means books, of which I have accumulated a shelf full. I’ve discovered an entire universe of discourse & have only just begun to have a vague map & chronology of the intertwining traditions that make up “Buddhism,” which is not one thing, but many; a pluralist, I find this not only deeply satisfying, but consider that it underwrites the validity, even the truth claims, of Buddhism, since for a pluralist no single approach can be sufficient.
Of the various traditions, though, I have focused mostly on Zen. Of the various Buddhisms, Zen interests itself (more than the others) in literary & artistic matters. (In contrast, the early sutras of the Pali Canon have an outdoors, sunlit, brightly colored quality — a healthy-mindedness — that is also very attractive & that contrasts with Zen’s black & white brush strokes.)
Two main schools of Zen survive today from among the many that have flourished over the centuries since Bodhidharma traveled from the west bringing Buddhism to China in the 6th century. Both schools of Zen, the Soto & the Rinzai, make use of teaching stories called koans, but it is the dominant method in Rinzai, while it is treated more tangentially in the Soto school, which emphasizes “silent illumination.” (At least that is my understanding; experts should feel free to correct me.) In traditional Zen practice, koans are presented almost as law cases, with a brief statement, then the main narrative, then a commentary by one or more teachers, followed sometimes by a capping verse added by still another hand. Sometimes the cases are used by teachers to test students’ understanding; sometimes a student will use a particular case in meditation until it becomes clear — sometimes a matter of months or years! That’s the formal koan tradition & to be honest I don’t know all that much about it, but there is also what might be called an informal tradition of teaching stories that employs some of the same narratives and texts. Stories, I know something about.
That’s a long didactic run-up to mentioning two lovely little books from the Zen storytelling tradition, once ancient & one modern. The Sayings of Layman P’ang (translated by James Green) is a compilation of short conversations between the eponymous layman and various monks & masters. The Layman, who lived between 740 & 808 CE, gives new meaning to the word laconic:
At another time, the Layman asked Ma-tsu, “If you met someone who was a distinctly authentic person, how would you recognize him?” Ma-tsu directed his gaze downward. The Layman said, “Only you are able to play a tune on a stringless harp.” Ma-tsu looked up and the Layman bowed. Ma-tsu then returned to his room. The Layman followed him, saying, “Just now, I tried to trick you, but you made a fool out of me instead.”
The Buddhist tradition has other enlightened lay followers, most notably Vimalakirti, who loved during the Buddha’s time; the Vimalakirti Sutra is loquacious where P’ang’s sayings are hermetic. I prefer the Layman to the elaborations of Vimalakirti, but then I’ve always tended to respect silence — perhaps an odd trait for a poet & a fairly talkative one at that.
There is a blurb on the back of The Sayings of Layman P’ang from John Tarrant, an Australian Zen teacher & the author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros, a modern treatment of several traditional koans, along with some koan-like stories drawn from other traditions. Tarrant has a transparent and lucid prose style that does not get in the way of the stories he’s retelling and that serves the originals well without trying to displace or “improve” them. My favorite story in Tarrant’s book is based on a traditional koan, the title translated by Tarrant as “A Condolence Call,” is also known as “Daowu Won’t Say.” (Here is the formal version of the koan in John Daido Loori’s translation.) Tarrant takes this bare-bones bit of Zen scholasticism about Daowu & Jinyuan and turns it into a deeply human story about a student’s desire to understand & a teacher’s willingness to go to any length to help him. Tarrant adds some characterization & description in the manner of a modern storyteller and expands the narrative a bit; these modest changes, though, add up to something that does justice to the original story but is at the same time completely its own. Tarrant’s version is somehow more good-natured & humorous without in the least descending to parody. As both a teacher & a student, I find Tarrant’s version of this story deeply moving, profound without being freighted with “meaning.” That is, it is in the best Zen tradition, as I understand Zen.