France and Zen

I have just returned from France for a conference organized by the Academie du Midi, which is a group of philosophers and other scholars in Europe who are interested in Asian philosophy and Asian studies. This is where I presented a paper on Buddhism and Laughter that I talked about in one of my previous posts. The conference was held in a converted abbey in Alet-les-Bains, a small town south of Carcassonne. The hotel itself is situated in a large park and the river Aude flows along its side. An idyllic place for philosophical dialogs and ruminations.

There are about 60 participants in the conference. One of the topics which are discussed the most is Zen and laughter (the most discussed topic is Zhuang Zi and laughter, but I am not going to talk about that one). William LaFleur presented us with this beautiful poem whose original was written in Japan in the 12th century:

I thought I was free
of passion, so this melancholy
comes as a surprise;
a woodcock shoots up from marsh
where autumn twilight fails.

The poem was composed by Saigyo and LaFleur told us that it was a very famous one. Saigyo was a Buddhist monk and we can see the clear Buddhist tone in it. What captured my interest in the poem is how it describes the mind of one who is liberated. According to LaFleur, the word that translates as ‘melancholy’ here is from the Japanese ‘a-wa-re’. This is a three-syllable word and it conveys the meaning of a sudden realization or a surprise. LaFleur said that it meant something like an ‘Aha-ness’ — the feeling you suddenly realize something, so you say to yourself “Aha.”

Japanese park

The speaker in the poem thought that he was free from all the passions; that is, he, as a Buddhist monk, thought that his mind was pure from defilements and was as still as a surface of the water on a windless pond. However, an occasional melancholy thought arose and this came as an a-wa-re. Then suddenly a woodchuck rose up from the quiet water pond when it was dusk in an autumn.

I believe that if the speaker (Saigyo himself) was not a liberated one, he could not have noticed the stillness of his mind in such a way that he could notice the occasional melancholy. In our everyday, confused mind, there are so many things happening at the same time that we could hardly notice an occasional thought. Our minds are like a busy street of Bangkok where everybody is putting out noices, each competing with one another. In that situation it is hardly possible to notice something that happens all of a sudden, because we tend to overlook it. But since Saigyo’s mind was as still as the pond in the autumn dusk, the rise of the woodchuck then came as a surprise. This is how the mind of a Buddha really works.

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