The Zen Teachings of Huang Po, trans. John Blofeld

400000000000000528334_s4I recently did a short retreat, and the immediate result of it was that I want to go on a long retreat. That to me seems a great thing.

I have in the past approached Buddhist texts–in this case the word scripture is appropriate–as I approached other books, or at least other expository texts. I read them to understand some thing, or even more basically to know what some thing is. Huang Po, the text, is nothing if not expository, and the book can suit this purpose.

At this point, though, I don’t find myself reading a book like this to find out what it says as much as I look to it for encouragement and direction in my practice. I have been told by more than one qualified teacher that this is the proper role of scripture in practice: guidance and encouragement. I am all for intellectual understanding but that’s not where I am right now. It makes me feel good. I feel like I am at a point where I am dedicated to practice more than I have ever been, and moreover that I am so based on the firm foundation of results.

But to the book. What struck me immediately upon rereading Huang Po was the clarity of the text. Many Zen texts have a reputation, deserved in a way, as being difficult to understand, or cryptic. It seems to me that much of this problem is that we read these texts as we would a modern expository text when in fact the text such as it is was not written as such. Think The Blue Cliff Record or Linji. The first is a series of teaching tools to be used by a teacher with a dedicated student, historically with monastics. The Blue Cliff Record is used to provoke, not explain, and so we will be confused if we approach it as an explanation. The record of Linji’s teaching, illuminating as it is, is a record of a few talks and many more anecdotal interactions between teacher and student, punctuated with shouts and blows. Outside of the context of dedicated practice, the interactions are nonsensical. If we see Linji working to provoke realization in students, it’s more comprehensible.

The record of Huang Po’s teaching, as it stands in this book, works vastly better as expository text. Without doubt, it wasn’t precisely intended as such. Yet I have not come across a more useful and clear exploration of the use of the term “Mind” as we find it in Zen/Ch’an that Huang Po. Were one to use it academically, the book would be enormously useful.

But for me, the academic use of the book is beside the point. What I will say is that as I read it I found it very comforting and encouraging. Comforting because reading it felt like it was giving a name to experience I’ve had in practice. Aha, I thought, this is familiar. Encouraging because it tells me I’ve hit on something practical that works and that I should keep going.


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