Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. — Matthew 5
… ever thoroughly negating the self and becoming the thing itself, becoming the thing itself to see, becoming the thing itself to act. — Nishida Kitaro
[This intuition of mine—it is so instinctive that it seems given to me, not made by me:] that behind the cotton wool [of daily life’s non-being] is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. […] But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock. — Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past”
In the ninth century, in a temple near the Hutuo River, Hsiang-yen searches the scriptures for a response to a challenge from his master. Unable to find one, he burns his books and retires to solitary meditation. One day while absorbed in gardening, he hears the clatter of a falling tile and experiences enlightenment. As is customary, he composes a verse to celebrate the event. But his fellow monk Yang-shan criticizes the verse as being derivative of their master’s style. So Hsiang-yen writes another. His second attempt goes like this:
Last year’s poverty was not yet perfect;
This year’s poverty is absolute.
In last year’s poverty there was room for the point of a gimlet;
In this year’s poverty even the gimlet is gone.
Yang-shan is not satisfied. “You may have grasped the Zen of the Perfected One,” he replies, “but not even in a dream have you seen the Zen of the Patriarchs.”
Hsiang-yen responds with yet another verse:
I have my secret,
And I look at you with twinkling eye.
If you don’t understand,
Don’t call yourself a monk.
With that third attempt, Hsiang-yen prevails, unwittingly proving that the tile clattered to no avail.
Elsewhere, master Chao-chou is summing things up for another achiever.
A disciple asks Chao-chou what to do when he has succeeded in having nothing.
‘Throw it out,’ says Chao-chou.
But the disciple insists that, having nothing, he has nothing to throw out.
‘All right, then,’ replies Chao-chou; ‘carry it out.’
Eleven centuries later, Virginia Woolf walks into the River Ouse, carrying a heavy stone. This is her second attempt. She will not need another. This time, her poverty is perfect.
Stories of Hsiang-yen (J: Kyôgen) exist a number of variants. I have based my presentation on Heinrich Dumoulin’s Zen Buddhism: A History, Vol. 1. Students of Ch’an (J: Zen) will know that my skeptical take on Hsiang-yen is not that of the tradition or of popular Western writers. The dialogue of Chao-chou (J: Joshu) also has variants; my version is adapted from James Green, The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu.