Perfect Poverty: a Quaker’s Koan?

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 weI mean all human beingsare 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.

River Ouse by Patti Smith

The River Ouse, East Sussex, England
Patti Smith

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.

7 thoughts on “Perfect Poverty: a Quaker’s Koan?

  1. It is hard for me to understand you here. Are you protesting the nihilism of Virginia Woolf’s suicide, and Hsiang-yen’s obscurantism? (If so, I am only understanding that from your parenthetical note about your skepticism about Hsiang-yen).

    I generally find modern Zen writers clear and useful (to a degree), and classical Zen stories annoying and pointless, so I am biased when it comes to Zen. I was taking your post at face value (i.e. a positive take on Zen) until I re-read it in the light of your comment about skepticism.

    I also don’t see what the connection is to Quakerism, unless it is pointing in the same directions as (was it Margaret Fell?) the famous quote about “…a silly poor Gospel”, attacking Quaker asceticism.

  2. I am impressed by the authenticity of Woolf’s intuition and decision for death — something I can’t say for the cultivated spirituality represented by at least three of the monks.

  3. Always enjoy these, George…

    In Mystical Realist, Hee-Jin Kim writing about Dōgen’s Zen points to the unitive gatheredness of actualizing reality: “Zen practice is a matter of forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something.” To unite with something is to find it altogether vivid, like the thrush, say, singing in the guava grove. There is just that song, a point of no dimension—of cosmic dimension. The “sole self ” is forgotten.””

    Pointing to an edgeless gathered activity, this from George Fox, Works (my rather elaborate edits):

    [Dwelling in the Light] takes away the occasion of wars, and gathers our hearts together to God, and unto one another, and brings to the beginning, before wars … Therefore, all dear people, who love the [Light], and the appearance of [the Light] in your souls, do not be talkers of the truth, nor followers of the blind guides, but mind the pure Light of God in you, which shows your sin and evil, and how you have spent your time. If you love that Light, you love Christ, and walking in the Light in measure, there will be no occasion of stumbling, for…abiding inwardly in the light, it will let you see one another, and the unity one with another, and…be the ministers of the [Light].

    And, from a tract published in 1657, ‘To all the People on the Earth’, George Fox said this about dying to self: “All you that be in your own wisdom and in your own reason, you tell that silent waiting upon God is famine to you; it is a strange life to you to come to be silent, you must come into a new world. Now you must die in the silence, die from the wisdom, die from the knowledge, die from the reason, and die from the understanding.”

    And from Bassui, this short poem point to practice, for friends steadying the gaze on the Light…

    What is this mind?
    Who is hearing these sounds?
    Do not mistake any state for
    Self-realization, but continue
    To ask yourself even more intensely,
    What is it that hears?

    And in turn discovering…

    “Everything is shown up by being exposed to the light, and whatever is exposed to the light itself becomes light.” – St. Paul, Ephesians 5:14

    The novice asked: “What is Buddha?”
    The master replied: “Great intimacy…”
    The novice asked again: “What is Buddha”
    The master replied: “You, you…”

    Interestingly, the Buddha, St. Paul, and Isaac Pennington all used architectural metaphors to communicate the nature of the unconfined self…

    From the sayings of the Buddha (Dhammapada, versus 153 and 154), it is said that at the moment of the attainment of Buddhahood, the Buddha uttered the following: “I, who have been seeking the builder of this house, failing to attain Enlightenment which would enable me to find him, have wandered through innumerable births in samsara. To be born again and again is, indeed, dukkha [suffering]! Oh house-builder! You are seen, you shall build no house [for me] again. All your rafters are broken, your roof-tree is destroyed. My mind has reached the unconditioned (enlightenment); the end of craving has been attained.”

    St. Paul likewise refers to the activity of the enclosed or confined self being born again into Christ as the groaning of the tent, which must be torn down so that Christ—the inward teacher—can take arise inwardly, saying in 2 Corinthians 5:1-17: “For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven…For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life…Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”

    Perhaps referring directly to this passage, Isaac Pennington in 1661 brought for what is probably may favorite passage from the early Friends: “Know what it is that is to walk in the path of life, and indeed is alone capable of walking therein. It is that which groans, and which mourns; that which is begotten of God in thee. The path of life is for the seed of life. The true knowledge of the way, with the walking in the way, is reserved for God’s child, for God’s traveller. Therefore keep in the regeneration, keep in the birth; be no more than God made thee. Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know, or to be any thing, and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart; and let that grow in thee, and be in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee.”

    And finally, from Fox, Works, Epistle XI, Vol. 7 p. 21. “Dear hearts…walk in the truth, and God Almighty be among you! And in it you will see him; stand all naked, bare, and uncovered before the Lord…and stay yourselves upon the Lord in every particular, to have your minds guided by his spirit; growing up in that which is precious and immortal, there is no feigned love.”

  4. Pingback: Perfect Poverty: a Quaker’s Koan? — The Postmodern Quaker – quaccheri e hutteriti in Italia

  5. Pingback: Perfect Poverty: a Quaker’s Koan? — The Postmodern Quaker | Ecumenics and Quakers

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