Favorites from The Clouds Should Know Me By Now

Without a doubt my favorite poems in The Clouds Should Know Me By Now are those “From Stones and Trees: The Poetry of Shih-shu” translated by James H. Sanford. For me, the poems in this 32 page section are worth the price of the book, especially since I haven’t been able to find a selection comparable even after considerable searching.

Even the introduction to the section stands out and provides a vital understanding of the context of the poems. Perhaps the reason I liked the poems so much is best explained by”: “… Shih-shu —typical of his era perhaps — seems as much Taoist as Buddhist, more a lay hermit than an entempled monk. … Further, as a Buddhist, he is clearly of the ‘samsara is itself nirvana’ variety; for him, the world is far more a realm of enlightenment than a prison-house of sorrow. Indeed, at times he even seems to approach the tantric view of esoteric Buddhism and its watchword ‘the passions are themselves enlightenment.’”

There’s hardly a poem in the section that I didn’t like, but these two might resonate with me the most. This first one sounds a lot like my sentiment since I finally retired.


against the gently flowing spring morning
the arrogant rattle of a passing coach
peach blossoms beckon from the distant village
willow branches caress the shoulder of my pond

as bream and carp flash their golden scales
and mated ducks link embroidered wings
The poet stares about; this way, then that—
caught in a web beyond all speaking

That opening image contrasting the noisy coach passing by and the gently flowing spring seems surprisingly contemporary, even if we don’t have coaches anymore. We’re all too busy to sit around and enjoy nature, even Spring’s beauty. Only the poet “stares about” and finds himself caught in a “web beyond all speaking.”

Most of all, I love the imagery in this poem which almost makes that last line superfluous, at least for the reader who has identified with the imagery.

This next poem doesn’t rely on imagery as much as the previous poem, or even as much as I usually like, but the message rings true to me and sometimes that’s enough, too.


as flowing waters disappear into the mist
we lose all track of their passage
every heart is its own Buddha
ease off; become immortal

wake up: the world’s a mote of dust
behold heaven’s round mirror
turn loose: slip past shape and shadow
sit side by side with nothing—save Tao

The idea of going with the “flowing waters” which disappear into the unseen and unknown also seems very contemporary, if not just plain “New Age,” but it is also a good metaphor for the Tao, for the Taoist Way, and one that appears throughout the Tao Te Ching.

Combining it with the idea that “every heart is its own Buddha” is a little more striking as is the line “sit side by side with nothing —save Tao.” Hanging on to things too long is the source of many sorrows, but, of course, it’s not easy to “turn loose.”

Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan

Recently I had to drive to Portland to get a special rear bumper put on my Toyota pickup. I figured that I would get a poetry book to read since I was told that I would have to wait at least three hours to have the old bumper taken off and the new one installed. Considering how many partially read poetry books I have laying around my den, I decided I would buy the Kindle version of Kazuaki Tanahashi’s Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan.

It turned out installing the bumper took nearly 6 hours, not three, so I managed to finish the book in one sitting. It was hard to ignore the irony in waiting to have a $4, 000 bumper installed while reader Ryokan’s poetry extolling the virtues of the simple life. It is indeed a strange world when camping out in a small pickup with a small camper can be considered “living the simple life.” After a lifetime of backpacking, I’m amazed at how spacious my camper seems. But every time I pull into a KOA campground and hook up to water and electricity next to a huge motor home I’m reminded that everything is relative.

Despite owning far too many things, including poetry books, I still identify with the spirit of Ryokan’s Zen poetry. This is the second book of his poetry I’ve purchased, but it has been so long between works that I really can’t compare them, though I’m sure that Tanahashi’s collection contained several new insights and a larger selection of Ryokan’s poems.

In the introduction Tanahashi contrasts Ryokan with the two other great figures in Zen Buddhism in Japan:

Unlike Dogen and Hakuin, Ryokan did not engage in the training of monks in monasteries. Instead, he practiced alone in extreme austerity without producing any dharma heir. He dropped out of society as well as the Zen community and could therefore be seen as a failure as a Zen teacher. Having no possessions may not have been the most effective way to attain freedom. It was nevertheless Ryokan’s way of life. Creative thinking and mystical encounters often unfold in silent solitude. The more intricately engaged in society we are, the more we may need to be in retreat. Humility is the highest means to selflessness, clarity, and compassion. Through his utterly modest and unaffected life, Ryokan unfolds a vast realm of serenity that can inspire us all.

Poems like

I don’t regard my life
as insufficient.
Inside the brushwood gate
there is a moon;
there are flowers.

while advocating the simple life seem to suggest that Ryokan also knew that many people saw his way of life as a failure.

Part of Ryokan’s appeal to me is precisely that he left his practicing community and practiced the dharma alone:

I don’t tell the murky world
to turn pure.
I purify myself
and check my reflection
in the water of the valley brook.

Withdrawing from the practicing community, he walked alone through mountains and villages, ringing a belled staff and chanting a verse of a sutra at each house. He treated everyone with respect and loving-kindness. Whether people offered him food, ignored him, or harshly drove him away, he was determined to remain true to his path as a monk.

Never a great follower, I’ve discovered many of my own truths while hiking or camping in Washington and Oregon’s wilderness, far away from the classroom and the books that I’ve devoted much of my life to.

Tanahashi’s commentary is often as concise as the poems themselves, but it adds another dimension to Ryokan’s poems.

One of Ryokan’s death poems summarizes his lifelong loneliness, openness, and reconciliation with transiency:

Showing its back
and showing its front,
a falling maple leaf.

Though I’m not quite sure how the poem conveys “his lifelong loneliness, Tanahashi’s comment made me think more longer about the poem than I otherwise might have.

Many of Ryokan’s poems don’t need any commentary at all.

See and realize
that this world
is not permanent.
Neither late nor early flowers
will remain.

My recent travels have clearly shown that Fall is nearly upon us. I’ll be out enjoying our recent sunshine because Fall and Winter rains can’t be far behind.

“Knowing yourself is enlightened”

Though I first fell in love with the Tao Te Ching because it pushed my awareness to new levels, I suspect that I love it now and keep returning to it because it reaffirms some of my strongest beliefs. As I said, I first encountered the Tao Te Ching in Grad school, and at that point in my life I was probably proudest of how successful I was in grad school. I was proud that I held 4.0 throughout my Master’s Program and that several professors, including the visiting Korean professor, asked me why I wasn’t pursuing my PhD. In other words, I knew a lot more about other people’s ideas than I did about my own. Analyzing other people’s ideas came relatively easy to me; it wasn’t until later that I learned the truth of what the Tao Te Ching says in Chapter 33:

Knowing others is intelligent.
Knowing yourself is enlightened.
Tzu chih che ming

Conquering others takes force.
Conquering yourself is true strength.

Knowing what is enough is wealth.
Forging ahead shows inner resolve.

Hold your ground and you will last long.
Die without perishing and your life will endure.

Perhaps not surprisingly this chapter didn’t leave as great an impression on me in my first reading as the one I discussed yesterday. Now, I do think I’ve always been interested in knowing myself. I don’t think anyone would read and write as much as I have and not be interested in knowing himself. But for most of my life the focus has been on other’s ideas. That’s no longer true. Since I’ve retired I’ve focused my studies on better understanding myself. I still don’t know what it means to be enlightened, but I can’t imagine a more important goal than becoming enlightened. I suspect that what I think is “enough” is way more than any person really needs, but I’ve long felt that not wanting something is better than actually owning it.

Lao Tzu hints at how to attain enlightenment throughout his work. As Burton Watson pointed out in the introduction, quietism is Lao Tzu’s preferred method of channeling the Tao. That becomes even clearer in Chapter 47.

Without going out the door,
Know the world.
Without peeping through the window,
See heaven’s TAO.
Chien t’ien tao

The further you travel,
The less you know.
This is why the Sage
Knows without budging,
Identifies without looking,
Does without trying.

Much to my daughter’s distress, I’ve long believed that I could have been perfectly happy without ever having left Washington State. In fact, given my choice, I doubt I would have ever left Western Washington. As I age, I suspect I could be happy spending most of my time in my backyard or den quietly meditating (he says as he plugs into the internet). It seems obvious that the more you learn about yourself the more you learn about the world because to a great extent we are all reflections of each other. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “The further you travel,/The less you know,” but I do think that for some people travel can be a form of escapism.

Another Version of the Tao Te Ching

As I think I’ve noted a long time ago, I got my first introduction to Asian literature in a graduate course taught by a visiting Korean professor at Portland State. Although we covered a wide range of Classic Chinese literature, the one work that stayed with me was the Tao Te Ching. It inspired a love of Chinese/Japanese literature that has helped me so see the world in an entirely different light than I did when I was stationed in Vietnam in the 60’s. I’ve re-read the original version we read for class a few time and have also read and discussed several different versions. Though I prefer some translations over others, all of them have helped me to better understand the Tao Te Ching. That’s certainly true of Stanley Lombardo and Stephen Addiss’s recent translation of the Tao Te Ching.

Burton Watson’s Introduction reminded me what makes the Tao Te Ching different from other great Chinese Classics of the same era:

What in particular sets the Taoists apart from the other schools of philosophy is the marked strain of mysticism and quietism that underlies so much of their thought, a strain that seems to reach far back into the roots of Chinese culture. It is this strain that in a Taoist text such as the Tao Te Ching engenders its most potent symbols: water, darkness, the valley, the female, the babe.

Since these aspects of Taoism remind me of the Transcendentalists, particularly Thoreau, I had a natural affinity for it when I first encountered it.

The Tao seems similar in many ways to the Transcendentalists’ Oversoul. Burton Watson notes that though “Tao” literally means the “way” or the “path” in Chinese, it has a much more complex meaning in Taoist literature:

But in Taoist writings it has a far more comprehensive meaning, referring rather to a metaphysical first principle that embraces and underlies all being, a vast Oneness that precedes and in some mysterious manner generates the endlessly diverse forms of the world. Ultimately, as the Tao Te Ching stresses, Tao lies beyond the power of language to describe, though the text employs a number of highly suggestive terms and similes to allude to it, kennings for the ineffable, as it were, that serve to suggest at least something of its nature and immensity. For, unknowable as the Tao may be in essence, one must somehow learn to sense its presence and movement in order to bring one’s own life and movements into harmony with it. The aim of the text, then, is to impart to the reader, through hints, symbols, and paradoxical utterances, such an intuitive grasp of the tao and the vital ability to move with it rather than counter to it.

At first encounter, the Tao seemed to correspond to the Holy Spirit. Today, if I were trying to explain it to a class of high school seniors, I might compare it to Yoda’s “Let the Force be with you.” Yoda’s directive “Do, or do not. There is no try.” would certainly seem worthy of a Taoist sage.

Burton Watson also points out another reason why The Tao Te Ching appealed to me more than the other classical Chinese writings:

But the Tao Te Ching lacks a specific speaker or context and because it relies not on logical exposition but on sheer power of language in expounding its ideas, it comes closer to pure poetry than do any of the other philosophical texts. It is this poetic force and beauty of the text that the translators, as they explain in their preface, have been most concerned to bring across in their translation. It seems to me they have succeeded brilliantly.

Although I occasionally become obsessed with understanding “why” something is happening or has happened, I generally prefer the kinds of intuitive truth to be seen in paintings or poetry to the logical truths the mind attains.

I remember in order to Illustrate differences between the Chinese language and the English language, my Korean professor would write the exact translation next to the Chinese characters, making the original Tao Te Ching seem much more “concrete” than the translation we were using. Quite often I preferred the professor’s “translation” to the one we were reading. Though Lombardo and Addiss’s translation is much more sophisticated than the professor’s simple translation, that seems to be part of what they are trying to accomplish in their translation:

First, we wanted to translate rather than explain the text. The Tao Te Ching is always terse, and sometimes enigmatic. Previous translators have often offered explications rather than pure translations; they explained what they thought Lao-tzu meant rather than what he said. We have chosen to let the text speak for itself as much as possible. Second, we found that earlier translations, because they often paraphrase the text, tend to be verbose, extending the concise Chinese text into much longer sentence patterns.

The first chapter of their translation illustrates their emphasis on conciseness

Tao k’o tao fei ch’ang Tao
TAO called TAO is not TAO.

Names can name no lasting name.

Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth.
Naming: the mother of ten thousand things.

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.

These have the same source, but different names.
Call them both deep—
Deep and again deep:
The gateway to all mystery.

If as Watson says the two primary elements of Taoism are mysticism and quietism, this first chapter sets them out clearly. This insistence that The Way cannot be named clearly places it outside the intellectual domain, asserting its mystical essence. The very act of naming something forces us to divide the world up into distinct elements rather than intuiting the unity of all things. And the very essence of quietism seems personified in the phrase “empty of desire,” a very non-Western idea.

These same two ideas are developed more fully in the second chapter:

Recognize beauty and ugliness is born.
Recognize good and evil is born.

Ku yu wu hsiang sheng
Is and Isn’t produce each other.

Hard depends on easy,
Long is tested by short,
High is determined by low,
Sound is harmonized by voice,
After is followed by before.

Therefore the Sage is devoted to non-action,
Moves without teaching,
Creates ten thousand things without instruction,
Lives but does not own,
Acts but does not presume,
Accomplishes without taking credit.

When no credit is taken,
Accomplishment endures

The line “Recognize good and evil is born” reminds me of the Existentialist line, “Nothing is right or wrong, but thinking makes it so.” If we declare that something is “good” it inevitably follows that anything not “good” must be “evil,” or, at least, bad. It is this constant judging that drives us, making us unable to live in and appreciate the moment. “Is and Isn’t produce each other.” No wonder the Sage must learn to quiet his monkey brain to attain true awareness.