One Line Short

Barbara Hepworth, Wooden Pierced Form

One Line Short. Zen and the Winter Ways of Cats and Trees

At some point in life the dance slows down, at least externally. The body-soul starts to sag and creak and ever more boughs break off in the gusts of the winter westerlies. Ever more borers, beetles and moths and the fungi they carry have made their home in you, eating their beautiful complex tracks into your hardened skin. At some point perhaps a decision may be called for to no longer bend with the cold furies of these eternal winds but to let the whole gnarled old trunk be uprooted. So that more light can enter the place you thought you once commanded and a whole new, younger ecosystem arise. Other, younger, more dynamic creatures can move in and occupy your flattened trunk and upended root ball and begin the long, patient, nourishing labour of returning your many rich legacies to the maternal soil that birthed you.

Or else, like our tabby cat of 15 years, perhaps, you may one winter’s day feel the need to drag your wasting self down to the dam and sit among the reeds for many hours, looking at the dark water and then back up at the house, then back at the water, then again at the house…Deciding. The son who grew up with you is back home from university. You had waited till his return. Is it time now? Is there still a process to complete? You turn inwards to listen, in touch. Finally, you know it is not time yet and slowly, painfully make your way back up the slope to the house, pausing on the way in the shade of an apple tree. Another day, then one more, then in the evening you know it is time. Inside the house on the blanket facing the dam to the north as they watch television you give one last, deep, soft, never before uttered sound (was it ‘Kaa!’?) and are gone from their reality.

Cats may, by the sheer force of their economical, elegant centeredness, be regarded as four-legged Zen masters, not only of the art of dying, but also of its correlate, the art of living. Or, being humans both burdened and gloriously extended by the delights of mind, speech, stories within stories and humour, we may go straight to the two-legged Zen masters themselves. Like Hoshin.

The Zen Master Hoshin lived in China for many years. Then he returned to the northeastern part of Japan, where he taught his disciples. When he was getting very old, he told them a story he had heard in China. This is the story:

One year on the twenty-fifth of December, Tokufu, who was very old, said to his disciples: “I am not going to be alive next year so you should treat me well this year.”

The pupils thought he was joking, but since he was a great-hearted teacher each of them in turn treated him to a feast on succeeding days of the departing year.

On the eve of the new year, Tokufu concluded: “You have been good to me. I shall leave tomorrow afternoon when the snow has stopped.”

The disciples laughed, thinking he was ageing and talking nonsense since the night was clear and without snow. But at midnight snow began to fall, and the next day they did not find their teacher about. They went to the meditation hall. There he had passed on.

Hoshin who related this story, told his disciples: “It is not necessary for a Zen Master to predict his passing, but if he really wishes to do so, he can.”

“Can you?” someone asked.

“Yes,” answered Hoshin. “I will show you what I can do seven days from now.”

None of the disciples believed him, and most of them had even forgotten the conversation when Hoshin called them together.

“Seven days ago,” he remarked, “I said I was going to leave you. It is customary to write a farewell poem, but I am neither a poet nor a calligrapher. Let one of you inscribe my last words.”

His followers thought he was joking, but one of them started to write.

“Are you ready?” Hoshin asked.

“Yes sir” replied the writer.

Then Hoshin dictated:

I came from brilliancy
And return to brilliancy
What is this?

This line was written one line short of the customary four, so the disciple said: “Master, we are one line short.”

Hoshin, with the roar of a conquering lion, shouted “Kaa!” and was gone.

A riddle, a joke, a tanka, a koan of some brilliancy. The koan solved, exploding into the sartori, the enlightenment of dying. A text that, in a comical dialectic, by pointing to itself points beyond itself. (‘Post-modernism’, despite its pretensions, obviously has no historical monopoly on self-reflexivity). The problem posed in the text’s content is ‘solved’ by the frustration of a formal expectation, a missing line. A formal absence is replaced or filled by an actual act outside the text which is also one of radically, wittily, finally, absenting oneself: Hoshin’s actual act of dying itself, leaping out of the text, the communal word-world, manifests the ‘answer’, the ‘missing line’. And this actual dying is at one and the same time a supremely funny joke and a classically Zen-style pointing to the Beyond-Words, the inexpressible, the void, the ‘brilliancy’.

So, here ‘we’ are, the missing line, the question and the answer, the birthing-dying one, the emerging-returning one, the appearing/disappearing one, the one-that-cannot-be-named, to which we then do sometimes attach various names such as the Tao, the Buddha-Nature, the Void, the Brilliancy, Dark Energy. All of which are not meant to convey positive, imaginable, thinkable content but to be ‘just’ words, signs pointing beyond themselves and, in that sense, negations of any positive, fixable ‘meaning’. Pointing at the moon.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on October 14, 2011.

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