Spontaneously

Spontaneously, effortlessly, no premeditation —
the original self in action.
Giving without calculating.
Smiling without expectation.
A flower blooms simply because it is a flower.
A flower calculates nothing, expects nothing.
It gives beauty whether we see it or not.
A simple flower can teach us so much, and simple is the key word.
The big talkers out there, and the warmongers, may want to bend down a little and listen.

Kenza.

Contemplative silence

For the ones who have been following this blog, you may have noted that many writings are on silence.

Reading expressions of silence 

Recently, I have been looking a little bit more into it, beyond the usual poetry and expressions of silence.

I read from the Desert Fathers, those wise early Christians who spent time in utter silence and contemplation. I looked into Zen poetry, and the silence that comes gently once the temple bells quiet. I even delved into the notion of the 40 holy days with Moses on Mount Sinai, and Jesus fasting in the desert; and through them at St Francis, Sta Teresa de Avilla and St John of the Cross –not that I aspire to be a saint, mind you, but just as celebrated events and writing about contemplative silence. I read the Sufis, especially Rumi and Ibn Arabi; and I looked at what contemporary thinkers and poets had to say from Emily Dickinson to Rabindranath Tagore to Antonio Machado to Thomas Merton to Czeslaw Milosz.

And as usual, I turned my attention to the Tao Te Ching, a book I read every morning and where I still discover, after many decades, wisdom and intellectual sustenance. This of course, led me to the late third century BC Chinese Taoist philosopher par excellence, Chuang Tzu. And here, I finally found what resonated best with my line of thought or at least what felt in harmony with my instinctive notion of contemplative silence.

Chuang Tzu

In a few words, not to bore you, Chuang Tzu advocates silence as a natural condition. He places it along with all human behaviour within the notion of “wu wei” (無為) or non-action.

“Wu wei” is not idleness. Rather, it means that there is no deliberate planning and one acts spontaneously without rigid rules or restrictions; and because one acts naturally, it is “perfect action,” that is “perfect joy.”

Being in contemplation is not a goal and does not entail a rigid system of rules (kneel, stay alone, etc…); rather, true contemplation is the tranquillity that comes in the action of non-action (known in Chinese as “yin ning”). So one transcends contemplation and action because one is beyond them, all being spontaneous.

To explain further, allow me to paraphrase an example given by Chuang Tzu himself. He says it is a little like wearing tight shoes to impose discipline (a Confucian notion). The shoes are tight so you think about them all the time. As a result, you are forced to walk straight or be generous or whatever these tight shoes are suppose to make you do. Now, if you wear comfortable shoes, you actually do not “feel” the shoes and whatever action you will take will be with joy.

To get back to the topic of these lines, silence should not be forced. If so, then it is not silence. If there is a plan for remaining silent, then silence will not be. It would be like having tight shoes and constantly thinking about them.

There would never be contemplative silence since it will become the constant topic of thought, analysis and internal discourse. These thoughts and discourses will lead to having opinions, to evaluations of good and bad, and right and wrong, and all will become entangled and inharmonious, hence, unnatural.

So silence, and more precisely contemplative silence, should be spontaneous and lively. It should not be dictated by rigid norms nor by some attachment to the fact that one wants to remain silent.

Contemplative silence transcends the very act of “not talking.” It is spontaneous and hence joyful.

As Chuang Tzu said:

“The sage is quiet because he is not moved,
not because he wills to be quiet.”

Retreat

I hope you do not mind me sharing these thoughts. Next week, I shall be in a one-week silent (talking only when absolutely necessary) retreat at a Cistercian Monastery near Avignon, France; and in the midst of anxiousness and trepidation, I needed to understand more about contemplative silence.

I am afraid however that I have fallen into what Chuang Tzu warns us not to do –intellectualise. Notwithstanding, I am glad that my instinctive take on contemplative silence echoes in a very humble way the dust left by his words.

I shall share some more upon my return if you are interested.

Thank you for reading.

Kenza.


Quote: “The Way of Chuang Tzu” by Thomas Merton (New Direction, 1965), xiii-I, page 80.

Calligraphy alley – Xi’an

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During my week in Xi’an, I went back several times to calligraphy alley.

It is actually a main alley with a few small side streets, ending in the Stele Forrest Beilin Museum, housing some of the earliest examples of Chinese writing.

But it is the alley with its stores filled with brushes of all sizes, kilometers of rice paper rolled up or folded, the smell of ink and the seriousness of the buyers that attracted me most. I was one of them, checking each bush for its softness and feel between my fingers. I unrolled paper and opened exercise notebooks, taking all my time while choosing a few items.

I returned to the same store a few times, making friends with the owner, love for calligraphy being our common language. She spoke no English, and I speak no Chinese. My nine year old son was equally fascinated, and the lady kindly let him try out several brushes before he settled for one.

As I walked, I could only imagine what it must have been a thousand years ago, as Xi’an was the start of the silk road and an important center of learning. A town more than 6’500 years old, it became the political and cultural center of China in the XIth c. BC and continued to be so for almost 900 years, of which 300 where under the highly sophisticated Tang Dynasty.

I imagined old Tao masters and Confucian students walking down the street looking for the perfect brush, smelling ink stones and appreciating their blackness, while exchanging arguments on whether wisdom is acquired through living or learning.

Having been an important Buddhist center as well, I also pictured monks in loose robes and small umbrellas, gently feeling the thin rice paper, and choosing the best one to copy the Sutras Xuan Zang had brought from his odyssey across India in the VIIth c., now housed in the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an.

I felt most humble when I was there. This was not the site of some major battle or conquest, as so many historical places tend to be, but one of knowledge and beauty. I think anyone would have felt the same.

Thank you for reading.

Kenza.

Photos I took in Xi’an and at the Stele Forest Beilin Museum – June 2018.

Wan Chai market

 

Tucked between gigantic buildings, erect monsters made of glass and steel, where people are very very busy breathing artificial air and adding up countless numbers, I found the small market.

There, colours vibrated from the bright green of long string beans (I had never seen such long ones!) to the earthly hues of fat bamboo shoots to the yellow of tender orchids.

And I could feel the breeze coming from the South China sea!

Merchants smiled while shouting the prices of their goods.

The smell of recently fished fish intermingled with the steam of dumplings and the scent of ginger flowers.

It felt like home. I bought deliciously fresh apricots and many handfuls of raisins from Xinjiang Province.

Finally, sensations I could feel, sprinkles of humanity I could touch.

Kenza.

The Terracotta Army

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The terracotta warriors they call them.

Yet peaceful and often smiling they stand with their topknots and shoes, and without swords.

A few rest on the ground, asleep.

What is our role in this play? To witness the greatness, the whims of an Emperor who never had any misgivings about destroying human life so that he may have a place in heaven and fight the armies of the beyond?

The beauty and calm of all the warriors – what are we to make of them? Should we make something of them?

The sheer size and details are astounding: the perfection of the eyes and the wrinkles on the foreheads of the generals, the slight bellies and pointed shoes of the mid-level officers, and the peaceful faces of the common soldiers standing erect.

They seem to be waiting as though to welcome rather than to fight. Maybe history is just a trick and what the Emperor wanted as threatening, comes to us as peaceful and silent.

Kenza.

Illustration: A photo I took at the Terracotta Army site built in 210-209 BCE, following the orders of Qin Shi Wang, First Emperor of China – Xi’an, China, June 2018.

I do not

I do not write about lingering sunsets, falling blossom petals, the light in the early morning or even about birds taking flight.

I do not use metaphors either. Using the beauty of the world to describe emotions, renders all things oh … just so so banal.

There is no need to trap beauty into words and fancy imagery, forcing it to jump through loops of twisted grammatical constructs.

As for emotions, if you love, if you feel sad; just say it! No need for the rain to take the place of your tears. Your tears are beautiful just as they are.

In this self-centered world, where poetry is measured in hits and likes, as though it was a piece of furniture, I admit to finding little solace in the words of others.

So I lean back on the old Masters like Verlaine and Kobayashi and Hafez and Pushkin and Wang Wei and Victor Hugo and Rumi and Li Pao and Neruda and Basho, and many others.

When I hold a book of their poetry, the world slows down, everything becomes tenderly subtle and I can then hear the silence of beauty.

Kenza.