The stones sit quietly on the bookcase, contemplating each other – a comforting solidness in this age of electronic bits. They have been my companions on this silent quest that now seems likely to end.
Are they irrelevant relics from some unremarkable era? The meaning of their calligraphy is still a mystery as well as when it was written, or when the stones were so masterfully engraved.
I bump into my wise sangha friend, Ryushin. He has just watched the documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (1), on Netflix and is filled with excitement.
The animals in the ancient cave drawings come right out at you, straight from the dawn of man, he says. The nooks and crannies of this long silent cavern give a third dimension to the cave artists.
I tell Ryushin about the drawings on my three dimensional Chinese stones. I wish they’d jump out at me and tell me what they are all about.
Why don’t I photograph them for you?, he says. Maybe somebody can decipher them.
Both sets of calligraphy are quickly translated. It is like brushing sand from a buried treasure. They turn out to be ancient poems and time capsules. Some unseen details appear. Maybe there are clues to help understand the crisis we are entering.
Some deep similarities between the two stones become obvious. The poem on the first stone is about a quiet and introspective moment on a mountaintop. It is written by a poet named Chen Zi’ang who lived from 661-702 CE.
The poem on the second stone also captures a peaceful moment from a thousand years ago. It tells about the stillness and flow of a river journey along the Yangtze. This venerable river flows four thousand miles from the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai, all the way to the Ocean. As he floats down the river, the poet notices, from the movements of the stars, that the boat has changed directions. In the dark night he can hear the quiet distant sounds of a village.
The handle of the Big Dipper has changed direction, but the moon has not fallen
Boat moving forward, the night still very dark
Not far from a village
When the wind blows, you can hear the sound of the
(The poem on the second stone ) (2)
A relatively unknown poet named Qian Xu, who died around 900 CE, wrote the poem on the second stone.
Both of these poets lived during the Tang Dynasty, a tumultuous and extremely interesting period in China between 618-907 CE. This period is considered to be the golden age of Chinese thought and culture. Like today, there was the possibility of a new way of living, free from the constraints of an overbearing society.
During the chaos of the Tang Dynasty there was a great movement of professionals who left their government posts and went into the wilderness. These scholars and monks became an alternative culture. They placed a very high value on solitude and reclusiveness. These former court officials withdrew from the highly restrictive Confucian society and entered the natural world. They learned to respond to their monastic instincts as the world changed rapidly around them.
They developed a dramatically new way to live that balanced their need for silence and contact with others.
THESE “NEW MONKS” BECAME THE SEEKERS of their era. They wanted to live monastic lives, distant from the so-called “normal world”. But they also wanted to be engaged in the world around them and not just disappear into monastic dogma. Most were not interested in being “professional” monks though many had Ch’an (Zen) teachers and practiced meditation.
These professionals created an alternative culture living in the wilderness.
The stones, I realized, were intended to rekindle the memory of this golden age and a new kind of monk.
Unexpectedly, my translator notices some strange markings to the left of both poems. These squiggles are so inconspicuous that they appear to be part of the art work. He investigates further and discovers that they form the characters:
The characters read “the second year of the rein of emperor Daoguang” – a solid clue. The Daoguang emperor, Tao-Kuang, began his thirty year rule of China in 1820. So the stones must have been carved around 1821. Because of the graceful way the characters were written and oriented on the stone, the translator I was consulting believed that these engraved stones were probably authentic works of art.
1821 is a traumatic year in China for the new emperor Daoguang whose father has died suddenly of unknown causes. There is sudden disaster and internal rebellion. This is the year when the ship Tek Sing sinks in the South China Sea with eighteen-hundred crew and passengers aboard and a huge cache of Chinese porcelain. This shocking tragedy later came to be known as the Chinese Titanic. As the Empire is crumbling, westerners are encroaching. The Emperor, himself already an opium addict, tries to prohibit the British from shipping large amounts of the brownish narcotic into China.
Now, finally, the stones are anchored in a specific time and place. Their poetry and art work are strong reflections of the Tang Era of over a thousand years ago. This ancient era in China, like today, is a time when some individuals struggle with how to express their monastic nature in a world that has radically changed. “Beat” poets like Gary Snyder, and insightful contemporary translators like David Hinton and Red Pine (Bill Porter) help me recognize how relevant Tang dynasty poetry is for our present age.
BALANCING THE STONES
SOMETHING STILL NEEDED TO HAPPEN. Is there is a reason why there are two stones instead of one? The answer reveals a powerful clue for the Internet Age.
The Chinese were extremely interested in discovering fundamental patterns underlying the universe. For them, mountains had tremendous power. Mountains are the epitome of two great universal forces: permanence and change. Zen teacher Joan Halifax observed how mountains are very still while also moving very slowly.(3) Lao Tzu, the Sixth Century BCE founder of Taoism and ancestor of the Tang emperors, advised, “Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river.” (4) Even a casual student of these poets, painters and calligraphers of the Tang Era soon notices how often the code of mountains and rivers – permanence, change, and balance – is mentioned.
The two stones describe two places of silence in central China: one on top of Mount Xian, the other, in a quiet nighttime river boat on the Yangtze River. One stone is about the permanence of a mountain, the other is about the change of a river.
But there is an additional dimension. One day I pick up the stones, holding one in each hand. I appreciate their hefty solidness as I instinctively shift their weight from side to side, just as I had in Seoul in 1971. And suddenly I saw it – a whole new dimension. Balancing. It’s all about balancing. This is the message for the future.
The stones are miniature mountains, essays in silence. These “scholar’s stones” are pieces of mountain silence to be brought inside, inspired by the monastic life of the Tang artists. They embody silence and our own inherent inner space.
But most of all they are about balancing. The fundamental dynamic of the universe in ancient Chinese philosophy is balancing. Balancing is what fengshui and yin yang are all about. Balancing is an inherent process in the physiology of human development that is called homeostasis.
Mountains and rivers, side by side, are about balancing permanence with change. The stones, I see, are about balancing our silent and our social nature.
What does all this mean for living a monastic life in this new era – a life that is more integrated, contemplative, ecological and holistic? A few pioneers are beginning to find out.
The Scholar’s Stones bring mountain silence inside.
SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
● Have you ever investigated the origin or history of a special object you have or feel close to? Describe your experience.
(1)Werner-Herzog, (2011) Cave of Forgotten Dreams, https://amzn.to/2NEnx6A
(2)Translated by Ian Donahue, personal email, Jan. 19, 2015.
(3)Halifax, Joan, (2004) The Fruitful Darkness: A Journey Through Buddhist Practice and Tribal Wisdom, https://amzn.to/2ygZFkp
©Robert Charles Smith, PHD