How Tu Fu shaped classical Chinese poetry into a form of spiritual practice

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How Tu Fu shaped classical Chinese poetry into a form of spiritual practice

Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry by David Hinton, Shambhala, US $17.95 Pp 160, October 2019, ISBN 978-1611807424

Buddhism is a unique set of beliefs that sets it apart from other religions in the sense that it has a rich tradition of philosophy. Different Buddhist denominations follow their unique philosophies. They ask and answer different questions in their own unique ways. Taoist and Ch’an (Zen) branches of Buddhism redefine the human consciousness as the cosmos reawakened. This concept continuously permeates the classical Chinese poetry. In Awakened Cosmos, David Hinton defines and explains the concept with the help of the life and work of Tu Fu (712-770 C.E.), one of China’s greatest classical poets. David Hinton says that Tu Fu’s poems contain deep insight about human life. David Hinton first gives original Chinese text and then its English translation which is followed by an essay that explores its philosophical dimensions.

David Hinton says that language is the medium of self-identity, and we normally live within that clutch of identity, identity that seems to look out at and think about the cosmos as if from outside space. But poetry pares language down to a bare minimum, thereby opening it to silence. And it is there in the margins of silence that poetry finds its deepest findings because it is there that it can render dimensions of consciousness that are much more expansive than that identity center, primal dimensions of consciousness as the Cosmos Awakened to itself. At least this is true for classical Chinese poetry, shaped as it is by Taoist and Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist thought into a form of spiritual practice. In its deepest possibilities, its inner wilds, poetry is the Cosmos awakened itself – and the history of that awakening begins where the Cosmos begins.

Although ancient Chinese poets and philosophers didn’t describe it in scientific terms, this same sense of consciousness as the cosmos open to itself was an operating assumption for them. David Hinton says that cosmos can be replaced with the word existence. This existence tissue is the central concern of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (sixth century B.C.E.) — the seminal work in Taoism, the spiritual branch of Chinese philosophy that eventually evolved into Ch’an Buddhism. Lao Tzu called that existence-tissue Tao, which originally meant ‘Why,’ as in a road or pathway. But Lao Tzu used it to describe the empirical Cosmos as a single living tissue that is inexplicably generative – and so, female in its very nature. David Hinton explains, as such, it is an ongoing cosmological process, an ontological pathway by which things emerge from the existence-tissue as distinct forms, evolve through their lives, and then vanish back into that tissue, only to be transformed and reemerge in new forms. It is a majestic and nurturing Cosmos, but also a refugee Cosmos — all changes and transformation, each of the ten thousand things in perpetual flight, always on its way somewhere else.

David Hinton tells us that the abiding aspiration of spiritual and artistic practice in ancient China was “to cultivate consciousness as the existence tissue cosmos open to itself, awakened to itself: looking at itself, hearing and touching itself, tasting and smelling itself, and also thinking itself, feeling itself – all in the singular ways made possible by the individuality of each particular person.” He says this was consciousness in the open, wild and woven into the generative Cosmos — wholesale belonging. It was recognized as our most essential nature in Taoist and Ch’an Buddhist thought, the foundational structure of consciousness for artist-intellectuals in ancient China — poets, painters, calligraphers, philosophers, Ch’an adepts. And it seems a beautiful, even essential alternative — both philosophical and ecological — to the disconnectedness that structures consciousness in the West.

Awakened Cosmos is deep insight into Buddhist philosophy with the help of the life and work of great Buddhist philosophical poet Tu Fu. David Hinton has the right credentials as he has published the first full-length translation of Tu Fu thirty years ago. Awakened Cosmos is a very necessary and accessible book on Tu Fu and his thinking in particular and Buddhism in general. David Hinton is the best exponent of Tu Fu’s life and poetry in the English language. He has made Tu Fu’s difficult philosophy so easy-to-understand for English readers that even a high-schooler will find it absorbing. David Hinton’s exposition and explanations are consistently imaginative both in content and language.

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