Zen Master Raven

Having spent the previous evening working till way past midnight, I decided to keep my laptop switched off yesterday – It was Saturday after all! Besides I’d come to a realisation earlier in the week. That although I really love what I do at Talis, I’ve been using my work, rightly or wrongly, as a way to hide from other things that I haven’t figured out how to deal with.


    Mole came to Raven privately and said, "We haven't talked 
about death very much. I'm not concerned about where I will 
go, but watching so many family members die, I'm wondering 
what happens at the point of death?".
   Raven sat silently for a while, then said, "I give away my 

After visiting dad’s grave yesterday morning, I decided to take a trip into the city center and do a little shopping – wasn’t really sure what I was shopping for. I’ve been having strange moments like that a lot recently – strange in the sense that I’m doing things that feel random, they don’t necessarily have any purpose at the outset. Anyway after buying a couple of DVD’s and some clothes, I ended up at Borders Book Shop in the Bull Ring.

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, I simply walked from one aisle of books to another glancing at the shelves to see if anything caught my eye. I love Science Fiction and Fantasy novels so I did consciously walk over to that area and spent a while there but didn’t find anything that really stood out. I also spent a fair bit of time rifling through a bunch of Manga novels but I aready own all the good stuff and some of the newer series have proven to be disappointing. Eventually I ended up in the section entitled Philosophy / Spirituality – that’s when I found “Zen Master Raven: Sayings and Doings of a Wise Bird“. When I got back home I proceeded to spend the rest of the afternoon and much of the evening reading it from cover to cover, twice! Here’s why …

I had this terrible feeling that whilst I understood much of it … there’s a huge amount of meaning within it’s covers that I simply can’t figure out … yet … It feels like a thorn in my mind … and I love it …

The Spirit of the Practice

    Relaxing with the others after zazen one evening, Owl
asked "What is the Spirit of the practice?"
    Raven said, "Inquiry."
    Owl cocked his head and asked, "What do I inquire 
    Raven said, "Good start."

I think it’s a wonderfully delightful book. The author Robert Aitken, is a well known American Zen Master, whilst he has written a number of other books and essays this piece is very different. His literary device of using animals, unconventional in Zen, is remarkably successful in presenting the promises and risks, hopes and fears of the Tallspruce community that Raven Roshi shares with his students, neighbours and friends. I think this book captures the spirit of Zen as much as any book can, and it demonstrates how Zen can become the practice of a lifetime.


    One evening, in a discussion of his personal problems,
Raven asked Brown Bear, "What is the role of character in 
the practise?"
    Brown Bear said, "I try to keep my promises."
    Raven said, "I try to keep my promises, too, but I'm easily
    Brown Bear said, "The cold wind reminds me."

Aitken’s book is the distillation of a collection of stories, some only a few sentences in length, that, as he sees it, illuminate the Way. These stories are succinct, charming and contain a huge depth of insight. The stories might feel weird, but are hugely compelling.

Very Special

    In a group munching grubs one afternoon, Mole
remarked, "The Buddha Shakyamuni was very special
wasn't he! I'm sure there has never been anyone like 
    Raven said, "Like the madrone."
    Mole asked, "How is the madrone unique?"
    Raven said, "Every madrone leaf."
    Mole fell silent.
    Procupine asked, "How does the uniqueness of every
Madrone leaf relate to the practice?"
    Raven said, "Your practice."

Death and its poetry

On Thursday morning I ordered a bunch of books from Amazon. Lately I’ve started reading and in some cases re-reading texts related to the Samurai tradition, I’m not sure why other than I guess I need something to immerse myself in. Thursday afternoon I learnt that one of my uncles has passed away, so it was with mixed feelings I received a delivery from Amazon today containing, amongst other texts, a collection of Japanese Death Poems – in Zen they are often referred to as Parting of Life Verses since tradition has it that they composed by individuals on the verge of death. I’ve been reading a lot related to Zen lately and it’s not a secret that I have a bit of an obsession with haiku and also tanka. I am amazed to think of the presence of mind needed to compose the kind of verses I’ve been reading as the last thing these men and women did before succumbing to death.

It feel’s inadequate to describe these verses as beautiful in fact I can’t think of any adjective that does them justice. As I read some of them, I found that they forced me to reflect on recent events in my life, particularly the death of my father, I’m reminded of the pain that I feel and that I know I have been hiding from (something a friend at Talis forced me to confront on Thursday afternoon when he gave up part of his afternoon to see if I was ok, and to whom I am grateful).

As much as it hurts to think about it I find that I’m smiling, my father used to say that no-one could really choose the time of their passing, that it was inevitable and we should not fear it, but what we should do is make the most of the time we have and try to be the very best that we can.

He did and He was.

… and that’s a comforting thought 🙂 .

As for this collection of verses, as deeply profound as they all, one that captivated me the most so far was written by a woman, Oroku:

And had my days been longer               Nagaraete
still the darkness                        kono yo no yami wa
would not leave this world-               yomo hareji
along death's path, among the hills       shide no yamaji no
I shall behold the moon.                  iza tsuki o min.

        -- Oroku

Uesugi Kenshin

I’m currently reading Zen and the Samurai which is a beautifully written work, much of it is devoted to anecdotes about the lives many famous Samurai and how Zen deeply influenced them. The book makes reference to the beautiful verse below which was composed by the Samurai General Uesugi Kenshin on his death bed. It was a practise amongst many Samurai to write a verse in either Chinese or Japanese at the moment of death, this was Kenshin’s Parting of Life Verse:

Even a life-long prosperity is but one cup of sake;
A life of forty-nine years is passed in a dream;
I know not what life is, nor death.
Year in year out-all but a dream.
Both Heaven and Hell are left behind;
I stand in the moonlit dawn,
Free from clouds of attachment.

… exquisite.