Learning Cantonese: Zen, Nature, Art


Buddhist monks and nuns play an active role in Hong Kong society and some of them, such as the subject of this video, are frequently seen on YouTube. 常霖法師 The Venerable Chang Lin (the Mandarin pronunciation is conventionally used; in Cantonese, it becomes Sèuhng4 Làhm4 Faat3 Sī1) has been very active in recent times, partly on account of his having been a very successful photographer in Hong Kong before becoming a Buddhist monk, a process referred to as 出家 chēut gāa in Cantonese, which literally means to “go out of the family”. In this piece, he provides a very simple introduction to zen as 身心合一 sān1 sām1 hahp6 yāt1, a unity of body and mind, and contrasts it with our usual state of 人在心不在 yàhn4 joih6 sām1 bāt1 joih6, that is “physically present but otherwise absent”. He then goes on to relate zen to his practice as a photographer.

The video already has English subtitles, so you can go ahead and watch the video here. If you’re interested in the Cantonese details, please take a look at my transcription, notes and more literal translation below. Some of the vocabulary worth taking on board includes 三日三夜 sāam1 yaht6 sāam1 yeh6 = roughly, “till the cows come home”; 體驗 tái2 yihm6 = to learn though one’s personal experience; 療癒 lìuh4 yuh6 = to heal; 斑駁 bāan1 bok3 = mottled; motley; 攝影 sip3 yíng2 = photography; to take a photograph; and 定律 dihng6 leuht6 = (natural) law.

I once heard a radio interview with another prominent monk, 衍空法師 the Venerable Yan Kong. Although he had a successful career and a happy marriage, his interest in Buddhism eventually led him to make the decision to 出家 chēut gāa, and finally he had to break the news to his wife. In an extraordinary twist, his wife announced in response that she would become a Buddhist nun, joining him in the spiritual realm, even as they left one another in the secular world . . .


常霖法師:人之所以有好多煩惱呀,有好多問題出現呢 | 其實就係失咗平衡 | 最容易失平衡嘅原因呢 | 就係因為人在心不在 | 如果我哋身心合一嘅話呢 |就會好自在 | 自在呢,就係開心嘅時候自在 | 噉於是呢,你就唔會刻意去不斷追求開心㗎 | 而唔開心嘅時候亦都自在 | 噉咪即係話冇乜唔開心囉

「禪」呢一個字呢,講三日三夜你都講唔完嘅 | 禪係一種體驗,你一定要體驗過你先至真係去了解 | 用一個比較簡單啲嘅形容詞呢 | 就係話喺適當嘅時候做適當嘅事 | 亦都係話,係喺嗰個當下 | 噉所以呢 . . .

● 平衡 pìhng4 hàhng4 = balance; equilibrium | ● 人在心不在 yàhn4 joih6 sām1 bāt1 joih6 = roughly, “physically present but mentally absent” | ● 身心合一 sān1 sām1 hahp6 yāt1 = roughly, “unity of body & mind” | ● 刻意 hāk1 yi3 = often “painstakingly” but also “deliberately; on purpose” | ● 三日三夜 sāam1 yaht6 sāam1 yeh6 = roughly, “till the cows come home” (lit. “three days & three nights”) | ● 體驗 tái2 yihm6 = to learn though one’s personal experience | ● 適當 sīk1 dong3 = suitable; proper; appropriate

The Venerable Changlin: The reason why people tend to have so much trouble and why so many problems crop up is actually because they have lost their balance. What causes people to lose their balance most easily is because their mind wanders off [人在心不在]. If our minds and our bodies work as one, then we feel free and easy, comfortable [自在]. You feel free and at ease when you are happy, and so you don’t have to go out of your way so much to seek happiness; when you are unhappy, you can also be at ease, which means that you won’t feel much in the way of unhappiness.

You could talk about the word “zen” until the cows come home. Zen is a personal experience: you really have to experience it yourself before you can really understand it. A simple description of zen goes like this: doing the appropriate thing at the appropriate time. You could also put it like this: being in the moment. And so for this reason . . .

【1:00】 . . . 呢個就同大自然就係完全一樣嘅 | 譬如話,嗰樖樹,佢如果係有太陽曬嘅時候,佢唔會話 | 覺得好慘呀,嘩,好曬、好熱呀咁 | 落雨嘅時候,哎吔!做咩成日落雨呀咁?| 佢完全冇呢樣嘢 | 佢當下係咁就係咁

大自然係有一種療癒嘅能力嘅 | 如果我哋平時喺市區裏邊覺得好繁忙呀、好多嘢影響呀 | 其實我好鼓勵大家去大自然嗰度行一行 | 你會比較容易啲釋放自己 | 比較容易做得到心在又自在嘅

我比較鍾意呢,就係影一啲歲月嘅痕跡呀 | 有啲斑駁呀、有啲污跡呀 | 噉我 . . . 我好多時我會睇到呢,佢唔係污跡 | 我會睇到係藝術品,好似 . . . 好似一幅畫咁 | 不過呢個畫家係大自然 | 我喺影相嘅時候呢 | 個腦裏便係 . . .

● 療癒 lìuh4 yuh6 = to heal | ● 繁忙 fàahn4 mòhng4 = busy | ● 鼓勵 gú2 laih6 = to encourage to urge | ● 釋放 sīk1 fong3 = to release; to set free | ● 歲月 seui3 yuht6 = years | ● 斑駁 bāan1 bok3 = mottled; motley | ● 畫家 wáa6*2 gāa1 = painter; artist

. . . it is the same thing as being completely the same as nature. For example, if the sun happens to be shining warmly, that tree [over there] won’t say “I think this is awful! Gosh, it’s so sunny and hot!” or when it rains “Oh no! Why is it always raining?” It wouldn’t do anything like that. It is whatever it is in the moment.

Nature has the capacity to heal. If we generally feel ourselves to be busy in the city, affected by many different things, then I encourage you to go out into nature and take a walk. There you can find release for yourself comparatively easily as well as becoming mindful [心在] and at ease.

I prefer taking photos of the traces left by time — blotches and stains. To me, most of the time I don’t see such things as stains. I see them as works of art, as if they were paintings. [In this case,] however, nature is the painter. When I take my photographs, I don’t have anything . . .

【2:00】. . . 冇嘢諗嘅 | 但係唔係一片空白喎 | 即係話我仍然係感受到當時個環境 | 譬如話,我見到一樣嘢我覺得有一種感動嘅 | 噉我就會攞個相機出嚟影低佢 | 噉但係影嘅時候我唔會諗,話「啊,呢張相我可以表現乜嘢 | 啊,我要加一句咩句子落去 | 又或者我將會係要嚟出書還是係做展覽」| 全部冇呢啲嘢諗 | 我就純粹喺個當下 | 百分之一百放咗落去個感覺

今次展覽嘅特色呢,就係話 | 我啲攝影作品係印喺一張透明膠片上便 | 噉而嗰張透明膠片係好大張 | 喺欣賞嗰個作品嘅時候呢,你會穿過嗰個膠片 | 你會睇到後邊周圍嘅大自然環境 | 呢一個展覽會係喺日曬雨淋嘅情況 | 啫係話,係喺 outdoor 嗰度擺嘅 | 噉所以呢 . . .

● 空白 hūng1 baahk6 = a blank space | ● 感受 gám2 sauh6 = to experience; to feel | ● 相機 seung3 [or séung3*2] gei1 = camera | ● 出書 chēut1 syū1 = to put out a book | ● 純粹 sèuhn4 seuih6 = pure; unadulterated | ● 攝影 sip3 yíng2 = photography; to take a photograph | ● 透明 tau3 mìhng4 = transparent | ● 膠片gāau1 pín3*2 = usu. “film”; here perhaps “a piece of plastic” | ● 日曬雨淋 yaht6 saai3 yúh5 làhm4 = be exposed to the sun and the rain

. . . in my mind, but it’s not just a total blank. What I mean is that I’m still experiencing my surroundings at that time. For instance, if I see something and feel moved by it, I will get out my camera and take a photo of it. But when I am photographing it, I am not thinking [to myself]: “I could use this photo to express such-and-such. I could add some words to accompany it [as a caption], or I could put out a book or hold an exhibition.” None of these things occurs to me. I am simply in the moment, putting myself 100% into the feeling.

The special thing about this exhibition is that my photographic works have been printed on transparent sheets of plastic, very large sheets of transparent plastic. When you’re enjoying one of the works, you can look through the plastic at the surrounding natural environment. This exhibition is exposed to the sun and the rain. That is, it has been set up [擺] outdoors. So for this reason . . .

【3:00】. . . 就再響應埋大自然嗰個定律 | 就係話,一切嘅嘢都會成、住、壞、空 | 噉我哋係一齊去體驗呢一啲展品 | 喺一個大自然環境之下一路 . . . 一路不停咁樣變化

● 響應 héung2 ying3 = to respond; to answer | ● 定律 dihng6 leuht6 = (natural) law | ● 成、住、壞、空 sìhng4 jyuh6 waaih6 hūng1 = to come into being, to abide, to run down, to become empty

. . . it again responds to that law of nature: all things come into being, abide, run down, and become empty. Together we experience the works in this exhibition in a natural environment that is always constantly changing.

Wumenguan/Mumonkan • Koan 4

Old House, Tung Ping Chau

• Bodhidharma Had No Whiskers / 《胡子無鬚》

I have no idea about the deeper meaning of this fourth koan, but I am struck by the word-play that seems to dominate it.

The noun 胡子 could mean “the barbarian”, since one of the basic meanings of 胡 hu2 = “3. (in ancient China) a general name of the northern tribes” (114), that also appears in compounds such as hu2 er2 = northern barbarians in ancient China (FE: 1115). According to Soothill, 胡子 = “Hun, or Turk, a term applied to the people west and north of China; a nickname for Bodhidharma” (312). (He also notes that the word 老胡 or “Old Hun” was used as a nickname for Buddha [DCBT: 312].)

Bodhidharma’s dates are 470-543. In Ernest Wood’s words, “An Indian Buddhist who went to China and there formally established the Buddha-Mind School, called also Ch’an and later, in Japan, Zen” (ZD: 18). Most images of Bodhidharma seem to show him with a full beard. Put all this together and it suggests that the obvious meaning of the title of this koan is “Bodhidharma Had No Beard”.

In modern Chinese, 胡子 also means “beard, moustache or whiskers” (HYCD: 284). Perhaps this meaning originates from the fact that male barbarians often had full beards, thus linking bearded-ness to foreign-ness. It may have also carried this meaning in Wumen’s day. Possibly then, the title could also mean “Beard without Whiskers”.

The character 鬚 xu1 has an interesting history. I am guessing here, but on the basis of other precedents, that this character was originally written 須 xu1, which is a pictograph made up of 彡 shan1, an element (known as a “radical”) used to show that the basic meaning of a character has something to do with “feathers, long hair, ornament” (ACC: 140) and 頁 ye4 = “head; page; man” (ACC: 41). Obviously “long hair on the head” could refer to facial hair of some kind.

Later, this same character was borrowed to write other words which were pronounced with the same sound. 須 xu1 has eight different meanings in FE, including “1. to have to; must; to need”,”2. necessary; proper” and “4. a beard” (1507). In the Wumenguan, 須 is used 15 times.

無門曰。參禪須透祖師關。(趙州狗子)
Wumen comments: [if you] search for truth by means of Zen meditation, you must pass through the barrier of the founder of the sect[, Bodhidharma] [祖師].

更須赤脚上刀山 (國師三喚)
?Then even more so [更] [you] must walk barefoot up a mountain of knives [刀山].

譬如十字街頭撞見親爺相似。更不須問別人。(他是阿誰)
It’s just like bumping into your own father at the crossing of two streets. There’s even less need to ask anybody else [who it is].

From a cursory review of these examples, it would appear that the character is almost always used with the meaning of “must” or “need to”.

To reduce the confusion, at some point, a new character was invented for the “beard” meaning of 須 xu1. This character is written with 髟 biao1 denoting “hair; shaggy hair or locks” (ACC: 215) on top; the old 須 character is added underneath to form 鬚.

The final potential pun is that the combination of two characters, 無須 wu2 xu1 can mean “unnecessary; not necessary; no need to” in some situations. FE lists one example, 無須解釋 = It’s unnecessary to explain it (832). Spoken aloud, this theoretically would have sounded the same as 無鬚 = not having a beard; without whiskers”. However, there is no use 無須of in the Wumenguan, so I remain doubtful about this.

It would appear, at this superficial level, that this text has something to say about the slipperiness of language.

Continue reading “Wumenguan/Mumonkan • Koan 4”

Wumenguan/Mumonkan • Koan 3

Old House, Tung Ping Chau

• Ju-zhi Lifts a Finger / 《俱胝竪指》

The third koan in the Wumenguan is generally known as “Gutei’s Finger”, following the Japanese pronunciation. In Chinese, it becomes the rather formidable Ju-zhi. According to the Ci Yuan dictionary, 俱胝 is also sometimes used to write 俱致, a special Sanskrit term koṭi used in a number of Buddhist scriptures. According to a Tang-dynasty commentator, the word either means “ten million” or “a hundred million”. As we shall see, Wumen makes an oblique reference to this meaning of Ju-zhi’s name in the final line of his poem on the koan.

The key verb in the koan is 斷 duan4. Although I am no expert in the etymology of Chinese characters, and am aware that many Chinese characters often existed in a number of different forms before the language came to be standardized, it would seem that 斷 is made up of four elements showing eight silkworm cocoons from which silk is being made [幺yao1 / 糸mi4], and  a cutting implement represented by 斤 jin1, which can (or used to) mean “axe”. The essential thing is that the verb implies a complete cutting through, either of thread from a cocoon or a finger. By the by, William Soothill lists two compounds containing 斷 duan4 which may have some bearing on the case, 斷德 duan4 de2 = “the power or virtue of bringing to an end all passion and illusion—one of the three powers of a Buddha”; and 斷惑 duan4 huo4 = “to bring delusion to an end” (DCBT: 465).

Continue reading “Wumenguan/Mumonkan • Koan 3”