by willow's shade

by Yun-k'an Tzu

English version by Jerome P. Seaton
Original Language Chinese

by willow's shade
in shadows of the pine
back up against
               all karma stopped
the monkey heart is skewered
the racing mind, corralled
the moon bright, the breeze pure
alone I speak
               of endless life.

-- from Wine of Endless Life: Taoist Drinking Songs from the Yuan Dynasty, Edited by Jerome P. Seaton

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

In this brief, elegant poem, Yun-k'an Tzu is painting a scene for us of enlightenment. And he gives us several packed metaphors.

Let's have some fun unlocking this poem...

all karma stopped

We have a tendency to think simplistically of karma or sins as negative marks on an accounting ledger. Somewhere, somehow, all of our bad actions and thoughts have to be balanced out with the good. You don't want to end up in the red.

That's a helpful notion to start with. It encourages us toward service and good works and cultivating a compassionate heart.

How, then, can karma be "stopped"? The reality is that karma isn't simply a matter of continually making deposits or withdrawals from your spiritual bank account. The word "karma" can be translated as "action," and in its most obvious form it is just that -- action and reaction. But, from a spiritual point of view, karma is specifically compelled action along with its results through time. Though we may think and choose, karma is ultimately powered by a usually unconscious inner urge, which, in turn, reinforces the pattern and increases the urge to repeat itself. That sounds a lot like addiction, doesn't it?

Karma always involves effort, ego, and subtly compromised will, repeating through habitual cycles.

When we deeply investigate these patterns, we see that, underlying karma, are points of tension in the awareness. Those tensions trap a great deal of our life energy. They are magnetized; those psychic tensions tend to attract certain experiences and compel certain behaviors and mental fixations. The compulsion for action emerges from these points of tension in the awareness. Through balancing, heartful actions, karmic tensions can be loosened and finally released.

But there is also an experience, sometimes temporary, sometimes lasting, where all karma-inducing tensions just... fall away. The entire awareness has suddenly relaxed out of all of its knots at once, like shrugging off a heavy overcoat on a hot day.

Karmic action is born of those tensions. When the psychic knots fade, karmic action ceases. Then action becomes pure, traceless. Action may continue, but it is actionless action, with no sense of self or compulsion. Events still occur, sometimes even difficult ones, but it is no longer felt as a personal affront to the psyche; it has simply become the phenomena of life. Action continues, but karma stops.

This is how some mystics can boldly claim that their karmas have "stopped."

the monkey heart is skewered

Right in the middle of the verse, Yun-k'an Tzu gives us a strange and interesting line: "the monkey heart is skewered." What does this mean? Monkeys dance and chatter, grasp and generally cause mischief -- at least in our imagining of them. The "monkey" here is the busy, grasping aspect of ourselves. It is that which never rests and is never satisfied, yet is almost impossible to catch. To pair this "monkey" with the "heart" suggests endless desires and wants. To have finally "skewered" this is to have brought those countless cravings to an end.

the moon bright...

The blissful state reveals itself as a shining light, as a luminescence permeating the still field of the mind. There is a sense of light from an undefined "above," silence, a fullness of vitality, and deep rest. This is often expressed as a bright or full moon in the night sky.

the breeze pure...

The breeze or wind referred to here might be understood as the thinking mind. It is "pure," free from the dust and debris of mental chatter, which obscures clear perception of reality.

alone I speak

In this enlightenment, we become supremely whole, complete. We are "alone" in the sense that we need nothing else to be complete. We are "alone" because the normal vision of multiplicity of beings and things is lost in the sense of unity.

of endless life

Virtually all sacred traditions have language around deathlessness, eternal life, endless life... Taoism often dwells on this. In some schools of Taoism, this is taken quite literally as seeking physical immortality. While a vital and long life can be valuable, physical immortality seems a rather materialistic goal that falls short of the true spiritual meaning that is intended.

In deep states of spiritual opening, an amazing thing happens: You are flooded with immense and unimpeded life. By comparison, all your experience up to that point seems like you were asleep, not really alive. There is the sense that the common experience of life is somehow encrusted with a layer of -- let's call it "death" -- that dampens the full awareness of life.

In the awakened awareness, the crust of death has left us. Only life remains. We finally recognize ourselves as the outpouring of that life. This doesn't mean that the physical body won't eventually grow old and cease to function. But none of those experiences need have the taste of death. The body is no longer seen as the self. The body may die, but what we are is life.

This is Yun-k'an Tzu's eternal life.

Recommended Books: Yun-k'an Tzu

Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry Wine of Endless Life: Taoist Drinking Songs from the Yuan Dynasty

by willow's shade