Even if you consume as many books

by Ryokan

English version by John Stevens
Original Language Japanese

Even if you consume as many books
As the sands of the Ganges
It is not as good as really catching
One verse of Zen.
If you want the secret of Buddhism,
Here it is: Everything is in the Heart!

-- from Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan, Translated by John Stevens

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

I was an academic sort of kid. As I entered high school I was part of a college-oriented program that attracted some truly brilliant students. And in my own oddball social circle, we were early 80s computer nerds. Since we were not athletes or at the top of the adolescent social pecking order, we had to find our own outcast sense of pride, our own currency of superiority -- and ours was knowledge. Our conversations were stuffed with (often unnecessary) information about anything and everything, from scientific advances to computer programming shortcuts to pop culture trivia.

We thought of it as knowledge but, you know, it wasn't. It was just data. Valuable, perhaps, in the right context, but it was not actual knowledge.

This is a particularly difficult thing for headblind modern society to really understand: Accumulated information is not the same thing as knowledge. By the time I left high school, I came to this unsettling conclusion. I had witnessed the brilliant and the information-saturated among my peers, and I felt that something crucial was still missing. I didn't want to acquire information, I wanted to know.

That's a serious dilemma to be wrestling with as you begin your university years. My grades plummeted as I questioned the very nature of learning and academic institutions in general. I dropped out of college -- twice. In many ways, that's when my real education began.

Even if you consume as many books
As the sands of the Ganges
It is not as good as really catching
One verse of Zen.


Especially in the spiritual realm, if we don't understand this tension between information and knowledge, we run into serious problems with terrible repercussions for religion and culture. When we confuse knowledge of scripture with divine truth, we imagine that the letter of the law is the same as the spirit of the law. When the letter of the law is all we acknowledge, it becomes brittle, fragile, threatened by every social change and new perspective. Its greatest threat becomes the spirit of the law itself, for that stays active in the changing world, while the letter stays rigidly fixed. We stop looking deeply, living deeply, afraid of seeing a disconnect between the information of the written "truth," and our knowledge of the living truth. This happens in the sciences as well as in religion.

Here's a way of understanding that helps me to personally keep perspective: Any information that can be written in a book, stored in a computer, or committed to memory may be a hugely valuable tool -- spiritual or practical -- but it is only a tool, not real knowledge. It only gains its meaning through use. The meaning comes from what we create in the world and in ourselves with that information. The real value in every action and thought is discovered as it leads us back to the center of centers, for only there is true knowledge found.

If you want the secret of Buddhism,
Here it is: Everything is in the Heart!


--

Further thoughts...

I used strong language to make a point about our cultural assumptions. But I should be clear that I am by no means anti-intellectual or blind to the huge value of a good education. In my day job I work as a computer programmer and database designer. I definitely acknowledge the power of a well-exercised intellect that has the ability to think logically and can utilize information effectively. None of that would be possible without a solid education, a few special teachers along the way, and access to good information resources.

When I have a few extra dollars, I tend to buy books. I have shelves filled with books of poetry, history, novels, natural health, and, of course, religion and spirituality.

But-- that is still not knowledge in the deep sense.

My real point is that education, books, and the skills of critical thinking can open a life up in profound ways: intellectually, yes, spiritually, professionally, socially, in so many ways. I think it's hugely important and sometimes undervalued in general American culture and in government priorities. At the same time, we idolize this form of cognition and forget that, for all of its potential, it has significant limitations which causes blind spots within both the individual and in society. Real knowledge, full knowledge, comes from a deeper place within the awareness.

Having a good education with a keen intellect is like having the most powerful computer in the office. You can do amazing things with it. Creative things. Productive things. Or pointless things. Or even destructive things. It all depends on the operator. There are lots of reasons to acquire a capable computer, but we tend to forget that much more important is real knowledge of how -- and why -- to use it at all.

I strongly support education, intellect, and critical thinking, just not becoming lost within them. I value the intellect but, personally, I tend to value wisdom more and the knowing heart most of all. The question is not which to choose and which to reject, but how to develop them all in proportion and balance.



Recommended Books: Ryokan

The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library) Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan Haiku: The Gentle Art of Disappearing Between the Floating Mist: Poems of Ryokan
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Even if you consume