Saturday, November 22, 2014

Dream of the Red Chamber and Prajna Wisdom?

Shang Longrik Gyatso RinpocheI’ve been an avid reader all my life. Add to that the fact that I’ve never had much to talk about with my peers and you will see why I have chosen to surround myself with collections of books, a boundless world of words. While still in elementary school, I started to familiarize myself with the classic novels of China, the chapter novels from the Ming dynasty onwards, and romantic fiction. I basically read everything, including Outlaws of the Marsh by Shi Nai’an, Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, Investiture of the Gods by Xu Zhonglin, Li Ruzhen’s Flowers in the Mirror, The Scholars by Wu Jingzi, as well as A Romance to Awaken the World by Xi Zhousheng. Furthermore, I consumed Six Records of a Floating Life by Shen Fu and The Peach Blossom Fan by Kong Shangren. Of course, there was one other classic, the legendary Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin. This book kept me company throughout three full years of winter and summer breaks. I pretty much know it like the back of my hand, each chapter, each character, each scene.

Cao Xueqin’s came from a family of officials, his paternal great-grandfather Cao Xi was once promoted to the high-pressure position of second-level imperial bodyguard in the inner palace. His paternal great-grandmother was the wet nurse to the second Qing Dynasty Emperor, Kangxi. His paternal grandfather also held the post of Imperial Censor, as well as being a calligrapher of fine repute and skilled at the composition of poetic verse. The most peculiar thing, however, was the unusually large collection of books in his home, a fact which directly contributed to Cao Xueqin's eventual success as a novelist. It is said that wealth and honor never survive more than three generations, and the Cao family fortune dwindled starting around the time of the Qing Dynasty emperor Yongzheng. While still young, Cao Xueqin had endured the gamut of life’s ups and downs, and so was more familiar than most with the subtleties of human nature and of the mind. He was also a sentimental person, an attribute which better equipped him to portray the characters of Dream of the Red Chamber in such a vivid, life-like manner. Add to this the misfortune he experienced later in life, when he often resorted to selling paintings and writing for mere sustenance. Dream of the Red Chamber was born from such circumstances, a product of nearly a decade of blood and sweat, completed under the duress of poverty and illness.

Dream of the Red Chamber has practically become a benchmark, a treasure in the realm of classical Chinese literature research, to the extent that it has become the tentpole in academic research. As such, we’ve seen the establishment of the system of Redology (the academic field devoted to the study of this work). You could say that this entire book was penned by a poor scholar whose family fortune was on the decline. Using the literary techniques of reflection and pathos, Cao Xueqin was able to use a reflective literary structure to express his own sentiments. His family's glorious history also provided ample character studies especially of the noble and wealthy and it had also exposed him to all the myriad conditions of the world. Although the male and female protagonists (surnames Jia and Lin respectively) were principally used to drive the story arc, an intensive study of Dream of the Red Chamber reveals to the keen reader a further truth. This book not only incites high praise for the author’s imagination and scholarship, furthermore, it elicits admiration and a profound awe for his competent and extensive knowledge of the arts, music, literature, and a vast array of historical anecdotes. On my part, after several readings of Red Chamber, I feel that this novel most aptly portrays the deep meaning of the phrase, “Life is just like a play, and the play is much like life.”

During middle and high school, on account of my affinity for the Diamond Sutra and Heart Sutra, I was able to recite the entire Diamond Sutra from memory. I have, on occasion, taken to reading the works of the Hundred Schools of Thought from the Warring States Periods and cross-referencing the characters, chapters, or excerpts to the various Buddhist sutras, and have gained great insights from this. The characters from Dream of the Red Chamber can be said to portray an abbreviated version of the entirety of human nature, being as they are both rich and poor, both noble and lowly, both up and down, and described in exquisite detail. We see their love and their hate, their sadness and their joy. The daily residence of the noble, the realities and helplessness of the political situation, all are revealed without reserve. Even the clothing and furniture of the times, as well as the food and diet - all are emphasized. Thus, a practitioner with a profound understanding of the Heart Sutra can experience that, even those who grow up in wealth and extravagance, experiencing a magnificent life both poetic and picturesque, in the end will also see that it was no more than dreams of grandeur, that form is none other than emptiness, and emptiness just the same as form. And so, too, with sensation, conception, volition, and consciousness. If Cao Xueqin, with his talent and wisdom, and under his circumstances, were able to meld the Buddhadharma and practice with his extraordinary life, I believe that he would certainly have been able to realize the empty nature of all phenomena, and the true meaning of the uncreated and undestroyed. It is a pity that, according to Cao Xueqin’s ultimate frustration, the begrudging reproach that he held for this world, we can see that he was unable to see past his attachments, unable to break through his stubbornness. As such, if those engaged in Redology can use the prajna wisdom of emptiness as an aid in their research, applying it to their daily lives, merging with life but remaining unaffected by it, facing their circumstances but remaining totally clear about them, employing means and yet remaining unattached, dealing with their affairs without a hint of alarm, being able to renounce the world and yet remain unrestrained by orthodoxy, this is exactly what Buddha was pointing out, the great wisdom that all of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the past and present garnered from within the dirt and the filth. It is my wish that everyone can bear in mind this mantra from the end of the Heart Sutra: “Dayata Om Gate Gate Para Gate Para Sam Gate Bodhi Soha” and to seek the experience of prajna wisdom and emptiness, in the end to attain ultimate liberation.

This is a piece that I, Shang Longrik Gyatso Rinpoche, wrote as a result of an informal discussion with a group of Redology scholars from Beijing.

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