Eremitism East and West has often used pithy sayings to capture the essence of spiritual motives, to provide a useful tool of focus for the practicing hermit. The sayings of desert fathers and mothers was a key source of inspiration in the Western Christian world of hermits. The Zenrin kushui and related collections of Zen sayings were the counterpart in the Taoist and Buddhist eremitical traditions of China and Japan. In neither West nor East was formal study originally dismissed or an adherence to doctrine or belief dispensed, but, rather, the emphasis on practice called for counterpart tools for practice, and sayings fulfilled that need.
Where Christian sayings emphasized the practice of virtues and self-collection, the Chan or Zen sayings capture mind and insight of mind with a simple image or statement. Both Christian and Zen sayings are invaluable insights into the mechanics of practice versus the aggregation of doctrine and theory.
Of the over a thousand sayings collected in the Eastern traditions, here are just 26 favorites of the Zen tradition. Each saying is numbered according to the collection of A Zen Forest, which is taken from the Zenrin kushui, edited by Soiku Shigematsu.
Sitting quietly in a hut
White clouds rising over the mountain. (10)
One moon shows in every pool;
In every pool the one moon. (37)
Every voice Buddha’s;
Every form Buddha’s. (60)
I’ll explain in detail why Bodhidharma came to China:
Listen to the evening bell sounds.
Watch the setting sun. (86)
all preach Zen. (92)
[Alan Watts used to say that the last verse was redundant and could be omitted.]
Round as the great void:
Nothing to add,
Nothing to take away. (110)
To display at last
Maturity of spirit. (127)
My mind is a void sky. (145)
Penetrate the nature of things,
making them your Self. (163)
Void, void, void, void,
finally all void. (164)
A crane flies over a thousand feet of snow;
A dragon breaks through the iced-over creek. (169)
Eat when hungry!
Sleep when tired! (210)
To feel the first rain after long drought;
To come across an old friend in a foreign land. (219)
The vacant sky:
no front, no back;
The bird’s paths:
no east, no west. (233)
Teaching beyond teaching:
No leaning on words and letters. (241)
The hustle and bustle of the mind in karma:
Within it is Nirvana. (249)
Walking, staying, sitting, lying. (250)
fluttering drizzle and snow.
Silence, silence, silence:
a roaring thunderbolt. (306)
Watch all sentient beings
with merciful eyes. (482)
No guest throughout the year,
the gate remains closed.
No-minded all day,
feeling easy. (524)
The pine is green for a thousand years:
No one nowadays understands it. (563)
Magical power, marvelous action:
Carrying water, shouldering wood. (595)
Cutting the human yes and no.
To live with white clouds deep in the mountain,
the brushwood door shut. (682)
Ordinary mind is the Way. (1054)
The whole universe:
nothing ever hidden. (1060)
In Nothing, everything is contained:
flowers, moon, pavilions … (1107)