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#2307 - Saturday, November 5, 2005 - Editor: Gloria Lee    

In this issue, we have another exclusive, with Ben Hassine translating from the Dutch for us a teisho (teaching) by Ton Lathouwers.   "Chinese Ch'an practice among Europeans is often linked to two teachers: John Crook and Ton Lathouwers. The former was authorized to teach by Master Sheng Yen. Crook's Western Ch'an Fellowship hosts year-round practice periods in Avon (United Kingdom). Ton Lathouwers is a retired philosophy teacher who studied in Japan and Indonesia. Formally certified by Te Ching (also known as Jinarakkhita), he has led the Maha Karuna Ch'an, a deliberately informal network of groups in Belgium and the Netherlands, since 1987." [excerpt from:]      

Ton Lathouwers is one of the most liberal Zen teachers in the Dutch spoken area. He emphasizes the Zen qualities of our own culture, in which mysticism has close ties to the East. In Russian literature he found testimonies of enlightenment, which he quotes in his authentic and original Zen teachings.

His quest for openness and relief from the religious dogmas shows how life can challenge every person to a complete personal answer.


Kuan Yin, Bodhisattva of Compassion


Transcription [and translation] of teisho by Ton Lathouwers recorded August 2000 in meditation

center ‘t Hool in Eindhoven, Netherlands. First English translation by Ben Hassine. Parts one and two.



Kuan Yin


Today I would like to speak on the symbolism of Kuan Yin, who is regarded as the most important Bodhisattva in Chinese Buddhism. I can imagine that for many of us this symbolism is quite unclear, and that it is often regarded as a kind of Chinese folklore. I heard this recently of a Buddhist nun from England, she told how also there, a lot of criticism is heard when Kuan Yin is mentioned. It is said then: this is all just folklore; we don’t do that here in the west!

Reason for us to have a look into the meaning of Kuan Yin. And reason to put both the critique as well as the symbolism in perspective as well.


Because what is being expressed in this symbolism? Well, you can’t tell! On the deepest level this is something each one of us should discover for oneself, experience for oneself. It is not something you can tell or explain. It is reasonably possible it doesn’t touch you at all. However, it can also be the case you suddenly see a light shed on what is meant by this symbolism, by these images, by this figure. And that you feel something of the warmth and above all of the life in it. I have been very impressed by a saying of a Chinese Ch'an master who was questioned on the nature of zen. He said: it is life, it lives, it lives! He said this very explicitly, almost as a kind of warning.

Because he saw how deep the tendency is in us to fence off what is alive, to lose sight of it by accentuating different matters which are less alive. Sometimes it seems we secretly have more confidence in that, like in techniques and methods, and in words like: energy and forces. Neutral concepts and terms that actually stand in our way, but to which we are more or less attached: Dharma, de teaching, Buddhism, zen, sitting meditation, hara, enlightenment. Whatever it may be! It seems we have more confidence in such words than in the living, in a living person, a figure.


Maybe it is understandable there is a quiver to have confidence in a figure or a person. Because what we meet of others in our lives often seems so arbitrary, and also what you yourself can communicate is often so lacking and fragmentary, despite all good intentions and well considered effort. Thus mistrust arises.

For neutral terms like energy, Dharma, koan, don’t have to be feared, those won’t harm you. No, indeed, however maybe they don’t accomplish anything at all! Eventually those dead things, in which we have such confidence, don’t do anything at all to us. And here again emerges this living face, it emerges out of a deep desire to encounter it, to meet it.

To really meet, to meet life instead of terms, concepts, energies. For no one in distress will cry out: ‘Oh energy, help me! It just doesn’t seem fit. You call for a figure, a face.


Mahayana Buddhism, Kannon and Zen


It is in the third part of Daisetz Suzuki’s ‘Essays on Zen Buddhism’ we can read how central this figure of Kuan Yin is to the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. We find Kuan Yin represented in Japan as Kanzeon or Kannon; the camera Canon is named after it. Canon is the one who sees all. Suzuki writes how in the figure of Kuan Yin the deepest mystery of Mahayana Buddhism is revealed, whether we can deal with it or not.

On a different note: Mahayana Buddhism is a lot more than just Zen. Zen is only one way it crystallized in history and the way we come in touch with it. Mahayana was a great renewal in Buddhism. It means that I in my existence always relate to others. This was a new experience as opposed to the rigidity of the Buddhism of 2000 years ago. It means I always have to deal with others and others have to deal with me, a sort of profound solidarity of us amongst each other. It is the same as it is expressed in our Judeo-Christian tradition by amongst others, Levinas. The moment I come into existence there is the Other. Whether this is my mother at the moment of birth, or later, the children with whom I play, the people I relate to later in life. There are others, sometimes they take care of us and sometimes we take care of them. We encounter this idea in the work of Levinas and Buber, and in Buddhism in the words ‘pratitya samutpada:’ we emerge from emptiness together. When I am here, you are here, the other is there.

It is of this involvement that Suzuki says: ‘this is the deepest mystery!’ He adds that even all the Buddha’s of all ages cannot measure this profound mystery of the Bodhisattva. It is the deepest mystery of existence: there is another listening where we feel there is nothing that is listening, where we feel heaven is silent. That is correct as a matter of fact; to me in any case. I never had any paranormal experiences, I didn’t see flashes of lightning, never had visions. Heaven is silent.

Still it is right there where there is this deep certainty, deeper than the silence of heaven, that we are being heard.

‘World’s Cry Regarder;’ this comes from such a deep place within; this notion, of which Suzuki speaks, that in the end Buddha-nature, enlightenment, light, God, everything has to be put aside when it comes to hearing the cries of the world and to be with it, to be there. And again, this is most difficult and makes it immeasurable, even though we do not see it. Even though we cannot lay our finger on the moments in history where this force, this unknown, this other figure, this Other, grace, is operating. We sometimes witness that life, against all expectations, continues. We witness that new perspectives arise as through a miracle. But we cannot lay our finger on it and say: ‘look, there it happens, here is where the intervention happens.’

And still this is, says Suzuki, the most fundamental: intervention is taking place. You could also put it differently, and Suzuki says this repeatedly when he for example speaks on the subject of the koan; the impossible question of life, he says it is a profound experience to discover that real peace will dawn when you realize with the whole of your being that you can’t do it all by yourself. We cannot tear ourselves by our hair out of the marsh. And we call it by different names: surrender, confidence, faith, leap in faith, grace; it doesn’t matter. Those are relative words. One of those words is: Kuan Yin; she who listens to the prayers of the world. Ultimately there will be a point when you’ll discover that ‘I,’ whatever this ‘I’ is, has to be broken through. The crushing of the heart it is also called. Something has to start streaming, something. Maybe it is much deeper to say: a figure. This ‘something’ is a neutral and cold term for it.

Much deeper is the notion that what ultimately saves us are not methods or techniques. Nothing of all that. It is not an instrument we take in our hands, but something I cannot put into words. It is however translated into a figure, a face, someone. Life! ’ Something’ is not so much alive—at least to me it is not; but someone, a figure, something that emerges as a finger pointing to the moon. This figure however can also stand in the way. Kuan Yin can also stand in the way. Images can stand in the way, symbols can stand in the way. Still it is part of being human to create beauty, to create images. Art, as a reference to boundless compassion and boundless engagement.


To be continued


image of Kuan Yin:

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