vegetable roots discourse

A few years ago I came across an interesting text that really inspired me. I was listening to an old audio file of the British philosopher Alan Watts in which he teaches meditation. At some point in his talk he introduces an ancient text from a book entitled ‘Caigentan’ (Vegetable Roots Discourse).

When the accomplished scholar and philosopher Hong Zicheng retired from public life and settled down he wrote the Vegetable Roots Discourse. Hong Zicheng lived in ancient China, over 400 years ago during the Ming Dynasty.

The Vegetable Roots Discourse was an informal compilation of his thoughts on the essence of life, human nature, and heaven and earth. The book offers an interesting mix of Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian understanding.

The Chinese proverb Jiao de caigen, baishi ke zuo literally means “[One who has] chewed vegetable roots [for lack of anything better to eat] can accomplish anything”, or figuratively “One who has gone through hardships can do anything” (source: Wikipedia).

Somehow I was struck by the strange text when I heard Alan Watts read it. Trying to grasp the essence. The Vegetable Roots Discourse became very meaningful to me and I often return to it. Read the transcript below and see if it does the same for you.

Vegetable Roots Discourse

If the mind is clear
A dark room has its blue sky
If the mind is somber
Broad daylight gives birth to
Demons and evil spirits

The just man
Has no mind to seek happiness
Heaven therefore
Because of this mindlessness
Opens its inmost heart
The bad man busies himself
With avoiding misfortunes
Heaven therefore
Confounds him for this desire

How unsearchable are the ways of heaven
How useless the wisdom of men

The Tao is common property
It should be pointed out to all we meet
Learning is as ordinary as eating rice at home
According to the circumstances
It should be applied circumspectly

The Ancients left rice for mice
And did not light lamps
Out of pity for moths
These thoughts of theirs
Are the operation point of humanity
In life
Lacking this
A man is a mere earthman
A wooden body

The Zen sect says
When you are hungry — eat
When you are weary — sleep

Poetry aims at the description
In common language
Of beautiful scenery
The sublime is contained in the ordinary
The hardest in the easiest
What is self-conscious and ulterior
Is far from the truth
What is mindless
Is near

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