Philosophy Notes

While digging into Eastern philosophy, I began taking notes. Philosophical concepts can be elusive. Does not Zen tell us to avoid classifications and conceptual thought? Eastern philosophy is akin to poetry. Words cannot harness the ideas, but they can help us sneak up on them. To that end, I have captured bits from the books I have read.

Downloadable Texts/Books

There are many Eastern philosophy texts online. is an excellent source of texts. Unfortunately, many of the texts were from scanned sources, which means artifacts and mistakes. I've begun correcting some of the texts that I have read, and I will include them below.

These are posted as HTML because these can readily be made into ebooks using a tool like Calibre.

I got each of these sources from somewhere on the Internet, so it is my hope that nothing is copyright material.

Text/Book Reviews

» The Zen Teaching of Huang PoTr. John Blofeld

The Zen Teaching of Huang Po - Tr. John Blofel
This translator’s summary of Zen is truly excellent. “The Doctrine of Zen”

This isn't the sort of book one reads in a single sitting. I also would not recommend this as an introductory book for Zen. Perhaps The Way of Zen by Watts, and even some sort of "Idiot’s Guide" would be better introductions to Zen. Some translators are good, some not so good. I like Blofeld because I found his embedded comments to be quite germane and useful.

Although Huang Po could be quite repetitive, each time his snuck up on the subject from a slightly different vantage. This helped to expand my understanding of these concepts that words just cannot describe.

I found Huang Po much more understandable than Lin-chi and, for that matter, any koan-based books I’ve read thus far.

This was not easy to read, but it was one of the better books on Zen that I have read thus far. I feel enriched for reading it.

» A Tongue-tip Taste of ZenTakashina Rōsen (1876-1968)

I enjoyed Rōsen's take on Zen, which stemmed from the Soto Sect in Japan. I haven't read Dogen yet, and thus far I have steered away from the "modern" Japanese schools of Rinzai and Soto, preferring the patriarchs and older masters. Anyway, Rōsen's text felt authentic, and it dispelled some of my misconceptions toward "modern" zen being all about zazen (sitting meditation).

I recommend this short read.

» Wandering on the way: early Taoist tales and parables of Chuang Tzu tr. by Victor H. MairChuang Tzu, tr. Victor Mair

The introduction is good. It covers the different philosophical schools of thought during the Warring States period of the Ch’in dynasty. The book is long, and the content is not trivial. Thus, 1% on Kindle takes me a while to chew through or “gnaw at.” Mair’s own writing is sprinkled with scholarly terms and verbiage. Redactors? Paripatetic? So, I needed to look some things up. The actual translation to English also had some potent English vocabulary. That's why I read multiple translations of the same text—each translator has a unique way of putting the translation of the pictographs.

Mair sometimes switches to using a feminine indefinite pronoun. While this may be politically correct, I found it somewhat jarring when I encountered it. As an example: “We can tell that a person has integrity, even though it may not be evident in her physical form, because she is indispensable to all things.” Also, “Great is the Creator of Things! She’s making me all crookedy like this!”

It took me four months to read the entire thing, and over that time, I warmed to the translation. Some of the outer chapters toward the end are longer and, dare I say, dull. That’s not Mair’s fault.

Overall, I can recommend this edition of The Chuang Tzu.

» The Platform Sutra of the Sixth PatriarchHuineng, tr. John R. McRae

The original was written around 780 AD. There are many introductory chapters, prefaces, and editorial comments to augment the actual translation itself, but these have been pretty good.

There is some good, solid content in here. There is also some back and forth descriptions that make it hard to follow. That sing-songy stuff that says A is B and B is A. I don’t always catch the nuance there. Like saying the light is the lamp and the lamp is the light. Actually, there is a description at the end where Huineng tells how to teach this material. He says you must to destroy dichotomies. Well there you go.

Huineng seems to be awfully well versed in scripture for being unable to read. On the other hand, he does always ask, “What part of the XYZ sutra causes you difficulty?” as though he's asking the person because he doesn't really know. Huh.

I gloassed over the Appendixes. I have little interesting in the fabricated stories of Huineng's birth. Why do writers always have to make a diety out of their learned persons? It's incredulous coming from Zen, which values the concrete over symbolism.

I really think I could get much from a second reading.

» The Essential Gateway to Truth By Means Of Instantaneous AwakeningCh'an Master Hui Hai

I came across this while I was reading the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. It seemed like it might be a good companion to The Platform Sutra; I read it right after.

Written in the 8th century by Chinese Ch’an Master Hui Hai, also known as “The Great Pearl,” because the sound of his name is the same sound as the word for “pearl” in the Chinese language.

The book is a collection of teachings in the format of Question and Answer. Hui Hai describes Zen concepts well and to the point; his phrasing opened new ways to look at Zen concepts for me.

The “book” was short. The citing of sutras was informative. The gathas are rich and interesting.

» The Concept of de ("Virtue") in the LaoziPhilip J. Ivanhoe

Really interesting paper. I seem to recall it's only about 10 pages without the footnotes. Ivanhoe does a thorough analysis of the pictogram throughout the Tao Te Ching. Well worth the read.

» The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's MulamadhyamakakarikaJay L. Garfield

Overall, I found this book to be highly edifying and rewarding. Garfield's commentary to unpack the verses was necessary. This was my first introduction to Nagarjuna, so it's difficult to say if Garfield's book is the best, but his explanations and footnotes where readable and comprehensive; I got the sense that he was more than qualified to the task.

I could not have unpacked this on my own. As Garfield points out, “. . . unpacking it with the aid of what has gone before provides and important key to understanding the doctrine of the emptiness of causation.”

I read somewhere that Garfield translated the Tibetan version which was a translation of the original. However, from the footnotes, it seems that Garfield did dig into the Sanskrit and other sources, so I am not sure how true this accusation was.

There is a lot of repetition of ideas in this text, even to the point of sometimes being sing-songy, which stems from Nagarjuna's original text. Since these ideas are subtle--perhaps even a touch dry--and I wanted to really appreciate and internalize them, I read only 1% per day. More, I think, would have overwhelmed me. This isn't Dr. Seuss.

The editing on this book is phenomenal. I found only one mistake, i.e. nirvansa instead of nirvana, and one formatting issue.

Overall, this book seems to be a solid offering as a key to Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika.


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