Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

This koan story from Zen Master Wuzu emerged as the inspiration for our 5th Issue of Uncertainty Club. We are launching it in a time when most of us are confined at home and many of our usual social activities are curtailed due to the Covid 19 pandemic. Each of our previous issues has formed around a theme which refers to a koan or verse from a zen text.

We editors grew particularly attached to Qian’s story as the pandemic, fires and political storms raged. So here is her story as recorded for us in the Tang Dynasty, a time when China was going through many harsh adjustments to reality. Sound familiar?

This translation is by Roshi Susan Murphy, taken from her book, “Upside Down Zen”.

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful girl called Qian. She lived beside one of the great rivers of Ancient China, with just her father, Zhangken. Her sister had died young, and her father cherished her even more deeply after that. Nothing is known about her mother (which is often the way with stories of this kind).

As a young girl, Qian was inseparable from her cousin, Zhao, a boy slightly older than her, a playmate, gradually a soulmate. One day, watching Qian and Zhao together, Ken said in play, “You’re such a well-matched couple. When you grow up we should marry you to each other, for you seem to belong together.” And so they childishly thought of themselves as engaged, and in the course of time they found themselves in love with each other. But when Qian finally reached marriageable age, an important official approached her father for her as a wife, and Zhangken, who had long forgotten his lightly spoken words, gladly consented.

Zhao was devasted, and vowed at once to go and live in a distant province, far from the heartbreak of losing Qian. And Qian was like-wise lost in grief, for she was a dutiful and loving daughter. But on the night that he was pushing off in his boat from the river, heading toward forgetfulness, he was startled to hear Qian’s voice as she came running down the path, saying, ‘Wait, it’s me – I cannot bear to lose you. Let me run away with you!’ Shaking with joy and fear, the two travelled up the river to a remote province, far enough away for the wrath of Zhangken to be forgotten, for a time, and were married.

They lived there in all the usual ways of considerable happiness and, in the course of time, had two children together. Life grew thick, and busy, but as the seventh year approached, Qian grew sad and sorrowful. Finally she came and told Zhao that she had to go back to ask forgiveness and to honor her father before he grew old and died – that she could not remain forever an outcast from her home. Zhao was full of anxiety about this but he assented to her wish, and they planned to make this difficult journey together as soon as possible. And so they set out to travel back down the river.

When they arrived back in her father’s province, as was the custom in old China, Zhao went first to see her father and receive the brunt of his anger, while Qian remained in the boat. And so he was astonished when Ken received him with obvious pleasure, saying, ‘Where have you been all these years? I’ve missed you!’ Zhao bowed his head and asked forgiveness, reassuring him that his daughter Qian was well and had been very happy as his wife, and that she was now the mother of two fine children and was here to seek his forgiveness. But what Zhangken said in reply nearly stopped his heart.

‘Which Qian is that?’ asked Ken. ‘For more than six year – ever since you departed so suddenly for a distant place – Qian has been ill in bed, hardly moving and unable to speak. Come with me, and see for yourself.’ Fearfully, Zhao went with him and saw that, indeed, Qian was lying in her old room barely conscious, but seeming to register his presence as he came into the room.

‘This is very strange,’ he told Ken, ‘but stranger still is what I have to show you. Please, come with me.’ Together, they walked out of the house and down the path towards the boat, where Qian has waiting.  But Qian had grown tired of waiting in the boat, and she was walking towards them. And behind them, coming from the other direction, the other Qian had risen from her bed and was also walking along the river path.

The two men stepped back and watched in astonishment as the two Qians met on the path and took each other in. And then each Qian stepped forward into the arms of the other to embrace her completely, becoming in that moment a single Qian more astonishing than ever before.

Qian made a deep bow to her father. ‘If indeed you are my daughter,’ he said, lost in wonder, ‘I have nothing but love for you.’

And Qian turned to Zhao. ‘I couldn’t bear to lose you,’ she told him, ‘and I was happy with you, except for my deep shame. But all the time, I did not know that I was sick at home in my father’s house, devastated by a sorrow beyond dreams.’

‘I myself am not sure which was the real Qian, the one as if dead, at home in my father’s house, or the one who has lived with you, wife and mother to your children.’

So Wuzu asked, which is the true Qian?


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