Philosophy-a-Day

Zen Speaks: Shouts of Nothingness by Tsai Chih Chung, translated by Brian Bruya. Anchor Books, 1994. 0385472579.

Sarah: I picked this book up originally because I was interested in Zen. This is by a Taiwanese author who took the great works of Zen and translated them into vernacular language, into modern Chinese, and made them into comics. And the comics are just great.
Gene: Oh, man! This is a very Asian cartooning style.
S: Yes, it seems very Chinese.
G: Did you ever see that book by Lat that First Second published?
S: Yeah!
G: It looks like this, a little bit. Lat’s from Indonesia. And there’s a certain style of Korean and Japanese comics that this reminds me of, too.
S: This became really popular in Taiwan because most people hadn’t read these classic stories in such an accessible format before. I love that it’s in this goofy cartoon style for almost everything except there are gorgeous beautifully rendered statues of Buddha. Every once in a while there will be something holy or important in frame that is intricately drawn.
G: I love the mountains and the birds, here.
S: Yes. There’s this cloud… the way he draws clouds as beautiful swirly shapes. They’re really stylized.
G: It’s like a cartoony version of Chinese paintings that I’ve seen on screens in museums.
S: Yes. It’s really influenced by classic art.
G: So each story is a page long?
S: Each story is one page long and at there’s a monk at the end who gives you the lesson. That monk guides you throughout the whole book.
G: Is he always in the same pose?
S: Usually. Sometimes he’s smiling or he’s wearing dark glasses, like in this one about a blind man.
G: So what did you learn about Zen from this book?
S: It’s funny, I read all of these stories and then later they pop up again from a much more serious source. “Oh yeah, I know that story!” I don’t usually like comics that try be a textbook, to teach you history or whatever, that are just didactic. But this is so much its own thing that I feel like I accidentally learned a huge amount of philosophy.
Every once in a while in one of the comics, someone gets enlightened, and the moment of enlightenment is so very much like Western comics’ depiction of surprise, when someone’s so surprised they leap backwards out of frame.
G: It’s very cool. The drawings are detailed and also not detailed at all.
S: Then there’s wacky, comic-ey things like people being shocked or appalled because that’s what Zen is about, bringing you to enlightenment by shocking you out of your preconceptions about the world.
G: The people have such big noses, or monkey-like faces, then suddenly there’s a realistic character — I guess those are more historical?
S: Yeah, there’s a lot of important historical figures, important teachers we follow through the book.
G: It looks really cool, but I would limit myself to reading a page a day. It would stay on my coffee table or my bedstand forever.
S: It’s absolutely great for that. It’s a self-contained lesson and you get something from it. I feel like I’m more able to understand when people talk about this philosophy. And there’s a whole series of books he wrote, more on Zen and some on classics of Chinese philosophy, Confucius and Lao Tzu, The Art of War…. But I feel like Zen Speaks is the best of them.

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