Brain Pickings

“Don’t Read Books!” A 12th-Century Zen Poem

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“It’s annoying for others to have to hear you.”

We live in a culture that often romanticizes books as the tender and exhilarating love-making to the “orgasm without release” of Alan Watts’s admonition against our media gluttony — an antidote to the frantic multitasking of modern media, refuge from the alleged evils of technology, an invitation for slow, reflective thinking in a fast-paced age obsessed with productivity. Books, Kafka memorably asserted, are “the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Given I spend the majority of my waking hours reading and writing about books, I have certainly bought into that romantic notion. But everything, it turns out, is a matter of context: Imagine my amusement in chancing upon a poem titled “Don’t Read Books!” in the altogether wonderful slim volume Zen Poems: Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets (public library).

Penned by Chinese poet Yang Wanli in the 12th century, the poem, translated by Jonathan Chaves, is a renunciation of books as a distraction from the core Buddhist virtue of mindful presence:

Don’t read books!
Don’t chant poems!
When you read books your eyeballs wither away
leaving the bare sockets.
When you chant poems your heart leaks out slowly
with each word.
People say reading books is enjoyable.
People say chanting poems is fun.
But if your lips constantly make a sound
like an insect chirping in autumn,
you will only turn into a haggard old man.
And even if you don’t turn into a haggard old man,
it’s annoying for others to have to hear you.

It’s so much better
to close your eyes, sit in your study,
lower the curtains, sweep the floor,
burn incense.
It’s beautiful to listen to the wind,
listen to the rain,
take a walk when you feel energetic,
and when you’re tired go to sleep.

It might seem like a ridiculous notion to us today, loaded with heavy cultural irony, but it offers a poignant reminder that if books, which we presently worship as the most meditative form of media, were in the twelfth century what videogames or Twitter are in the twenty-first, then a few dozen generations into the future — provided humanity still exists — the very forms we dismiss as spiritually worthless distractions today may come to be seen as the strongest anchors to the fabric of cultural history.

Zen Poems — which, I should add, features an elegant cover design by the great Barbara deWilde — is a delight in its entirety. Complement it with some thoughts on how to live with presence in the age of productivity.

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