Sunday, February 7, 2010

Yuan Shen and Shi Shen


Yuan shen and shi shen.

The character yuan, 元, stands for head. It stands for the source, the root, the original, the raw. Shi, 識, is a complicated character. You can see the character, 言, speech in the root, along with the character 織, weaving. It is a weaving of speech, a network of words. There is nothing less natural and more man-made than language. In my mind, speech not only refers to external speech, but internal dialogue as well.

Shen is a large word in Taoism. It can mean gods, spirit, ghost, and consciousness. Yuan is the original shen, and shi is the conditioned shen. Original shen is what we are born with and have all our lives. Shi shen is acquired. The shi shen develops as we interact with the world. It is the sum of our learning, experiences, and language.

There is a yin-yang duality between them. I say a yin yang duality, because in Taoist thought, duality is actually a unity. In this case, I was taught that as shi shen develops, yuan shen decreases. As a child, one starts out at 90% yuan shen, 10% shi shen. As one develops into an adult, forms habits, beliefs, and opinions, and learns language, we become 10% yuan shen, and 90% shi shen.
Thomas Cleary has indicated that when the Zen masters talk of mistaking a thief for one’s own son, they are speaking about the shi shen.

Another way to look at it is that yuan shen is the raw material, and shi shen is the finished product. Yuan shen is like the trees in the grove, and shi shen is like the table, chairs and furniture.

In the West, when we hear that the thinking/speaking mind is an obstacle, we tend to jump to the conclusion that it needs to be destroyed, killed, or gotten rid of. We Westerners tend to take a similar approach to medicine: hack, slash, and radiate. The Chinese way is more holistic. Shi shen is useful. After all, one cannot very well sit on a tree or store dishes in the branches. On the other hand, the limited, formed nature of shi shen means it is limited. A chair cannot give birth to another chair.

The problem as I see it is when this shi shen comes to dominate. In the words of the golden flower, the general replaces the true master. Yuan shen is pushed to the back and forgotten.

As Hui Neng said:
Freedom from form means nonattachment to form in the midst of forms. Freedom from thought means having no thought in the midst of thought.

Both Zen and Taoist masters have dedicated time to those who simply seek to extinguish the thinking mind. After all, these are not two entirely different things, but the ends of the same pole.

Seen in this light, Taoist literature makes more sense. The emphasis on letting go, stopping, calming, and collecting would all work to redevelop the yuan shen. This is also the first step in traditional Buddhist practice.

Hui Neng quote adapted from Thomas Cleary, The Sutra Hui-Neng, Grand Master of Zen

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