As(K) The Wooden Puppet


A couplet from the poem by Yung Chia Hsuan Cheh caught my eye.

The poem is called either “Song of Enlightenment” in the Translation by Sheng Yen in his book “The Poetry of Enlightenment, “or “Song of Realizing the Way” in the translation in “The Roaring Stream, A New Zen Reader.”

The lines are:

Ask the mechanical puppet

When it will obtain Buddhahood through practice

(Sheng Yen)

Put this question to a wooden puppet

Can Buddhahood be gained by seeking it?

(Roaring Stream)


While I tend to prefer the Roaring Stream translation as being more fluid and less technical, in the case of this couplet I like Sheng Yen’s translation more. After all, why ask can Buddhahood be gained by seeking of a wooden puppet, as seems to be the case in the “Roaring Stream” translation? It is a perfectly good question, by why ask it of a puppet? You might ask a Roshi or even a fledgling Zen student, somebody actually doing it, about the point of practice, but why ask a puppet a question about the nature of practice, attainment, enlightenment?

In Yen’s translation we are asking the puppet if IT will obtain Buddhahood. This is presciently modern.

After all, if one takes the vision of the modern absolute materialist (or for that matter ancient as such did exist before the scientific revolution) we are but organic puppets, water and carbon and a bit of other stuff come to life. In fact, that is literally true. After all water is present in pre-solar system gasses in space and microscopic diamonds (a few carbon atoms) may have been the first crystalline substances in the universe.

It is indeed a basic Buddhist view that all composite things are conditional, contingent, without essential inherency. All created things are a dream, like a flash of lightning, a bubble, a cloud, to quote the Diamond Sutra. We take form and substance from the propelled momentum of our karma or cause and effect, from the dharmas or laws of nature, pretty much the same thing. So as far as that goes, materialists and Buddhist are on the same page there. We are conditioned, brain and body, by our past and our makeup (the elements, the skhandas, whatever).

Are you a wooden puppet?

To the degree you are atoms and conditioned brain responses, yes.

Hence asking the wooden puppet about sentience.

Can a wooden puppet practice hard enough to be something it’s not? Can it magically become sentient like Pinocchio? Can you?

Is Mind an emergent phenomenon? Or is it the Nature of nature?

Ask the wooden puppet.



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