The Wayward Isles | Site Index | John Cowper Powys | Home | Memoirs | Letters & Journals | Miscellaneous Pieces

The Buddha and the CorpseLe Square du Vert Galant, île de la Cité, Paris

"What’s that book you’re reading?" asks my neighbour, curiously. There’s a score of us arranged along the cobblestones, leaning against the retaining wall of the public gardens - le Square du Vert Galant. We are proud to be Les Beatniks of Paris, or Les Clochards - the hobos. We’re blocking the public path that borders the dark waters of the ever-flowing river Seine. We’re at the very point of the île de la Cité, where it divides the waters into two channels that flow either side of Notre Dame Cathedral.
How can I explain? I show him its title: "La Doctrine Suprême, selon la Pensée Zen". It was the centrepiece of a window display in a Rive Gauche bookshop, and I couldn’t resist it. Already kindly disposed towards Zen, from the writings of Alan Watts and D T Suzuki, I want nothing less than to know the Supreme Doctrine, for my life is embroiled in confusion and pain.

How have I found myself amongst the bright youth and the not-so-bright and the heroin addicts and the shady characters of all nations who have assembled here, in April 1962? I am in France to study, but have dropped out from my courses in the Sorbonne and have failed to connect with my fellow-students from England. The world is enigma enough. I haven’t mastered the art of living day to day, away from parental protection; my tastes run to rebellion and anarchy.

nd.jpg (29998 bytes)
"What’s so good about the book?" persists my neighbour, a ragged German boy with zits and a wannabe beard.

I prepare myself to explain but at this point there is a general excitement. Someone has spotted that what’s floating down the river is not a tree-branch but a waterlogged corpse. Across on the Left Bank and within shouting distance is a station of riverboat Pompiers, or firemen. They ignore us at first, accustomed to the taunts of us filthy beatniks opposite. But they can see for themselves what it’s about and the task is within their jurisdiction. Armed with a long hook and rubber gloves, they launch a small boat and fish out the remains of an old man, with flowing dark hair, stiffened into a hunched position, his skin pale grey. It must be their sense of humour, but they unload the body on to our side of the river, malodorous as it is, with its rags dripping all over our cobbles. They’ve polluted our patch and that’s their revenge.

It’s the first corpse I’ve seen in my life, here in April 1962.

Gautama, the future Buddha, was about my age when he saw his first corpse. He, too, had led a sheltered life (though more pampered than mine), and he asked his companions: "Could this also happen to me?" "Yes, it certainly will." That took the shine off his gilded life, and was, according to legend, the trigger that propelled him on the path to Buddhahood. If every sweet apple of an individual life contains such a nasty worm, what is there to eat? And so he pursued Truth, via every austerity and every wise teaching he could find.

The book I was reading, whilst I hung out on the cobblestones, is also available in English, from Amazon, with an introduction by Aldous Huxley. The author, Hubert Benoit, was a clinical psychologist, and I believe one of his children was born with some serious defect. Maybe that was when the corpse floated into his life and made him ask serious questions. I haven’t got the book any more, but I recall that he extolled Hui-Neng, the 6th Zen Patriarch; and based the main themes of his book on a sutra entitled "On Trust in the Heart", written by the 3rd Patriarch Seng Ts’an, from which I append three translated excerpts:

Let things take their own course,
Knowing the essence can neither go nor stay.
Obey the nature of things,
And you are in concord with the Way,
Calm and easy and free from care.
Thoughts that are fettered turn from Truth,
Sink into the unwise habit of not liking.
Not liking brings weariness of spirit,
And aversion serves to no purpose.
If you want to follow the doctrine of the One,
Do not reject the world of the senses.
When you are not biased, the world of the senses
Is seen as one with enlightenment.
The wise practise non-interference.
. . . .
To trust in the heart is the not-two,
The not-two is to trust in the heart.
I have spoken - but in vain,
For what words can tell
Of things that have no yesterday,
Tomorrow or today?
. . . .
Try not to seek after the true.
Only cease to cherish opinions.

The Wayward Isles | Site Index | John Cowper Powys | Home | Memoirs | Letters & Journals | Miscellaneous Pieces