Poetry doesn’t have to be good to save your life; it just has to be your own. This is a truth that I learned during my turbulent teen years – years during which the only thing keeping me from losing my mind, so to speak, was the fact that I was writing about it! Alright, perhaps I exaggerate just a little bit – we are talking about dreaded adolescence, after all – but it is true that poetry provided meaning for me at a time when I really needed it. You see, I fancied myself something of a rebel poet back then, skipping out of the classes that I didn’t like in order to steal my way down to the darkened high school auditorium – there to sit alone in the yawning silence, plumbing the depths of my being. Sure, I’d started reading about Eastern religions and philosophy by then, but I’d not yet begun to meditate. Poetry was my meditation, and it held me in good stead throughout those turbulent years. I strongly recommend it to anyone grappling with life-changing issues. And it doesn’t even have to be good!
Upon reflection, I see similarity between my approach to writing poetry back then and my approach to seated meditation now. Like zazen, my poetry writing then was a daily ritual involving an intention to focus my mind and become receptive to what is. It involved movement toward a state of greater stillness – a state of calm clarity of thought and experience. In some respects, as well, it even involved thinking of not thinking! (Recall Dogen’s Fukanzazengi.) For instance, at times when I was not yet inspired I would let my mind become like a blank sheet of paper held in my awareness until such time as words began to appear. At other times, when perhaps a germ of inspiration already existed, I would hold it in awareness like an object of meditation (watching the breath, for instance) until words began to coalesce around it. The key difference, of course, is the fact that when I sat down to write poetry there was always some aspect of my attention devoted to judging whether the phrase or idea that just occurred to me was worthy of jotting down or holding within awareness until such time as it might be “ready.” At this point I must remind you of the story I told at the end of the previous post in which Okumura roshi advised me to “just let it all go.” Certainly if that advice applied to thoughts of “Buddhist significance” it would apply to snippets of poetic inspiration as well – when it comes to Zen meditation, anyway.
My approach to poetry is different nowadays, though. For the most part, when I meditate I meditate, and when I write poetry I write poetry. That is not to say, however, that I’m not in a meditative frame of mind when I write; nor is it to say that I never ever find myself sitting on my cushion during zazen mulling over how words might fit together. I suppose I’m just not a perfect Zen practitioner, am I! That said, I do try to follow Okumura roshi’s advice. If inspiration does come to me during meditation it will more likely be in the form of some gestalt sense arising out of the relative stillness – a mental hologram, if you will, hovering in awareness with images and associated feelings and maybe some hint as to its nature. Perhaps it’s a little like what Ryokan described: “limitless emotion, but not one word” (Stevens, 1977, p. 43). When this happens I simply try to make a mental note of it so that at some later time – after meditation is over – I can try to access that gestalt once again and see if it can be pointed to with words. I contend that this process of noting and moving on is really not that different from the usual process of noting ‘yes, I’m thinking’ and moving on. The most common time for inspiration to visit me, however, is after meditation is over and my mind yet remains still enough that I’m able to see the world off the cushion in a way that I haven’t ever seen it before. I touch on this in the second poem below. I trust you’ll recognize the line that I’m referring to once you get to it.
This first poem is dedicated to Meiku and Kuryo – fellow practitioners at the Missouri Zen Center who have hosted moon viewing gatherings each autumnal equinox for some years now. It’s apparently a popular enough Japanese pastime to have given rise to a dish just for the occasion – moon viewing noodles – variations of which can be found in abundance online. This poem touches on a couple of important aspects of Zen philosophy. First and foremost, the image of the full moon traditionally represents the enlightened mind – bright and whole and reflecting perfectly everything that appears before it. Also prominent are allusions to the fundamental inadequacy of words to convey ultimate reality. I’ll have more to say at the end. For now, though, I’ll just present the poem:
Moon Viewing at the Home of Kuryo and Meiku
Waxing gibbous and waning crescent –
The names of broken pieces of mirror
Clank about inside my head
As we stand around the fire
Boiling moon viewing noodles.
Smoke wafts through the garden
And floats up into the cloud-filled sky
As we catch up on the news of one another,
And occasionally wonder aloud
Whether the moon will show its face on such a night.
During lulls in the conversation
We slurp noodles,
And sip sake and homemade elderberry wine,
And read the poetry of Ikkyu, Dogen, and Ryokan,
Just in case their words about the moon must take its place.
Here it comes!
The clouds grow brighter,
And then their veil recedes –
Revealing that mirror within which no words reflect.
I pick up the perfect round disk
Of daikan radish
Garnishing my moon viewing noodles
And turn it into a waxing crescent
With one clean bite.
“The moon will actually be full at one o’clock,”
Meiku says at midnight,
When the sake and warm conversation
Are no longer enough to keep the evening’s chill at bay.
“Aha!” I can’t help but say,
My understanding nearly complete.
Isn’t it often the case that we think we know something simply because we can wrap it in a package of words? I had arrived at the moon viewing with a satchel full of words about the moon – waxing gibbous and waning crescent, etc. – but an inadequate understanding of the true nature of the moon. My collection of words had led me to think about the changing appearance of the moon as a discrete process, occurring night after night like a series of snapshots presented one after another. Ultimate reality, however, is seamless. Meiku’s offhand remark about the true nature of the moon spurs me toward deeper understanding of this seamless reality; and yet my understanding is still not complete. While my conception of the nature of the moon is more refined, the fact remains that it is yet a theory about the moon’s fullness. The reality of fullness will occur when it occurs. Practice continues, ceaselessly.
For the most part I wrote this next poem in my mind as I was driving home from a meditation retreat at Sanshin-ji in Bloomington, Indiana. Over the course of lunch at the close of sesshin we ended up having an interesting discussion about faith and doubt as it relates to Zen practice – a discussion that coincided nicely with where my head was during at least a good portion of the retreat. Okumura roshi stated that (according to his teacher, Uchiyama roshi) faith is “purity of mind” – a definition that doesn’t really strike me as all that compatible with the way we think about faith in the West. I suppose, then, that I’ll have to devote an entire blog post to faith and doubt sometime soon. Anyway, this poem touches on the fact that Zen practice can be damned hard at times. Of course, when things are easy we rarely question them. When things become difficult, however, we question them relentlessly. We want to know that our hardship will “mean something” – that our effort will not be for naught, that all that we are going through will be “worthy our time.” So, call this a poem about faith and doubt. Oh, and meaning, too. I am an existential Buddhist, after all!
Thousand Year Old Footsteps in the Snow
I step outside and watch the snow fall
From darkness into light.
The others have already gone
For dinner in the mess hall,
But the cold feels too good on my face
Not to linger for awhile.
It felt good this morning, also,
After we’d rousted ourselves from slumber at 3:40
To sit straight-backed,
With palms together –
Facing our respective walls
By the time the teacher made his rounds at 4:05.
And after two hours of absolute and utter stillness
Overlaid with daydreams,
And stomach-growling yearning for the bell,
And wondering if I’d make it through the day,
And wondering why the hell I’m doing what I’m doing,
I stumbled out into the pre-dawn blackness
To see a shining silver sickle of a moon,
And the black sky –
As black as anything can be.
Ah, but that was light years ago…
That was this morning.
And anything that is not right now might as well be light years away.
Oh, sure, I’ve glimpsed that absolute and utter stillness
A number of times throughout the day,
But this is why I do this:
So that I can step outside and see the world
With brand new eyes –
Eyes without a “me” to tell me what I’m seeing.
So I hobble though the snow
On my zazen-weary legs,
Leaving thousand year-old footprints in the snow.
And as far as what all this amounts to
Once these bones are in the ground,
And how the hell my sitting facing a wall
For over eleven hours a day
Can possibly make the world a better place…
Well, I kind of like to think of all of this
Zazen after zazen after zazen
As stitching together the pieces of a robe
To someday be worn
By my great-great-great-great
Granddaughter in the Dharma
As she steps outside into the night
To watch the snow fall
From darkness into light
Before gliding like a shadow to the mess hall
Leaving thousand year old footsteps in the snow.
The image of ‘thousand year old footsteps’ represents the reality that our Zen practice comes to us from across the ages. It is only because of the striving of teachers and students alike for thousands of years that we are even able to test out the true nature of this thing called zazen; and it will only be because of our striving now that people a thousand years from now will be able to test it out for themselves. This, of course, is touching on the bodhisattva vow – the vow to save all beings – that I discussed in the previous post. The image of stitching together a robe to be worn by someone else is inspired by the Robe Verse (Ta Kesa Ge). Ta Kesa Ge, as translated by Yoshida roshi and chanted at the Missouri Zen Center, is as follows:
Great is the robe of liberation
Markless garb of merit-making
Wearing the Tathagatha’s teaching
We vow to save all beings
So, a number of things that I’ve been discussing in this sequence of three posts come together in the final passage of this poem. Clearly, there is the matter of our individual practice – practice at the level of conventional reality – done by me or you, done with dedication or lackadaisically, done with absolute certainty or with the greatest of doubts. Regardless of how it is done, however, it is both a continuation of practice reaching out of the past and practice extending into the future. For instance, one of our doubts might be related to the vow to “save all beings.” And just how are we supposed to do that anyway? But when we view our lives from the vantage point of ultimate reality, we see that our individual lives are but a seamless continuation of life reaching out of the deep past and extending into the future. This is at least one aspect of the reality that each life (and everything for that matter) at each moment contains the entire universe. Therefore, how we live our lives today does have the potential to save all beings in the future. We are all leaving thousand year old footsteps - million year old footsteps, for that matter.
Okay, how about ending on a playful note! Here’s a fun poem that draws on some well known Buddhist teachings and sayings. I hope you enjoy it.
Lunch Hour Musings on True Nature
So what is our true nature, anyway?
Such was my lunch hour musing
On a winter’s day that I’ve decided to rename spring.
It depends on who you ask, I guess – and when.
“Decay is inherent in all compound things,”
A friend used to say.
But that was before he dropped off his body
And lost his mind.
Now he just keeps chanting:
“Form is shunyata, shunyata is form”
Over and over again.
Chop wood and carry water.
Yeah, I like that answer,
I tell myself
As I sip coffee and scribble down words
About chopping wood and carrying water.
I gaze out across the sunbathed courtyard
Where people have gathered to enjoy the sunshine
On a winter’s day that I’m calling spring.
Yes, it’s just like a sage once said:
“Nose vertical, eyes horizontal.”
What was the question again?
Ask me again tomorrow
When I’m chopping wood and carrying water.
For now, I’m just an old dog with Buddha-nature
Lying in the sun.
Stevens, J. (1977). One robe, one bowl – The Zen poetry of Ryokan. John Weatherhill, Inc.
Ta Kesa Ge (Yoshida R., Trans.). Sutra manual of the Missouri Zen Center
Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank
Moon image courtesy of Graur Codrin via:
Orion image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev via:
Life in a Smile image courtesy of Federico Stevanin via: