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The Journey to the West

Though we journey to the West We pray to the East More or less that's the way Each day begins and ends It’s a tale everyone ...

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Reflections on a Rainy Season

The jazz of
Late night streets and all these people
Springs from the same love
And cool eyes now
as then.

Granite sierras, shelves of books,
Holy teachings, scatter
Aimlessly tumbling through
Years and countries

from The Rainy Season by Gary Snyder

At a certain point, intertextuality is no longer a matter of choice. Whitman, Han Shan, Akhamatova - it's the same vein of precious metal that runs through all their poems. No one owns the words of truth nor the spirit that fills them to the point of breaking. After the first Poet there can be no other; the rest of us are merely translators of a far more compelling work.

Monday, September 18, 2017

In the Moment and Beyond

This morning I faced up to one of the challenges that I have been avoiding for a long while – I finally translated Qing Ping Melody, which is one of Li Bai’s most famous poems.  There are a number of legends surrounding this poem. It was written in tribute to Yang Guifei who was the chief consort of the Emperor Xuanzong and regarded as the paragon of beauty during the Tang Dynasty, much as Helen was among the ancient Greeks.  Supposedly Li Bai wrote the poem on the spur of the moment, upon being roused from a drunken slumber by the Emperor's messenger, who came to request a new poem about his favorite mistress.  Composed in the moment, the poem thus epitomizes an important part of the Tang aesthetic, being a prime example of what I like to describe as spontaneous verse.

Long as I have planned to translate this poem, when I finally got around to tackling it this morning, I tried to work quickly, hoping the translation would stay as true as possible to the spirit (if not the letter) of Li Bai’s original undertaking.  Here’s what I came up with:

 Qing Ping Melody (by Li Bai)


Clouds recall her clothing
The flowers recall her grace
Spring breeze upon the threshold
Brings a fragrance beyond fresh

If not for the crowd on Jade Mountain
Perhaps you would see her standing
Atop of the jasper platform
In the moonlight bathing


A branch laden with gaudy blossoms
Where the nectar’s aroma collects
Clouds and rain shroud Wu Mountain
As the heart strains to the breaking

Go and ask at Han Palace
Is there anyone who compares
Pity the poor swallow flying off
To make herself afresh


A flower of renown
A kingdom overthrown
Both take equal delight as
The sovereign lord gazes
With a smile of longing

How to explain
The spring wind
So unbounded with yearning
At Sandalwood Pavilion facing north
Leaning on the railing

*  *  *


云想衣裳花相容       春风拂槛露华浓
若非群玉山头见       会向瑶台月下逢

一枝秾艳露凝香       云雨巫山枉断肠
借问汉宫谁得似       可怜飞燕倚新妆

名花倾国两相欢       长得君王带笑看
解释春风无限恨       沉香亭北倚阑干

 *  *  *

 One of the reasons I love this poem is the way it illustrates the subtlety and complexity that a poet can achieve from simply being in the moment; the present, as such, ends up being far from a simple thing.  In that sense, it's hard to imagine any greater contrast between the mode and subject of Li Bai's poetic composition – in the rush of being rudely awakened, he nonetheless shows the presence of mind to fully grasp the truth of beauty that is unattainable.  Thus, he seems almost effortlessly able to capture one of the great paradoxes that lies at the heart of the Tang aesthetic, being very much in the moment and yet transported far beyond it at the same time.

A Tang painting of Yang Guifei surrounded by her attendants

Please click here to subscribe to the Tang Spirit Newsletter if you would like to read more of my translations of Chinese poetry.  This fall I'll be starting a new series of essays that explore the central themes that animate Tang poetry, and make it such a vital alternative to our own sometimes woefully inadequate modernist aesthetic.   

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Poem Written on the Bus

Crazy as it seems
Lately the things I most want
Become what I least need
The craving and attachment
To papery things that
Light up my entire
Sense of being
Like one of those
Midnight lanterns
Ignited into a rapturous flight
Of revelation and destruction

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Home Grown Dharma (part two)

This is part two of an essay inspired by rereading Walden Pond in celebration of the bicentennial of Thoreau's birth.  The gist of my argument is that Thoreau has much to teach us about the successful integration of the spiritual traditions of East and West. Although his first hand exposure to Buddhism may have been quite limited, Thoreau's own thinking and writing evidence a very deep Bodhisattva awareness, almost as if he had independently and spontaneously arrived at the Noble Truths through his direct contemplation of nature. In that way, Thoreau still serves as a model for us today, showing us how to cultivate our Buddha awareness within the framework of our familiar western ways of thinking, pointing us down the path where we can discover our very own home grown dharma.

Yet there is a serious problem with viewing Thoreau in this light. Reading Walden Pond you will not find a single mention of the Buddha. There are a few passing references to Shiva, the Vedas and sanskrit but Buddha himself appears nowhere in Thoreau's contemplation about nature, which admittedly makes it a bit harder to make a case for him as one of the first great Bodhisattvas of North America.

Rick Fields (the brilliant historian of dharma in America) has suggested that the New England Transcendentalists may have been a little confused about the finer points of distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism, which is readily understandable given the paucity of Eastern texts that had been translated into English at such at early point in the 19th century.

But in fact, no matter how limited Thoreau's formal dharma training may have been, he appears to have been preternaturally gifted in his capacity for spiritual insight and growth. Where the Sixth Patriarch was brought to awakening simply by overhearing the Heart Sutra chanted in the street outside his window, it doesn't seem to have taken much more than that to bring awakening to Thoreau. He read a chapter or two of the Lotus Sutra in translation.  It made enough impression on him that he helped publish part of it for the first time in North America in 1845. For the most part, though, Thoreau seems to have figured out the rest of the dharma by himself, through development of a self-styled Yankee practice of his own, as described in copious detail in the pages of Walden Pond.  As Thoreau himself put it: "The Vedas and their Agamas are not nearly so ancient as serene contemplation."

* * * * *

Dipping into Walden Pond it doesn't take long to notice the Buddhistic qualities of Thoreau's ways of thinking and living. Quite striking from the outset is his presentism and mindfulness. In no uncertain terms he proclaims himself dedicated to the here and now, no less so than Baba Ram Das, or any Zen monk sitting in zazen for that matter. For Thoreau, the depth of his attachment to the present also means he trusts more in the truth of his lived experience than in the wisdom received from books, no matter how ancient their origin. In that sense, he seems even more Zen like, priviledging the insights derived from his quiet contemplation over those found in the sutras.

It's also not hard to see how Thoreau's recipe for living is something of a 19th century American variant of Buddhism's Middle Way. It is a path of compromise between extreme asceticism and extreme indulgence, a path dedicated to simplification and relishing the mundane pleasures of daily life. In Thoreau's case it is a Middle Way between the wilderness and civilization, a modest shack on the outskirts of town, close enough to town for regular visiting but remote enough to preserve the tranquility and space for quiet contemplation.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach," as Thoreau summed up his statement of purpose.  "(N)or did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life ...."

To live more deliberately. What better way could there be to sum up Thoreau's practice of bringing a focused awareness to the daily routines of living.  This is surely a far cry from a meditation based practice of sitting cross legged and concentrating on the breath. Thoreau also meditates but in the manner of a Romantic poet, traipsing across the countryside and paddling after the loon on the Pond, letting loose of himself in the natural world.  But his spiritual practice is really not confined to occasional meditation. His practice is fully expressed in the way he goes about daily life. It is inherent in the meticulous way he builds his cabin by hand, plastering (after digging up his own lime) and stone masonry, keeping track of every penny spent in the process of doing so, and providing a detailed written account.  It partakes of the way he plants his bean rows and sounds the depths of Walden Pond. This hyper self-reliance and awareness of the natural world are the essence of Thoreau's method of spiritual cultivation.  In one beautiful passage he describes it as a matter of bringing the parlor as close to the kitchen and workshop as possible, when it comes to building an appropriate habitation for the human spirit. In other words, Thoreau's practice through living deliberately calls for stripping away all the trappings and indirection of civilization so man or woman may assume full and direct responsibility for his or her own material and spiritual well-being. An adz and an awl have taken the place of a begging bowl.

If nothing else, this underscores just how different Thoreau's notion of practice is from what we encounter in the teachings of the dharma masters.  Thoreau strives for an intensification of self-awareness and heightened mastery over his immediate environment instead of a letting go. The Self is his pathway as opposed to an illusion he seeks to overcome. And yet what's most remarkable is that the ultimate goal of Thoreau's is so strikingly similar to that of any great dharma master. "Not till we are lost, in other words," as Thoreau explains it, "not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations."

Whether we proceed through the Self, or over or around it, Indra's Net is waiting to catch us and hold us in its thrall.  Different as Thoreau's notion of practice may be, his home grown dharma begins to sound very much like what you would expect to hear from a Bodhisattva after all.

* * * * *

This is all I have time for right now. Hard to believe that our month in Nova Scotia is coming to a close and it is almost time to turn my attention back to life beyond the meadow. With any luck I will get around to writing the third and likely final part of this essay next week once we settle back into our Long Island routine.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Prose Poem in Tribute to the Intense Fog of the Maritimes

The sea is no more than sound this morning, advancing or retreating, I have no idea, as the fog holds sway from just off the shoreline to a horizon unseen, all despite the sun's deeply discounted glare.

From the interplay of what is seen and inferred, obscurity gives way to occasional clarity, through the compounding mix of fire water and air.

*  *  *  *  *

*  *  *  *  *

Tide, wind and fog are the controlling elements of life in Nova Scotia.  Tide becomes the major player along the upper reaches of the Bay of Fundy, while wind and fog prevail over most of the rest of the coastline.  The fog may be paramount in its influence both in what it conceals and reveals.  Elizabeth Bishop who was native to these parts described it this way:

The world is a mist
And then the world is
Minute and vast and clear 

Hard to say it more perfectly than that.  But (if you'll forgive me for adding) once you surrender to this landscape, don't be surprised if lighthouses soon begin to figure prominently in your dreams.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Home Grown Dharma (part one)

It's chilly this morning from a stiff onshore breeze; I've come to sit with my back to the sun, facing north into the meadow. I can see but one plump McIntosh hanging ripe on the tree just in front of me. And yet everywhere the dharma abounds, all around, everywhere you look you encounter the world so ripe with the possibilities derived from endless natural experimentation; it's the same stuff that we are all made of, being equal inheritors per stirpes from birth. Grace seems to be singular but really it's not. Nor is truth subject to monopoly power. It's unfettered and therefore it's also fruitful and abundant as it propagates across the open face of the earth.

* * * * *

Enough preamble. Let me get to the point. There is nothing more powerful than dharma that's home grown. Here in this Port Lorne meadow I'm glad to say we seem to be growing a crop of our own. So I want to tell you a little more about what I've been thinking up here in this Nova Scotia meadow.

* * * * *

Yankee and Red Sox fans alike, we each relish getting our own  turn at bat, individualism being hardwired into our North American operating system and core to our beliefs. That's why the insights of Buddha sometimes strike us as discordant with our native disposition. How is it possible to accept no-self or not-self as an honored member of our home team while continuing to cherish and protect our individual rights, privileges and liberties as North American citizens?
Is there any such thing as dharma that's native to our soul and soil?

But any discordance is imagined not real. From my perch in this meadow I can discern a path that allows us to harmonize our Buddha nature with our distinctive cultural heritage that privileges individualism. This is an important wellspring of my current sense of well being, finally having tapped into a dharma that feels truly home grown.

* * * * *

We are accustomed to think of Buddhism as a spiritual practice that is not indigenous to North America. Of the many varieties of Buddhism that have flourished in here, from Gampo Abbey in the eastern extremity to the Tassajara Center in the far west, they have come as transplants from foreign soil, and even as they take root here they remain strongly identified with their original Asian lineages.  Spread across the continent we can find communities that uphold and preserve the Buddhist traditions from Tibet, Korea, China and Japan but where can we find a sangha built around the notion of a distinctively American practice of Buddhism?

In a way then, the development of Buddhism in America, at least so far, seems quite different from the development path it followed all across Asia, where distinctive regional variants of practice emerged, very different from each other, often heavily influenced by syncretic traditions otherwise indigenous to a particular region. So we end up in Tibet with Varjayana Buddhism that incorporates aspects of Bon and in China Chan practice emerges through the absorption of Daoism into the tenets of the Middle Way. And yet in North America we have on display the widest array of world-wide forms of Buddhist practice, that is all except for one we may truly call our own.

It may be that this lack of a distinctly American form of practice can simply be explained by the relatively early stage of development that Buddhism has so far attained in North America. After all, the regional forms of practice in Asia developed over the course of many centuries, as Buddhism gradually established itself in new terrain, and assimilated to unique local conditions, while Buddhism's entire history in the U.S. only extends back about 150 years, and really it's only in the years after World War II that Buddhism has achieved any significant degree of visibility within mainstream American culture, leaving far too little time for any uniquely North American characteristics of practice to emerge.

There is also a case to be made that Buddhism will always remain exogenous here because the idea of no-self cannot be integrated into our self-absorbed and self-obsessed culture.  By this line of reasoning, it is unrealistic to suppose Narcissus will ever discover Buddha in the waters of the lake (no matter how many swans may come to swim upon it).  Self and no-self will remain forever alien to each other.

But in this Port Lorne meadow I have come to the conclusion that such is not the case.  Here the dharma grows abundantly, all the way to the clearing's edge, and who knows how much further into the surrounding spruce forest.  But in order to see it you must first empty your head, by which I mean to say, you have to be ready to accept the familiar world as the strange and wonderful place it truly is.

* * * * *

My first real taste of home grown dharma came from a book that I knew well, or at least thought I did, from prior readings at a much younger age. But I guess in our youth dharma often passes us by or gets confused for something else, whereas once we reach a ripe old age (and just this year I turned 60) we may stand a better chance of taking due note when it's propounded.

In any case, it was in the pages of Walden Pond that I discovered this entirely new sense of Buddhism as somethingbthat could be practiced in a home grown or indigenous way, not requiring any contortionism in order to suit my native disposition. "In every man's brain is the Sanskrit," as Thoreau himself expressed it so succinctly.  And it is up to each of us to decipher the Sanskrit writ within as best we can.

Now I'm certainly not the first person to comment on the Buddha spirit that animates Thoreau's writing. No less an authority than Rick Fields, the brilliant historian of Buddhism in America, devoted an entire chapter of his seminal book (When the Swans Came to the Lake) to discussing the importance of Emerson and Thoreau in setting the stage for the arrival of Buddhism in America in the second half of the 19th century. Fields in particular singles out Thoreau as being "pre-Buddhist" in spirit, as somehow forecasting the true dharma's subsequent arrival.

I see it differently. I see Thoreau himself as the real deal, not merely a precursor but as a true dispenser of something utterly new in the Buddhist canon - a North American Bodhisattva of the very highest order, perhaps the very first in our domestic lineage, propounding a home grown dharma of our very own.

And the essence of this home grown dharma is quite simple: it shows us a way to reconcile our head and our heart. Ego or the self may become a pathway instead of an obstacle that must be overcome. This is not an observation you'll find in the pages of the Lotus or Heart Sutra. But you will find it very clearly expressed in Walden Pond, in a surprisingly accessible way.

(To be continued ... )

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Tweet for the Eclipse

I'm not one of those who looks forward to this afternoon's eclipse as an altogether fortuitous event. I'm far too suspicious by temperament, far too pre-scientific. I'm more inclined to an Aztec or Roman way of thinking about an eclipse as an omen of great but uncertain meaning. It marks one of those times when the future hangs very much in the balance, for good or ill --as if we all didn't know that already, I mean really, how far is General Kelly's hand from the switch?

So in honor of today's solar eclipse here's a little tweet from me ...

We've all heard so much
About the eclipse teed up
For later this afternoon
But what about all the ellipses
Soon to follow? One day perhaps
The sun will more fully oblige us
By briefly standing still