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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, April 27, 2016

On First Meeting Your New Best Friend

The more real you get, the more unreal the world gets
-   John Lennon          

A friend posted this quote on FB the other day.  The more real you get is such a distinctively 60's expression.  It's also striking to me how as we journey East to West there's a dramatically different way of describing the path to enlightenment.  Lennon is speaking and thinking here in a typically western fashion - striving for a radically subjective I - in his formulation, higher consciousness can be achieved by making the Self more real, whatever that means.

A Buddhist takes the exact opposite approach - deeper awareness is attained by journeying down a path of self-diminishment, and enlightenment comes within reach when ego is altogether transcended - making the Self as unreal as it can get.

Truly we live in an interesting time - when these two previously distinct strands of thinking and being are now in the process of being braided together as one.  This is a movement that has been happening fitfully over the last century or so, ever since the swans of Buddhism first came to North American shores.  And now the confluence is well on the way to becoming a more established fact - the Self (in all its western glory and adornment) is now learning to stand astride of the Not-Self;  they are soon to be bosom buddies in fact, like matter and anti-matter or spirit and flesh, rolled up as one.


A Name for All Ten Thousand Things

Here is something I realized today as I was translating a verse of the Dao De Jing.  In the west we tend to think of poetry as a special type of writing, whether rhymed, metered or blank verse; poetry is somehow set apart, different and distinct.  Ironically, an important part of what makes writing poetic for us is the acknowledgment of the inadequacy of our everyday language as a means of conveying deeper meaning or intent. Consequently, our finest western poets -- from Shakespeare to Auden -- resort to all sorts of sensual trickery and special effects in order enhance and expand on the literal meaning of their written work.

But in the classical Chinese tradition, poetry is not really so different from other types of writing. Take for example classic texts like the I Ching and the Dao De Jing.  By the rules of composition, these books don't conform or fit into any recognized poetic form, genre or tradition. And yet these great prose texts are best understood as pure poetry, since they are composed with a clear recognition of the fundamental inadequacy of mere words as a means of expressing what it is that must be said. And that's why, notwithstanding their very limited vocabulary and rudimentary grammar, these books somehow manage to provide us with a luminous and truthful description of life in the realm of ten thousand things, with a power commensurate to any of our western canonical works.

Poetry is our first
And best language
Uninflected and unpunctuated
 It's how we describe the world 
While holding the bars of our crib

And once again after we realize  
Even with a proper name 
Assigned to every single being
Adam still struggles mightily
To make himself well understood

What can be learned from Chinese literature and culture is an entirely different way of approaching reality - a mode of apprehension that does not require a name for every thing.  In classic texts like the I Ching and Chuang Tzu, as well as throughout the enormous body of surviving Tang poetry, we find writers who spoke and composed their work in that first and best language, which does not privilege subject or object but rather points us towards a mode of existence and thought somewhere in between, unselfconscious and free, much the same way a bird sings its song.  

It's worth noting, that the world-view of classical Chinese civilization bears some remarkable similarities to the contemporary trends in physics and cognitive science.  As the physicist John Wheeler was quoted in a recent issue of The Atlantic:  "Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists "out there" independent of us, that view can no longer by upheld."

For those of you who are interested in reading a more philosophically rigorous discussion along these lines, I strongly recommend that you put your hands on a copy of the wonderful book The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject Through Painting, by Francois Jullien.  I am greatly indebted to Jullien for his graceful ability to leap across the East-West divide. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

To Freedom's Sweet Vintage

My cousin Susan asked me to write a poem for her that she can read at Seder tomorrow night.  She's celebrating with extended family who have their own unique tradition (thanks to the initiative of Joe Fisher) of incorporating poetry into the Haggadah service - it seemed like an opportunity too good to pass up, at least for a poet like me, who is always eager for a chance to swim upstream to mingle with some actual liturgical verse.

(as you can see for yourself
a poem is no less a vessel 
than a Kiddush Cup)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Maritime Metaphor

The other day Marissa and I went for a walk on Chisler's Beach where we found a huge cache of shells that had washed up with high tide.  I'd never seen anything quite like this - a stretch of 50 meters or so littered with blue crabs, large clams and nautilus shells.  It was like a sessile convention - only more so because it was completely lifeless.  A local fisherman explained to me that this was probably the result of a recent Coast Guard raid on a fishing trawler; when the Coast Guard boards a vessel that lacks proper licensing, they confiscate the catch and apparently throw it overboard, resulting in this appalling waste.  Salvaging what we could, Marissa tried to make the best of it with an arrangement on our credenza and I did what I could with this poem - another example of the free associational (and deep metaphorical) opportunities provided by the flotsam and jetsam we encounter every day as we go about our business.

*  *  *  *  *

By the law of the sea
Look what's come back to me
If not a maritime metaphor 
For the ego's foundational error
As compounded by growth
In this fine assortment 
Of Nautilus shells that
Spirals front to back
Arrayed by size 
In ascending order 
Each a center of the universe
An entirety unto itself

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Sure Sign of Spring

Just like a dream
Breaking through
From another realm
The first stalk of asparagus 
Emerges from its bed
With no thought of
Turning back now

If not now when
I hear it now and again and
See it everywhere around me
In the garden growing
As the present perseverates
Into an extended poem

Written in accordance
With a grammar that
Mutates each time you
Turn a corner or enter
A new phase of the song

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

In the Violet Sanctum

for Marissa

Through the curtain
Of water beads
You passed into
The realm of Zion
And first gained access
To the African Violet’s
Innermost doorway

And there you
Snapped this photo
Of blossoms half opened
Like heads bowed in prayer
That provides us with a glimpse
Of life on the growing edge
In radiant spring light
Vast as a continent
It unfolds before us
Awaiting discovery 
A place where faith
Still holds full sway