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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 ...

Saturday, December 16, 2017

What Resides Inside the Body of Dharma (by Wang Wei)

This poem by Wang Wei is not easy to understand or to translate but I decided to give it a try anyway this morning.  Whatever its poetic merits may be, it is full of elliptical Chan insight. Maybe the best way to enjoy it is as a poetic gloss on Mahayana Buddhism -- emptiness that lacks all emptiness perhaps being the poet's way of reformulating the Mahayana notion that all dharmas are essentially dharma-less! 

A Summer Visit to Azure Dragon Monastery 
to Visit Chan Master Cao

A feeble old man
Walks slowly
Through the Chan temple
Come to pay respects

Yearning to inquire about
The meaning at the heart of meaning
And to reach understanding of
Emptiness that lacks all emptiness

Mountains rivers and sky
All beheld within the eye
The entire world resides
Inside the body of Dharma

There’s nothing strange
Everything melts in scorching heat
And soon it will be reborn
From the union of wind and earth


龙钟一老翁     徐步
山河天眼里     世界法身中
莫怪     能生大地

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The First Scent of Snow

In wonder at the spirit that quickens a dog's step, Bailey and I went out for our walk this morning on a fresh blanket of snow.  Having been reared in Alabama, it was Bailey's first real taste of winter in the northeast, and it was thrilling to see her take to it -- a chance for me to experience the wordless joys of first snowfall all over again.  Everything she needed to know was right there in the snowbank and the rush of chill air up her nose; a world teeming with the smell of life despite its seeming absence, as beneath each downy flake she stood to discover a trace of animal presence laying in wait.  She pawed at it and frolicked some, and then eyed the horizon line in utter amazement that the world can be reinvented overnight in such a remarkable way.  A shudder of delight passed through her body as she shook the flakes from her own coat. 

O Joshu, sometimes I'm truly baffled how you could entertain even a moment of doubt about the Buddha nature that resides within the breast of every living beast, Bailey no less than you and me.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

A Song from Cold Mountain - is it a koan or poem?

The Songs of Cold Mountain is a collection of several hundred Tang Dynasty poems that are often attributed to a single poet known as Han Shan or the Cold Mountain poet.  There are a number of legends that have developed around the figure of Han Shan -- he was a hermit monk who supposedly inscribed his poems on the rocks and cliffs that surrounded his mountaintop dwelling.   Yet there are some modern scholars who have suggested that these songs are not the work of a single poet but more likely were written by various hermits and monks living in or around the same remote mountaintop over the span of more than 100 years - the Cold Mountain collective, as it were.

Whether you prefer to think of these poems as the work of a single monk or a collective effort, there is a wide range evident in the style and tone of the poems that comprise the collection.  Some are deeply personal - they sound like the first hand observations of a hermit monk as he sits in meditation and watches the clouds gather and disperse in front of his cave. They are serene and utterly remarkable transcriptions of a Chan monk's inner life. (You can read a few translations of Han Shan's more personal and contemplative poems by clicking here.)  Others are more concerned with doctrinal matters and have a far less personal in flavor.  They read as if they were intended or specifically addressed to a public audience of disciples or fellow believers; often they discuss various nuances of the dharma.

This morning I translated one of the poems in the latter category.  What caught my attention was the striking claim in the poem's first two lines which at first struck me as a bit inconsistent, or at least hard to reconcile, with the basic tenets of Buddhism as embodied in the Four Noble Truths.

I’ve heard it said that worries are hard to get rid of
But that expression is not really true


Intriguing right?  This doesn't sound like something you would expect to hear from a Chan Buddhist monk sitting on a mountaintop.  We encounter suffering everywhere throughout our life passage, from cradle to grave.  So how exactly is it possible for us to easily slough off our troubles?

It may help to understand this poem to think of it as something of a koan - a riddle or attempt to tease out a deeper truth that underlies this apparent contradiction.  Here's my complete translation of the riddle and one possible resolution.

I’ve heard it said that worries are hard to overcome
But that expression is not really true
What happened yesterday
Is already behind you
And today you face a whole
New set of woe
Next month will bring
Worries even more extreme
And the following year
Will bring new ones
And newer ones after that too
No one really knows
Who will enjoy the banquet next year
That’s the way it’s always been
What worries a person today
Will soon be in the past


The seeming contradiction is resolved when we realize the important distinction between our worry about suffering and suffering itself.  We may not be able to avoid the slings and arrows of fortune, outrageous or otherwise - suffering in life no doubt is unavoidable.  But to worry about suffering, well that's another matter entirely.  Our worries turn out to be easily overcome in the same way today's concerns are soon supplanted by the new crop of worry that tomorrow is sure to bring.  As everything in life is transitory, our worries prove to be so too, and that's why worry is in fact easily overcome.

Is it a poem or a koan?  Perhaps it's best to embrace it as a little bit of both in order to fully grasp the spiritual insight that Han Shan, the mountaintop poet and monk is ready to share with us.  And what's the difference between a poem and a koan after all - neither one is ever susceptible to a definitive translation or understanding, as we keep reading and pondering, and our understanding continues to develop.  

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

My Morning Commute (for Matthew Zapruder)

Taking a 6 am bus into NYC yesterday for a meeting, I had a copy of Matthew Zapruder's new collection The Pajamaist to keep me company on the ride.  I dozed off after a while - no knock on Zapruder's fine poetry, but a function of the very early hour.  I woke up with a phrase from one of Zapruder's poems in my head and wrote this poem of my own. 

That's how it starts
Poetry is a way
To figure things out loud
(talking yourself back to sleep)
A process undeniable
Playful yet earnest
Drenched in the aroma of youth

Then one day you awake
To discover the universe
Is a lover willing to open
All her silken robes for you
And then what my friend?
No royalty checks to speak of
No platform for either
Publishing or prayer
Just you and your scribbling

Sitting on a rush-hour bus
The road slick in a chill rain
You must have dozed off
Shaking off dreams
Out the window
There's a field of rubble
Amidst the row houses
In middle Queens
And now it seems
Like you still have
A lot of explaining to do
With love diminished
For language games
The fable drinker in the park that's you
Realizes there is barely time left
For speaking the truth

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

I Too Am Much Alone in This World - in reply to Rilke

I too am much alone in this world
I thought you would never ask
There’s some that do
And others who can’t seem to stay on task
There are poets beholden to a higher truth
And those who aren’t very good at math
We’re all so alone in the world
Yet together we travel such a crowded path
Consecrated or not we may never know
Now that our time
Has all but passed

Yesterday was Rilke's birthday and I wrote this poem in reply to one of his poems called I Am Much Too Alone in this World.  You can read Rilke's poem here.


Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Marvel of a Marbled Sky

Here we are approaching a critical moment in the lunar cycle, at least ifor like me you subscribe to the basic tenets of Daoist cosmology.  There's a super-moon rising tonight as the moon approaches its perigee.  We are also close to the shortest day of the year as the sun falls into its most diminished capacity.  There's a madman on the throne and things all around us seem to have fallen into a deeply troubled and unsettled state.  This is all perfectly explained as a result of the Yin Ascendency. 

Through the marvel of a marbled sky
Vaulted reminder of autumn passing us by
This morning the sun began reclining southward
No sooner than it rose in the east
Daylight now being held on its tightest leash
And what remains of it will be spent
Awaiting tonight’s main event with 
The veiled ascent of the Cold Moon


For those so inclined to continue tonight's lunar celebration, here is my translation of a poem by Li He called The Tenth Moon, the Cold Moon also being the tenth full moon of the year, according to the traditional Chinese lunar calendar.  And this year, as it happens, the Tenth Moon's arrival finds us in this unsettled state, half frozen, the shadows dancing, a madman on the throne; it's a super-moon rising, as the moon approaches its perigee, and we all strain to reach the moment of the Yin extremity.

The water won’t pour from
The jade vase’s slender silver spout

The hanging lantern casts its shadow and light
Playing hide and seek with the night

Frost broken and scattered and dancing
Is spread like a canopy across the lawn

Two rows of candles in their wicker baskets
Shine outside the lady’s chamber

Behind the pearl screen she lies
Troubled and unable to sleep

The gold phoenix has been pricked by a thorn
Not even the bedclothes will keep her warm

Long eyebrows so perfectly matched
The moon strains to reach its climax