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Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Poetry of Awakening

Every day the same routine, as Layman Pang put it, only with myself in harmony, not right or wrong but abiding.  Today's routine is only different for me because it's the publication date for my new book, The Poetry of Awakening, an anthology of Tang spiritual poetry, The collection includes translations of 78 poems by more than a dozen Daoist and Buddhist poets, illuminating this unique tradition in which poetry merges with spiritual practice.  Layman Pang's poem about his daily routine served as the inspiration for me over the last half dozen years, as I plugged away reading and translating these wonderful poems.

I'm deeply grateful to Marc Estrin and Donna Bister of Fomite Press for their patience, encouragement and invaluable help, without which I would most likely never have seen this project through to completion, and most certainly never would have been able to produce such a handsome book.  This is the first time I have had the chance to work with a publisher in producing one of my books, and despite all my  misgivings about losing control over the process, there's no doubt it pays to have the very best professional help.  

Some but not all of these translations have already been published here on my blog.  But in case you're interested in having a copy to carry along on your next mountain trek or meditation retreat, you can buy it now on Amazon (if you don't mind abetting monopoly power), or pre-order it from Barnes & Noble.  

Here's an excerpt from the preface that explains a bit about what I find so compelling about this poetic tradition:

The poems I've chosen to translate and bring together in this collection were written in China during the first millennium of the Common Era.  They include poems by a diverse group of writers, many of them Buddhists of one stripe or another, others Daoists or fellow travelers of the Buddhist faith.  But even among those who identified as practicing Buddhists, it may be misleading to suppose much commonality of faith: Buddhist spiritual beliefs and practices in China evolved considerably over the course of the centuries in which these poems were written.  Some of the poets collected here were renowned and avowedly secular, while others lived as reclusive hermits, and still others took up orders and lived as members of a monastic community.

Diverse as this grouping of poets may be, and divergent as their life experiences and doctrinal beliefs were, the poems here represent a singular and quite remarkable poetic tradition, which I refer to as the poetry of awakening. The common aspiration was to express through poetry the nature of spiritual awakening, as they experienced it in their own lives.  These are personal poems, deeply felt, which makes them accessible, even thought they speak to us from a distant time and strange culture, and address the loftiest and most abstruse of themes.

At bottom, this tradition rests on an unresolvable paradox.  The assumption (often explicitly stated) of these poets is that the experience of spiritual awakening is incapable of being expressed in words, no matter how artfully a poem may be crafted.  The insights possessed by the awakened mind and heart simply fall beyond the capacity of language.  Why write such poetry at all, then?  Part of the wonder of this tradition is the continued striving to give voice to the inexpressible. The tension wrapped up in this paradox confers to the poems' spiritual depth and power.

Something else I find distinctive about this mode of living and writing is the fusion of poetry and spirituality into part of an integrated practice.  At their best, these poems are not simply exercises of poetic imagination, nor are they merely descriptive of the poet's spiritual life.  They seem directly integrated into the process of spiritual exploration and experience.  Poetry becomes the practice.   


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