There’s a Certain Kind of Buddhist . . .

. . . utterly bereft of a sense of humor. (See the comment thread to this entry about Sarah Palin at the Tricycle Editor’s Blog.) What a bunch of sanctimonious nitwits!

Two Little Zen Books

So I’ve been studying Buddhism over the last year or so, after merely paying attention to it in my peripheral vision for the last decade. For me, that means books, of which I have accumulated a shelf full. I’ve discovered an entire universe of discourse & have only just begun to have a vague map & chronology of the intertwining traditions that make up “Buddhism,” which is not one thing, but many; a pluralist, I find this not only deeply satisfying, but consider that it underwrites the validity, even the truth claims, of Buddhism, since for a pluralist no single approach can be sufficient.

Of the various traditions, though, I have focused mostly on Zen. Of the various Buddhisms, Zen interests itself (more than the others) in literary & artistic matters. (In contrast, the early sutras of the Pali Canon have an outdoors, sunlit, brightly colored quality — a healthy-mindedness — that is also very attractive & that contrasts with Zen’s black & white brush strokes.)

Two main schools of Zen survive today from among the many that have flourished over the centuries since Bodhidharma traveled from the west bringing Buddhism to China in the 6th century. Both schools of Zen, the Soto & the Rinzai, make use of teaching stories called koans, but it is the dominant method in Rinzai, while it is treated more tangentially in the Soto school, which emphasizes “silent illumination.” (At least that is my understanding; experts should feel free to correct me.) In traditional Zen practice, koans are presented almost as law cases, with a brief statement, then the main narrative, then a commentary by one or more teachers, followed sometimes by a capping verse added by still another hand. Sometimes the cases are used by teachers to test students’ understanding; sometimes a student will use a particular case in meditation until it becomes clear — sometimes a matter of months or years! That’s the formal koan tradition & to be honest I don’t know all that much about it, but there is also what might be called an informal tradition of teaching stories that employs some of the same narratives and texts. Stories, I know something about.

That’s a long didactic run-up to mentioning two lovely little books from the Zen storytelling tradition, once ancient & one modern. The Sayings of Layman P’ang (translated by James Green) is a compilation of short conversations between the eponymous layman and various monks & masters. The Layman, who lived between 740 & 808 CE, gives new meaning to the word laconic:

At another time, the Layman asked Ma-tsu, “If you met someone who was a distinctly authentic person, how would you recognize him?” Ma-tsu directed his gaze downward. The Layman said, “Only you are able to play a tune on a stringless harp.” Ma-tsu looked up and the Layman bowed. Ma-tsu then returned to his room. The Layman followed him, saying, “Just now, I tried to trick you, but you made a fool out of me instead.”

The Buddhist tradition has other enlightened lay followers, most notably Vimalakirti, who loved during the Buddha’s time; the Vimalakirti Sutra is loquacious where P’ang’s sayings are hermetic. I prefer the Layman to the elaborations of Vimalakirti, but then I’ve always tended to respect silence — perhaps an odd trait for a poet & a fairly talkative one at that.

There is a blurb on the back of The Sayings of Layman P’ang from John Tarrant, an Australian Zen teacher & the author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros, a modern treatment of several traditional koans, along with some koan-like stories drawn from other traditions. Tarrant has a transparent and lucid prose style that does not get in the way of the stories he’s retelling and that serves the originals well without trying to displace or “improve” them. My favorite story in Tarrant’s book is based on a traditional koan, the title translated by Tarrant as “A Condolence Call,” is also known as “Daowu Won’t Say.” (Here is the formal version of the koan in John Daido Loori’s translation.) Tarrant takes this bare-bones bit of Zen scholasticism about Daowu & Jinyuan and turns it into a deeply human story about a student’s desire to understand & a teacher’s willingness to go to any length to help him. Tarrant adds some characterization & description in the manner of a modern storyteller and expands the narrative a bit; these modest changes, though, add up to something that does justice to the original story but is at the same time completely its own. Tarrant’s version is somehow more good-natured & humorous without in the least descending to parody. As both a teacher & a student, I find Tarrant’s version of this story deeply moving, profound without being freighted with “meaning.” That is, it is in the best Zen tradition, as I understand Zen.

[More koans.]

The Doctrine of Impermanence

Found this at Tricycle Magazine. Check out the comment there from “Bill,” who, whatever kind of Buddhist he is, is severely irony-impaired. Bill hangs around the Tricycle blog as the resident scold & reminds me of the fundamentalist Christians among whom I grew up. Of course, I earn no merit from saying so, which probably makes me a worse Buddhist than him, but I came to Buddhism to get away from humorless absolutism & literalism.

New York Walkabout, Day 2

I better post this before it fades from memory. I would have gotten to it last week, but I have been chairing a search committee in my department and that has required a lot of time and attention (and which, to speak honestly, has been a terrific emotional drain). Anyway, NYC seems like a long time ago now, but I at least want to mention a couple of memorable events from my second day in the city.

I did not range as far afield on Saturday as I did on Friday, but even though I stayed downtown, I still did a lot of walking. I love walking in the city! My main goal for the day was to visit the Rubin Museum of Art, which Carole had told me about. Here’s a chunk of text from their website:

The Rubin Museum of Art (RMA) is home to a comprehensive collection of art from the Himalayas and surrounding regions. The artistic heritage of this vast and culturally varied area of the world remains relatively obscure. Through changing exhibitions and an array of engaging public programs, RMA offers opportunities to explore the artistic legacy of the Himalayan region and to appreciate its place in the context of world cultures. The RMA collection consists of paintings, sculptures, and textiles. Although works of art range in date over two millennia, most reflect major periods and schools of Himalayan art from the 12th century onward.

I wanted in particular to see the Buddhist art in the collection and since there was too much to absorb in one visit, I decided to focus on sculpture. This means that I walked past a great number of fascinating and beautiful objects, but it allowed me to leave the museum after a couple of hours with something like a coherent set of impressions. One of my main impressions, though, was the glorious architecture of the museum itself. The building is nondescript from the outside, looking like a corner office block on W. 17th & 7th Ave. (I took the 1 train up from Tribeca.), the inside has been hollowed out into five mezzanines with an elegant circular opening for a spiral staircase that runs up the center of the building. There are thematically organized exhibition spaces on each level. Here is the official description:

The 70,000-square-foot museum occupies what was formerly a portion of the Barneys department store in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. It was acquired in 1998 and renovated extensively from 2000-2004. [. . .] Many of the most important details within the building have been retained from its previous life, most notably Andree Putman’s steel-and-marble staircase that spirals dramatically through the seven-story gallery tower. In addition to spacious yet intimate galleries for featured exhibitions, the museum includes space for contemporary and historical photography, an art-making studio, a state-of-the-art theater for multimedia events and performances, a cafe, and a gift shop.

The museum’s ambient lighting is somewhat darker than one at first expects, but this has the result of putting each work in a pool of light that encourages contemplation. On the day I was there, the space was busy but not crowded, with a couple of groups of well-behaved school children moving about and whispering to each other. One little girl in particular struck me as the perfect museum-goer: She must have been ten or eleven years old, skinny as a stick, with a big shock of brown hair that kept falling in her face so that she had to hold it back to read the information cards beside the objects she was looking at. And she was reading the cards, unlike most of her cohort, who were flitting happily from one pretty or macabre object to another. She would lean forward slightly, reading the description, then stand back purposefully and look at the object, sometimes returning to the text for more information. Our paths crossed several times during my couple of hours in the museum and this child was always absorbed in steadily looking at the object in front of her. I wanted to be inside her brain — to see what it would be like to see these things without all my years of education and experience — to see them “ignorantly” and eagerly, as it were. I left the RMA in a buoyant state of mind and walked south through the Village, where I bought myself a straw fedora from a sidewalk vendor, trying to imagine what these streets looked like forty years ago when they were the haunt of Bob Dylan, Dave von Ronk, Ramblin’ Jack Eliot, and all the rest of the folkies I listened to in high school and college. Hell, I still listen to them.

On the way back to my hotel, I sat and rested my legs in a little park, then strolled (like any good flaneur in his fedora) south, taking everything in, balancing my rural existence with this intake of the urban air, both literal and metaphorical.

Went back to the hotel and had a nap, read for a bit, then began thinking about dinner. When I’m alone in the city — NY or Hanoi, etc — I don’t like to go to fancy restaurants by myself — such experiences are best when shared, but I did want to have one snazzy meal while I was in the city. Fortunately, the hotel’s own cafe fit the bill perfectly. I had a bar-made soda, a panini and French onion soup, then pie and ice cream for desert, followed by strong coffee. Cash only, but with tip under $30. The next morning I took a cab to LaGuardia and was home in the early evening, even with the long boring drive from Burlington to South Colton.

NYC Walkabout, Day One

Left the hotel early on Friday morning and walked slowly uptown, got a coffee at one of the two million Starbucks along Broadway, and went to sit in Union Square for awhile watching dogs and people, mostly dogs. Bright, cool morning & everyone — canine & human — looked frisky. Went to the Strand and looked around, but didn’t buy anything because I didn’t want to carry a bag of books with me all day. As I was scouting the poetry section, I asked one of the store employees who was busy with her cart putting books on shelves if she ever got tired of books. “Nope, never,” she said, an answer I found lovely & heartening. “Me neither,” I said. Continue reading “NYC Walkabout, Day One”