Buddhists sometimes bristle at the idea of meditation as therapy, though at the same time there is a thriving Buddhist therapy axis in American culture. And while I had been circling Buddhism for much of my adult life, I only came to it as a serious practice through “therapeutic” practice. I had come to a point in my life during my fifties when I was experiencing a great deal of anxiety & I found the guided meditation practices of Jon Kabat-Zinn extremely helpful in getting hold of my self. Kabat-Zinn’s techniques, of course, are basically desacralized Zen & after I had emerged from what was actually, I see now, a deep crisis of faith, I returned to some of my earlier reading about Buddhism in general and Zen in particular. That was a couple of years ago & I have been sitting zazen pretty much every day since then with only a couple of short breaks. Over the last six months I have been sitting twice a day.
I had lost my faith, in my mid-fifties, in the only religion I had ever believed in, the religion of poetry. But that’s really another story — I started out to write about happiness. As I began to sit more often & for longer periods, I noticed that I was not just calmer, but happier. A lot happier. And this worried me. As a new student of Zen, I was trying to be Very Serious. After all, the great Zen masters are always talking about “clarifying the essential point” & reminding one that “life and death are of supreme importance” & so on. And what about kensho & enlightenment & realizing one’s true nature? But then it occurred to me that maybe happiness — not frivolity, but happiness — is one’s true nature, or part of it at least. Why deny this aspect of reality?
One of the things I hated as a kid about going to church was the deadly grimness of it all. I didn’t sense any of that at the monastery last month. You can probably find grim zendos, but Zen, I think — much of Buddhism, actually — starts from the idea of an original freedom whereas Christianity starts with Original Sin. I’m not ecumenical about this: I think there is a fundamental difference, but that, too, is another story.
I’ve been meaning to say how much I enjoyed being a judge at the poetry slam sponsored by Spectrum at Clarkson with MC Rives. The quality of the poems varied considerably, but the quality of the spirit held up very well. At least until the end when some of the poets who had been eliminated chose to leave before the winners performed. Not a lot of class in that move, kids. What I noticed, also, was an almost universal tendency to go on too long. Several of the poets / performers presented pieces that made their point effectively in, say 90 seconds, but then felt compelled to go on for another minute with what almost always amounted to explanation, commentary, or mere repetition. Still, an enjoyable evening that we need to repeat.
In the burnished light of winter
the different greens reveal themselves –
pulse of spruce, metallic sheen of pine
& the glow of the cedar’s golden green:
Bright neon of moss where the wind
has kicked the snow away.
Hmm . . . looking at this now, I don’t like it as much as I did at first. Not crazy about those three uses of of in the middle part. And clearly, the poem is really just an excuse for the verb kicked, weakened, I see now, by has. (I had a hard time deciding between kicked & scuffed.) The problem is that the language doesn’t successfully embody the perception, which is that there are subtle differences between the kinds of green one sees in a winter landscape.
Having put together a couple of little grants & my annual travel money from my department, I’ll be going to Vietnam this summer for around six weeks, spending most of my time in Hanoi doing some editing at Th? Gi?i and working on a project to collect information about a handful of early Buddhist poets. I’ll probably go to Hué for a week to visit Pagodas with my friend Mai, too. If I could collect enough texts & biographical materials for a little anthology, that would be great, but working from the US all I have are tantalizing hints. Here is a picture of Hŕng Mă St. I took several years ago that suggested to me the idea of going places, but checking the Vietnamese spelling of Hŕng Mă just now, I discovered this amazing panoramic picture, which is the next best thing to being there. This will be my seventh trip to VN in fourteen years.
First Listen: Leonard Cohen, ‘Old Ideas’ : NPR. This isn’t shipping until the end of the month & I’ve pre-ordered it, but it was cool to be able to listen to an advance copy. Not sure how long NPR will leave it up. The New Yorker printed the first song on the album as a poem in its most recent issue.
. . . has won a prize from the American Literary Review.
Here is what Joanie Mackowski, who judged the poetry contest, thought of the winning poem, “Lake Surface Full of Clouds”:
“Stretching its keen observations and minutely choreographed sentences over the advancing paw prints of its lines, “Lake Surface Full of Clouds” makes language ductile and makes the reader recall the animal and chemical pleasures of reading. This poem finds an atomic pulse: ‘thing & song// in their wild fullness full’.” The poem will appear in the Spring 2012 issue of ALR.