Religious Poetry

I’ve been reading John Donne this week & consequently thinking about religious poetry. It took several years of Zen practice to enable me to go back to the Christian tradition of religious poetry. I’m writing a longer piece about these matters, but thought I’d post this song by rock & roller John Hiatt as an example of good religious poetry. One doesn’t expect to find a religious on a rock album, but there you have it.

Through Your Hands

You were dreaming on a park bench
‘Bout a broad highway somewhere
When the music from the carillon
Seemed to hurl your heart out there
Past the scientific darkness
Past the fireflies that float
To an angel bending down
To wrap you in her warmest coat

And you ask, “What am I not doing?”
She says “Your voice cannot command.
In time, you will move mountains,
And it will come through your hands.”

Still you argue for an option
Still you angle for your case
Like you wouldn’t know a burning bush
If it blew up in your face
Yeah, we scheme about the future
And we dream about the past
When just a simple reaching out
Might build a bridge that lasts


So whatever your hands find to do
You must do with all your heart
There are thoughts enough
To blow men’s minds and tear great worlds apart
There’s a healing touch to find you
On that broad highway somewhere
To lift you high
As music flying
Through the angel’s hair.


Sesshin at ZMM

Note: I have moved this earlier post to the top because I have added a long update. I deeply, deeply miss not being at sesshin this week. I think that may come out in the way I track the first full day of sesshin–I like just going over in in my mind.

The Summer Solstice Sesshin begins tomorrow at Zen Mountain Monastery, my spiritual home. I have sat a couple of dozen of these retreats over the last three years or so: I always went in filled with trepidation & emerged at the end of the week (usually) filled with gratitude. How I envy my fellow sangha-members who will be beginning sesshin tomorrow with a reading of the Sesshin Precautions, a list of guidelines for maintaining the inner & outer silence of the retreat. Under different circumstances, I would be arriving at ZMM tomorrow. But since I have the circumstances I have, I will try to bear in mind the spirit of the retreat during the coming week. I will not be able to sit the long hours of zazen, of course, but I want to respect & bolster that silence as best I can right here in my perch beside the river.

Update: I am trying in imagination & home practice to go through each day of sesshin with my sangha at ZMM. Monday: People arrive & stow their gear in their rooms or cabins; the retreat silence has not yet begun, so people chat & bring each other up to date, new people are greeted; there is dinner at 6:00, with training for service positions; most people continue to chat in the dining room or go to their quarters to settle in; at 8:00 everyone is settled in the zendo for the reading of the Precautions–the guidelines for sesshin: Silence (except for giving or receiving instructions during work-practice); averted eyes (don’t look directly at anyone, focus inwardly; don’t exchange greetings when you meet someone in passing; be on time, stay on the schedule (or a senior monastic, even the abbot, my roust you out of bed); there are others about dressing modestly (not a problem is you are a formal student wearing a robe that covers you from shoulders to ankles), not sleeping naked, when & where to wear shoes, etc. After the reading of the Precautions, the Four Bodhisattva Vows are chanted, the gong is struck, and the sesshin is in silence. People go up to bed. Tuesday: Depending on the time of year, the jikido bangs the big drum in the zendo three times & makes the round of all the hallways ringing a bell to announce the beginning of the day at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning, though some people will have gotten up already in order to sit some extra zazen; there is a bit of a scramble for bathrooms & after that everyone heads for the zendo to sit two or three periods of zazen, depending on the season,which is followed by Oryoki, a formally organized breakfast in the zendo.1 After Oryoki, there are two hours of work practice. Then back to the zendo for two periods of zazen, followed by Oryoki lunch. Then there is an hour-long break, unless you have been assigned to the kitchen clean-up crew, which reduces this to about 40 minutes. A little before 2:00 pm, the drum sounds, students climb back into their robes & everyone goes again to the zendo, where everyone will now sit five half-hour periods of zazen2 broken by six or seven minutes of kinhin, walking meditation, either in the zendo or outdoors, weather permitting. At the end of this mental & physical ordeal, the gong is struck & everyone goes down to the dining room for informal (non-Oryoki) dinner, all in silence, with averted eyes, of course. (The food is universally excellent at ZMM, astonishing since the Head Cook & assistant are drawn from the residents & they have usually had no prior training as cooks. This is one of the central elements that support practice during a sesshin. People are very thoughtful about their food–or should be. Oryoki means “just enough,” by the way). After dinner, a couple more periods of zazen, then lights out.

Second Update: This post is becoming a little unshapely, but I want to give a much briefer description of the subsequent days of sesshin. After the long, hard Tuesday, Wednesday to Friday have virtually identical structures. Instead of the very long period of zazen that occurs on Tuesday, two of those periods are replaced by a teisho (dharma talk) from the abbot or one of the senior students. So the “container” remains much the same, but the daily experience of the middle days of sesshin follow–at least for me–a path that becomes familiar after having done a few sesshin. (I’ve talked to other students who confirm that I am not alone in the general outlines of my perceptions here.) Wednesday is hard because one is not quite ready, even yet, while at the same time knowing there is yet a long way to go. From Wednesday to Saturday, also, one meets with one’s teacher in dokusan, face-to-face teaching. You don’t get a lot of sleep during sesshin & you must focus to practice precisely, so you’re tired. Sometimes by late on Wednesday, I will have a couple of invigorating periods of zazen & energy comes flooding back. This can be a problem if it happens just before lights out. I usually have one night of sleeplessness during sesshin, often Wednesday. Thursday is my favorite day–at best I sail through it. Friday can easily turn ragged; if you are working on a koan, your teacher has probably rejected at least one of your presentations, which is frustrating. Also, by Friday, most people are bone-tired, except perhaps some of the monastics who have done this every month for years. Saturday is the last full day. Usually I get a second wind & feel happy, but it is inevitable that my thoughts begin to turn toward home. Instead of working on my koan, it will occur to me during zazen that I have to complete some task when I return home. Saturday follows the regular pattern, but the silence of sesshin is lifted just before dinner so that people may talk to each other.This first meal outside the silence can be joyous or difficult. If one has had a tough sesshin, bright conversation may not be so easy to take part in. But for the most part, sesshin participants laugh & talk, sometimes turning to serious matters, sometimes just joking around. On Sunday morning sesshin participants take part in the regular Sunday service at the monastery along with the public. There’s a big lunch after the service & then one does indeed drive home to take up the tasks of everyday life, “an ordinary person of no rank.” There is a real emotional arc to sesshin that serves psychologically to hear the teachings & to go deep into the emptiness of the self.3

I have written the above account as [two] single blocks because that is often how it feels experientially, though one makes little markers throughout the day & the week to gauge progress. It would probably be better not to do this, but I’ve always found it necessary to give myself little reassurances such as, “Lunch is finished, here’s rest-practice, half the day is past,” or even, glancing at my watch, “Twelve more minutes of rest-practice, ahh.”4 I deeply, deeply miss not being at sesshin this week.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. I’m going to write an entire post on Oryoki.
  2. This was always the hardest period of the whole sesshin for me. On subsequent days, two of those five periods will be replaced by a talk from the abbot or one of the senior students. During talks, one is allowed to discreetly shift from one zazen position to another. The mind during talks is facing outward.
  3. A note on the language of this paragraph: I found myself disconcerted to be jumping around the ragged collection of pronouns offered by English, especially those marking point of view, jumping from first to second to formal third person. Partly the is the result of forcing the pronouns to serve both the purpose of addressing the reader (“you,” “one”) & characterizing the experience of the participants, both singly & as a collective (“I,” “we”). A jumpy point of view.
  4. At ZMM, everything is a practice–something undertaken with conscious engagement, even a nap.

Moon Rise / Full Moon

I could see the full moon at 10:42 tonight through the tangle of maple branches heavy with leaves. It will be at least another hour before the moon clears the top of the tallest maple, by which time I hope to be asleep, though perhaps a little awake inside my sleep. That’s how I experienced the huge thunderstorm that passed through last night about 1:00 in the morning, & the robins’ dawn chorus as well.

Two Lucid Sleep Haiku

The robins began at four-thirty but did not
wake me up with their dawn singing.
How do I know the time?
They woke me inside of sleep.

Before the birds there was a violent
thunderstorm that woke me briefly—
it crashed & blasted inches from my face
on the other side of my window.

Phenomenology: Flooded by the Life Force?

Was I flooded by the life force overnight so that I could wake feeling this blissful? Or am I just high on Percocet? I slept only in bits & pieces last night, actually. Haven’t had this sort of insomnia in quite a while, but when I woke just now after sleeping an hour (from 4:00 to 5:00) I felt filled with bliss. Did the pickup (probably) with a bad muffler wake me? Can’t remember, but I was aware of it coming over the bridge & turning left onto Three Falls Road by following the sound it made downshifting for the turn then accelerating slowly up the first hill across the reservoir. The sound of that broken muffler echoing around the woods & open water & off the banks of the river made me aware how far my sense of hearing reaches, orienting me in space–at least out here in the country–on a far greater scale than my sense of sight. Even when I’m watching the moon, I tend to bring the moon down to me rather than gaining some sense of the great distance between myself & it. I make it intimate. But with the sound of a truck laboring uphill on an otherwise silent summer morning, all of space becomes intimate–“I placed a jar in Tennessee . . .”

A Deceptive Lyric by Robert Hass

You thought it was just going to be about flowers. You thought it was going to veer into the dark that way. You didn’t know there would be history & geography. You didn’t think it would be a poem about poetry–or maybe you did. You love the way it slips sideways just slightly to deliver, not a punch, but the blow of a feather.


Some Random Vietnam Photos

Ed Mycue was asking in comments if I could post more Vietnam photos, so here is a selection taken mostly in & around Hanoi, with a few from Hue & Saigon (these latter mostly food). A few of the photos have gotten a little post production, but most are unretouched jpeg files. Some of these were taken with a Nikon D-90 & some with an iPhone. Most of the images are from 2010 & 2012; I’ll put together another gallery from my most recent trip one of these days. Click on an image to enlarge it.