Friday, September 25, 2009

Poetry Friday: Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis

Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis

by Philip Whalen

I praise those ancient Chinamen
Who left me a few words,
Usually a pointless joke or a silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the margin of a quick
                         splashed picture—bug, leaf,
                         caricature of Teacher
    on paper held together now by little more than ink
    & their own strength brushed momentarily over it
Their world & several others since
Gone to hell in a handbasket, they knew it—
Cheered as it whizzed by—
& conked out among the busted spring rain cherryblossom winejars
Happy to have saved us all.

I admit that this is the only Philip Whalen poem I have read. I loved this poem when I saw it in the Shambhala Sun (thank you, Shambhala Sun, for the artwork, which I scanned from your magazine -- consider this my request for permission) and I thereupon bought the Collected Poems. The book is two inches thick and runs 871 pages.

I think I could have done with a Selected Poems.

After a respectful number of days/weeks/months/years have passed, I will give the book away. Maybe to my neighbor, a poet himself whose livingroom walls are laid in poetry books, since he greeted the book with, "Hey, Philip Whalen! Great!"  (My husband is a poet as well, but I won't allow our livingroom walls to be more than partially composed of poetry books; also, he greeted the book with a calm indifference.) For now, it sits on my "Buddhist/Writing" shelf, along with One Continuous Mistake and Momma Zen.

Once upon a time, I used to write poetry myself. Now, just the occasional haiku.  However, when I write my children's books, they often take form, in my mind and on the page, as poems. Particularly Polar Bear Night and my latest, The Christmas Magic. But more on that some other time.

Propers due:

Philip Whalen, "Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis" text and art from The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen copyright © 2007 by Brandeis University Press and reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.

Source: The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen (Wesleyan University Press, 2007) 

P.S. When my husband read this post, he exclaimed, "Don't give away the Philip Whalen! I do want to read it. I was waiting for you to be done with it." I've turned the book over to him.

Who knew how important blogging could be to marital harmony?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Attached to Tea

Or perhaps I should say, "attached to caffeine."

I've been thinking about the connection between Buddhism and tea, or caffeine. It goes way back. All the way back, it seems (i.e. according to Alan Watts and many web-sources which may all be pointing back to Watts, for all I can tell), to Bodhidharma, the monk from India who brought Buddhism to China.

Bodhidharma is traditionally portrayed with brooding seriousness, but without eyelids. According to legend, he spent nine years staring at the wall of a cave, intent on piercing his way through to enlightenment. At one point, frustrated that his tired eyes kept closing, he tore off his eyelids and tossed them to the ground. They sprouted into tea bushes. What he saw as the problem became the solution for his drowsiness.

The solution was caffeine.

I wonder how this fits in with the Five Precepts, in particular with the fifth precept, which translated from Pali reads: "I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness." In Thay's tradition, the fifth "mindfulness training" expands the rule to avoiding the consumption of anything that contains "toxins," from alcohol and drugs to certain movies and conversations. This training has been very helpful for me, supporting me for instance in my decision to skip much of the current cinema, which I consider too violent, and current television, which I find completely vapid. I summarize the training for myself as avoiding the consumption of things that cloud the mind, one way or another. My aim is clarity of mind.

It just bothers me that in the morning, I don't have much clarity of mind before I have my tea. It used to be coffee -- over the years, I've cut back from two strong cups of coffee, to one cup, to three cups of black tea, to two, and now just one. I'm down to one cup of tea in order to combat anxiety and sleeplessness. But the idea of leaving behind that one cup makes me pretty unhappy. PLEEEEZE don't make me give up caffeine entirely!

(No, green tea in the morning just won't cut it. And don't even mention decaf. The pleasure is in the taste AND the kick together, don't you see?)

I think that I am a little attached (okay, addicted) to caffeine. And yet I feel justified in holding on to it, because caffeine seems to hold a sanctioned, if not sanctified, position in Buddhist practice. I've many times seen mention, in the American Buddhist magazines, of bringing oneself right to the cushion in the morning, after rising and making oneself a cup of coffee. I know that coffee is a daily ritual for many members of my sangha. I have heard that at least one monastic in our tradition starts the day with a cup of coffee, and another with tea. And there is the whole Zen tea ceremony thing.

Thay even has a gatha for drinking tea:

This cup of tea in my two hands -
Mindfulness held uprightly!
My mind and body dwell
in the very here and now.

But I suspect he is speaking of green or white tea, not strong English Breakfast tea, dark enough to need milk.

At least I try to be mindful as I make the tea, try to enact the ritual as just that, a sort of ceremony for starting the day, and not as merely a set of actions I find myself doing yet again, wishing someone else had already cleaned out the tea ball. Maybe mindfulness makes the attachment part okay. Or, at least makes it part of the path. But I don't think that awareness of attachment is the goal of the path. Mindfulness of addiction is not what the Buddha meant by freedom. Just being aware of an attachment is not enough to free yourself of the suffering caused by the attachment. Especially if you don't really want to free yourself of the suffering caused by the attachment.

Well, I do want to be free of the suffering (the pre-tea grumpiness, the headache). I just don't want to be free of the cause of the suffering. Because I really like my one cup of caffeine ... er, tea.

I'm reminded of a story I heard the year I attended Quaker meeting. William Penn, governor of Pennsylvania, had befriended George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, and had just become "convinced" -- that is, converted. Quakers, of course, were committed to plain dress and non-violence, in contrast to Penn, who, as befitted his rank and station, dressed finely and carried a ceremonial sword. Penn was loathe to give up his sword. He asked Fox what to do, and Fox answered, "Wear it as long as thee can, William."

As for my tea?

"Drink it as long as thee can, Lauren."

It's all part of the path, right?

(Please stop glaring at me, Mr. B.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Poetry Friday: i once knew a man

One of my favorite blogs (by one of my favorite people) features "Poetry Friday." I'm following suit. Here is one by lucille clifton.

i once knew a man

i once knew a man who had wild horses killed.
when he told about it
the words came galloping out of his mouth
and shook themselves and headed off in
every damn direction. his tongue
was wild and wide and spinning when he talked
and the people he looked at closed their eyes
and tore the skins off their backs as they walked away
and stopped eating meat.
there was no holding him once he got started;
he had had wild horses killed one time and
they rode him to his grave.

I taught this poem, many years ago, in first-year college composition classes as an example of complex use of metaphor. The students generally had a terrible time with it. So many wrote how awful it was that the horses came back to run him down. The poem to me is so clearly dream-like and mythopoetic, rooted in the literal world but branching extravagantly in the ether, as poetry will do. But my students were not very familiar with metaphor or ether. Of course, they were only seventeen or eighteen years old and more adept at being good students than at life.

I can't say, then, that I "taught them" this poem. I introduced them to it. Who knows, maybe some of them are haunted by its phrases and wish they could remember where they read it, or when.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Washing up

I missed Vesak at Blue Cliff Monastery, but I have this picture from the event. A sister is pouring water over the baby Buddha.

Vesak is the spring holiday that celebrates the birth of the Buddha. Our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, teaches "no coming, no going, no birth, no death," which means, cosmically, that the man we call the Buddha was never born and never died, as all is in continuation. Less cosmically, the man was born about 2,500 years ago and died about 2,420 years ago. Either way, we're happy that he taught what he taught and so we say, "Happy Birthday." Or, as Thay would say, "Happy Continuation Day."

In this practice we also say,

Washing the dishes is like
bathing a baby Buddha.
The mundane is the sacred.
Everyday mind is Buddha mind.

Which is sort of like this old Gateless Gate koan:

A monk said to Joshu, "I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me."
"Have you eaten your rice porridge?" asked Joshu.
"Yes, I have," replied the monk.
"Then you had better wash your bowl," said Joshu.
With this the monk gained insight.

Happy continuation day yet again, dear dirty dishes.