Friday, October 16, 2009

Poetry Friday: Museum Vase

It all started with Suzuki Roshi.

At the Thursday morning zazen sit at the corner yoga studio yesterday, the facilitator, Linda, read a chapter from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. The passage started thusly:

We say our practice should be without gaining ideas, without any expectations, even of enlightenment. This does not mean, however, just to sit without any purpose. This practice free from gaining ideas is based on the Prajna Paramita Sutra. However, if you are not careful the sutra itself will give you a gaining idea. It says, "Form is emptiness and emptiness is form." But if you attach to that statement, you are liable to be involved in dualistic ideas: here is you, form, and here is emptiness, which you are trying to realize through your form. So "form is emptiness, and emptiness is form" is still dualistic. But fortunately, our teaching goes on to say, "Form is form and emptiness is emptiness." Here there is no dualism.

    When you find it difficult to stop your mind while you are sitting and when you are still trying to stop your mind, this is the stage of "form is emptiness and emptiness is form." But while you are practicing in this dualistic way, more and more you will have oneness with your goal. And when your practice becomes effortless, you can stop your mind. This is the stage of "form is form and emptiness is emptiness."

Wow. "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form" dualistic? Interesting. So interesting that I didn't even bother to try to stop my mind during the ensuing twenty minutes. Right away I knew I had my topic for this blog, and my typewriter mind got busy. The only thing that slowed it was my intense drowsiness. Eventually my focus was on keeping my eyes open and my body upright, and my mind faded in and out, meandering.

What persisted was an image of an urn or vase. A vessel, which had form, but also emptiness. Its emptiness is what gave it its form. As from the Tao Te Ching: "Pots are fashioned from clay/ but it's the hollow/ that makes a pot work ."*

Over the next twelve hours or so, phrases kept presenting themselves to me. "Wheat, oil, wine." "On old burdens." "Museum urn or vase or ..." "Still it dreams ... broods?" I knew it must be a poem that I had once memorized. Probably in high school: there was a certain sense-memory that came with the phrases, a chemical whiff of nervous excitement (boys) and a dim buzz (overhead fluorescent lights) that brought me back to that distant era. I kept thinking that the poem might be by Robert Graves, but Google proved that it wasn't.

Finally, finally, by searching on-line in a very particular way, I found the poem. It was "Museum Vase" by Robert Francis.

Museum Vase

It contains nothing.
We ask it
To contain nothing.

Having transcended use
It is endlessly
Content to be.

Still it broods
On old burdens --
Wheat, oil, wine.

Doing, being; form, emptiness. Interesting. (I wonder what I had to say about this poem when I was fifteen?)

Rising up from a depth of thirty-one years, a poem. A lotus in disguise? Maybe. Goodness knows that there is a lot of old muck down there.

* From the translation by Red Pine. This word-by-word (or seal-by-word) diagram accompanied the passage where I found it on the website The Feminine Tao.

(1) mold (2) clay (3) thus (4) to create (5) a vessel
(6) as regards (7) its (8) not having
(9) has (10) a vessel (11) the same's (12) use

1 comment:

  1. Public OK - I really like the line in that poem 'We ask it
    To contain nothing' we reassign its meaning and purpose to merely an art form.


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