Wednesday, February 10, 2010


In honor of the terrific snowstorm we had this week, I am featuring one of my favorite haiku, by Takai Kito, a disciple of Buson.

Contending –
temple bell
winter wind

I encourage you to read it through a few times. To assist you, here it is again:

Contending –
temple bell
winter wind

My understanding of this poem has changed over time. I once wrote a sermon (as a lay leader at the Unitarian Universalist church I used to attend) based on this haiku, essentially exploring key moments of my life in terms of contention between "temple bell" moments, in which transcendent reality broke through, and "winter wind" intervals of harsh existence. I imagined myself as a hermit, huddled in a hut while a winter storm raged, hearing both the howling wind and the bell of distant temple calling the monks (or nuns) to practice. A chilling picture of the world indeed. Thank heavens for those temple bell moments!

Then, at some point, I had one of those temple bell aha! moments about that word "contending." The poem is saying something much more interesting about life than that the sacred and profane (or mundane) are in contention with one another.

No. I now interpret the poem's imagery this way: the winter wind is the force that is allowing the bell to ring in the first place. Suffering is the very capacity which allows -- invites -- the bell to ring. We think of the peaceful bell and the harsh wind as if they are opposed to one another, but they are working together, in dialectical collaboration (to get all grad-student on you). The harder the wind blows, the louder the bell rings. The wind may gust, bluster, and fume; the bell will only clang and peal with equal urgency. Wake up! Wake up! The music is calling you!

I now also picture myself a practioner within the temple, or at least, as a hermit affiliated with the temple. Missing sangha because of the storm. ("Missing" in both senses of the word.)

Here is the scene out my back window, during the height of the storm.

But I think that this image captures the scene more exactly:

Because it was really blowing out there!

From Wikipedia: "Another way to understand dialectics is to view it as a method of thinking to overcome formal dualism and monistic reductionism. For example, formal dualism regards the opposites as mutually exclusive entities, whilst monism finds each to be an epiphenomenon of the other. Dialectical thinking rejects both views. The dialectical method requires focus on both at the same time. It looks for a transcendence of the opposites entailing a leap of the imagination to a higher level, which (1) provides justification for rejecting both alternatives as false and/or (2) helps elucidate a real but previously veiled integral relationship between apparent opposites that have been kept apart and regarded as distinct."

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