Friday, May 27, 2011

Poetry Is a Way of Celebrating the Actuality of a Nondual Universe in All Its Facets

I love what Gary Snyder says about poetry and meditation:
A year or so later, in Kyoto, I asked my teacher Oda Sesso Roshi, "Sometimes I write poetry. Is that all right?" He laughed and said, "It's all right as long as it comes out of your true self." He also said "You know, poets have to play a lot, asobi." That seemed an odd thing to say, because the word asobi has an implication of wandering the bars and pleasure quarters, the behavior of a decadent wastrel. I knew he didn't mean that. For many years while doing Zen practice around Kyoto, I virtually quit writing poetry. It didn't bother me. My thought was, Zen is serious, poetry is not serious. In any case, you have to be completely serious when you do Zen practice. So I tried to be serious and I didn't write many poems. I studied with him for six years.

IN 1966, JUST BEFORE ODA ROSHI DIED, I had a talk with him in the hospital. I said, "Roshi! So it's Zen is serious, poetry is not serious." He said "No, no—poetry is serious! Zen is not serious." I had it all wrong! I don't know if it was by accident or it was a gift he gave me, but I started writing more, and maybe I did a little less sitting, too. I think I had come to understand something about play: to be truly serious you have to play. That's on the side of poetry, and of meditation, too. In fact, play is essential to everything we do—working on cars, cooking, raising children, running corporations—and poetry is nothing special. Language is no big deal. Mind is no big deal. Meaning or no-meaning, it's perfectly okay. We take what's given us, with gratitude.

* * *

In Japanese art, demons are funny little guys, as solid as horses and cows, who gnash their fangs and cross their eyes. Poetry is a way of celebrating the actuality of a nondual universe in all its facets. Its risk is that it declines to exclude demons. Buddhism offers demons a hand and then tries to teach them to sit. But there are tricky little poetry/ego demons that do come along, tempting us with suffering or with insight, with success or failure. There are demons practicing meditation and writing poetry in the same room with the rest of us, and we are all indeed intimate.

Here's one of Snyder's poems that I think is about meditation. And reading (and writing, I suspect) poetry. And mystical experience. Oh, and not falling.
John Muir on Mt. Ritter:

After scanning its face again and again,
I began to scale it, picking my holds
With intense caution. About half-way
To the top, I was suddenly brought to
A dead stop, with arms outspread
Clinging close to the face of the rock
Unable to move hand or foot
Either up or down. My doom
Appeared fixed. I MUST fall.
There would be a moment of
Bewilderment, and then,
A lifeless rumble down the cliff
To the glacier below.
My mind seemed to fill with a
Stifling smoke. This terrible eclipse
Lasted only a moment, when life blazed
Forth again with preternatural clearness.
I seemed suddenly to become possessed
Of a new sense. My trembling muscles
Became firm again, every rift and flaw in
The rock was seen as through a microscope,
My limbs moved with a positiveness and precision
With which I seemed to have
Nothing at all to do.

Picture found here.


Anonymous said...

John Muir's own lapidary description of this event can be read in his "The Mountains of California" (1894), chapter 4 "A Near View of the High Sierra."

It is accurate, so far as I can judge from my own such moment, climbing a rather less dangerous cliff alone without ropes half a century ago. As Muir wrote, "My doom appeared fixed. I must fall."

Then, just as with Muir, in an instant all my senses became perfectly focused, microscopic, and far keener than ever before or since, my muscles unbelievably strong, and my movements far more precise. In my case, I pulled myself by fingernail-holds up the lower face of an overhang, working against the pull of gravity, and so I came out of it alive.

It would be a gross error to write, "and so *I* saved my life." Muir wrote "The other self, bygone experiences, Instinct, or Guardian Angel -- call it what you will -- came forward and assumed control." This is exactly right. And I don't know what to call it any more than he did. But it is real.

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