Tagore’s Nobel and the Notes of Forever

This year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan, is not the first lyricist to receive the award.  In 1913, it was given to Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, who also became the first non-European awarded a Nobel.

Some of you may be aware that the title of this blog, The Endless Further, is borrowed from Tagore (see About).

rtagore3According to the Nobel website, Tagore received the prize “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.

Wikipedia tells us that “the Swedish Academy appreciated the idealistic—and for Westerners—accessible nature of a small body of his translated material focused on the 1912 Gitanjali: Song Offerings.”

I’ve published a number of posts on Tagore so I won’t go into details on the man’s life.  For that, you can read the previous posts or visit the Wikipedia link above.

I will tell you that Tagore remains a towering figure in Indian literature, but today in the West he is largely forgotten and his poetry unknown.  Tagore’s poems are songs, chants.  In English, they become prose poems.  His work is lyrical, moving, graceful, and subtle in self-knowledge.  He composed hymns both sad and joyous, universal songs that touch on an experience ultimately personal.  With his meditative rhythm and evocative lyrics, Tagore gave the world something more than poetry or literature.  They touch our heart, inspirit our mind, cause us to cry or shudder or want to float up and dance among the stars.

The songs of Gitanjali (which literally means “an offering of songs”) are love songs; love for something divine, love between human beings, and love of life itself.  Like Whitman, Tagore did not shy away from the sensual.  He made the sensual beautiful.

In his introduction to the 1913 edition of Gitanjali, W.B. Yeats wrote that “Mr. Tagore, like the Indian civilization itself, has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity.”

Here, then, are two poems from Gitanjali:


I dive down into the depth of the ocean of forms, hoping to gain the perfect pearl of the formless.

No more sailing from harbour to harbour with this my weather-beaten boat. The days are long passed when my sport was to be tossed on waves.

And now I am eager to die into the deathless.

Into the audience hall by the fathomless abyss where swells up the music of toneless strings I shall take this harp of my life.

I shall tune it to the notes of forever, and when it has sobbed out its last utterance, lay down my silent harp at the feet of the silent.


Ever in my life have I sought thee with my songs. It was they who led me from door to door, and with them have I felt about me, searching and touching my world.

It was my songs that taught me all the lessons I ever learnt; they showed me secret paths, they brought before my sight many a star on the horizon of my heart.

They guided me all the day long to the mysteries of the country of pleasure and pain, and, at last, to what palace gate have the brought me in the evening at the end of my journey?


Poets to Come or Stuck Inside of Vegas with the Nobel Blues Again

Bob Dylan getting this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has been a hot topic on the internet and this week I’ve seen more than the usual number of Whitman comparisons reeling in the air.

A critic for the NY Times opined that “Mr. Dylan is among the most authentic voices America has produced, a maker of images as audacious and resonant as anything in Walt Whitman . . .” From the Desert Trip stage, Mick Jagger said, “I want to thank Bob Dylan for an amazing set.  We have never shared the stage with a Nobel Prize winner before.  Bob is like our own Walt Whitman.”  One guy even had the audacity to write “Bob Dylan has surpassed Walt Whitman as the defining American artist, celebrating the capacity for self-invention as the highest form of freedom.”

whitman-dylan2c Bob has put his changeling persona to good use, but the reason he has been given the prize is, according to the Nobel committee, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  Just as Whitman did with the American poetry tradition in the 19th century.

Comparisons are odious is an old expression dating from the 15th century, and it’s true that usually it is unhelpful and unfair to compare two different things or persons.  Nonetheless there are some interesting similarities between Mr. W and Mr. D.

Iconoclasts, controversial.  Their writings celebrate freedom and individuality.  There is some mysticism in common and shared themes of war, death and democracy.  And the stand on public nudity: “Nakedness in Nature!  There come moods when these clothes of ours are not only too irksome to wear, but are themselves indecent,” Whitman proclaimed (A Sun-bathed Nakedness), while Dylan has murmured, “I run naked when I can” (11 Outlined Epitaphs).

One difference between them, is that unlike Bob, I’m pretty sure Walt Whitman did not receive any awards in his lifetime.  When Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855, it was labeled “obscene” and literally banned in Boston.  Whitman was not a rich man either, for he died in what we call today relative poverty.

Dogging the announcement of Bob’s prize has been the question of whether or not he deserves it, do his lyrics qualify as literature.  I think that can be answered with another question: If the Nobel Prize had existed during Whitman’s time, would Whitman be deserving of it?

By the way, Bob has not commented publicly about winning the prize (evidently, he has not even returned the Nobel committee’s calls).  He’s currently on the road.  The same night as the announcement, he and his band performed in Las Vegas where he played guitar for the first time in four years (on Simple Twist of Fate), and of course, he played at Desert Trip on Friday.

I know Bob admires Walt Whitman and thinks of him as an influence, and I can’t help but wonder what Whitman would think of Dylan’s writing.  Would he consider it poetry, literature?  I think he would.  But that’s just my opinion.

In the poem below, Whitman speaks to the future, and he speaks of his identity and role as an artist, and who knows, perhaps in an moment of mystical prescience, he is also describing a poet to come, a poet who has written surreal, complex, and sometimes beautiful and tender songs from Desolation Row, and has explained them away saying, “It’s all math . . . There’s a definite number of Colt .45s that make up Marlene Dietrich, and you can find that out if you want to.”

Poets to Come

POETS to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!    
Not to-day is to justify me, and answer what I am for;    
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,    
Arouse! Arouse—for you must justify me—you must answer.    
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,             
I but advance a moment, only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.    
I am a man who, sauntering along, without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you, and then averts his face,    
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,    
Expecting the main things from you.

– Walt Whitman


Debating the Dharma: “You should shut your mouth.”

You probably watched the presidential debate the other night, and perhaps as I was, you found the mudslinging disgusting.  The less said about it the better.  But since we are on the subject of debates, here is an interesting Buddhist side bar.

tibetan-dharma-debatingIn the anthology Buddhism in Practice, George J. Tanabe, Jr. presents a transcript of a debate that took place in Japan in 1536 between a Tendai priest and a Nichiren layman.  Dharma debates (or dharma ‘combat’) are a tradition in some forms of Buddhism.  You might be familiar with the Tibetan style of dharma debating (left), which seems rather spirited as each debater punctuates his or her points with a slap of the hand.  In Japanese Buddhism, debates are called issatsu (“challenge”).

Now the Kamakura period of Japanese Buddhism (1185-1333 CE) was a particularly contentious time.  Many of the sects were set against each other, calling one another heretics, and so on.  Then there was Nichiren who said that all of Buddhism was in serious decline, a real mess that only he could fix.  Nichiren insulted everyone, including the government, and blamed others for his own misfortunes.  Tanabe says, “Persecution was an important part of Nichiren’s own mentality and religion . . .”

A former Tendai priest, Nichiren accused the Tendai sect of corruption and “losing sight of the principles laid down by their own [school] concerning which teachings are to be adopted and which discarded . . . It is a shameful, shameful thing they are doing!”  (The Tripitaka Master Shan-wu-wei )

In a nutshell, according to Nichiren, everyone who was not listening to him and practicing Buddhism his way, the way of the Lotus Sutra, would “invariably fall into the great citadel of the Avichi hell”.  (Essence of the Medicine King Chapter)

I can just imagine Nichiren with a Twitter account . . .

One day a Nichiren lay believer named Matsumoto was in Kyoto and saw a Tendai priest giving a dharma talk.  He interrupted the Priest Keo and proceeded to engage him in a debate.  From our modern view their arguments seem ridiculous, as both men were seeped in a mythological understanding of Buddhism.  Much of the debate revolved around who is the best Buddha, Shakyamuni or Great Sun Buddha (Dainichi), and it got acrimonious a couple of times:

KeoThe Great Sun Buddha is the buddha of transcendent truth and is therefore not something for the ordinary person to know.  You should shut your mouth.
Matsumoto: No, I will not shut my mouth just for that . . .
Matsumoto:  Well, now, [the Shingon school] speaks of becoming a buddha, but there is no such thing.  You should shut your mouth.  Or perhaps Your Eminence knows of people in this degenerate age who have becomes buddhas?
Keo:  What a man of capricious words . . .
Keo:  Nichiren’s belief was such that he slandered Amida Buddha and said that the Pure Land sect was the teaching of the hell of unending suffering.  He is really a criminal guilty of making light of the buddhas.

Alas, no one watching the debate could chant “Lock him up!” because Nichiren had been dead for 254 years by then.

The Matsumoto debate was actually rather mild, but it set in motion a round of strong, violent action.

“Angered by Matsumoto’s rudeness and chagrined by his apparent victory, the Tendai monks sought revenge.” * Rival factions within Tendai joined forces to attack the Nichirenites.  “Somewhere between 30,000 to 150,000 warrior monks were amassed on the Tendai side, while the Nichiren temples had a estimated 20,000 troops.”** They fought a battle that went on for five days.  In the end, the Tendai troops destroyed 21 Nichiren temples and burned the southern district of Kyoto to the ground.

Although it was the Tendai side that initiated the violence, it was the Nichiren folks who were condemned for it, and I suppose that I will get some comments complaining how I seem to pick on poor Nichiren, that I don’t understand his teachings, and I should shut my mouth.  But I think I understand his teachings well enough, and I take an objective view of them, from the perspective of modern scholarship not ancient mythology or cult propaganda.  I’m sorry but I can’t help but see Nichiren as a kind of medieval Trump.  However, demagoguery is a subject for another day.

In the meantime, don’t harbor doubts about anything you read on this blog.  I know more about dharma than the monks.  Nichiren was the founder of Isis.  The Dalai Lama was not born in the U.S.  I want to make Buddhism great again . . .

– – – – – – – – – –

* Donald S. Lopez Jr., The “Lotus Sutra”: A Biography, Princeton University Press, 2016

** “The Matsumoto Debate” George J. Tanabe, Jr., Buddhism in Practice, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., ed., Princeton University Press, 1995


You got to go back to Mother Earth

One person I greatly admire is David Suzuki, the Canadian scientist, broadcaster and environmental activist.  He is perhaps the most iconic environmental activist in North America, and in the last ten years or so, he and his foundation has worked to raise awareness and promote dialogue about the critical issue of global warming.

I ran across something on his blog the other day that I want to share with you.  In a post from January, he says,

We can’t just look at the world as a source of resources to exploit with little or no regard for the consequences.  When many indigenous people refer to the planet as “Mother Earth”, they are not speaking romantically, poetically or metaphorically.  They mean it literally.  We are of the Earth, every cell in our bodies formed by molecules derived from plants and animals, inflated by water, energized by sunlight captured through photosynthesis and ignited by atmospheric oxygen.”

feuerbach_gaea2Modern archaeological findings suggest that ancient peoples may have worshipped the earth as a living, female being.  She was part of the mythology in a number of cultures.  In Greek mythology, Mother Earth was a goddess called Gaia (“earth” or “land”) who represented the earth and was the mother of all life (Gaia, by Anselm Feuerbach, 1875 at right).  The Romans called her Terra.  The Hindus knew her as Parvati.  And Damp Mother Earth is the most ancient deity in Slavic mythology . . . As far as I am aware, Buddhism did not have a specific  “Mother Earth” deity, except for some cultural figures in various Asia countries that were independently incorporated into Buddha-dharma.

Nonetheless, Suzuki’s remarks are in line with the Buddhist concept of interdependency (pratitya-samutpada) that maintains we are all inter-connected.  And when we talk about that we don’t mean just people, we are interconnected with the earth, the ocean, the sky, even the most distant stars – everything.

Thich Nhat Hanh has said,

You carry Mother Earth within you.  She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment . . . Many people get sick today because they get alienated from Mother Earth . . . When we recognize the virtues, the talent, the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born . . . We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one.”

I imagine most of you are already on board with this thinking, but it is good to be reminded from time to time that we’ve got to go back to Mother Earth.

In 1951, blues singer Memphis Slim wrote a song called Mother Earth:

You may own a half a city even diamonds and pearls
You may buy that plane baby and fly all over this world
Don’t care how great you are, don’t care what you worth
When it all ends up you got to go back to mother earth

Now you know where Bob Dylan got the idea for his song, Gotta Serve Somebody.

In 1968, a band called Mother Earth recorded Slim’s song.  Here it is, featuring the vocals of the great but still to this day relatively unknown Tracy Nelson.


Bodhisattvas Never Outside the World of Suffering

Here is a post from 2012 that has recently gotten a bit of attention.  Perhaps it was re-blogged or posted in a forum – I don’t know but all the sudden I am getting inquires about it.  A few people want to know where I found Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the vows.  I wish I could remember.  I have no note about it, nor can I find the source among my files and books.  If anyone knows the source of this interpretation, please let me know.

A second inquiry I’v have received is about The Transcendental Bodhicitta Treatise by Nagarjuna.  The title and translation is D.T. Suzuki’s.  The Sanskrit title is Bodhicitta-vivarana, often rendered in English “A Commentary on the Awakening Mind” and “Exposition of Bodhicitta”, a work the Dalai Lama has been taught on many times.  Links to English translations at the bottom.

Many Buddhists are familiar with the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows.  Most of the Mahayana schools in China, Korea, Tibet and Japan, uphold and recite the Vows.  They are thought to have originated with the Chinese master Chih-i during the sixth century.  I don’t know whether this is true or not, but apparently there was some form of Bodhisattva Vows already in place during Chih-i’s time, and it is recorded that a prince of the Ch’en dynasty, Yang Kuang, received from Chih-i the “Bodhisattva Vows” for lay practitioners along with a Buddhist name, Tsung-ch’ih P’u-sa (“Bodhisattva of Absolute Control”) in 591.*

The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows (Shi gu sei gan) are as follows:

Shu jo mu hen sei gan do
Bon no mu jin sei gan dan
Ho mon mu ryo sei gan gaku
Butsu do mu jo sei gan jo

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to end them all.
The Dharma Gates are infinite; I vow to enter them all.
The Buddha Way is unexcelled; I vow to attain it completely.

In some versions, the last vow is given as a pledge to attain “complete, perfect enlightenment (Skt. anuttara samyak sambodhi).  It is said that if a bodhisattva does not accomplish the first vow of saving all sentient beings, he or she can never complete the fourth vow of enlightenment.  But, how is that possible?  How can one save all living beings?  In Taking the Path of Zen, Robert Aitken wrote, “Nobody fulfills these ‘Great Vows for All,’ but we vow to fulfill them as best we can. They are our path.”  In the long run, it doesn’t matter if we are unable to fulfill the Vows, what is important is that we engrave the spirit of the vows upon our hearts and minds.

We should also be aware that from the standpoint of the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness, a bodhisattva does not cling to the idea that there are beings at all, nor that there is anything such as “complete, perfect enlightenment.”  This is the doctrine found in the Mahayana Diamond Sutra.

While there are not quite as many English versions of the Vows as there are sentient beings or grains of sand in the Ganges River, there are quite a few.  Perhaps the most interesting one is by Thich Nhat Hanh:

tnh-bodhisattvaHowever innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.

However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.

However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to explore them deeply.

However incomparable the mystery of interbeing, I vow to surrender to it freely.

The hidden teaching within Mahayana Buddhism that it is more important to practice the Way of the Bodhisattva than it is to become a Buddha.  In actuality, the Way of the Bodhisattva is the Way of the Buddha.  However, people often miss this point and think that enlightenment is the ultimate goal.  There is no goal, there is only the path, and it is a path of compassion, and everything in Buddhism leads up to this one truth.

A work by Nagarjuna, The Transcendental Bodhicitta Treatise, reads:

The essential nature of all Bodhisattvas is a great loving heart, and all living beings constitute the object of their love . . . They are like the beautiful lotus-flower, which rises up from the swamp, its blossoms unsullied by the mud.  Their great hearts of compassion, which constitute the essence of their being, never leave suffering creatures behind in their journey.  Their spiritual knowledge is in the emptiness of all things, but their work of salvation is never outside the world of suffering.”

2016 note:   Some people approach Buddha-dharma in what I would term a casual manner, that is, they practice mindfulness to relieve stress, or use it a therapy, a psychology.  Others may engage in a more formal practice, chasing after the rapture of meditative states called jhanas.  From the Mahayana perspective, the focal point of Buddhism is suffering (harking back to the Four Noble Truths) and the purpose of dharma is to transcend suffering, which is accomplished by concentrating of the suffering of others before thinking of one’s own suffering.

The bodhisattva is like the captain of a ship that ferries beings across the great sea of suffering.  To captain such a ship requires courage, commitment and strong determination.  The four vows are like the charts used to set the course, but without preparation a captain cannot command a ship, let alone follow a course, and this necessary preparation requires the generation of altruistic intention or bodhicitta.  Those who tread the path of the bodhisattva do not seek enlightenment outside of themselves, and they realize there is no nirvana or bliss apart from this mundane world.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Denis C. Twitchett, The Cambridge History of China: Volume 3, Sui and T’ang China, 589-906 AD, Part One, Cambridge University Press, 1979]

Links to translations of Nagarjuna’s treatise:

Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki (Google books)

Commentary on Awakening Mind (opens PDF)

Translation by Chr. Lindtner

Exposition of Bodhicitta (opens PDF)