Apr 232014
 

An article about James Baldwin inspired this post. I was familiar with James Baldwin the novelist (Go Tell It on the Mountain) and essayist (Notes of a Native Son), but not James Baldwin the poet. LA Times book critic David L. Ulin tells us about Baldwin’s poetry in this in-depth piece titled “James Baldwin, poet? But of course.”

James-BaldwinBaldwin is unquestionably one of the major American writers of the last century. An African American, a bisexual, an expatriate, a civil rights activist, his writing represented the voices of those who American society then and now marginalizes, neglects, and often persecutes.

The occasion for Ulin’s article is the recent reprint by Beacon Press of Baldwin’s poetry collection Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, originally published one year before his death in 1987.

For more about Baldwin’s life and writing, I recommend you read Ulin’s article linked above, or Baldwin’s Wikipedia entry.

For today, continuing the celebration of National Poetry Month, here are two excerpts from Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.

Amen

No, I don’t feel death coming.
I feel death going:
having thrown up his hands,
for the moment.

I feel like I know him
better than I did.
Those arms held me,
for a while,
and, when we meet again,
there will be that secret knowledge
between us.

Conundrum (on my birthday) (for Rico)

Between holding on,
and letting go,
I wonder
how you know
the difference.

It must be
something like
the difference
between heaven and hell
but how, in advance,
can you tell?

If letting go
is saying no,
then what is holding on
saying?
Come.
Can anyone be held?
Can I—?
The impossible conundrum,
the c lo s ed c irc le,
why
does lightning strike this house
and not another?
Or, is it true
that love is blind
until challenged by the drawbridge
of the mind?

But, saying that,
one’s forced to see one’s definitions
as unreal.
We do not know enough about the mind,
or how the conundrum of the imagination
dictates, discovers,
or can dismember what we feel,
or what we find.

Perhaps
one must learn to trust
one’s terror:
the holding on
the letting go
is error:
the lightning has no choice,
the whirlwind has one voice.

Excerpted from Jimmy’s Blues & Other Poems by James Baldwin.  Copyright 2014.  Published  by Beacon Press.

Apr 202014
 

Some folks are keen on creating a Buddhism without ritual. They equate ritual with religion, even though Buddhism as it has existed for thousands of years can be either a religion or not a religion, depending on one’s point of view. And that is what the whole question of ritual boils down to – point of view, or more precisely, how one understands ritual and its relevance to our journey.

There are some Buddhist rituals I am not overly fond of, and my method of dealing with these rites is simply not perform them if I can help it, and then move on. Sometimes, though, I’m at a temple or a dharma center, and I feel it is necessary to be respectful and follow the principle of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I’ve found that even when forced to engage in some ritual I don’t like, I somehow manage to survive.

We perform rituals every day. Just the act of getting up from bed in the morning is ritualistic. Most of us have our own routine for this. Getting dressed, going to the restroom, making coffee or tea or breakfast, we usually have a certain procedure that we rarely alter. Sex is a ritual, and you don’t hear too many people complaining about it.

There is actually very little in human society that isn’t ritual. Rituals serve to connect us to one another; they help strengthen community, link individuals with society. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell once suggested that when a society loses its capacity for ritual, it begins to disintegrate, and he said there is a constant need to invent new rituals to keep societies moving forward.

Even in those Buddhist groups striving to create dharma sans ritual, when they meet, they generally follow some set format. If they ring the bell to signify the time to begin meditation, that’s a ritual.

I’m not crazy about doing full-body prostrations, but I do like bowing. You know, the little half-bows with palms pressed together. To bow to another is not necessarily saying that person is superior to you. When two people bow to each other, it’s a sign of respective equality.

A teacher of mine once suggested that one could view bowing as a way to touch the spirit of Bodhisattva Fukyo (“The Bodhisattva Who Never Disparaged”) in the Lotus Sutra. One day, Fukyo went around and bowed to every person he met. As he bowed, he would say, “I deeply respect you.” People thought he was strange and a mob beat him, almost to death. Yet, as a result of his sincerity in performing this personal ritual, he extended his life span by two-hundred-ten-thousand-million billions of years and taught the Buddha-dharma to countless beings. Those who had slighted and condemned Bodhisattva Fukyo eventually became his followers.

It’s a myth, but it has a rather obvious point. Fukyo saw that all people have Buddha nature, that they inherently possess the nature to become a buddha. The practice he engaged in is called raihaigyo or “bowing in reverence.” Fukyo represents the true spirit of the bodhisattva, and his ritual is one we should all perform in daily life, the ritualpractice of treating others with respect.

Bowing to statues and objects may be a slightly different matter, but here is Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki’s take on that subject:

[When] you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha, you just become one with Buddha, you are already Buddha himself. When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship.”

Apr 172014
 

Shantideva in Chapter 6 of “A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life” (Bodhicaryavatara) wrote,

There is no evil like hatred, and no fortitude like patience. Therefore, one should earnestly cultivate patience in various ways.”

Shantideva’s work is perhaps the definitive text on the path of the Bodhisattva, and many consider Chapter 6, “The Perfection of Patience” (kshanti-paramita) the most important chapter of the book.

Kshanti is one of the Six Paramitas (Perfections), the crucial steps on the path.  Kshanti is derived from khamati, a Pali word that according to the A.P. Buddhadatta Mahathera’s Concise Pali-English and English-Pali Dictionary means “to be patient, to endure, to forgive; to forgive a fault.”

Often, our basic nature is to view difficult people in our lives as “the enemy.”  However, Shantideva tells us that anger and hatred are the true enemies, and he urges us to understand their destructive effects.  He states that the perfection or practice of patience is the most effective antidote to anger and hatred.  Anger has no real purpose.  Often the person we are angry with is also a victim, driven to their actions by the same poison of ignorance that inflicts us.  For this reason, we should have compassion.

Throughout the Bodhicaryavatara, Shantideva points out that patience, and all the other paramitas, indeed the path itself, requires great strength and endurance.  Later in Chapter 6 he says,

Happiness is obtained with great difficulty, whereas suffering occurs easily.  Only through suffering is there release . . . Therefore, mind, be strong!”

In Buddhism, when we talk about “happiness,” we are not talking about happiness sans suffering, but rather happiness in the midst of suffering.  This kind of happiness is really wisdom or prajna.  The 9th chapter of the Bodhicaryavatara is “The Perfection of Wisdom,” which begins with these words:

Wisdom is the only true final antidote to all suffering (the whole path aims at this).”

The perfection of wisdom (prajna-paramita) is said to be the vessel capable of ferrying all beings across the sea of suffering to the shore of Nirvana.  The Heart Sutra reads, “Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Transcendent Wisdom  . . . crossed over all suffering.”  One cannot really leap from one shore to the other in a single bound.  The journey of the raft known as Transcendent Wisdom over the sea of suffering is a long, hard voyage.  Without weighing anchor and navigating the rough sea, without the experience of being tossed by great waves, buffeted by strong winds, ravaged by storms – there is no meaningful happiness, let alone useful wisdom.

If, as Buddhism teaches, the mind determines everything, then achieving happiness, perfecting patience and wisdom, requires a single-minded determination to grind through the hard parts of life.

Therefore, as Shantideva says, mind, be strong!

- – - – - – - – - -

Quotes from A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life by Santideva, Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace, Snow Lion Publications, 1997.

Apr 152014
 

It’s been quite a while since I have posted any of my own poetry.  Since it is National Poetry Month, I thought this was as good a time as any.  I don’t have much to say about my poems. They are what they are.

dusk latitudes

tempestuous waves
against the shore
the moon lying close
to the horizon

you must carry the afterglow
uphold the solitary wings
for vision has become
piles of coffee cups
awkward shadows
languid eyes

too many dismal whispers
that freeze action
in the business of life

and we are busy
like the waves that bellow
the eternal songs of the sea
and the moon that serenades
the milky way with sad laments

to empyrean’s ether end
hurtles light
past that place where midnight
comes from
the place where we part our lips
and act as though there are never tears

waves crash over rocks
and the moon slips from us
anonymously

© 2011 dmriley

This second poem was inspired by the 1946 Ida Lupino film, “The Man I Love.”

film noir

I hate fog, it’s sort of lonely
ida lupino says
as my hand runs down
the smooth skin exposed by her backless dress
your fingers are cold, she sighs
let’s go in here

we go to the bar
I buy her a short beer
she draws on a long cigarette
& blows the smoke out with impertinence
she’s looking at me straight on
remember what you said darling
when we were looking at the stars
life, you said, is too short
to waste time with memories
well, I think you’re right

Ida_Lupinoshe goes over
& asks the piano player
if she can sing
some desolate song she knows
she has the kind of voice
you’d expect to find in a place like this
perched on top of the piano
skirt pulled high
swinging that crossed leg
deliberately
perfectly

as I place a bet
on another shot of rye

I was hoping
to find something in her
that I’d been missing all my life
but she didn’t have it
no one does

later on she says
she’s been cheating on me
with robert mitchum
& when I ask her why
she just shrugs her shoulders
pouts with her lower lip
& says that it’s because
he always holds his glass
with such an air of

detachment

I walk home alone
cloaked in the gray night
I understand what she means now
about the fog

© 1997 dmriley

Apr 102014
 

In Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy,* Professor R. Howard Bloch writes,

The ritual denunciation of women constitutes something on the order of a cultural constant, reaching back to the Old Testament as well as to Ancient Greece and extending through the fifteenth century. Found in Roman tradition, it dominates ecclesiastical writing, letters, sermons, theological tracts, discussions and compilations of canon law; scientific works, as part and parcel of biological, gynaecological, and medical knowledge; and philosophy. The discourse of misogyny runs like a rich vein throughout the breadth of medieval literature.”

It ran through the course of ancient and medieval life as well, not only in the West, but also the East, and until recently the position of women in society has improved only slightly. In Buddhism, for centuries woman, especially nuns, have endured the sufferings of discrimination and oppression, and this, too, has only recently began to turn around.

Regarding Buddhist literature, I don’t think we can say that it is dominated by misogyny, but it was certainly a frequent theme. Women represented sexual desire and therefore they were considered the “root of ruin” and the “destruction of destructions” and men were advised to “ever avoid women if he desires happiness for himself.” (Saddharmasmrtyupasthana Sutra) There are passages in the early Buddhist sutras that lean toward affirming the equality of women, like this from the Samyutta Nikaya, “Whoever practices this vehicle, whether woman or man, it is the only vehicle that can reach the shore of nibbana.” Yet many such passages are ambiguous and few and far between.

The prevailing attitude in traditional Buddhism was that a masculine body was better suited for enlightenment. In the sutras and commentaries, women are encouraged to pray to be reborn as a man, and certain sincere women believers were predicted never to born a man again. Even in the story of the Dragon King’s Daughter from the Lotus Sutra, often cited as example of Buddhism championing gender equality, the girl must take a man’s form before she can attain enlightenment.

Yeshe Tsogyal

Yeshe Tsogyal

That story is mythological, as are those of other female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, such as Kuan Yin and Tara. However, there were some remarkable Buddhist women who were historical figures, and one of these was Yeshe Tsogyal (757-815). This woman, who was the wife of Indian master Padmasambhava, the de facto founder of Buddhism in Tibet, has left a legacy all her own, and it is for that reason, rather than her connection to the famous guru, Yeshe Tsogyal is often called the “mother of Tibetan Buddhism.”

In John Steven’s book, Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex, Padmasambhava is quoted as saying to Yeshe Tsogyal

The basis for realizing enlightenment is a human body. Male or female, there is no great difference. But if she develops the mind bent on enlightenment the woman’s body is better.”

Elsewhere, Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, offers these final words to Yeshe Tsogyal:

In the supreme body of a woman
You have gained accomplishment;
Your mind itself is Lord . . .”

One Yeshe Tsogyal story has her entering into a meditation retreat for 9 years and emerging as a fully enlightened Buddha. This is almost certainly a mythological tale, but at least in this one, unlike the story of the Dragon King’s Daughter, she does not have to transform into a man before attaining enlightenment. This is significant, regardless of the story’s reliability, because it offers an example of a woman who realized Buddhahood with her present body (Jp. sokushin jobutsu), the “supreme” body of a woman.

Although I don’t believe notions of “supreme perfect enlightenment” (Skt. anuttara-samyak-sambodhi) or Final Nirvana are realistic or verifiable concepts, I do accept that rather high plateaus of wisdom and mindfulness are reachable over the course of the spiritual journey.  Given this, we can assume that whatever Yeshe Tsogyal attained was authentic and acceptable as a historic truth. Gyalwa Changchub and Namkhai Nyingpo in their biography of Lady Tsogyal (see below) write, “The first Tibetan ever to attain complete enlightenment was in all probability the woman Yeshe Tsogyal . . .”

Yeshe Tsogyal’s name means “Victorious Ocean of Wisdom.” The details of her life vary, according to the source. In some accounts, her early life was harsh, and she suffered considerable abuse, including rape. In other accounts, those early years were happy and peaceful, and she was so popular that when she turned 13, a number of noblemen requested marriage with her, but her parents would not consent to any of their proposals. There are many legends, and most are quite epic in nature.

It’s said she lived a life that was independent of Padamsambhava. Although she compiled many of his teachings, she also authored works of her own, including an autobiography.

In Tibet, Yeshe Tsogyal is considered a female Buddha. Some Tibetan traditions regard her as a reincarnation of the Buddha’s own mother, Maya Devi, while the Nyingma tradition considers her an emanation of Samantabhadri, the primordial female Buddha.

Yeshe Tsogyal is one of a number of actual women and mythical female figures whose presence furthered the development of Tibetan Buddhism, and Tantric/Vajrayana Buddhism in general. While in what we call “traditional” Buddhism, women were viewed as impure beings, generators of desire, and their bodies unfit to serve as vessels of enlightened mind, the Vajrayana/Tantric branch of Buddhism, which is also traditional, had a different view.

Dr. Miranda E. Shaw, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Richmond, argues that in Tantric Buddhism, enlightenment was not just for men, nor were women always marginalized and kept in a subservient position. In Passionate Enlightenment Women in Tantric Buddhism, she says that

Tantric biographies portray bold, outspoken, independent women. Tantric texts describe how women should be respected, served, and ritually worshipped. Tantric literature introduces practices performed solely by women and others performed by women and men together. Tantric theory advances an ideal of cooperative, mutually liberative relationships between women and men.”

Shaw says the founders of Tantric Buddhism included independent women who made a significant and valuable contribution to shaping a unique outlook on gender roles, attitudes, and interaction. Unfortunately, Tantric Buddhism is too often associated with physical sex, a largely mistaken notion, which causes many people to form a rather negative view of tantra. For others, Vajrayana may seem to contain too much mysticism for their liking. But regardless of whether Tantric Buddhism/Vajrayana is our cup of tea or not, Buddhists from every tradition would do well to try and capture this vision of gender relations, for in a world where women are still not fully equal, there is much more work to do, and in my opinion, Buddhists should lead the way in dismantling the parameters of inequality, not just for women, but for all people.

There is a growing corpus of research and literature on women in Buddhism, tantric and non-tantric. For those interested in learning more about Yeshe Tsogyal, here are two books worth taking a look at:

Sky Dancer: The Secret Life And Songs Of Lady Yeshe Tsogyel by Keith Dowman

Lady of the Lotus-Born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe Tsogyal by Gyalwa Changchub and Namkhai Nyingpo

Other books of interest, including those cited in this post:

Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex by John Stevens

Passionate Enlightenment Women in Tantric Buddhism by Miranda Shaw

Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism by Judith Simmer-Brown

Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet by Reginald A. Ray

An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism by Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta 

- – - – - – - – - -

* Bloch, R. Howard, and Frances Ferguson, editors Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy. Berkeley:  University of California Press, c1989 1989.

Apr 082014
 

Today, I present another post for National Poetry Month. This celebration is intended to focus on American poetry or how poetry has contributed to American culture, but we live in a global community and poetry is a universal language, so I choose to ignore that guideline from time to time.

tagore-2014-1One of the world’s great poets, and philosophers, Rabindranath Tagore, inspired the title of this blog, The Endless Further. I have written about Tagore in some detail previously (see below), so I won’t add much to that today. As I’ve noted, he had a great respect for Buddhism and once called Buddha “the greatest man ever born on this earth.”

Here is one of the few poem in which he mentions Buddha. It comes from Fruit-Gathering, a collection published by Macmillan in 1916, and was translated from Bengali to English by Tagore himself.

The Price

Only one lotus braved the blast of winter and bloomed in the garden of Sudas the gardener. He took it to sell to the King.

A traveler said to him on the way, “I will buy this untimely flower, and take it to my master Buddha. Ask your price.”

The gardener asked one golden masha*, and the traveler readily agreed.  Just then the King came there.

“I must take that lotus to Lord Buddha,” he said to the gardener.  “What is your price?”

The gardener claimed two golden mashas.  The King was ready to buy it.  The traveler doubled the price and the King’s offer ran still higher.

The gardener thought in his greed he could get much more from the man for whom they were eagerly bidding.

He hastened with his flower to the grove where Buddha sat silent. Love shone in his eyes, on his lips was wisdom beyond words.

Sudas gazed at him, and stood still.  Suddenly he fell on his knees, placing the lotus at Buddha’s feet.

Buddha smiled and asked, “What is your prayer, my son?”

“Nothing, my lord,” Sudas answered, “only a speck of the dust off your feet.”

* A measurement of rice or wheat berry

- – - – - – - – - -

Previous posts on Rabindranath Tagore:

Rabindranath Tagore

Sadhana and the Big Fish

Love’s Gift is Shy

One Day in Spring

A Myriad Minded Man

Apr 042014
 

As I mentioned last week, April is National Poetry Month, a yearly celebration of poetry “inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 . . .  when schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets throughout the United States band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture.”*

So I intend to dedicate a few posts in the coming weeks to this wonderful literary art that has been one of my lifelong passions.  I’ll start with Maya Angelou simply because today is her 86th birthday.

maya_angelouI had heard of Maya Angelou for some years, mostly in connection to her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but my real introduction to this remarkable woman was in the late 70s when she hosted the instructional telecourse “Humanities Through the Arts,” a series of half-hour programs that I still see on PBS from time to time.  What immediately struck me about her was that voice – her words so richly enunciated and the deep timbre.  As someone who has been schooled in what I call “vocal artistry,” I enjoy hearing a truly great speaking voice.

Listening to Maya Angelou speak, it’s hard to imagine that she was once mute.  Sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, she somehow found the courage to report the abuse.  The boyfriend ended up going to jail – for one day.  Shortly after his release, he was murdered.  Ms. Angelou wrote in her autobiography, “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name.  And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone . . .” She was around seven years old at the time and she did not speak again for five years. Eventually she recovered her ability to voice, and during the same period developed a love of the arts.

There’s no way I can cover all the facets of Maya Angelou’s varied life.  You can read many of the details at Wikipedia or on her own website.  She has been a civil rights activist, film producer, television producer, playwright, film director, author, actor, and professor.

In the 1950’s she was a calypso dancer, performing at clubs in San Francisco such as the famous Purple Onion.  I mention this because recently I watched a 1957 movie called Calypso Heat Wave, a cheapie made to cash in on the short-lived calypso craze.  It features a very young Joel Grey (Cabaret) and in an uncredited role, Alan Arkin.  Maya Angelou performs two numbers that she wrote herself, and let me tell you, she’s pretty hot, not to mention about the only thing even remotely authentic in the movie.

As far as Maya Angelou the poet is concerned, the Poetry Foundation notes, “her poetry has often been lauded more for its content . . . than for its poetic virtue.”  And yet, her poetry has earned her a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize (1972) and she is only the second poet in U.S. history to compose and read a poem for a presidential inauguration (Clinton, 1993).

“Caged Bird” was first published in Ms. Angelou’s 1983 volume of poetry, Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?  The poem is about her personal experience with discrimination growing up in the south during the 1930s and 1940s, and the struggle of the 1960s civil rights movement.  Race, however, is not the only thing that binds people to suffering, so the “caged bird” is a metaphor for the universal desire of all beings for personal liberty.

Caged Bird

A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird” from Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? Copyright © 1983 by Maya Angelou.

Apr 012014
 

One morning many years ago I came across a Zen saying in a book (I believe it was by Alan Watts) that went something like this: “As soon as you posses something, you lose it.” It stayed in my mind all day. I worked in the reservations department of a hotel at the time, and although we used computers, there was still much we had to write out by hand. I had purchased a rather expensive Mont Blanc pen that produced nice, thick lines just the way I like, and I really coveted this pen. I misplaced the pen later the very same day and never saw it again.

Of course, this saying was not meant to be taken literally, and losing the pen was just an unfortunate coincidence. The saying is telling us that possession is an artificial concept, something that exists only as a thought construction, and one cannot truly posses anything.

Non-attachment is one of the core teachings of Buddhism: not clinging to material possessions, not seizing on the idea of “me” or “mine.” The Buddha taught that attachment is a dead-end and a principle cause of suffering. The bhikkhus (“sharesmen”), the Buddha’s ascetic followers, kept only the minimal material requisites, eight in total: three robes, a begging bowl, a water-strainer, a razor, needle and thread, and medicine. At the same time, the Buddha did not disparage his lay followers for owning things, but he did advise them not to form unwholesome attachments to what they held.

Possession in the ultimate sense implies domination and control, and since everything is subject to change, it is not possible to exert control over anything indefinitely. Ownership is always a temporary condition. Furthermore, while we may have possessions that provide us with comfort, care, aesthetic beauty and so on, if our happiness is based upon ownership of these things, what happens should we literally lose them as I did the pen? Do we lose our happiness as well? If so, that sort of happiness has a weak foundation.

Wherever conflicts arise amongst living beings, the sense of possession is the root cause.”

Anantamukha-nirharadharani

One has no need to guard what is given, but what is in one’s house must always be guarded. What is given is for the extinguishing of desire, while what is at home increases desire. What is given does not rouse greed or fear, not so for what is guarded. One assists the path of awakening, the other the path of corruption. One is lasting, the other transient.”

Ugradatta-pariprccha

Giving is the wisdom of the bodhisattva.”

Ratnamegha Sutra

Mar 282014
 

It’s been spring for about a week now, which means it’s high time for some poetry.

By the way, next month is National Poetry Month, so expect some more poetry in the coming weeks.  But for today, poems on the subject of spring by the Japanese poet Basho (1644-1694). I discussed Basho in a previous post. He was a student of classical Chinese poetry, Taoism, Zen, and became the most famous poet in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1867).

He is often thought of as a haiku master, but as Dr. David Landis Barnhill, University of Wisconsin, in his book Basho’s Haiku, points out “it is most accurate to speak of Basho as a master of ‘haikai’ poetry.” Basho worked with the tradition of “linked verses” (renku or renga) in which two or more poets contributed alternating parts of a poem. Dr. Barnhill further explains,

In linked-verse, whether classical renga or its haikai form, the first stanza (hokku) sets the stage for the entire poem and is considered particularly important. One feature that distinguishes hokku from other stanzas is that is must contain a a season word (kigo), which designates which season the poem was written in: hokku are by definition poems about the current season. A hokku must also be a complete statement, not dependent on the succeeding stanza. Because of its importance to linked verses and it completeness, haikai poets began to write them as semi-independent verses, which could be used not only as a starting stanza for a linked verse, but also could be appreciated by themselves. So the individual poems Basho created are, properly speaking, ‘hokku.’”*

Now on to the poems. These are my own interpretations, not that they differ greatly from any other translations.

spring awakened
only nine days and look –
these fields and mountains!

slowly spring
is coming back
moon and plum

spring of this year
how enthralling
the sky of wayfaring

spring rain
dripping from the leaking roof
down the wasp’s nest

spring unseen –
back of the mirror
plum blossoms

spring –
a hill without a name
veiled in morning fog

Kannon’s temple –
gazing at its tiled roof
through clouds of blossoms

Note: Kannon is the Japanese translation of Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion

- – - – - – - – - -

* David Landis Barnhill, Basho’s Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho, State University of New York Press, 2004, 4

Mar 262014
 

“Belief gets in the way of learning.”
- Robert A. Heinlein

When I quoted the late Joseph Campbell in Monday’s post, I did not realize that today, 2 days later, we would be celebrating the 110th anniversary of his birth.

Few philosophers – in addition to a mythologist, writer and lecturer, he was a philosopher – outside of Buddhism have influenced me as much as Joseph Campbell. When I watched his dialogue with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth as it aired on PBS in 1987, it had a profound effect and certainly changed my life. It finally resolved for me the tension between the metaphysical aspects of religion and my rational mind.

1987 was a largely pre-cable time and the Big 3 networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) still dominated the television landscape. After The Power of Myth aired, a TV executive, with CBS as I recall, said that if the program had been broadcast on one of the major networks instead of PBS, it would have changed the face of religion in America.

Campbell’s central thesis in this program was relatively simple:

“From the point of view of any orthodoxy, myth might be defined simply as “other people’s religion”, to which an equivalent definition of religion would be ‘misunderstood mythology’, the misunderstanding consisting in the interpretation of mythic metaphors as references to hard fact . . .”

In other words, religious stories are just stories, myths, and not history. If more people understood and appreciated this, we could spare the world from much trouble, and free ourselves from the bondage of dogma. Some have taken this message to heart, but there are others who dismiss it as something that undermines their faith.

Faith is a concept used by different persons to designate very diverse attitudes, but most often, we find faith reduced to belief coupled with the misunderstanding that belief makes what is believed fact. Any attempt to clear up this confusion is viewed as a threat, and this insecurity is the cause of most religious controversy and conflict.

Campbell did not articulate his view as such, but the principle underlying his philosophy was essentially the same as Nagarjuna’s Middle Way teachings on the emptiness of views, which Dr. K. Venkata Ramanan* explains in this way,

The Middle Way is to see things as they are, to recognize the possibility of determining things differently from different standpoints and to recognize that these determinations cannot be seized as absolutes. This is the way that realizes the relativity of specific views and of determinate entities. This becomes practically the central point in the philosophy of Nagarjuna.”

Faith is not belief about experiences but something inferred from them, and various things can be inferred from any one experience. Even while we may acknowledge the fact that faith/belief does not make what is believed fact, faith/belief can greatly influence attitudes and produce undesirable, unbeneficial, and even dangerous actions. A case in point would be the Louisiana teacher who taught her students that the universe was created by God 6,000 years ago and that that both the Big Bang theory and evolution are false. She gave her class a test in which the only correct answers were those based on this literal interpretation of the Bible. When one student gave different answers and then stated he was Buddhist and didn’t believe in God, the teacher reportedly told the rest of the class that Buddhism was “stupid.”

The student’s parents successfully sued the school, with the presiding judge in the U.S. District Court ruling that “School Officials shall not denigrate any particular faith, or lack thereof, or single out any student for disfavor or criticism because of his or her particular faith or religious belief, or lack thereof.”

This case is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, for we know all too well how religious intolerance can lead to violence and war.

Campbell said

We have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

Both sides are wrong. Campbell further explained that

Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images . . .”

Buddhism has its share of misunderstandings about mythology. Some tend to dismiss concepts they see as supernatural or metaphysical and fail to appreciate the real messages they convey, while others insist that certain beliefs, such as karma and rebirth, must be taken literally, missing the point that if these ideas are regarded as metaphor, it does not undermine Buddhism’s core philosophy. Then, in addition, there are those who also mistake belief for fact and contend that the sutras and the theology surrounding the sutras are historical and adopt an absolutist stand that their Buddhism alone is true.

Religious philosophy is a system of ideas. It uses words and symbols to refer to what lies beyond the full scope of our knowledge. The nature of God is a continuous debate, and yet, assuming there were a super-awakened being that created the universe, the mind of such a being would be so vast and impenetrable that no one on this earth could possibly know it, let alone claim the ability to interpret His or Her will.

Religion does has practical value when it is practiced without undue attachment to belief and the blindness of faith. In Monday’s post, Joseph Campbell pointed out that yoga means to “join” or to “yoke.” In The Power of Myth, he explained, “The word ‘religion’ means religio, linking back.”  We can say then that yoga and religion have essentially the same meaning, and the same ultimate aim, which is to enter the zone of pure consciousness awake. When we awaken from slumber each morning, we wipe the sand or sleep (rheum) from our eyes. To be awake in the religious sense means to wipe away the sand of dogma from our minds and then go into the world and make our stand not on the ramparts of belief but before the gates of wisdom.

[You] have the three great Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and because the three of them have different names for the same biblical god, they can’t get on together. They are stuck with their metaphor and don’t realize its reference. They haven’t allowed the circle that surrounds them to open. It is a closed circle. Each group says, ‘We are the chosen group, and we have God.’”

- Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth

The wayfarer that can understand this [the emptiness of views] does not seize, does not cling to anything, does not imagine that this alone is true (and not that). He does not quarrel with anyone. He can thus enjoy the flavor of the nectar of the Buddha’s doctrine. Those teachings are wrong which are not of this nature (i.e., non-contentious and accommodative). If one does not accommodate other doctrines, does not know them, does not accept them, he indeed is the ignorant. Thus, then, all those who quarrel and contend are devoid of wisdom. Why? Because every one of them refuses to accommodate the views of others. That is to say, there are those who say that what they themselves speak is the highest, the real, the pure truth, that the doctrines of others are words, false and impure.”

Nagarjuna, Treatise on the Maha Prajna-Paramita Sutra

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* K. Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1987