Nov 262014

I am thinking of the events of the past couple of nights and I am also thinking about how one day old Chuang Tzu said,

Zhuangzi2Let me share with you something I have learned. In all human relationships, if there are two parties living close to one another, they may establish a degree of personal trust. However, if they are distant, they must use words to communicate their thoughts and feelings.

One of the most difficult things in life is to be able to communicate effectively, without emotion, truthfully. When two parties are communicating, for both to be pleased they need to exaggerate some of the good points. To anger both parties, there must be some exaggeration of bad points. And yet, it is irresponsible to engage in exaggeration. When there is exaggeration, there can be no trust. When there is no trust the party who transmits the exaggeration might face some danger.

This is why there is a saying, “Transmit the established facts; do not transmit words of exaggeration.” If you do that, you will probably find some justice.

Nov 232014

In Sanskrit, the word amrita means “immortality.” In traditional Indian mythology, amrita is the nectar or “sweet dew” of the gods that grants immortal life.

Amrita appears in different contexts within Buddhism. It might be water or food that is blessed through the act of chanting, or it may be a sacramental drink taken at the beginning of certain tantric rituals. The great Tibetan yogi, Milarepa called the precepts or samaya “the amrita (nectar) of abundant nourishment,” and there is the “Ocean of Amrita” a teaching by Padmasambhava, as well as a story about the Healing Buddha appearing before Padmasambhava to give him a cup of amrita that would prolong his life.

We can view both the idea of immortality and amrita as metaphors. The latter, the nectar, representing spiritual nourishment. Therefore, anything that helps sustain or nurture wayfarers is amrita, sweet dew.

The purest and most potent amrita is bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, the elixir of compassion. In his teaching “The Four Immeasurables and the Six Paramitas,” Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche states,

[Bodhicitta] is very beneficial for oneself and for all others. So, when someone has bodhicitta, whatever he or she does, is like medicine or healing nectar (Skt. amrita) which brings calmness, peace, and the coolness discussed before. It is very beneficial and is like a great and powerful medicine. It just flows out quite spontaneously and naturally from the presence of one’s bodhicitta. Take the supreme example of bodhicitta: when the Buddha taught, he led a very simple life and everything happened spontaneously around him. These far-reaching effects were a completely natural outflow of this very therapeutic healing, coming from the very pure motivation which he had. This is very special.”

Bodhicitta is not only the ultimate spiritual nourishment, it is the foundation of the raison d’ê·tre for Buddhist cultivation, because in the Bodhisattva Way, we practice not just for ourselves but also, and perhaps most importantly, for the benefit of others. Bodhicitta is the aspiration to awaken for the sake of all living beings. Nurturing bodhicitta is a cause that comes back to nurture us. In A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva says of bodhicitta, the thought of awakening,

It is the nectar of immortality prepared for vanquishing death in the world;
An inexhaustible elixir to end the world’s poverty.”

I like to think that Shantideva is using “the nectar of immortality” metaphorically to mean the non-fear of death. Fear of death is a negative state of mind, a fixation on the future that distracts us from living fully in the now. As this fear tightens its grip on our mind and spirit, it weakens our ability to deal with death when the time for it comes. When we live for more than just ourselves, we acquire a kind of courage, even without being aware of it, and of course, wisdom through which we see that death is an opportunity for awakening.

Speaking of metaphors, I am reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a wonderful book that I will perhaps write about in more detail later. Near the beginning of the book, Kundera has these great lines:

Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.

And so ends my small offering of nectar for the mind and ambrosia for the heart.

Nov 212014

About a year and a half ago, the Washington Post noted:

Sociologists say that we are increasingly divided over religion’s place in public life but that when it comes to language, Americans are moving in one direction: toward a new vernacular. We’re no longer “religious.” We’re “holy.” We’re “faithful.” We’re “spiritual.”

I’ve begun to notice that “nonduality” has become a key word in this new vernacular.

SANDAn example is an organization I recently became aware of called Science and Nonduality. They have a cool acronym (SAND) and a cool logo. According to their website, “The mission of Science and Nonduality (SAND) is to forge a new paradigm in spirituality, one that is not dictated by religious dogma, but rather is based on timeless wisdom traditions of the world, informed by cutting-edge science, and grounded in direct experience.”

Last month SAND held a conference in San Jose California that featured a bunch of participants I’ve never heard of before. But they’re having a “retreat”called “The Sutras of Science” at Esalen in February that will feature Deepak Chopra and Robert Thurman, among others.

It seems rather obvious to me that they are using Nonduality as a substitute for the word “religion.” You notice in the mission statement above they mention religious dogma, and this is a group that seems informed by Eastern philosophy which to my mind is rather non-dogmatic. I think we sometimes have a tendency to overlay our issues with Western religion onto Eastern spirituality, and that’s a shame.

Several of the speakers at the SAND 2014 conference are described as “nonduality teachers.” I wasn’t aware that nonduality had become a field all its own. I guess I haven’t been paying attention.  I wonder if the pay for nonduality teachers is good. If so, I’d like to give it a try. I think I’d qualify.

Nonduality has been around quite a while.  Although Chinese philosophy has always had a non-dual view, what we think of as nondualism more or less got its start with the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna and his teaching on the two truths.  In Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, he calls nonduality (advaya) “the gate of security, the destruction of false views; the path walked by all buddhas, the ‘dharma of no-self-nature.’”

nondual-hotdog-72On the SAND website they write, “nonduality is the philosophical, spiritual, and scientific understanding of non-separation and fundamental oneness. Our starting point is the statement ‘we are all one’.” This is true, and yet I wonder if they understand that this “oneness” belongs to the relative truth. In his Treatise on The Maha Prajna-paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna says,

All things enter the non-dual dharma. Although things are not two, they are not one either.”

They do, however, posses one nature: they “are in truth sunya (empty).” For Nagarjuna, the non-dual dharma is like space (akasa) in that it is “completely unobstructive.”

I also occasionally see folks write something like this: “The message of nonduality is that the true nature of reality is non-dual.” Well, that is certainally part of the message and nonduality is an aspect of the true nature of reality, but not the whole thing. What I mean is that often people take nonduality to be the ultimate truth.

Actually, duality and nonduality both belong to the realm of relative truth. Neither-duality-nor-nonduality is the ultimate truth. In other words, the ultimate truth is neither extreme, it is the middle. Here’s one reason why Nagarjuna’s philosophy is called Madhyamaka or Middle Way.

Let’s take the example of a coin. The point is not that we have one and only one coin. The point is that the coin has two sides. As K. Venkata Ramanan points out in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy,

The extinction of ignorance does not leave us in a blank; it is not an act separate from the arising of knowledge. The two are simultaneous; they are two different sides of the same act, two phases of one principle. [Nagarjuna’s treatise] observes that in their ultimate nature there is no difference between ignorance and knowledge, even as there is no difference in the ultimate truth between the world of the determinate and Nirvana, the unconditioned reality.”

The ultimate truth is not emptiness because ultimately emptiness is empty. The ultimate truth is not nonduality because duality and nonduality are merely two sides of one thing. So what is this one thing? If we have to name it, let us name is Nirvana. And yet, Nagarjuna reminds us that “Nirvana is not any one thing.” This is the Middle Way.

Nov 182014

This blog’s title, The Endless Further, comes from a phrase used by Rabindranath Tagore during a series of lectures at Manchester College, Oxford in 1930.  Tagore was a Bengali poet, philosopher, artist, playwright, composer and novelist. India’s first Nobel laureate.

On this date 101 years ago, November 18, 1913, he wrote a letter to a man named William Rothenstein. Rothenstein was English, and among other things, a painter. He had visited the Tagore family home, Jorasanko, in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) during a trip to India in 1912 and drawn a series of portraits of Tagore.

Rothenstein and Tagore2bRothenstein was English, and among other things, a painter. He had visited the Tagore family home, Jorasanko, in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) during a trip to India in 1912 and drawn a series of portraits of Tagore. The two had become close friends and Rothenstein was one of Tagore’s most ardent champions (Yeats first heard of Tagore through Rothenstein). The poet dedicated his poetry collection Gitanjali to the painter. In fact, Tagore wrote this letter to Rothenstein only four days after receiving the Nobel Prize for Gitanjali.

In the letter, Tagore wrote, “The very first moment I received message of the great honour conferred on me by the award of the Nobel Prize, my heart turned towards you with love and gratitude”.

As Michael Collins (University of Oxford, UK) points out in his article History and the Postcolonial Rabindranath Tagore’s Reception in London, 1912-1913: “Clearly, the extent to which his fame and fortune in the West was due to the assistance given to him by his Western, largely British, friends was an issue that was uppermost in his mind.” An issue, or rather a debt, he rightly felt he needed to acknowledge.

And now I must acknowledge that I have gone way around the mulberry tree and used this November 18 th historical connection merely as an excuse to present one of Tagore’s poems. It’s one of my favorite Tagore poems and it was the favorite of Mahatma Gandhi, only he used to sing it, so it was also his favorite song.

From Gitanjali, “Walk Alone”:

Tagore sketched by Sir William Rothenstein

Tagore sketched by Sir William Rothenstein

If they answer not to thy call walk alone,
If they are afraid and cower mutely facing the wall,
O thou of evil luck,
open thy mind and speak out alone.

If they turn away, and desert you when crossing the wilderness,
O thou of evil luck,
trample the thorns under thy tread,
and along the blood-lined track travel alone.

If they do not hold up the light
when the night is troubled with storm,
O thou of evil luck,
with the thunder flame of pain ignite thine own heart
and let it burn alone.

Nov 142014

Most of you are probably aware by now that Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Zen teacher, is in the hospital. His monastery, Plum Village in southern France, announced that he had a brain hemorrhage on November 11th.

thichnhathanh1X3Thay, as he is affectionately called by his followers, has been unwell for some time. A reliable source on Facebook says that he is in a stage one coma. That’s when a patient is incapable of voluntary activities such as eye opening, and speech. However, according to Plum Village, he is “still very responsive and shows every indication of being aware of the presence of those around him. He is able to move his feet, hands and eyes. There are signs that a full recovery may be possible.”

I’m sure we all hope that will be the case. Only last month I wrote a post in commemoration of his 88th continuation day. May every day be a continuation day for this beloved teacher.

I am not part of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist tradition, but for me his life and his teachings transcend sectarianism. Perhaps, you feel the same way. Plum Village is asking people to send Thay healing and loving energy. While that is certainly appropriate and perhaps beneficial, I feel his suffering is an opportunity to do something deeper, to look deeper, go deeper. It’s an opportunity to learn more about the nature of suffering.

In The Heart of Understanding, his commentary on the Heart Sutra, Thay writes,

There are three kinds of gifts. The first is the gift of material resources. The second is the gift of know-how, the gift of the Dharma. The third, and the highest kind of gift, is the gift of non-fear. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is someone who can help us liberate ourselves from fear. This is the heart of the Prajnaparamita.”

Avalokitesvara’s suffering was literally non-substantial, for mythical beings have no real suffering to cross over. Thich Nhat Hanh is real, and like countless other living beings in this world, his suffering is real, and painful.  Moreover, he is truly someone who is helping us liberate ourselves from fear. His current suffering, as well as all his past suffering and future suffering, is his gift of non-fear to us.

Throughout his writings, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to look deeply, listen deeply, understand deeply. He says that to meditate is to look deeply. He tells us that we can learn to love ourselves by looking deeply.  He points out that “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive . . .” When Thay uses the metaphor of a cloud in a piece of paper to explain interdependency or “inter-being,” he says that there is also sunshine in the paper and “Looking even more deeply, we can see that we are in it too.” He suggests that through listening deeply we “can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening.”

And “When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it. We have to enter deeply into it and be with it in order to really understand.”

We cannot stand outside of Thay’s suffering. We should take it as our own and enter it. There are many ways we can do this. His writings are full of meditation tips and suggestions for simple practices that can be performed many times each day in various settings and situation, some as uncomplicated and effortless as smiling or walking. All of them help us look deeper.

One plan would be to take a phrase or short quote of his that resonates with us, or speaks to the subject of suffering, and for however long he is in the hospital, make the words our mantra, our koan, and meditate upon them, reflect on them as we go about our daily business.  Enter the words as deeply as possible.

I am very sure Thich Nhat Hanh would want us to use his suffering as an opportunity to engrave his teachings, or any wisdom teachings, into our hearts and minds.  Of course, the deepest manner in which we can reply to Thay’s spirit is through the Bodhisattva way, by being ourselves a person who helps others cross over suffering.  The Bodhisattva’s path of compassion is a path anyone can walk.  The gift of non-fear is the gift everyone can give.

Fear is the greatest suffering and we can never liberate ourselves from suffering until we conquer fear. As Thay says “Suffering is very important for your happiness. You cannot understand, you cannot love, until you know what suffering is.”

That would be a good phrase to use for the purpose of reflecting on the nature of suffering, but there are many others. Here are some links to quotes and talks by Thich Nhat Hanh. You may have an idea yourself about a way to reply to Thay’s gift of non-fear, and if so, please feel free to share it here in a comment.




Transcriptions of Dharma Talks @ Plum Village

Nov 092014

Many of you are familiar with the Tao Te Ching, the ancient Chinese Taoist (Dao) text attributed to Lao Tzu  that I have quoted from often. And you may also know the Chuang Tzu, a work from the 3rd century BCE named after its purported author, from the stories I have adapted. Some of the stories in that work can also found another text, the Lieh Tzu (Liezi), considered to be the third of the great Chinese philosophical works.

Lieh Tzu or “Master Lie,”  like the Chuang Tzu, is a collection of anecdotes and philosophical reflections from a sage who may or may not have actually lived, in this case sometime during the fourth century BCE.

Here is a brief story from the “Causality” chapter. The Kuan-yin here is not the same Kuan-yin who is the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion. And by the way, in ancient China Tzu (Zi) was a honorific title, given to a man after his death, indicating that he was a great philosopher or sage. And it is not the same character as in Shih Tzu, the toy dog.

lieh-tzuLieh Tzu decided to learn the way of archery, and when he was able to hit the target, he asked Kuan Yin Tzu to appraise his shooting.

“Do you know why your arrow hit the target?” said Kuan Yin Tzu.

“No, I do not,” Lieh Tzu replied.

“’Then you are not yet very good, are you?”

Lieh Tzu left and continued to hone his skill with the bow and arrow. After three years, he returned to Kuan Yin Tzu and demonstrated his progress.

Kuan Yin Tzu again asked, “Do you know why your arrow hit the target?”

“’Yes, I do’ said Lieh Tzu.

“So then, all is well. Hold onto that knowledge, and do not let it slip.”

“The balance between mind and body is found within oneself. Once you understand the causal process which makes you hit the target, you will be able to determine how destiny unfolds, and when you release your arrow, you will rarely miss.”

This principle applies not only to archery, but also to the affairs of government and to personal conduct. Therefore, the Sage examines not just the bare facts of continuation and decay, but also the causes that produce them.

We don’t try to understand causality so that we can find a way to manipulate the causal process, for example, learn how to make a particular cause in order to produce a specific effect. It’s something more intuitive, something that is more the fruit of meditation as opposed to knowledge gained from reading and listening. It’s about recognizing that nearly all the suffering we experience has as its inner cause a wrong attitude toward the world.

We can always correct that attitude. Because there is causality, there is change, and because there is change there is also continuation and decay, birth and death.

Shunryu Suzuki said, “The teaching of the cause of suffering and the teaching that everything changes are thus two sides of one coin.” Understanding this, understanding causality, then, is a crucial cause for freeing ourselves from attachments and finding harmony with the universal order.

Nov 072014

Unlike some folks, I like the idea of corporate mindfulness.  Anything that helps foster more responsible capitalism should be encouraged. Take Forbes, for instance. A business publication founded back in 1917. They’ve jumped on the Mindfulness bandwagon. Just in the last month they’ve published articles such as Does Practicing Mindfulness Really Make For More Effective Leadership?, Meditation Isn’t Just Mind Medicine, It’s Also Good For Your Heart, and The Mindfulness Craze.

Speaking of the Mindfulness craze, I’m just wondering . . . Are you having a mindful day? Did you know that mindful meals are healthier? Are you running mindfully or practicing mindful walking? Do you know how to conduct a mindful job search?  Or, if you are already employed, are you being a mindful employee? Are you a parent? Do you know about mindful parenting? Do you have the mindfulness app for your Smartphone or iPhone?


I could go on and on . . . and on!

You know what I find truly irritating? It’s when people use the term “mindful meditation,” for if “mindful” meant exactly what it is supposed to mean, then I think “mindful meditation” would be redundant. Wouldn’t it?

So, this begs the question, are we using mindful/mindfulness properly? In the proper context? One thing I know – we sure as hell are overusing it.

Mindfulness stands for the Pali word sati and the Sanskirt smrti, both of which mean “memory,” “recollection,” “remembering.” These terms signify the recalling of past events, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve with meditation. An instruction that I’ve often given, one I borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh I think, is to sit with “no thought of the past, no anticipation of the future, just be in the now.”

Buddhist scholar John Dunne says “It is not really about memory in any very direct way; it is really the facet of mind that keeps the mind from wandering.” The Buddha used the word sati/smrti in the sense of “moment-to-moment awareness of present events.”

How did we get started with mindfulness in the first place? In 1881, T.W. Rhys Davids was the first to use “mindfulness” in his translations of suttas from the Digha and Majjhima Nikayas. It’s all his fault.

When we meditate we are trying to be mindful of the “present moment,” to use another term we’ve beaten to death like a dead horse. (?)

But, the real point I’d like to make is – oops, sorry, have to save it for another post. The mindfulness app on my phone just went off. Gentle bells alerting me it is time to be mindful . . . Oh joy, joy. I feel so special being ever so mindfully mindful.

Nov 052014

Robert Thurman has written an article posted on Huffington Post titled Concerning The Current Wave of “Protest Demonstrations” Against His Holiness the Dalai Lama by the Just-formed New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) Shugden Protest Front Group, The International Shugden Community (ISC).

Protest over Dalai Lama in New York City on Nov. 4, 2014 (Credit: CBS2)

Protest over Dalai Lama in New York City on Nov. 4, 2014 (Credit: CBS2)

The title alone tells you an awful lot about the whole controversy. You see, these “protesters” would like people to believe they are a “people,” an indigenous-like religious minority group, which is why they have recently begun to position themselves as the International Shugden Community, when in fact they are almost all Western believers in a Western cult of Tibetan Buddhism, the New Kadampa Tradition, founded by Kelsang Gyatso.

Thierry Dodin, a Tibetologist who has taught at the University of Bonn and has served as director of the Tibet Information Network in London, says “The NKT can be described typologically as a cult on the basis of its organisational form, its excessive group pressure and blind obedience to its founder.” This sounds very similar to the Japanese Buddhist group with a like organization form, excessive group pressure, and blind obedience to its (de facto) founder, which I spent some years with.

The NKT just opened a new center a few blocks from my home. It’s called Kadampa Meditation Center Hollywood. Outside the building (a church that went out of business), a sign proclaims that this is Modern Buddhism. Another sign advertises a class called “Mindfulness for Busy People.” That alone is enough to make me want to boycott the place. Intro to Meditation classes cost $12, as do some other classes. If you want to drop in for a nice, relaxing guided meditation in the morning or midday: 5 bucks. Not a lot of money but if you went frequently it would add up after a while. I am used to “free” or “suggested donation” both of which are more in line with the Buddhist tradition of not charging for the dharma.

It’s a real shame because having a Buddhist center so close by would be just great. Their opposition to the Dalai Lama (they have a new book out called The False Dalai Lama The Worst Dictator in the Modern World) and their adherence to Shugden practice, insures that I will never set foot in the place.

To be fair, their practice is more diverse than just Dorje Shugden worship. And what’s wrong with that in the first place? Read this piece I posted a while back that includes some of the Dalai Lama’s remarks about protector deities.

And what is the beef these protesters are voicing? Robert Thurman explains

In the case of the current wave of ISC “protests” against the Dalai Lama, we have to ask ourselves–what is the real motive? What does the small group of highly motivated, well-organized, seemingly media-savvy “protesters” really want? They say they want “religious freedom,” but they have always had religious freedom in India or the West, nobody has banned them worshiping as they wish. Within Tibet they have special support from the Chinese government that dominates Tibet (not giving such freedom to pro-Dalai-Lama Tibetan Buddhists), and outside of Tibet they have their own monasteries, Meditation Centers, and support networks. Their Western followers are free to worship as they choose, and are also free to attack the Dalai Lama, as they are doing. They say they want to end “segregation,” but they themselves choose to separate themselves from member of their own Gelukpa sect who decline to propitiate the protector entity they call Shugden, as well as from other sects of Buddhism.”

Read the rest of Concerning The Current Wave of “Protest Demonstrations” Against His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Huffington Post.

Nov 022014

Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (Bodhicaryavatara) contains ten chapters made up of some seven hundred verses. Intended to serve as an introduction to the bodhisattva path (the title literally means “Entrance to the Bodhisattva Way”), this work of great philosophical depth and poetic beauty is also a comprehensive course in Buddhist philosophy. Sent to a deserted island and allowed to take only one book on Buddhism with you, this would be one to take.

It is the ultimate self-help book, a guide to learning how to deal with hatred, resentment, regret, and other negative emotions and mental states. For centuries, it has been studied, practiced, and taught by Buddhists of nearly all traditions. The Guide has many contemporary admirers; perhaps foremost among these is the Dalai Lama who has said, “If I have any understanding of compassion and the practice of the Bodhisattva path, it is entirely on the basis of this text that I possess it.”

In “A Mahayana Liturgy”*, Luis O. Gomez tells us that the first four chapters of the Guide became a classical liturgy “very popular, at least in monastic circles, during the later Mahayana period (about eighth to thirteenth centuries C.E.).” Liturgy is a ritual or form of public worship. Both the liturgy (which Gomez provides text) and the work itself contain many expressions of reverence for the Awakened, the Protectors, the Conquerors, all of which are names for Buddhas, but it goes without saying that these outward declarations are less important than the inward looks of self-reflection the work promotes.

Today’s post deals with the 2nd chapter, most commonly translated as “Confession” – confession of sins or faults or errors. The Tibetan word for confession is bshags pa: “the process of admitting or ‘exposing’ one’s misdeeds before a witness or support, feeling regret for them and vowing not to repeat them in future.” (Rigpa-wiki)

The “evil” or “sin” we are trying to expiate has to do with such things as arrogance and conceit and nothing at all with violating some being’s will. This point can be confusing, especially when we read in Buddhist texts like this one references to “supreme beings,” but we should read these reference more as “mythical celestial beings” and keep in mind what was written above about the expressions of reverence.

I ran across this clip on YouTube: the 2nd chapter of Guide done in song, performed by Vidya Rao, an Hindustani classical singer and writer. I have no other information about it other than that. It is a beautiful rendition, and since it is not in English, as you listen you may wish to read the Wallace translation of the chapter here.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Lopez, Donald S. (Ed.), Buddhism in Practice, Princeton University Press, 1995

Oct 302014

This blog is about Buddhism but as regular readers know I occasionally veer off in other directions, one of which is poetry. I am an eclectic reader, and so my taste runs from e.e.cummings to Dylan Thomas to poets such as Galway Kinnell who passed away Wednesday at the age of 87.

galway_kinnellI met him once. I don’t remember what year but sometime during the 90s, at the Chateau Marmount, the place where John Belushi died. Kinnell was giving a poetry reading there and it was a rather bizarre afternoon. Before the poet himself got up to read, Jennifer Tilly read one of his poems. Now, I had always assumed that her dumb/dizzy persona was just an act, and I don’t want to say that it’s not, or that she is unfamiliar with poetry, but it was clear she was unfamiliar with Mr. Kinnell’s poetry. What she was doing there is anybody’s guess.  But she was fun to look at. In fact, all the Tilly girls were there and they were all dressed in black, and a bit rowdy as I recall.

Some writers cannot read aloud. They are either monotone or they possess a terrible speaking voice.  Kinnell’s voice was pleasant to listen to, middle-ranged, and his oral presentation engaging. I’d brought a copy of his Selected Poems with me, that he signed afterwards, and we had a brief conversation.

In an appreciation for The New Yorker, fellow poet C.K. Williams goes into more detail about Kinnell reading aloud, and offers these words about the man’s work,

there’s no one whose work has so often and with such consistency brought into the world a sense of wonder and exaltation, no one who so often discovered rich new harmonies of poetic language, no one who devised so many metaphors that resonate through so many levels of materiality and spirit, uniting the physical with the moral and passion with thought. In short, there’s no one whose work has elaborated so ample and comprehensive a vision of the lives we’ve lived.”

That is a summation hard to improve upon. I won’t try. As far as his life is concerned, read his obituary at the LA Times. You can also visit his website.

As for the poetry . . .


A black bear sits alone
in the twilight, nodding from side
to side, turning slowly around and around
on himself, scuffing the four-footed
circle into the earth. He sniffs the sweat
in the breeze, he understands
a creature, a death-creature,
watches from the fringe of the trees,
finally he understands
I am no longer here, he himself
from the fringe of the trees watches
a black bear
get up, eat a few flowers, trudge away,
all his fur glistening
in the rain.

And what glistening! Sancho Fergus,
my boychild, had such great shoulders,
when he was born his head
came out, the rest of him stuck. And he opened
his eyes: his head out there all alone
in the room, he squinted with pained,
barely unglued eyes at the ninth-month’s
blood splashing beneath him
on the floor. And almost
smiled, I thought, almost forgave it all in advance.

When he came wholly forth
I took him up in my hands and bent
over and smelled
the black, glistening fur
of his head, as empty space
must have bent
over the newborn planet
and smelled the grasslands and the ferns.

Galway Kinnell, “Lastness (part 2)” from Selected Poems. Copyright © 2001 by Galway Kinnell.