National Poetry Month

April, comes she will,
When streams are ripe and swelled with rain . . .

– Paul Simon

One of the nice things about a blog is that regardless of whether you have a theme or not, you can blog about pretty much anything you want. While I try to stay focused on Buddhism here, occasionally I do veer off in other directions, and one of them is often poetry. But, you see, I really don’t believe poetry is that far off the subject, but I am getting ahead of myself.

It’s the first day of April and sorry, no April Fools joke from me. I’d rather tell you that it’s National Poetry Month. Had I remembered that, and thought ahead, I might have saved a few of last month’s posts for this month. But I didn’t, so here in April you can expect a bit more on poetry.

Each April since 1996 the Academy of American Poets sponsors National Poetry Month when “publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools and poets around the country band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture. Thousands of businesses and non-profit organizations participate through readings, festivals, book displays, workshops, and other events.”

You can head over to poets.org and see what events and programs they have lined up. As I said above, I plan to celebrate with a few more poetry posts than usual, highlighting “spiritual” poetry.

Since the title of this blog, The Endless Further, comes from a phrase coined by a great poet, I think it is fitting to kick off National Poetry Month with that poet, Rabindranath Tagore.

Now I can tell you that just as I consider most poetry to be romantic, I feel that nearly all poetry is spiritual. Now, when I make these sorts of remarks, I am using the key words in a very broad sense and have in mind the salient and universal qualities of “romantic” and “spiritual.” I have a feeling that Tagore would understand what I mean.

In his introduction to Tagore’s Gitanjali or ‘Song Offerings’, W. B. Yeats, not a bad poet himself, noted that Tagore sprang from a “tradition, where poetry and religion are the same thing, [passed] through the centuries, gathering from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion, and carried back again to the multitude the thought of the scholar and of the noble.”

Really, everything is spiritual, especially as Buddhism views it, since everything we think, see, say and do involves our mind and that is where Buddhists find spirituality. Chih-i taught that a single thought moment can permeate the universe and that all phenomena in the universe in contained within that thought moment.

Tagore put it this way:

The same stream of life that runs through
my veins night and day runs through
the world and dances in rhythmic
measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy
through the dust of the earth in
numberless blades of grass and breaks
into tumultuous waves of leaves and
flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the
ocean-cradle of birth and of death,
in ebb and flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the
touch of this world of life. And my pride
is from the life-throb of ages dancing
in my blood this moment.

In this same vein, Joseph Campbell, in a lecture from 1968, “The Inspiration of Oriental Art” (Myths To Live By), said,

Listen to the sound of the city. Listen to the sound of your neighbor’s voice, or of the wild geese honking skyward. Listen to any sound or silence at all without interpreting it, and the Anahata will be heard of the Void that is the ground of being, and the world that is the body of being, the Silence and the Syllable. Moreover, when once this sound has been “heard,” as it were, as the sound and being of one’s own heart and of all life, one is stilled and brought to peace; there is no need to quest any more, for it is here, it is there, it is everywhere. And the high function of Oriental art is to make known that this truly is so; or, as our Western poet Gerhart Hauptmann has said of the aim of all true poetry: “to let the Word be heard resounding behind words.” The mystic Meister Eckhart expressed the same thought in theological terms when he told his congregation, “Any flea as it is in God is nobler than the highest of the angels in himself. Things in God are all the same: they are God Himself.”

This should give you an idea of what I mean when I say all poetry is spiritual in one way or another. Poetry finds the sacred in the profane, and vice versa. It sees “a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower.” To me, Ginsberg’s Howl is as spiritual as anything Blake wrote. And cumming’s “in Just-spring, when the world is mud-luscious” is just as religious and transcendent as any poetry found in the sutras.

But, enough. Let’s get with the poetry. Most of Tagore’s poem were actually songs, meant to be sung. Here are two more from Gitanjali. Perhaps you will be familiar with them, and perhaps you will enjoying reading them once again, or for the first time.

Tagore

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers
But to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain
But for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield
But to my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved
But hope for patience to win my freedom.
Sarvamangalam! Blessings to all!

 

The time that my journey takes is long
and the way of it long.
I came out on the chariot of the first gleam of light,
and pursued my voyage through the wildernesses of worlds
leaving my track on many a star and planet.

It is the most distant course that comes nearest to thyself,
and that training is the most intricate which leads
to the utter simplicity of a tune.

The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own,
and one has to wander through all the outer worlds
to reach the innermost shrine at the end.

My eyes strayed far and wide
before I shut them and said `Here art thou!’

The question and the cry `Oh, where?’ melt
into tears of a thousand streams
and deluge the world with the flood of the assurance `I am!’

 

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Dalai Lama on the Four Noble Truths

You may have read that the Dalai Lama has announced his intention to relinquish his political role as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile. This should help dilute the argument put forth by critics that the he is some sort of autocratic ruler.

I heard Robert Thurman say one time that if the Dalai Lama had his way, he would just as soon go back to being an anonymous monk and do a three-year retreat. I seem to recall hearing the Dalai Lama say pretty much the same thing himself.

Fortunately, he is not resigning as the spiritual leader of Tibetans, or as a Buddhist teacher. That is how I tend to view him, as a teacher, especially as a scholar of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy. He is one of the few Buddhist teachers who lectures from that perspective, as that is the general view of Tibetan Buddhism, and certainly he’s the only one who can present Madhyamaka teachings to such a wide audience.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend a number of the Dalai Lama’s teachings over the years. From time to time, I have posted my transcript of the teachings he gave in 1997 at UCLA on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland. [Here, here, here, here, here, and here]

For newer readers of The Endless Further, I’ll mention again that I taped the entire four days of teachings, some 24 hours worth of tape, transcribed it by hand, and then made a second copy using an ancient writing device known as a typewriter. A rather tedious and time-consuming process, but it really helped to engrave these teaching on my mind.

When the Dalai Lama lectures on Buddhist dharma,  he always speaks in Tibetan and then it is translated. This is from the English translator, and it is verbatim, so in places the sentences are a bit fractured.

In this short excerpt, the Dalai Lama talks about the Four Noble Truths. When he speaks of the Ariya Sangha, in this context, I believe he is not referring to a small, elite group of individuals, but rather to anyone who has “perfected these levels of realizations.”

It is on the basis of a profound understanding of the nature of the Four Noble Truths that one can finally arrive at a deeper understanding of dharma. All the Buddhist traditions agree that the Four Noble Truths was among the first dharmas or doctrines that the Buddha taught. And according to this dharma, the cessation of suffering that one attains, and also, once you are able to recognize the possibility of such attainment, then one will also be able to the path that leads to such cessation.

So if you able to understand the nature of dharma, then you will be able to conceive the individual or being in whom such realization has taken place. These individuals or beings are sangha, the true sangha, and once you are able to conceive the existence of Sangha, once you can conceive of Sangha, then one will be able to recognize the possible attainment of Buddhahood, because these fully realized and enlightened beings, these Ariya [Pali: Ariya-Pubbala: “noble ones”] Sangha who have perfected these levels of realizations to the highest point – through these perfections, one is able to develop a good understanding of the Three Objects of Refuge: the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Therefore, in the text it reads, “he is utterly free from all faults”, referring to the qualities of the Buddha, which is an elimination of all faults. In the next line, it reads, “adorned with all good qualities,” refers to the perfections inherent in our consciousness. In that sense, the capacity to perceive, to know something is inherent within our minds and it is only the delusions that obstruct that full expression of the natural capacity of the mind.

So when the obstacles are removed, then the full flowering of that natural capacity of the mind to know is expressed as the wisdom of the Buddha, which directly recognizes the ultimate nature of reality and the relative world of multiplicity and diversity.

 

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Four Noble Facts

A  week or so ago, in paraphrasing Prof. Trevor Ling, I wrote that the Four Noble Truths were not offered as religious beliefs, but rather as the Buddha’s analysis of the human situation. But that doesn’t mean that they are theories either. Technically, they are satya (“Arya-satya-pariksa”), a Sanskrit word defined in the Soothill Buddhist dictionary as “true, genuine, a proved or accepted truth.”

So here “truth” means something that conforms with the judging of a fact. When what is judged to be is, then the judging is true. They are facts. You could just as easily call them the Four Noble Facts. The Buddha looked around and saw a whole lot of suffering going on. It was true then, as it is now. Suffering is.

Now, the Buddha was not interested in merely proclaiming philosophical truths. He was also concerned with offering a method to solve human problems, a prescription to cure the dis-ease of dukkha (suffering). This is why, when the Buddha taught the Four Noble Facts, it is described as the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma. It unites the Buddha’s analysis, his statements of fact, with action. And that is really what the Eightfold Path of the Four Noble Facts is all about, the laying out of actions that can taken to reduce suffering.

We might say that the Buddha had a “scientific” approach because he arrived at this judging of fact through a process of investigation and critical analysis. Starting with the premise that the world is permeated by suffering, the Buddha wanted to find out if it was possible to transcend suffering. He did this by tracing the origins of suffering. The Four Noble Facts has its procedure: The first stage is to recognize that suffering has a cause. The second stage is to determine where suffering comes from, where the principle source of suffering lies. The third stage is to investigate whether or not it is possible to end or transcend suffering, while the fourth stage is to search for the way, or path, by which one can obtain liberation from suffering.

I believe the Buddha also wanted to free people’s minds from the prejudices of dogmatic tenets, so I don’t feel it is necessary to get hung up on having just one specific cause for dukkha, because even suffering does not exist from its own side. So it doesn’t matter if tanha (thirst, craving) is the primary cause or something else, or if there is just one cause or many. Once we have identified the fact that suffering has causes, we can then proceed to change the conditions by dealing with the vehicle for suffering, which in most cases is our very own mind.

Dogen-zenji said, “Teaching which does not sound as if it is forcing something on you is not true teaching.” The teaching itself is true, and in itself does not force anything upon us, but because of our human tendency we receive the teaching as if something was being forced on us. But whether we feel good or bad about it, this truth exists. If nothing exists, this truth does not exist. Buddhism exists because of each particular existence.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

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Thinking of Sakura

It’s spring now and soon the cherry blossoms will come to Japan. It’s a big deal. The entire nation celebrates with festivals, and viewing parties and picnics, and after dark, the parks always seemed to be filled with strolling couples admiring the trees in the moonlight. The newspapers and the TV news carrying special features each day updating everyone on the “sakura front”, charting the progress of the cherry blossoms as they bloom their way across the country.

To say that the Japanese appreciate the beauty of the sakura is an understatement. I imagine that for many this year they will as excruciatingly poignant as they should be exquisite, for cherry blossoms, which drop from the trees soon after blooming, represent the transient nature of life.

Some Japanese poems on the subject of cherry blossoms . . .

We cannot behold
the beauty of the blossoms
enshrouded by haze –
yet steal us their scent, at least,
spring breezes blowing from the hills.

Yoshimine no Munesada (816-90)

How many times now
have I crossed over hill crests
with the image
of blossoms leading me on –
toward nothing but white clouds?

Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204)

Everyone feels grief
when cherry blossoms scatter.
Might they then be tears –
those drops of moisture falling
in the gentle rains of spring?

Otomo no Juronushi (late 9th century)

The pathway I marked
when last year I made my way
into Yoshino –
I abandon now to visit
blossoms I have not yet seen.

Monk Saigyo (1118-1190)

Thoughts still linger  –
but will those who have parted
return once again?

Evening is deep in the hills
where cherry blossoms fall.

Shinkei (1406-1475)

A fallen blossom
Returning to the bough, I thought –
But no, a butterfly.

Arakida Moritake (1473-1549)

From Traditional Japanese Poetry An Anthology, translated by Steve D. Carter

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Meditation and Conquering Fear

Our local station KABC ran an interesting story on the Healthy Living segment of the afternoon news about how meditation and overcoming fears. It had to do with a Burbank father of two diagnosed with lymphoma who was so fearful of the radiation treatment he was almost willing to forgo it. He did refuse to wear the mask that is apparently required.  This irrational fear stemmed from his claustrophobia.

Being a very short segment, the piece did not go into a lot of detail about the meditation angle, but did say this:

Sedatives didn’t help, so his doctor recommended visual guided imagery. Raking in a zen garden is one form of relaxation, but visual guided imagery is a specialized form of meditation that teaches a patient to focus on their breath and different muscle groups.

“It can be really helpful for people in terms of increasing immune functioning, helping to deal with daily stress levels,” said Dr. Harden.

After a few weeks the patient overcame his fears to the point that he could do the treatment and he felt that he had learned to excerize more control over his mind.

I’m not sure I would describe focusing on your breath as visual guided imagery, and even less sure what they mean by that, but the bottom line here is further proof that meditation is a powerful tool we can use in dealing with all manner of suffering. If you want to watch the segment here is the link to ABC7’s site.

As far as visual meditation goes, I think it helps to break away from focusing on your breath occasionally, if that is your primary practice. Doing something different prevents “mindfulness” from getting stagnant. Visual meditation to me means using some image or object other than your breath as the object of meditation. This can be loving-kindness meditation, or visualizing the chakras or a mandala, and so on. I’ve had some good experiences with visual meditation – I like the term creative visualization better – especially in group settings where I have been both a participant and the one guiding the meditation. I don’t know if it is any more effective, but it makes you feel better, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as it doesn’t become a sort of drug or escapism.

Actually, I don’t think the method or technique matters as much as our frame of mind – our intention. I think its all about learning how to concentrate deeply and keep it going. This brings to mind something that Lama Govinda wrote in Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness:

Just as the archer concentrates on his aim and becomes one with it in order to hit the mark with certainty, so the meditator must first indentify himself with the aim and feel one with it. This gives impetus and direction to his striving. Then, whatever his ways and methods – whether creative or discriminating, emotional or intellectual, synthesizing or analyzing, imaginative or discursive – he will always proceed toward his aim. He will neither get lost in the desert of discrimination and dissection, nor cling to the products of his imagination . . .

The demonstration of the mind’s capacity to create a world and dissolve it again, demonstrates better than any intellectual analysis the true nature of all phenomena and the senselessness of all craving and clinging.

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