Stephen Levine, Kuan Yin and an Eagle

Teacher, author and poet, Stephen Levine passed away Sunday at the age of 78 after an unspecified “long illness”.

StephenLevineAs noted on his Wikipedia page, Levine was “one of a generation of pioneering teachers who, along with Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, have made the teachings of Theravada Buddhism more widely available to students in the West.” Lion’s Roar, in its announcement of Levine’s death noted how he “was influenced by various spiritual traditions. He was also a friend of Ram Dass and, like him, was a student of Neem Karoli Baba.”

Levine’s last book, published in 2013, was Becoming Kuan Yin: The Evolution of Compassion.

The story he tells, of Miao Shan, the princess who defied her father and became a Buddhist nun at White Sparrow Monastry, is central to the Chinese evolution from the male Avalokitesvara into the female Kuan Yin.  In the Heart Sutra, Kuan Yin transcends all sufferings, crossing over the sea of suffering. Transcending gender, Kuan Yin becomes even more relevant as an archetypal symbol for our times.

Instead of some cosmic being that exists above our everyday reality, Kuan Yin should be seen as representing the universal capacity of all human beings to give love.

This excerpt from Levine’s book is from Chapter Five, “Miao Shan Observing” and it struck me as rather beautiful:

Miao Shan was learning a lot about true prayer and the levels of loving-kindness meditation available in surrender and mindful service as they infiltrated each action throughout her day. She found her heart in the first breath upon waking, and it called forth her spiritual ancestors, the saints, the bodhisattvas, and the Buddhas of the ages for support.

Each intention was enforced with the clarity and power of love. She learned more about love by watching how unloving the people around her could be. She learned about how mercy could heal, like a poultice, the wounds of absence in the convent’s sad inhabitants. And the parishioners, many out of exasperation, came to plead their causes to some power beyond their own . . .

Some monks not entering the monastery sat in the courtyard in meditative prayer seeking not some Supreme Being but supreme beingness; doing spiritual practice not just for their own benefit, but for the well being of others . . .”

And we bid a sad farewell to Glenn Frey who died yesterday. He was a founding member of The Eagles, the band whose music typified the peaceful, easy (sometimes hard) California country sound.  Several years ago, he release a sole album of pop standards and here is a video of one of them, Bobby Troup’s immortal “Route 66”:


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Bowie

As you probably know, David Bowie is dead. Comes as quite a shock. A victim of cancer, he just turned 69 a few days ago and released his 27th studio album, Blackstar. According to CNN, “Neither his publicist nor the statement elaborated on what kind of cancer the singer was fighting.” Earlier yesterday, this message appeared on Bowie’s Twitter account: “David Bowie died peacefully today surrounded by his family after a courageous 18 month battle.”

bowie2I was just thinking about Bowie yesterday. I was remembering how much I enjoyed the music on the Let’s Dance album, not because it necessarily represented his best work, but rather because the tunes had a beat and you could dance to them and it was part of the soundtrack to a fun time in my life. I thought I should listen to it again.

It was during the tour supporting that album that I attended my one and only Bowie concert. A great show at the Forum in Inglewood. August, 1983. It was called the “Serious Moonlight” tour.

Bowie got into Buddhism when he was a teenager, influenced (like so many of us back in the day) by the novels of Jack Kerouac. After he recorded his first album, Bowie spent a few weeks at a Buddhist monastery in Scotland. I don’t know this for sure, but I believe it was Samye Ling, founded by Chogyam Trungpa, and the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West. I also don’t know if the interest in Buddha-dharma stayed with him the rest of his life. There was a period when he flirted with Christianity.

In 1993, he produced the soundtrack for The Buddha of Suburbia, a 1993 BBC mini-series based on the book by Hanif Kureishi, a coming of age story set in London during the 1970s. As I recall the book has more to do with rock music than Buddha.

David Bowie’s impact on popular music during the last three decades of the 20th century is nearly incalculable. He is among the pantheon of music greats. I always thought he deserved more credit as a great singer, and to me, a great singer is someone who after just a couple of note, you know exactly who it is. That was Bowie.

That early Buddhist influence is evident in this song, Silly Boy Blue, from his 1967 debut album. Lyrics follow the video.

Silly Boy Blue

David Bowie

Mountains of Lhasa are feeling the rain
People are walking the Botella lanes
Preacher takes the school
One boy breaks a rule
Silly Boy Blue, silly Boy Blue

Yak butter statues that melt in the sun
Cannot dissolve all the work you’ve not done
A chela likes to feel
That his over self pays the bill
Silly Boy Blue, silly Boy Blue

You wish and wish, and wish again
You’ve tried so hard to fly
You’ll never leave your body now
You’ve got to wait to die

Child of Tibet, you’re a gift from the sun
Reincarnation of one better man
The homeward road is long
You’ve left your prayers and song
Silly Boy Blue, silly Boy Blue
Silly Boy Blue, silly Boy Blue.

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Where the Buffalo Roam

When I was a boy growing up in Kansas and my family went on a vacation, it was always by car. To my kid’s mind, there was nothing more monotonous than driving though Kansas. Sweeping along a hunk of pavement in the middle of a prairie, with seemingly endless stretches of wheat fields and ranch land on either side of you. Riding in the back seat hour after hour, there was little for my brother and I to do except annoy one another, and Mom and Dad.

I would enjoy driving in Kansas now. I’d especially like to go back to the one place in that expanse of brown and yellow I really enjoyed and it seemed like we passed by the spot every year. It was a pasture where about a half of mile from the highway a small herd of buffalo grazed. Maybe 50 head or so. My dad said that once 50 million buffalo roamed the plains but these were the last of the great bison . . . it was the last buffalo herd in the world.

Thinking back on it, I’m sure he said the last buffalo in Kansas, because there were buffalo on Catalina Island and at Yellowstone Park. However, it is a fact that by the early 1900s there were less than 500 . . . anywhere.

It has been said that after 1870 it was the official policy of the United States government to wipe out the buffalo, part of the greater U.S. policy to exterminate Native Americans.

The memory of driving by the buffalo each vacation is one reason why I have always liked this poem by Vachel Lindsay, who was born on this day in 1879:

The Flower-Fed Buffaloes

buffalo1bThe flower-fed buffaloes of the spring
In the days of long ago,
Ranged where the locomotives sing
And the prairie flowers lie low:—
The tossing, blooming, perfumed grass
Is swept away by the wheat,
Wheels and wheels and wheels spin by
In the spring that still is sweet.
But the flower-fed buffaloes of the spring
Left us, long ago.
They gore no more, they bellow no more,
They trundle around the hills no more:—
With the Blackfeet, lying low,
With the Pawnees, lying low,
Lying low.

Vachel Lindsay

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Musical Interlude: October First Quarter Moon Edition

A break today from Buddhism and serious stuff.

I wrote and recorded this song years ago and occupied myself last week by putting some images to it. It ain’t much, just sort of a little pop song, but hopefully it won’t hurt your ears.

By the way, I have a YouTube channel with other videos I’ve made, a eclectic mix of covers, originals, and ambient music.

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The Purple Sky

Today is the birthday of two of my favorite poets: William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) and Hank Williams (1923-1953). They shared the same last name, but as far as I know, were not related. William Carlos Williams was one of the most respected and innovative American poets of the Twentieth Century, and Hank Williams was the legendary singer-songwriter who remains one of the most important country music artists of all time.

I imagine there are still some academics out there who are resistant to the idea of songwriters being designated as poets, but everyone else seems to have gotten past that prejudice. In my opinion, Hank Sr. was not only a great poet but he and WCW had much in common, in terms of writing that is. Take this comparison:

WCW-1bFirst, from W.C. Williams’ “A Love Song”

The stain of love
Is upon the world.
Yellow, yellow, yellow,
It eats into the leaves,
Smears with saffron
The horned branches that lean
Heavily
Against a smooth purple sky.

Now, Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”

HW-2bHear that lonesome whippoorwill?
He sounds too blue to fly.
The midnight train is whining low:
I’m so lonesome I could cry.
The silence of a falling star,
Lights up a purple sky.
And as I wonder where you are,
I’m so lonesome I could cry.

The similarities of these examples go beyond the use of “purple sky”; here are two men, each alone, thinking of a loved one whom they are separated from by distance and emotion, and both are beset with doubt and a touch of hopelessness. The imagery of a train “whining low” and the “silence” of the purple sky are powerful and evocative. A few lines on in his poem, the William Carlos Williams wonders “How can I tell if I shall ever love you again as I do now?” while Hank Williams wonders “where you are” and if he will ever meet and love her again.

Both poets used a simple style. One was by choice, through experimentation, and the other by the demands of the songwriting craft and the musical genre in which he labored. It’s doubtful Hank Williams had any idea that he was writing poetry or that his songs would last. “He had the ability to write lyrics that the average person could emotionally relate to,” said Capitol Records producer Ken Nelson.1 “He had the ability to write music that the average unmusical person could understand and yet was not trite. His songs were accepted in the pop field because they were realistic, and they were melodically and lyrically understandable to everyone.”

Fred Rose is credited as co-writer on many of Hank Williams’ songs.  Rose was a songwriter but he was also a music publisher and attached his name to the work of quite a few songwriters so that he could share in the royalties. He may have helped Hank polish some of his tunes but the artistry and sincerity that shines through them is straight from Hank.

William Carlos Williams said that with his poetry he was trying to find something like “the natural and subtly varying rhythms of the spoken voice, based on the natural rhythms of breathing . . .”,2 what poet Stephen Tapscott called “some poems of natural speech,”3 the natural rhythms of American English.

In their personal lives, the men could not be more different. Williams Carlos Williams lived a rather conventional life as a married country doctor in Patterson, New Jersey. As for Hank Williams, his life was a rather dissipated affair, he was the epitome of a person who lived fast and died young, passing away at the age of 29, in the back seat of a car while traveling to a New Years Day music gig, of heart failure brought on by excessive abuse of alcohol and pills.

I have shared W.C. Williams’ poetry before (here). His poems are often just snapshots of moments in time, scenes that come and go in the blink of an eye. In this poem, I can easily picture Hank as the subject:

THE HALFWORLD

Desperate young man
with haggard face
and flapping pants –

As best they can
under the street lights
the shadows are

wrapping you about –
in your fatigue
and isolation, in all

the beauty of your
commonplace against
the incestuous

and leaning stars –

Very many of Hank Williams songs were rather desolate ballads about lost love.  This tune, which you have likely heard hundreds of times, is more upbeat.  It is tight, and despite all the double entendres, the simple compact imagery faithfully adheres to William Carlos Williams’ famous maxim “no ideas but in things.” I don’t  imagine, though, that Hank knew much, if anything, about WCW.  The song is a little bit country, and a lot of bit rock and roll:

HEY, GOOD LOOKIN’

Say hey, good lookin’ – what ya got cookin’?
How’s about cooking somethin’ up with me?
Hey, sweet baby – don’t you think maybe
We can find us a brand new recipe?

I got a hot rod Ford, and a two dollar bill
And I know a spot right over the hill
There’s soda pop and the dancing’s free
So if you wanna have fun, come along with me

I’m free and ready, so we can go steady.
How’s about saving all your time for me?
No more lookin’ – I know I been cookin’
Hows about keepin’ steady company?

I’m gonna throw my date book over the fence
And buy me one for five or ten cents
I’ll keep it till it’s covered with age
Cause I’m writin’ your name down on every page

Say hey, good lookin’ – what ya got cookin’?
How’s about cooking somethin’ up with me?

 

– – – – – – – – – –

1. Roger M. Williams, Sing A Sad Song The Life of Hank Williams, Ballantine Books, 1973, 105-106

2. Eberhart, Richard, “The Speaking Voice and Direct Wisdom”, Saturday Review, Feb 18, 1956, 49.

3. Terence Diggory, William Carlos Williams and the Ethics of Painting, Princeton University Press, 2014, 87

“The Halfworld” from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume 1; Volumes 1909-1939, New Directions Publishing, 1991

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