The great American poet Conrad Aiken (1889-1973) was a religious man who referred to his grandfather as his “guiding light.” His grandfather happened to be a Unitarian minister who advocated for religion without dogma and was open to the concept of evolution. I am not sure what Aiken’s concept of God was, whether he believed in concept of a literal supreme being or not. Aiken once told the Paris Review he viewed himself as “a preacher” of “new knowledge.” Of course, he did not mean he was a preacher in any conventional sense. I think his true religion was poetry.
However, from his poem “A Letter from Li Po” I presume he admired Chinese poetry (Li Po was a famous poet of the Tang Dynasty), and I imagine that he must had some understanding of Eastern Philosophy. To me, a number of his poems evince appreciable Buddhist/Taoist-like aspects.
In honor of the 116th anniversary of his birth, here is one Aiken poem that I have always thought might have been inspired by the famous story told about a time when the Buddha was sitting with the bhikkhus on Vulture Peak and everyone expected the Buddha to give a dharma talk but instead of speaking he simply held up a flower. No one understood except for a bhikkhu named Mahakasyapa, who communicated his grasp of the Buddha’s message by smiling.
Mysticism, but let us have no words,
angels, but let us have no fantasies,
churches, but let us have no creeds,
no dead gods hung in crosses in shop,
nor beads nor prayers nor faith nor sin nor penance:
and yet, let us believe, let us believe.
and the angels, let them be our friends,
used for our needs with selfish simplicity,
broken for love and as soon forgotten;
and let the churches be our houses
defiled daily, loud with discord,–
where the dead gods that were our selves may hang,
our outgrown gods on every wall;
Christ on the mantelpiece, with downcast eyes;
Buddha above the stove;
the Holy Ghost by the hatrack, and God himself
staring like Narcissus from the mirror,
clad in a raincoat, and with hat and gloves.
Mysticism, but let it be a flower,
let it be the hand that reaches for the flower,
let it be the flower that imagined the first hand,
let it be the space that removed itself to give place
for the hand that reaches, the flower to be reached–
let it be self displacing self
as quietly as a child lifts a pebble,
as softly as a flower decides to fall,–
self replacing self
as seed follows flower to earth.