The Sun, Sky and Sea

I was sorting through some old papers the other day and ran across something I printed off the Internet about ten years ago that I thought would be nice to share with you today. It’s the last paragraph of a dharma talk given by Ven. Jen-chun, founder and guiding teacher of Bodhi Monastery (in New Jersey) and the Yin Shun Foundation, a charitable foundation, who passed away earlier this year.

If you want to practice the Mahayana path, you should contemplate the sun, the sky, and the sea. In the morning, when the sun has just risen, contemplate it and try to allow your mind to be that luminous. Take time to contemplate the sky and try to achieve a mental state that is like empty space – clear and without obstruction. Go to the seashore and contemplate the boundless capacity and unobstructedness of the ocean. If you engage in these contemplations, they will benefit you. On the other hand, if you allow yourself to be governed by the environment and pulled this way and that, you will not attain the Mahayana path.”

Now, as always, we don’t want to take this literally. I can just imagine someone reading this and thinking to themselves, oh rats, now I have to get up at dawn and contemplate the sun if I want to practice Buddhism. No, what we want to do is try to capture the spirit of these words and Jen-chun is asking us to be like the sun, the sky and the sea – to make our minds bright, clear and vast.

I thought the other day that the destruction of the self – that notion of a permanent, independent ego-entity – is actually just the realization of a sense of the infinite within the mind, to become infinite by recognizing that we already are.

Some 2500 years after the time of the Buddha and there is still much confusion and disagreement in regard to the teachings on the concept of the “self.” And yet, nothing could be clearer than this short statement from the Sunna Sutta or “Empty Sutra” found in the Samyutta-Nikaya:

Sunnam attena va attaniyena ya – Empty is the world, because it is void of a self and anything belonging to a self.”

Both attena and attani relate to the Pali word anatta, which is normally described as “no-self” or “no-soul.” The statement above is virtually the same as the one in the Heart Sutra, in which Avalokitesvara “sees” that the five aggregates are sunyata-svabhava or “empty of own-being.” But the self is not just the skandhas. Svabhava refers to a being-ness, essential nature, which is unconditioned and not dependent upon anything to come into existence, a spirit or soul that, unchanged, continues on after physical death. It’s also the sense of self, the sense of “I”.

This notion of self-hood is ignorance. The view from self is narrow, limited, egocentric – finite.  Buddhism encourages us to free our minds, to break through our limitations in thinking so that we can see ourselves, paraphrasing John Donne, as a piece of the universe, a part of the main.

Or, like Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath,

Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then . . .”

Realizing the infinite in a deeply intuitive way goes beyond merely recognizing the vastness of existence, as one would admire a beautiful sunrise, a clear blue sky or sea. And yet, for Rabindranath Tagore, whose phrase “the endless further” is used as the title of this blog, the appreciation of beauty, apprehending the truth of beauty, was a path to the infinite.

In Prabhat Sangit (“Morning Songs”), he wrote of his first realization of the infinite. For Tagore, it was a mystical experience:

One morning, I stood on the balcony of our Calcutta house and looked at the gardens of the free school. The sun was just rising behind the green branches of trees, and I looked on. Suddenly, I felt as if a layer was removed from my eyes. I saw an effable beauty, I felt an inexplicable joy within the depths of my own being and I found the whole universe soaked in it. My discontent vanished instantaneously and a universal light flooded my entire being.”

Perhaps he was thinking of that maiden voyage into the infinite, when he wrote this poem:

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.

Are you infinite? Have you ever been infinite? Not necessarily awakened but beautiful . . .

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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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A Myriad-Minded Man

Yesterday when I remembered Robert Aitken and Bobby Hebb, I should also have mentioned Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian philosopher, singer, poet, educator, who died on Aug. 7, 1941.

The title of this blog comes from Tagore’s The Religions of Man, in which he wrote of “our ceaseless adventure of the Endless Further.” I have always taken this to mean that our quest for the ultimate must remain uncompleted, for the truth of the ultimate is so vast that it is beyond our capacity to realize it. What we do then, is pick up bits of truth as we go, and keep walking toward the infinite horizon.

Tagore believed in mysticism, but not in magic. He was firmly grounded on this earthly plane, and understood that human beings have limits and that no individual possessed the power to know the entire universe.

Tagore’s poems were really songs. He was not so much a saintly mystic-poet as he was a spiritual nomad, a wayfarer, a rebel of song.  His songs were meant to be sung. They are proud, and yet solemn, like real American spirituals. They are songs of devotion, honesty, beauty, and transcendence. Nearly every word of Tagore set down is ablaze with his intellect and spirit, just as each line conveys his joy of life and his marvel at what a wonderful, strange, sad and awe-inspiring life it is.

Tagore’s last year, his 80th was excruciatingly painful, physically. In September of 1940, he was struck by erysipelas. He nearly died then, laying in a coma for almost sixty hours, and he never fully regained his strength. It was the beginning of the end, and he was well aware of it.

Not only did the state of his physical health trouble Tagore, so too did the state of the world. His dreams of universal brotherhood were going up in the flames of war that were engulfing the entire world. The as-of-yet unrealized independence of India preyed on his mind.

In 1913 Tagore became the first non-white person to receive a Nobel Prize. He was awarded the prize for literature, because, in the words of the Nobel committee, “of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West.”

According to Wikipedia, the poem below “Named as Praan and sung by Palbasha Siddique [has been] used as the background score for Matt Harding Dancing 2008 video. The song went on to be among the top 10 of Amazon’s soundtrack downloads over a week and is also in the top 100 of all its MP3 downloads.”

The Same Stream of Life

(from Gitanjali)

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.

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Rabindranath Tagore

Now that I have started this blog and borrowed its title, The Endless Further, from a term coined by Rabindranath Tagore, I’ve been going back and re-reading parts of “The Religion of Man”, where we find the phrase I have appropriated.

I want to tell you a little about Tagore, but first I’d like to share one of his wonderful poems, from “Fruit-Gathering”, published in 1916:

TagoreLet 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 the patience to win my freedom.

Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.

Tagore believed in God, but not the same God that Abraham believed in. Tagore’s God was above all definitions and dualities, formless, a supreme reality that that transcends personality, and he did not believe in going to that God with a beggar’s prayer.

Continue reading “Rabindranath Tagore”

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