Haiku is the archetypal Buddhist poetry, at least to most Americans. And certainly the compressed form, the emphasis on experience and now, are very much in keeping with Buddhism. As are many of the early practitioners: Buson, Issa, Bashō.
So I thought today it would be good to visit with at least one of the masters. Take a short trip down Haiku Road, as it were (I couldn’t resist).
Here’s one of my very favourites, by Issa. It says ‘contemporary Buddhist’ better than anything since his time, the 18th century.
All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
The conflict between what I know about Buddhism — do no harm, cherish all life — and everyday life is nowhere clearer. And that, to me, is the best part of poetry: it reminds you what you already know.
Which is a premise at the heart of Buddhism: you already are a Buddha. You just have to remember…
It wasn’t that long ago that I realised how many of the poets I love best are Buddhist. They don’t make a big deal about it (most Buddhists don’t — I’m kind of an anomaly, blogging from a Buddhist/ Unitarian/ poetic platform), but it influences them in ways that resonate deeply. At least with me. 🙂
One of my favourites — and many other people’s, as well — is the poet Mary Oliver. Her profound respect for (and deep insight into) the natural world comfort, heal, and most of all, remind me that everything changes/ passes/ dies. Life — and time to appreciate it — are finite.
This poem — her poem “The Summer Day” — carries within it my mantra: what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life? There is no better, more beginner’s heart, line in poetry, in my none-too-humble (but amply educated!) opinion.
Our lives are ours to craft, no matter our circumstances. My grandmother, an old-time Baptist with strongly progressive leanings, used to try to reconcile free will and ‘what the Good Lord gives us.’ It came out a bit like this: you get a pile of quilt pieces (quilting’s big in my family — we love textiles!) that are the pieces of your life ahead. Some folks make beautiful, richly structured double wedding ring quilts, and linear log cabin quilts. And a few do the meandering drunkard’s path, while others haphazardly make sloppy crazy quilts. And some end up as they started: with pieces.
I love that metaphor. I’ve known it as long as I can remember, Grandma’s voice repeating it, and Aunt Bonnie nodding in agreement. I was probably sitting on the bed in Grandma’s bedroom, the one Uncle Charlie made from the old sleeping porch, watching Grandma sew on her treadle. Probably Aunt Bonnie was on the way outside to work in the yard or garden (the ‘yard’ had flowers; the ‘garden’ all edibles 🙂 ). Two old widow women with blue hair, making do with very limited income.
But their quilts? Far more beautiful than velvet, silk, or lace — intricately pieced from endurance and strength and creativity and generousity. Stitched with love and artistry, and filled with the feather-soft memories of the lives that came before and after.
Their lives still serve me as patterns, as I work to fit together the pieces of my life. Trying to figure out the pieces of a beginner’s heart, and what I will do with my own ‘wild and precious life.’
Here’s Oliver’s poem “That Summer Day”:
That Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I adore poetry, as anyone who knows me knows. Actually, you don’t even have to know me — you can just be sitting next to me on a plane (I’m often reading poetry), or standing by me in a bookstore (cruising the poetry shelves). You might be my letter carrier, bringing me poetry magazines. Or, if you tell me it’s okay, you might be reading this blog during April…
Because I’d like to post poetry — mine, classic, favourites, obscure but worth rescuing. And I need to know how you feel about that. And just in case, here’s a short justification, tying poetry (the reading of it, the writing of it):
Poetry — all art, really — connects us. Offers us the experiences of another to consider, experiences sifted through the sieves of imagery and compression. Reading and writing poetry both help us to see better: to observe the details in the world around us, and to be more aware of how those details shift when seen through the eyes of another.
If you love songs, if their lyrics sometimes speak for you when emotions thicken your throat and words are hard to come by, you’re already halfway to being a poet. And you certainly should be reading poetry! It’s the heart’s own language.
So let me know what you think. I’m going to take license, and post one today I dearly love, by a wonderful, well-loved American poet, Elizabeth Bishop. Here’s her poem (A villanelle, no less! But you’ll still like it… 🙂 ) One Art:
Today, following yesterday’s post about research, I was reading the National Endowment for the Humanities bi-monthly magazine, Humanities. In it is an article about NEH-funded research on political theorist Hannah Arendt. And it underlines the importance of the critical thinking explicit in good research.
I admire & respect most serious Holocaust scholarship, but Arendt is in a class of her own. Her work Eichmann in Jerusalem garnered both critical acclaim and death threats. The reason? Arendt’s contention that Eichmann wasn’t a ‘monster’ (although certainly he was instrumental in horrific, monstrous acts), but rather a ‘thoughtless’ clown.
Considering the man orchestrated the deaths of millions, this assertion didn’t (and doesn’t) sit well with many.
But if you read Arendt’s conclusion about Eichmann, and his ‘thoughtlessness,’ what you have is a damning indictment of much ersatz education and learning. Because what Arendt argues is this: “The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak [in anything but clichés] was closely connected with an inability to think [emphasis the author’s], namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” (Humanities Mar/April 2014)
Wow. What a profound damning of the kind of education that produces only obedience without critical contextualisation. In the article, the distinction is made between knowing what you’re doing, and seeing the large picture, a pivotal difference. Eichmann, Arendt realizes, knows he’s good at the transportation that results in the millions of deaths in concentration camps. But while he acknowledges his prowess at this ‘job,’ he appears never to question the impact of this efficacy: how it makes possible the relocation of millions of death camp internees, and their subsequent murder. He is proud of his prowess, while at the same time blind to its deadly consequences.
In today’s hindsight, we can’t imagine such blindness. Until we look at terms like ‘collateral damage,’ and the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians as recently as Afghanistan and Iraq. Too few Americans question such losses, assuming the death of non-combatants (not women, children, a bridal party) is an acceptable price to pay… For what? Oil? Most Americans — like most Germans — have only the vaguest, ‘patriotic’ ideas of why recent wars have been fought.
Yesterday, Oklahoma passed another income tax cut. What, you’re wondering, does this have to do w/ Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism, and critical thinking?