Sunday, 28 March 2010

The Practice of Poetry and Meditation


People often confuse meditation with prayer, devotion, or vision. They are not the same. Meditation as a practice does not address itself to a deity or present itself as an opportunity for revelation. This is not to say that people who are meditating do not occasionally think they have received a revelation or experienced visions. They do. But to those for whom meditation is their central practice, a vision or a revelation is seen as just another phenomenon of consciousness and as such is not to be taken as exceptional. The meditator would simply experience the ground of consciousness, and in doing so avoid excluding or excessively elevating any thought or feeling. To do this one must release all sense of the "I" as experiencer, even the "I" that might think it is privileged to communicate with the divine. It is in sensitive areas such as these that a teacher can be a great help. This is mostly a description of the Buddhist meditation tradition, which has hewed consistently to a nontheistic practice over the centuries.


SPENDING TIME with your own mind is humbling and broadening. One finds that there's no one in charge, and is reminded that no thought lasts for long. The marks of the Buddhist teachings are impermanence, no-self, the inevitability of suffering, interconnectedness, emptiness, the vastness of mind, and the provision of a Way to realization. An accomplished poem, like an exemplary life, is a brief presentation, a uniqueness in the oneness, a complete expression, and a kind gift exchange in the mind-energy webs. In the No play Basho (Banana Plant) it is said that "all poetry and art are offerings to the Buddha." These various Buddhist ideas in play with the ancient Chinese sense of poetry are part of the weave that produced an elegant plainness, which we name the Zen aesthetic.

Tu Fu said, "The ideas of a poet should be noble and simple." In Ch'an circles it has been said "Unformed people delight in the gaudy and in novelty. Cooked people delight in the ordinary." This plainness, this ordinary actuality, is what Buddhists call thusness, or tathata. There is nothing special about actuality because it is all right here. There's no need to call attention to it, to bring it up vividly and display it. Therefore the ultimate subject matter of a "mystical" Buddhist poetry is profoundly ordinary. This elusive ordinary actuality that is so touching and refreshing, all rolled together in imagination and language, is the work of all the arts. (The really fine poems are maybe the invisible ones, that show no special insight, no remarkable beauty. But no one has ever really written a great poem that had perfectly no insight, instructive unfolding, syntactic deliciousness—it is only a distant ideal.)

So there will never be some one sort of identifiable "meditation poetry." In spite of the elegant and somewhat decadent Plain Zen ideal, gaudiness and novelty and enthusiastic vulgarity are also fully real. Bulging eyeballs, big lolling tongues, stomping feet, cackles and howls— all are there in the tradition of practice. And there will never be—one devoutly hopes—one final and exclusive style of Buddhism. I keep looking for poems that see the moment, that play freely with what's given,

Teasing the demonic
Wrestling the wrathful

Laughing with the lustful

Seducing the shy

Wiping dirty noses and sewing torn shirts

Sending philosophers home to their wives in time for dinner

Dousing bureaucrats in rivers

Taking mothers mountain climbing

Eating the ordinary
appreciating that so much can be done on this precious planet of samsara.

- Extract from
Just One Breath: The Practice of Poetry and Meditation by Gary Snyder
on Adapted from the Introduction to Beneath a Single Moon: Legacies of Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry. Edited by Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich. (Shambhala Publications)


It is well worth reading the full article to appreciate the wisdom and eloquence offered by Gary Snyder.

The "Helper" Syndrome

One of the themes of practice is the gradual movement from a self-centered life to a more life-centered one. But what about our efforts to become more life-centered—doing good deeds, serving others, dedicating our efforts to good causes? There’s nothing wrong with making these efforts, but they won’t necessarily lead us to a less self-oriented life. Why? Because we can do these things without really dealing with our “self.” Often our efforts, even for a good cause, are made in the service of our desires for comfort, security, and appreciation. Such efforts are still self-centered because we’re trying to make life conform to our picture of how it ought to be. It’s only by seeing through this self—the self that creates and sustains our repeating patterns—that we can move toward a more life-centered way of living.

- Ezra Bayda, from “The ‘Helper’ Syndrome,” Tricycle, Summer 2003 (unfortunately subscriber access only)

Received as Daily Dharma from on the 11th of November 2009


A tricky koan: when we see our motivation behind a good deed is actually self-centred, should we still act?

Looking for Meaning

As long as we insist that meditation must be meaningful, we fail to understand it. We meditate with the idea that we’re going to get something from it - that it will lower our blood pressure, calm us down, or enhance our concentration. And, we believe, if we meditate long enough, and in just the right was, it might even bring us to enlightenment.

All of this is delusion.

Steve Hagen, from “Looking For Meaning,” Tricycle, Fall 2003

Received as Daily Dharma from on the 12th of November 2009


Mañjuśrī's sword wielded by Steve Hagen! This is something I frequently remind myself of - stop trying to get something, stop trying to add meaning: just meditate. Or just eat. Or just do the dishes. Etcetera.

Spiritual Experiences and Spiritual Realizations

In Buddhism, we distinguish between spiritual experiences and spiritual realizations. Spiritual experiences are usually more vivid and intense than realizations because they are generally accompanied by physiological and psychological changes. Realizations, on the other hand, may be felt, but the experience is less pronounced. Realization is about acquiring insight. Therefore, while realizations arise out of our spiritual experiences, they are not identical to them. Spiritual realizations are considered vastly more important because they cannot fluctuate.

The distinction between spiritual experiences and realizations is continually emphasized in Buddhist thought. If we avoid excessively fixating on our experiences, we will be under less stress in our practice. Without that stress, we will be better able to cope with whatever arises, the possibility of suffering from psychic disturbances will be greatly reduced, and we will notice a significant shift in the fundamental texture of our experience.

- Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, “Letting Go of Spiritual Experience,” Tricycle, Fall 2004

Received as Daily Dharma from on the 22nd of November 2009


A very good distinction to bear in mind and help us stay grounded in practice and in daily life.

You can’t practice all by yourself

Each of you - not separately, but in the cauldron with all beings, cooking and being cooked—is realizing awakening. Not you by yourself, because that is not who you really are. You by yourself are not Buddha-Nature; but your being in the cauldron of all beings is realizing the Buddha-Way. This is the total exertion of your life.

You also can’t really be flexible and free of fixed views by yourself. To decide for yourself what flexibility is is a kind of rigidity. Living in harmony with all beings is flexibility. It is a kind of cosmic democracy. each of us has a role in the situation and gets one vote. You cast your vote by being here like a great unmoving mountain. Please cast your vote completely: that is your job. Then listen to all other beings, especially foreigners, especially strangers, and especially enemies.

Hang out with people who are capable of making a commitment to you and your life, and who require that you make a commitment to theirs. Hang out with people who care about you, with people who need you to develop and who say so. Make such a commitment and don’t break that bond until you and all beings are perfect.

You can’t make the Buddha-Body without a cauldron, and you can’t make a cauldron by yourself. You can’t practice all by yourself: that is delusion. Everything coming forward and confirming you is awakening. Then you are really cooking.

- from
In It Together an article on by Reb Anderson Roshi extracted from his book Warm Smiles from Cold Mountains.


I feel such warmth and humility radiates from Reb Anderson Roshi's writings despite not having met him or attended any of his retreats. The full article is well worth reading and absorbing, especially for those of us who primarily practice all by ourself as it sometimes can seem.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Don’t expect to like it

In Karen Maezen Miller's 5 tips for meaning in cleaning, tip number 4 struck me:

4. Don’t expect to like it. Just do it anyway. When we expect things to be more enjoyable or rewarding than they are, or when we devalue them as menial and insignificant, that keeps us at arm’s length from our own lives. Most of us think we have to follow our bliss somewhere else. But when you’re really present in every moment, even when you’re just scrubbing the bathtub, you scour away the scum of dissatisfaction that dulls your happiness.

Well, actually they are all striking, to the point, no-nonsense wisdom, but this one particularly struck me. When I think too much and speculate on whether I will like something or not, inevitably it gets in the way of actually doing it, of actually showing up. Like getting up early in the morning
to exercise. Or to meditate. When I lie in bed, all warm and cosy, I can spend quite some time thinking about whether I will like getting up or not.

In the end I am never quite sure if I actually do like it or not.
Because when I get up and exercise, there I am and exercise is happening. Meditation too. In being there, in showing up, there isn't any concern about liking or not liking, there isn't any dullness.