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.

1 comment:

Barry said...

Thanks for publishing this. More than anyone else, Gary Snyder's writings and examples drew me into Zen training - so I'm very glad to read this bit and have the link to the set of articles on Tricycle.