Awful wind, east, west, north, south, my little raft, on rock, is in time’s mouth. Where flee? How fight? What pray? What tell? Your dreadful whine! I hide my lie in hell. Conceit to be, to dine, to feast, desire, You stir the embers, tinder springs up, flesh fire. Who knows of peace where you don’t blow? Those with faith nirvana know.
It is beyond my ken, of course. Where am I going? Ask the horse! I sup and dine and have my fill and puritans will think it ill that one who teaches all the rest should relish life, with so much zest. The wind’s my friend, though he deceives we’ll play together til he leaves.
Footnote The etymology of vana is not entirely settled, but the most likely meaning is “blow”, as the blowing of the wind. So nirvana is when the wind does not blow. This is generally related to a fire and hence, by analogy, the fire of life, which is passion. Much has been written about having the fire die out and there are many fine writings on this theme taking it that way. For myself, I think the image is simpler and familiar. There is no such thing as a life without passion, but yet the passions can be a trouble.
When one makes a fire, as I often do in my garden, one has to reckon with the wind. The fire itself can be useful for all sorts of things, but there is always a danger of it getting out of control and one has to take some precautions against this. The culprit is the wind. When the wind blows the fire surges. Even embers one thought were dying out or dead, spring up and give flame once more. If you feed them they rise higher. All this makes a fine analogy with life.
On the other hand, if there is no wind at all it is quite difficult to get the fire going in the first place. An experienced person builds his fire to capture the wind when it blows and lights it at just the right phase in the ebb and flow of the breeze. But once the fire is established it will burn without the blowing of the wind and does so steadily, consuming its own fuel, without becoming a danger to others. This is a good analogy for the spiritually cultivated life.
Burn your own fuel and do not be a trouble to others. Be somewhere where they can come and warm themselves in the cold of the night, where they feel at ease to tell their stories and share their good and bad without fear that you may surge up and scare or wound them.
My Buddhism is liberation, not extinction. It is being contained and resiliant to a degree that makes the meeting of hearts safe, healing and creative, rather than desperate, dominating or grasping. Buddha sees that the world is on fire and that fire can burn, so one must learn about the wind and acquire the skill to use it to advantage when it blows, and enjoy the peace when it falls still. Be a useful holy fire, not a raging, dangerous one.
The Buddha sits, with folded knee, the picture of tranquility. The monkey only follows suit by dining out on juicy fruit.
The Buddha smiles, watching all, seeing baby monkeys fall and the monkey, when he's fed falls asleep on Buddha's head.
I was looking for some poetry about Hope (my word for 2017). T.S.Eliot, I thought. Oh bother, he says don't!
“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” ― T.S. Eliot:: link
Here are another two poems by Saigyo. During his lifetime, the political situation gradually deteriorated until the most awful civil war broke out between the Taira and the Minamoto factions. Saigyo had himself been a warrior in his youth and had become part of an imperial guard troop.
There's no gap or break in the ranks of those marching under the hill: an endless line of dying men, coming on and on and on...
As in medieval Europe there was, in those days in Japan, a genre of paintings depicting the horrors of hell. Contemplating one such picture, he wrote...
Swords on which my eyes once fastened with delight are here branches of trees ascended by bodies being flogged by barb-studded whips.
In Saigyo's mind, war and hell were similar phenomena and like most medieval people he believed that those who engaged in one were likely to also find themselves engaged in the other. Saigyo turned from being a soldier (who delighted in a good sword) to being a monk, but still worried what would be his fate in the end. Nowadays we have even more fearsome weapons.
Here is a poem by Saigyo (1118-1190), one of Japan's greatest poets, also reckoned a saint. He was an independent Buddhist practitioner who spent much time travelling or in retreat, often at Mount Koya, the centre of Shingon Buddhism and later near to the Ise Shrine. He believed in honji-suijaku, the idea that the Shinto Gods were manifestations of celestial Buddhas, the supreme Goddess Amaterasu being a form of Vairochana Buddha, and so on. He came from a samurai family and initially trained as a warrior but became disenchanted with court life with all its hypocrisy and double dealing. One thread running through his life was his inner struggle with the karma of his earlier life before he became a monk. Another was his observation of the steady degeneration of Japanese society into civil war during his lifetime. His exquisite poetry reveals sensitivity to people in all ranks of society, a fair amount of irony in his social comment, modest self-reflection, and a strong sense of the identity of Buddhism and nature.
Snow has fallen on field paths and mountain paths burying them all, and I can't tell here from there: my journey in the midst of sky.
Here Saigyo is telling us literally about one of his many stays alone in the mountains, passing the winter in retreat in a hut. At the same time he is telling us about his inner struggle to know what is right and where to go, what to do with his life. The poem manages to suggest two completely different extremes all at once - a person directionless and lost and a person living the ideal life of complete nonattachment, as free as a cloud in the sky. We can imagine that Saigyo passed much of his life poised on this cusp.
Many people tend to think that when a person is enlightened, they have no more uncertainties, no more worries or loneliness, that they are happy all the time and have the answer to everything. When one is a Buddhist teacher one can be surprised to find that others are projecting such an image upon one. Saigyo, however, illustrates a rather different way of illumination - a path that is at once rigorous yet totally human.
Reference: LaFleur W.R. 2003 Awesome Nightfall: The life, times and poetry of Saigyo. Sommerville MA: Wisdom Books
“I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything - other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned, that the world's otherness is antidote to confusion - that standing within this otherness - the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books - can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”
Now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth, let’s not speak in any language; let’s stop for one second, and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines; we would all be together in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea would not harm whales and the man gathering salt would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars, wars with gas, wars with fire, victories with no survivors, would put on clean clothes and walk about with their brothers in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused with total inactivity. Life is what it is about; I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves and of threatening ourselves with death. Perhaps the earth can teach us as when everything seems dead and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve and you keep quiet and I will go.
“Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going?”
Few are those whose contribution to humanity — be it art, or music, or literature, or some other enchantment — fills the heart with uncontainable gratitude for their very existence. Mary Oliver — one of the greatest poets of all time, and perhaps the greatest of our time — is one such blessing of a writer. She, the patron saint of paying compassionate attention, has made a supreme art of bearing witness to our world — be it in her exquisite poems, or in the prose of that moving remembrance of her soul mate, or in her meditations on the craft of poetry itself.
In her immensely rewarding recent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett — triply magical because Oliver rarely gives interviews, and never ones this dimensional and revealing — she read several of her most beloved poems. While “Wild Geese” remains a favorite, I was especially taken with a four-part poem titled “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac,” found in Oliver’s sublime 2014 collection Blue Horses: Poems (public library). It is partly a bow to her recent triumph over cancer, and partly a score to the larger tango of life and death which we all, wittingly or not, are summoned to dance daily.
Like so much of her work, it is an uncommonly direct yet beguiling love letter to vitality itself, poured from the soul of someone utterly besotted with this world which we too are invited to embrace.
THE FOURTH SIGN OF THE ZODIAC (PART 3)
I know, you never intended to be in this world. But you’re in it all the same.
So why not get started immediately.
I mean, belonging to it. There is so much to admire, to weep over.
And to write music or poems about.
Bless the feet that take you to and fro. Bless the eyes and the listening ears. Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste. Bless touching.
You could live a hundred years, it’s happened. Or not. I am speaking from the fortunate platform of many years, none of which, I think, I ever wasted. Do you need a prod? Do you need a little darkness to get you going? Let me be as urgent as a knife, then, and remind you of Keats, so single of purpose and thinking, for a while, he had a lifetime.
I'm a Minister with Amida Shu, a Pureland Buddhist Order. Now semi-retired, I teach on-line and hold Pureland Buddhist sangha gatherings in Perth, Scotland. This site is mainly Buddhist in content. I share the teachings of the Head of our Order, Dharmavidya David Brazier