Oct 11 2017

Abu-Said Abil-Kheir – The sum total of our life is a breath

Published by under Poetry

The sum total of our life is a breath
by Abu-Said Abil-Kheir

English version by Vraje Abramian

The sum total of our life is a breath
spent in the company of the Beloved.

— from Nobody, Son of Nobody: Poems of Shaikh Abu-Saeed Abil-Kheir, Translated by Vraje Abramian

/ Image by Cochalita /

I find it fascinating that “breath” and “life” and “spirit” are synonyms in many languages and cultures. When you read sacred writings and the word “spirit” is used, substitute the word “breath” and see how the meaning changes and expands.

This connection between breath – life – spirit is much deeper than the simple observation that the living breathe and the dead do not.

We tend to think in terms of borders and boundaries, constantly noting what separates ourselves, mentally and physically, from everything else. But the reality is that there is a constant flow of awareness across those borders. Every one of us has the unseen movement of the breath. Through the breath, what is outside becomes inside; what is non-self becomes self. And what was self is released again out into the world. This is communion, nothing less.

That inbreath of yours is the outbreath of another. The air we breathe is the breath of all.

A deep breath opens the chest and expands the heart. A full breath requires us to feel. We feel ourselves, and we feel others. Feeling, too, is communion. When feeling is shut down, the breath is shut down, and life has become limited.

The current of the breath continuously teaches us that the boundaries of self exist only in the mental map. In reality, we flow out into the universe, and the universe flows back in. The only way to secure our borders is to stop breathing, which is, of course, death. Life requires breath, and we live in each other, in the same breath.

When we really breathe, with a sense of the fulness of life, we might just come to the same conclusion that Sheikh Abu-Said Abil-Kheir came to: An individual’s lifetime may be brief or long, the experiences of life may be tangible or fleeting, but this communal breath – life – spirit in which we participate, is the very breath of the Beloved.

Recommended Books: Abu-Said Abil-Kheir

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) The Drunken Universe: An Anthology of Persian Sufi Poetry Nobody, Son of Nobody: Poems of Shaikh Abu-Saeed Abil-Kheir Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition The Mystics of Islam
More Books >>

Abu-Said Abil-Kheir

Turkmenistan (967 – 1049) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

Continue Reading »

2 responses so far

Oct 11 2017

make a fool of yourself

If you don’t occasionally
make a fool of yourself,
you’re not fully alive.

No responses yet

Oct 06 2017

Pablo Neruda – Keeping Quiet (and thoughts on the Las Vegas shooting)

Keeping Quiet
by Pablo Neruda

English version by Alastair Reid

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.

Fishermen 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,
victory 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.

— from Extravagaria: A Bilingual Edition, Translated by Alastair Reid

/ Image by Maks Karochkin /

I live in Colorado, a state with lots of guns. Most of those guns are used in hunting and kept locked away and out of sight. But I have had the distinctly frightening experience of seeing someone walk into a local grocery store with a handgun strapped to his hip. This was not a police officer, not someone in uniform, but a “gun activist” asserting his “right” to walk around in public spaces with a weapon. When we later contacted the store manager to insist that they publicly declare themselves to be a weapons-free safe zone (as other stores have done in the state), the manager responded that the man was not breaking the law by openly carrying a gun into the store.

Another time, I found myself in the surreal position of holding a friend’s (unloaded) M-16 rifle while being told how simple it would be to convert it from semi-automatic to fully automatic, all while surrounded by several other rifles, handguns, and knives.

I don’t know what to make of this aspect of American culture. There is this sense that manhood is marked by the hard embrace of violence and death. And when that manhood is thwarted in its other social expressions, it then acts out through that violence and death. In that person’s dark moment, Lord help the society that makes these weapons of instant death and mass murder easily available.

Obviously, I have been meditating on this latest mass shooting in the United States, along with the fact that we seem to be getting used to this pattern in recent years. There is a certain comfortable insanity that is taking the place of problem solving in this country.

We accept shooting after shooting, rather than face difficult questions of gun control, underfunded mental health care, widespread economic desperation, re-emerging racism, and an increasingly dangerous cultural divide. Not all of those issues necessarily apply to the recent Las Vegas shooting, but they all add to the pressure cooker that keeps producing these terrible events.

We don’t need to “put our differences aside and come together as a nation.” Those differences are there. We need to be honest about it. We need to be honest with ourselves. We need to look at the full picture, look at it honestly. And then we need to engage in real conversation, uncomfortable conversation. Only then can we begin to formulate practical measures of responsibility and prevention, rather than after-the-fact prayer.

That’s what we need.

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.


Recommended Books: Pablo Neruda

The Book of Questions Neruda: Selected Poems On the Blue Shore of Silence: Poems of the Sea Pablo Neruda: Selected Poems Extravagaria: A Bilingual Edition
More Books >>

Pablo Neruda, Pablo Neruda poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Pablo Neruda

Chile (1904 – 1973) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic

More poetry by Pablo Neruda

2 responses so far

Oct 06 2017


We need to retrain our eyes to see
the spaces between and the secrets behind.

No responses yet

Sep 29 2017

Fakhruddin Iraqi – Love plays its lute behind the screen

Published by under Poetry

Love plays its lute behind the screen
by Fakhruddin Iraqi

English version by William Chittick and Peter Lamborn Wilson

Love plays its lute behind the screen —
where is a lover to listen to its tune?

With every breath a new song,
each split second a new string plucked.

The world has spilled Love’s secret —
when could music ever hold its tongue?

Every atom babbles the mystery —
Listen yourself, for I’m no tattletale!

— from Fakhruddin Iraqi: Divine Flashes (Classics of Western Spirituality) , Translated by William Chittick / Translated by Nasr Seyyed Hossein

/ Image by DakKap /

I like the way this poem starts out by teasing us with a riddle that can be read in two different ways–

Love plays its lute behind the screen —
where is a lover to listen to its tune?

On the one hand, Iraqi is chiding the world for not producing enough lovers of God. Love is eternally calling to us with its soft music “behind the screen” of reality, but few are actually listening; lovers can’t be found.

On a deeper level, it is understood that the true lover has no substance, because he or she is utterly merged into the Beloved, God. So, even where there are lovers, there are no lovers found.

The world has spilled Love’s secret —

Whoever thinks divine love is just a philosophical notion, isn’t really listening.

All of reality is filled with an inner music…

Every atom babbles the mystery —

…and that music is a song of love.

Listen yourself, for I’m no tattletale!

Recommended Books: Fakhruddin Iraqi

Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty The Drunken Universe: An Anthology of Persian Sufi Poetry Fakhruddin Iraqi: Divine Flashes (Classics of Western Spirituality) Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition

Fakhruddin Iraqi

Iran/Persia/India/Turkey (? – 1289) Timeline
Muslim / Sufi

Continue Reading »

2 responses so far

Sep 29 2017

on course

As long as you have compassion
you can’t be far off course.

No responses yet

Sep 22 2017

Wu Men Hui-k’ai – Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn

Published by under Poetry

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn
by Wu Men Hui-k’ai

English version by Stephen Mitchell

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.

— from The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, by Stephen Mitchell

/ Image by Alice Popkorn /

The flowers say it, the moon, the breeze, the snow. Each time we pause to notice the living world around us it blesses us and says, May your mind be unclouded, and may every season be the best season of your life!

A good meditation for us as we rest upon the cusp of autumn.

Wishing you all a blessed time of transitions– autumn equinox, Rosh Hashanah, and Navaratri.

Recommended Books: Wu Men Hui-k’ai

The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry The Gateless Gate: The Wu-men Kuan The Gateless Barrier: Zen Comments on the Mumonkan The World: A Gateway: Commentaries on the Mumonkan

Wu Men Hui-k’ai

China (1183 – 1260) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan

Continue Reading »

7 responses so far

Sep 22 2017

silent witness

Finally, finally we fall silent.
Finally, we witness ourselves as we are.

One response so far

Sep 20 2017

Denise Levertov – Witness

Published by under Poetry

by Denise Levertov

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.

— from Denise Levertov: Selected Poems, by Denise Levertov

/ Image by notnyt /

The miraculous, the eternal, the mountain. Sometimes (briefly) it hides from us. Sometimes (often) we simply don’t look.

It begs the question: that terrible empty ache at the rootstalk of the heart, is it because there is a great gaping hole in the world? Or is it that we have not yet decided to look?

Some fine clear day soon, let us walk up the road, leaving the rest of the day behind. Let us find a good spot, and there sit down. With nothing else to do, let us see the mountain.


To all my friends in Mexico recovering from the earthquake, and to my friends in the Caribbean and Gulf states hunkering down against one more hurricane — my thoughts are with you. Be safe.

Recommended Books: Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov: Selected Poems Poems of Denise Levertov: 1960-1967 Breathing the Water The Great Unknowing: Last Poems Candles in Babylon
More Books >>

Denise Levertov, Denise Levertov poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Denise Levertov

US (1923 – 1997) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic : Beat

More poetry by Denise Levertov

4 responses so far

Sep 20 2017

A miracle

A miracle isn’t an event or an experience.
It is a moment of recognition:
We glimpse the wider reality,
and what we witness washes us away.

One response so far

Sep 08 2017

Milarepa – The Profound Definitive Meaning

Published by under Poetry

The Profound Definitive Meaning
by Milarepa

English version by Marpa Translation Committee

For the mind that masters view the emptiness dawns
In the content seen not even an atom exists
A seer and seen refined until they’re gone
This way of realizing view, it works quite well

When meditation is clear light river flow
There is no need to confine it to sessions and breaks
Meditator and object refined until they’re gone
This heart bone of meditation, it beats quite well

When you’re sure that conducts work is luminous light
And you’re sure that interdependence is emptiness
A doer and deed refined until they’re gone
This way of working with conduct, it works quite well

When biased thinking has vanished into space
No phony facades, eight dharmas, nor hopes and fears,
A keeper and kept refined until they’re gone
This way of keeping samaya, it works quite well

When you’ve finally discovered your mind is dharmakaya
And you’re really doing yourself and others good
A winner and won refined until they’re gone
This way of winning results, it works quite well.

/ Image by Hartwig HKD /

A seer and seen refined until they’re gone…

Witness and thing witnessed. Look deeply enough, with your whole being, and the two merge. The object disappears into you. You disappear into it. Seer and seen are gone! What is left but a field living awareness?

…it works quite well.

A few words of special meaning–

Samaya are the vows of initiation within Vajrayana Buddhism. The phrase about keeping samaya is a reference to upholding one’s spiritual vows. But the poet is speaking of the vows as mental and energetic discipline. Seeing how all the categories of mind and philosophy vanish into space, one is no longer a keeper of vows and the vows are no longer there to be kept. Those vows are a way of navigating the confusions of the mind. When the mind settles, the truth simply is and there are no misperceptions to stumble through. That is the real way to fulfill the vows of samaya.

Dharmakaya can be translated as the “body of truth.” It is the perceived re-integrated wholeness of reality. Discovering that your mind is dharmakaya is the goal. One who attains this state of realization might be said to have “won.” Not just glimpsing this goal, but refining self and experience until the artificial distinction is lost. One becomes it, and it becomes oneself, until there is no goal and no separate self that attains. We are left with a boundless Reality that simply is, everywhere, and no artificially separate viewpoint that claims victory.

This way… it works quite well.

Who knows what adventure an open glance at the world might initiate?

Recommended Books: Milarepa

Songs of Spiritual Experience: Tibetan Buddhist Poems of Insight & Awakening The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa: The Life-Story and Teachings of the Greatest Poet-Saint Ever to Appear in the History of Buddhism Songs of Milarepa: (Dover Thrift Edition) Drinking the Mountain Stream: Songs of Tibet’s Beloved Saint, Milarepa The Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the Tibetan
More Books >>

Milarepa, Milarepa poetry, Buddhist poetry Milarepa

Tibet (1052 – 1135) Timeline
Buddhist : Tibetan

Continue Reading »

3 responses so far

Sep 08 2017


Everything is an exercise
in awareness.

One response so far

Sep 06 2017

Koan: Tipping Over a Vase

Published by under Stories

I thought I’d feature a koan, rather than a poem, today. This is something I posted on the blog a about five years back, and it’s been in my mind this morning. A koan today, poetry later in the week.

Koans are riddle-like sayings or short tales used in Zen practice to startle the listener out of the linear mind and into open awareness…

Two of the most famous collections of Zen koans are The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Records. Here’s a koan I like from The Gateless Gate:

/ Photo by BotheredByBees /

Tipping Over a Vase

Master Hyakujo decided to found a new monastery, but he had the difficult task of selecting from among his disciples the right person to be the new monastery’s abbot. Then he came upon a solution.

Hyakujo called all his disciples together and told them that the person who best answered his question would be named the new abbot. Hyakujo filled a vase with water and set it on the ground before the assembled monks. “Who can tell me what this is without naming it?” he challenged.

The senior disciple stepped forward and answered accurately, “No one can call it a wooden shoe.”

Then Isan, the lowly cook, stepped forward and knocked the vase over with his foot, and walked out of the room.

Master Hyakujo smiled and declared, “My senior disciple has been bested.” Isan the cook was named the new abbot.


What just happened in this story?

One way to understand the meaning of this story is that the water represents Truth or the Dharma. The vase is the vessel that holds that truth, it is the teaching, it is the tradition.

That truth cannot be told, however. Sure, you can use simple words like “Truth” or “Reality,” or you can fill books with complex philosophical explanations. But ultimately those are all words and don’t truly convey what the Truth is. The “water” cannot be named. That is why Master Hyakujo gave this challenge to his disciples.

The lead disciple, clearly a cunning man, sees this as a test of his mental dexterity. If he cannot name the water-filled vessel, he will say what it is not, thus suggesting it by negation. But he has only negated one object in a world of infinite objects. A person can spend a lifetime listing all the things something is not, and never come to the point where only the unnamed thing remains. The lead disciple is trapped on the endless road of the intellect.

But the cook, Isan, understood the situation simply and clearly. He tipped the vase over, emptying the vessel and revealing the water. The truth cannot be told, it can only be shown.

What’s more, the truth cannot be held, it cannot be contained, it can only be poured out. The vase itself, the spiritual tradition, is empty and only has meaning as a vessel to transport the truth. By tipping over the vessel, he is suggesting that we must not worship the tradition itself. Religion, philosophy, spiritual tradition — these are not an end to themselves; they should be respected for their function as a delivery vehicle, but nothing more.

These are the insights that mark one for spiritual authority.

3 responses so far

Sep 06 2017

Not suppression

Not suppression.
Not separation.

One response so far

Sep 01 2017

Mary Oliver – What I Have Learned So Far

Published by under Poetry

What I Have Learned So Far
by Mary Oliver

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world? Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of
light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

— from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver

/ Image by Hamed Saber /

This, to me, is an interesting poem, the way it wrestles with that age-old question of spirituality: faith or works, jnana or karma… indolence or action.

Does the seeking of wisdom lead one into such an internalized state that one abandons the world to its confusion and suffering? Even when we awaken profound compassion within ourselves, is compassion enough without action to back it up? Ultimately the question boils down to, is enlightenment a good in and of itself, or does it only fulfill itself through service?

Different traditions and teachers give us different answers. Many teachers will say that trying to “do good” without first achieving some measure of inner clarity cannot achieve its full potential. Some even say that spiritual opening has a natural resonance; the enlightened are like radio transmitters, apparently doing little, apparently silent, they broadcasting powerful waves into the world. They argue that there can be action that is good intentioned, but meaningless or unstable. And there can be apparent inaction that shakes the universe.

Others say that spirituality and compassion without heartful action is anemic at best, that the physical and social world are themselves part of our spiritual landscape, that we must embody our spirituality on that level too. This criticism can go so far as to say that spirituality in a cave is easy, spirituality in the world is hard; that’s where we truly prove our awakening love. They argue that action always exists, even the avoidance of action is action. One must always seek to express the inner state with outer action. And for the spiritually minded, that action must be in the form of compassionate service to a struggling world.

Mary Oliver seems to, gently, favor the latter philosophy:

Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

Me? I have a fiery nature, and I like a statement like Mary Oliver’s. I see too much passivity in good-hearted people, myself included sometimes.

But I don’t ultimately see a great conflict with any of these philosophies. The universe is a big universe, with endless pathways for the human spirit to travel. The more we release our enlightened selves, the more we naturally embody who we naturally are.

For some, that resolves itself into a profound stillness that is outer as well as inner. And do they not ring out from their mountaintops and closets? Do we not, on some level, hear them and ring out a little more ourselves?

For others, stillness and love seeks a pathway of expression through action and service. The way they use the same two hands we all possess — doesn’t it make our own fingers a little itchy for their own movement?


Sending out a special note of love and blessings to regions so affected by floods recently — Texas, and Northern India and Nepal. Sadly, these extreme weather patterns are becoming the new normal. Both as individuals and as a society in general, we need to adjust our thinking and preparations to expect more of these sorts of events. The most important lesson is that we come together, that we help when we can, and that we minimize suffering and destruction as much as possible through forethought and necessary changes in entrenched ways of doing things.

Recommended Books: Mary Oliver

New and Selected Poems Why I Wake Early Dream Work House of Light Thirst: Poems
More Books >>

Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Mary Oliver

US (1935 – )
Secular or Eclectic

Continue Reading »

2 responses so far

Sep 01 2017

love the mountain

Real mountaineers love the mountain
more than the map.

2 responses so far

Aug 25 2017

William Butler Yeats – Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Published by under Poetry

Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
by William Butler Yeats

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

— from The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, by William Butler Yeats

/ Image by René Schröder /

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

I had heard this line long before I discovered it was from a poem by Yeats — this poem.

Isn’t that a wonderfully evocative line? So vulnerable, yet as wide open as the world of dreams. The statement invites us to be gentle and to be aware, for who knows what has been laid before us and with what care?

Go back and reread the entire poem. Read it aloud.

Notice how it feels like it rhymes, but it doesn’t actually rhyme. The poet instead is repeating words at the end of his lines: cloths… light… cloths… light.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,

But we get that powerful alliteration in the fourth line: night… light… half light. It is simple, almost a child’s rhyme, but it has impact. It is more like a chant, as if the poet is casting a spell on the child’s mind within us.

And again, he repeats the ending phrases: under your feet… my dreams… under your feet… my dreams.

I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

With that we are witness to magic, sealed with a child’s singsong repetition. A healing spell that breaks the heart with such vulnerability, and heals it again with hope and the heavens.

May as well chant it again.

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Recommended Books: William Butler Yeats

The Oxford Book of Mystical Verse Holy Fire: Nine Visionary Poets and the Quest for Enlightenment The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats Byzantium The Secret Rose
More Books >>

William Butler Yeats, William Butler Yeats poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry William Butler Yeats

Ireland (1865 – 1939) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic
Primal/Tribal/Shamanic : Celtic

More poetry by William Butler Yeats

No responses yet

« Prev - Next »