Sep 08 2017

exercise

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.
Integration.

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

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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

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Aug 25 2017

Forgive the whole world

Every nation, every person, every object
is within yourself.
Forgive the whole world
and watch what happens within yourself.

2 responses so far

Aug 23 2017

Rabindranath Tagore – I touch God in my song

Published by under Poetry

I touch God in my song
by Rabindranath Tagore

English version by Rabindranath Tagore

I touch God in my song
      as the hill touches the far-away sea
            with its waterfall.

The butterfly counts not months but moments,
      and has time enough.

Let my love, like sunlight, surround you
      and yet give you illumined freedom.

Love remains a secret even when spoken,
      for only a lover truly knows that he is loved.

Emancipation from the bondage of the soil
      is no freedom for thee.

In love I pay my endless debt to thee
      for what thou art.

— from The Fugitive, by Rabindranath Tagore


/ Image by Edgar Pierce /

…only a lover truly knows that he is loved.

In this poem’s few short lines, Rabindranath Tagore marries the bhakti path of utter love for God with the heart of karma yoga’s union through service and action.

In traditional Indian metaphysics, the goal is usually understood to be enlightenment and freedom from the karmic tug that traps us in the cycle of earthly embodiment, “emancipation from the bondage of the soil.” But here Tagore challenges the otherworldliness that often engenders.

Even the spiritual idea of liberation can become a selfish goal. For one utterly in love with God, the paying of that “debt” is simply a labor of love. Every effort, every experience, even suffering, is simply an expression of one’s love for God. That is enough right there for the true lover of God. Rather than seeking escape from “the soil,” the world is seen as a panorama that offers endless opportunities to worship and experience the Divine.

This is the great vision of karma yoga.

It is also the attitude that finally allows us to be at rest on our spiritual journey, rather than live as a convict on the run. What some see as the prison yard, becomes instead an exercise yard… or a playground! It is a courageous way of acknowledging that freedom is not escape, it is deep presence.

And we find that we live not in fleeting time, but in the ever expanding present moment.

The butterfly counts not months but moments,
      and has time enough.


Recommended Books: Rabindranath Tagore

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) Gitanjali The Lover of God The Fugitive Lover’s Gift and Crossing
More Books >>


Rabindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore poetry, Yoga / Hindu poetry Rabindranath Tagore

India (1861 – 1941) Timeline
Yoga / Hindu

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Aug 23 2017

Even our masks

Even our masks reveal us.

One response so far

Aug 16 2017

Meng Hao-jan – Master I’s Chamber in the Ta-yu Temple

Published by under Poetry

Master I’s Chamber in the Ta-yu Temple
by Meng Hao-jan

English version by J. P. Seaton

I-Kung’s place to practice Ch’an:
a hut in an empty grove.

Outside the door, a single pretty peak.
Before the stair, deep valleys.

Sunset confused in footprints of the rain.
Blue of the void in the shade of the court.

Look, and see the lotus blossom’s purity:
know then that nothing taints this heart.

— from The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library), Edited by Sam Hamill / Edited by J. P. Seaton


/ Image by toehk /

The first several lines of this poem paint for us serene, somewhat lonely images:

a meditation hut in an empty grove…
a mountain peak spied through the doorway…
stairs descending into valleys…
rain puddles reflecting the sunset…
space enclosed by a shaded court…

(By the way, isn’t that a wonderful phrase, “footprints of the rain”? As if the rain — or some spirit of the natural world — is walking toward us in reflections upon the earth…)

Besides the peace and stillness suggested by these images, what else do you notice? These are human spaces at the edge of the natural world… but there is no human presence here.

These are all images of meditation: harmony, simplicity, nature, and no agitated ego there to stir up the dust.

That last couple of lines–

Look, and see the lotus blossom’s purity:
know then that nothing taints this heart.

The purity of the lotus blossom is an important esoteric theme in the poetry of both Hinduism and Buddhism. Picture a lotus flower for a moment. The lotus rises through the murky waters of ponds and lakes yet, when it blooms, it floats upon the surface, its petals shining and untainted by the mud from which it emerged. In the scriptural language and sacred poetry of Hinduism and Buddhism, the lotus perfectly embodies the soul, rising up through the murkiness of worldly experience until it reaches the surface of the spiritual realm and blooms, vibrant and pure, free from all taint and attachment.

This is why Meng Hao-jan immediately follows his mention of the lotus blossom’s purity with his reference to the untainted heart. No matter what the heart experiences, loss, sorrow, suffering, disgrace, when it truly opens, it is surprisingly untouched. So much of life wounds. Who can deny it? Yet somehow the battered heart blossoms with such beauty and love, no hint of past hurts.

This untainted opening of the heart is not an emotion, not even something one works at. This is simply what happens. With meditation or prayer, the cultivation of inner quiet and generosity and humility, the heart surprises with its unexpected budding and blossoming. Just wait and watch.


Recommended Books: Meng Hao-jan

The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library) Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan


Meng Hao-jan

China (689 – 740) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan

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Aug 16 2017

we learn to see

Through watching,
we learn to see.

One response so far

Aug 16 2017

Charlottesville, White Supremecists, and the Cultural Mind

Most weeks paying attention to the news brings heartbreak for some part of the world. But I have been especially feeling the impact of the terrible actions and heightened emotions from the recent white supremecist rally in Charlottesville.

People of goodwill are rightfully horrified by the resurgence of blatant racism within the United States, but I have to say that I’m not as surprised as most. In the 1980s, when I was a teenager, I was aware, through reading materials by groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, of just how intensely white supremecist groups were organizing and refashioning themselves to fit modern sensibilities. They have been playing a long-term strategy in the cultural shadows while searching for ways to move once again into the mainstream.

This racialized tendency is a deeply rooted, tenacious problem within the American cultural psyche. It requires real and sustained attention on a national level. And it needs honest explorations of our actual history beyond our cherished myths.

Partly what I’m saying is that this isn’t simply a question about what individuals will do — citizens, activists, police officers, government officials, extremists themselves — it is just as much a moment for the culture as a whole, to see how it responds. The culture is more than the mathematical sum of individual actions and ideas. It has a sort of life of its own. Each nation, each culture has its own character and personality, seeking to perpetuate itself and justify its existence. We might even say it has a path of spiritual growth along with challenges, both external and internal, to resolve. How it handles those challenges colors its character and journey as it moves forward through history.

We might view this moment, this period in our history as highlighted by Charlottesville, as a moment of testing the national character. How do we respond as individuals and, even more importantly, how do we respond as a nation, as a culture? Do we look deeply and deal with the real sickness, or do we act shocked and then turn away?

As individuals, we influence that cultural growth through our voices, our actions, our thoughts and, most importantly, through the energy we cultivate within the heart and radiate into the world.

Sending blessings and creative inspiration to the culture as a whole, as it seeks to navigate through its spiritual challenges.

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Aug 09 2017

Emily Dickinson – Always Mine!

Published by under Poetry

Always Mine!
by Emily Dickinson

Always Mine!
No more Vacation!
Term of Light this Day begun!
Failless as the fair rotation
Of the Seasons and the Sun.

Old the Grace, but new the Subjects —
Old, indeed, the East,
Yet upon His Purple Programme
Every Dawn, is first.

— from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Edited by Thomas H. Johnson


/ Image by capt_tain Tom /

When I was first introduced to Emily Dickinson’s poetry as a teenager, I immediately responded to the power of her writing. Her short, staccato lines, words and phrases connected by dashes and strange punctuation. Statements filled with intensity, as if she can barely get the words out. But it wasn’t always clear to me what she was really saying.

It wasn’t until much later, re-reading her writing as an adult, that a light went off in my mind, and I realized that much of the commentary I had read of her poetry had missed the essential element of her poetry — that Emily Dickinson was, in fact, a mystic describing ecstatic states of awareness.

Don’t take my word for it, just consider the possibility. And then reread her poetry with that idea in mind.

This poem, for example. Why does she rapturously proclaim, “Always Mine!” Something or someone she had been passionately seeking is discovered to already belong to her, to have always been hers. There is “no more vacation,” no longer a sense of separation or distance. For her, it is as if a new day has begun, filled with light, as dependable as the seasons.

I especially respond to the line:

Old the Grace, but new the Subjects —

The sense of grace that fills her is “old,” ancient, familiar, as if it has always been there, yet she notices for the first time how it shines anew on everything. Everything is new when seen in this new light.

She expands on this with:

Old, indeed, the East,
Yet upon His Purple Programme
Every Dawn, is first.

The East, the direction of the sunrise, the direction of enlightenment, has always been there, yet amidst its royal purple majesty, every dawn is new and wondrous.

Re-reading this poem, does it seem like a lonely recluse’s breathless praise of the morning or perhaps a secret love, or is it genuinely ecstatic, describing an awareness that is profound and alive?


Recommended Books: Emily Dickinson

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words
More Books >>


Emily Dickinson, Emily Dickinson poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Emily Dickinson

US (1830 – 1886) Timeline
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Christian : Protestant

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Aug 09 2017

expediency

Never accept the logic of expediency
over compassion.
We need a world that’s less efficient
and more humane.

3 responses so far

Aug 04 2017

Li Bai – You ask why I make my home in the mountain forest

Published by under Poetry

You ask why I make my home in the mountain forest
by Li Bai

English version by Sam Hamill

You ask why I make my home in the mountain forest,
and I smile, and am silent,
and even my soul remains quiet:
it lives in the other world
which no one owns.
The peach trees blossom,
The water flows.

— from Endless River: Li Po and Tu Fu: A Friendship in Poetry, Translated by Sam Hamill


/ Image by neil alejandro /

I thought I’d share a moment of peace…

I smile, and am silent,
and even my soul remains quiet…

These lines bring me to rest.

The mind at rest, the entire self at rest, all silt having settled, leaving only quiet clarity. One becomes empty, a spacious, silent witness to the world’s unfolding.

The peach trees blossom,
The water flows

Have a beautiful weekend!


Recommended Books: Li Bai

The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library) Endless River: Li Po and Tu Fu: A Friendship in Poetry Li Pai: 200 Selected Poems A Feast of Lanterns
More Books >>


Li Bai, Li Bai poetry, Taoist poetry Li Bai

China (701 – 762) Timeline
Taoist

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Aug 04 2017

in nature

Commune with nature.

But don’t go out and do something in nature.
Go out and let nature do something in you!

One response so far

Jul 28 2017

A. R. Ammons – Eyesight

Published by under Poetry

Eyesight
by A. R. Ammons

It was May before my
attention came
to spring and

my word I said
to the southern slopes
I’ve

missed it, it
came and went before
I got right to see:

don’t worry, said the mountain,
try the later northern slopes
or if

you can climb, climb
into spring: but
said the mountain

it’s not that way
with all things, some
that go are gone

— from Collected Poems: 1951 – 1971, by A. R. Ammons


/ Image by Warren Rohner /

I quite like the way this poem reminds us to pay attention, to be present.

It was May before my
attention came
to spring…

It is easy to get so busy with our lives that we miss life. Too much dedication to the minutia and the demands of each day can cause our peripheral vision to collapse. And then too often we miss the important stuff. We lose context and meaning. It is as if we go on a journey and then train ourselves to only stare down at our moving feet. Continuing this metaphor, we certainly can’t ignore our feet, particularly on difficult or uneven terrain. But if we don’t regularly look up we are more likely to lose our way… and the joy of the journey itself.

my word I said
to the southern slopes
I’ve

missed it, it
came and went before
I got right to see:

I love the poet’s phrase, that the spring came and went before he “got right to see.” Seeing is not simply a mechanical action, is it? It requires an inner readiness, a willingness to be open to the encounter of what is witnessed. We have to be receptive, and ready for surprise. We don’t just look, we have to get right to see.

don’t worry, said the mountain,
try the later northern slopes
or if

you can climb, climb
into spring…

I’m not sure if the meaning of this is obvious to everyone. In the natural world, seasonal patterns are cooler and move in reverse as we go away from the equator or higher in elevation. I live near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. If, like Ammons, May has come and I have forgotten to pause and appreciate spring — the wildflowers, the new grasses, the birdsong in the cool mornings — I can drive up into the mountains and find it all there waiting for me.

In other words, many of the things we were too preoccupied to recognize and appreciate at the right moment in life can still be found with a little “climbing,” a little effort, a change in perspective. If we missed it when it came to us, we can go to it.

…but
said the mountain

it’s not that way
with all things, some
that go are gone

But not all things are so. Some things, when they are gone, they are gone. We might say that this is closer to the greater truth, that all things, really, when they go are gone. Even an experience repeated is entirely new the second time. That first experience is gone. And, once experienced, that second experience is gone too.

This may sound tragic, but it is not really so. It is simply the nature of the flow of reality. Nothing is truly stable or repeatable. Everything, every encounter, every moment is entirely unique to itself. This is the blessing and the challenge of life. When we feel trapped in a sameness, we are simply not seeing. There is constant change and mystery unfolding within that apparent sameness.

The ephemeral, flowing nature of experience invites us to keep paying attention. Because that is what we truly have. We don’t “have” experiences. They can’t be grasped or held. We can catalog them, list them as part of our personal histories, but that doesn’t truly make them ours. All we truly have is our awareness of experiences as they pass through our lives. If our awareness isn’t engaged, then those experiences were never truly experienced.

So, yes, let’s climb the mountains to find the wildflowers, but better still not to miss them when they sprout in our own back yards.


Recommended Books: A. R. Ammons

Collected Poems: 1951 – 1971 Brink Road: Poems Selected Poems A Coast of Trees: Poems by A R Ammons Uplands: New Poems by A R Ammons
More Books >>


A. R. Ammons, A. R. Ammons poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry A. R. Ammons

US (1926 – 2001) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic

More poetry by A. R. Ammons

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