POWER OF POETRY

The Hocking Hills Festival of Poetry

 


Pilgrimage to the Temple of Words

 

          In his book Danger on Peaks, the poet, Gary Snyder, who has been steeped in Asian culture and thought shares an email he received immediately after the Taliban destroyed  the giant Buddhas at the edge of the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan . The writer seems to find comfort in the idea that eventually, everything “…will decay.”

 

          Gary reminds us that this is only part of the story. He hastens to add, “Ah yes…impermanence. But this is never a reason to let compassion and focus slide, or to pass off the suffering of others because they are merely impermanent beings.”

 

          He goes on to quote a haiku by Issa:

 

Tsuyu no yo wa

Tsuyu no ya nagara

Sarinagara

 

This dewdrop world

Is but a dewdrop world

And yet-

 

          Gary suggests that “and yet- ” become our permanent practice, embracing our personal spark of compassion and focus in the everflowing sea of impermanence.

 

*****

 

          The everyday English we use to navigate in the world seems to work fairly well. We can give and get directions, order products, follow recipes, describe architecture, and debate about sports and politics. It is limited when we attempt to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas simultaneously, and to realize that various concepts – education, marriage, peace – are ongoing processes rather than concrete ideas. We get into the same old arguments that something must be either good or bad, black or white. We are disappointed again and again when we get to a peaceful resolution of a conflict, and then the amity does not last. There are times when our language is a trap.

 

*****

 

 

          This is the Chinese character for poetry. It is a composite made of the characters words and temple. Poetry is a temple for words. A temple is the place to open oneself to a connection to a wider world, universe, or way of thinking and being. One’s actions and speech in a temple are to be undertaken with care and intention. If we truly desire connection with something greater, we must make such behavior part of ourselves, whether in the temple or outside of it.

 

          It has been suggested that the Japanese language is a mirror of the natural world, built on the sound of vowels, connected to the breath of the cosmos. Languages like English, deriving from German, are thick with consonants, which stop the breath by shaping the mouth to craft particular sounds. It is possible that at such a basic level, our thought process is constantly stopping and starting, the breath being forced through the doors of the mouth as language travels into the world.

 

          Again, that haiku from Issa:

 

Tsuyu no yo wa

Tsuyu no ya nagara

Sarinagara

 

This dewdrop world

Is but a dewdrop world

And yet-

 

          The Japanese, even if we don’t understand it, flows easily. The English version has a much harder feel even when we understand the ethereal concept if the dewdrop world. This poetic rendition is superior to an explanation, being compressed to an essence of a profound idea, no extra words, a pull out of the conventional thought patterns. If we are to live in the word temple we must ever strive to be poetic, which literally derives from the root meaning to create.

 

          We must embrace the realization that it is possible to see continuums rather than diametrical opposites when we think. As the yin yang symbol demonstrates, white and black define each other, a small dot of each within the other. There is no North without South, or day without night. The word temple holds all varying degrees of everything. As related by Ikkyu, an ancient rascally Zen priest:

 

I'd love to give you something

but, what would help?

Self other right wrong

wasting your life arguing

face it

you're happy, really

you are happy.

 

          It is equally important to realize that the world and everything in it is an ongoing process. We get trapped in the uncertainty principle of modern physics of either focusing on the speed or location of a particle. Once you specify one, the other is lost. But we can look at one while realizing that we are just seeing an aspect of it rather than its truth. And not forget that we are a process too, ever changing in all ways.

 

          Institutions like peace, relationships or marriage are not stable entities. They are more like someone standing on a bongo board, a short plank resting on a cylinder. Standing on the plank is difficult, until one masters the art of balance, which derives from realizing that there is never a set point, but only a constant series of adjustments and corrections about a center. It takes effort to maintain balance, but with practice, it becomes second nature. As Theodore Roethke says, “This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.”

 

          The temple is always open. It is our responsibility to find our path to it if we wish to live fully in this dewdrop world.