Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Zen of Poetry, The Poetry of Zen

I stand here and watch the people of this world:
all against one and one against all,
angry, arguing, plotting and scheming.
Then one day, suddenly, they die.
And each gets one plot of ground:
four feet wide, six feet long.
If you can scheme your way out of that plot,
I'll set the stone that immortalizes your name.

—Han Shan, 8th century, translated by J.P. Seaton

The Poetry of Zen
Translated and edited by Sam Hamill and J.P Seaton
Shambhala, 2007.

A review.

This is an important anthology to have, right now, not only because it contains many poems new to readers familiar with either Zen or Asian poetics in general, but because this collection focuses the traditions of poetry through the lens of Zen Buddhism. The book contains fresh translations of a wide variety of Chinese and Japanese poems, respectively translated by Seaton and Hamill, both of whom are experienced translators of this material. Many of the poets included are not specifically Zen poets, or even Buddhist, but their poetry, the translators argue, contains the spirit of Zen. These are not didactic poems for the most part, poems that monks and abbots wrote as teaching literature; rather, included here are numerous poems that express the Zen moment, and the haiku moment, the moment of clarity, of clear light in the mind, that moment when poetry best expresses experience, and all other language fails.

The poets included range from those already associated with Zen, to many poets new and less familiar to even the knowledgeable reader. We find here Han Shan, Basho, Saigyo, Issa, Ryokan, Ikkyu, and Wang Wei. But we also find Li Po and Tu Fu, Yuan Mei, Su Tung-po, Dogen, and Sosei, among many others. The anthology begins with a few lines from the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, which is appropriate, as Ch'an Buddhism, or Zen, arose in China from the encounter between Buddhism, brought from India, and the native Taoist ideas. Zen has always been more Taoist than Confucianist, more nature-inspired than bureaucratically-aligned.

What truly intrigues me about the poems Hamill and Seaton have brought to the table, however, is the overt demonstration of the paradox of using poetry to talk about the unspeakable. Basho insisted that poetry is a do, a tao, a Way; his insistence upon the Way, and its clarity, is one reason that some haiku scholars claim that haiku began and ended with Basho. (Issa is the exception that proves the rule.) A generous sampling of Hamill's lucid translations of Basho's haibun and haiku are present in this book, demonstrating again how central Zen study was to Basho's thinking.

The paradox itself lies in that realm between language and the inexpressible, between the realization of the clear mind in which all language falls away as one aspect of the illusory nature of reality, and the troublesome necessity of using language to convey the experience, to communicate it, to pass it on to others, to teach or demonstrate it.

Without beginning,
utterly without end,
the mind is born
to struggles and distresses,
and dies—and that is emptiness.

—Ikkyu Sojun, 15th century, trans. by Sam Hamill

This idea of emptiness and non-verbal silence in poetry is one I regularly find myself working with in my own poems, which often seem to hover on that edge where words become wordlessness. It is a central issue to my own work and thought about poetry, and I feel a kinship to these ancient poets in this anthology who have struggled with the same approaches, the same insights, and the same failures. So I am reading The Poetry of Zen in part as a discussion among poets about the limitations of words, about the limitations of their own art, and about the paradox of using words to talk about experiences that remain unsayable and essentially wordless. I believe this is a valid reading of this anthology because both Seaton and Hamill explicitly discuss the issue in their separate introductions to the Chinese and Japanese poetry sections.

In the general Preface to the anthology, furthermore, Hamill makes some very thoughtful points:

Since its inception, Zen has had a paradoxical relationship with literature, especially as regards translation and poetry. . . . The Buddha asked his disciples to translate his teachings into all the languages and dialects of his native India. Those teachings (sutras) contained allegorical tales, anecdotes, recorded conversations, and ritual verses. Even at the beginning of Buddhism, poetry was an essential aid to understanding.

Poetry was not only a didactic teaching tool. Like allegory, poetry was used as way of short-circuiting the usual habits of thinking by startling or shocking them into insight. The koan, or teaching paradox used in some varieties of Zen, is often highly poetic in nature if not always in form. The main thrust of Zen, though, is often anti-language. Many of the greatest Zen masters, such as Hui Neng, advocated "just sitting" as the central practice of attaining enlightenment. As Hamill continues:

Zen practice is eminently simple and profoundly rigorous. All the questions of being are called forth. There is no escape into faith. "In your heart, you already know." [Hui Neng] The tenth-century Zen master Pen-hsien reminded his followers not to depend too much on sutras or koan study. "If you really want to get to the truth of Zen, get it while walking, while standing, while sleeping or sitting . . . while working." Only then, he says, can one begin to define what doctrines are actually being followed.

There is a strain in contemporary poetry (strain is the right word, because the poetry produced often feels strained) that emphasizes the personality-ego "I" of the poet, and there is another strain that foregrounds (or privileges, to use the post-modern rhetoric) language itself. The latter tacitly claims to be anti-meaning and anti-narrative poetry, even aleatoric; the former tacitly argues for self-expression, self-depiction, and autobiography. Neither of these poetries seem to believe in any poetry but their own styles and coteries; both are profoundly inward-looking and ultimately self-regarding. In the end, both of them emphasize the personality-self in different ways, and both tacitly regard the poet herself or himself as heroic. The archetype of the lone hero-poet, a deeply post-Romantic image, runs rampant through most such strains of contemporary poetry. And the method and defense of these poetries has become highly intellectualized and argumentative.

In many ways The Poetry of Zen is the complete antagonist of these poetries; albeit a gentle antagonist, one that does not make manifestos or proclaim laws of poetics. Instead, many of the poems in The Poetry of Zen address the problems around the poetic ego obliquely, by pointing off towards ego-transcending alternatives. (Which have always been available, one notes; it's perhaps the dominance of the psychological narrative-insight coupled with the heroic-poet archetype in Western culture that has led us astray).

Now a cuckoo's song
carries the haiku master
right out of this world

—Matsuo Basho, 17th century, trans. by Sam Hamill

Who says my poems are poems?
They aren't poems at all.

Only when you understand my poems aren't poems
can we talk poetry.

—Ryokan, 18th century, trans. by Sam Hamill

This is a bracing tonic, that if genuinely absorbed by contemporary poets writing in English could completely change their goals and methods. The poetry of Zen is profoundly anti-egotistical and anti-rhetorical while having a deep understanding of the foibles of human psychology; it de-emphasizes the heroic ego and seeks "no-mind" in the sense that the mind's ceaseless self-regard might become still. It seeks to point at the moon, rather than talking about pointing at the moon. Hamill continues later on:

In the thirteenth century, Ch'ih-chueh observed, "The failure of the Zen path comes from teachers without deep attainment just setting forth sayings and showing off knowledge to capture students, and from students with no great aspiration just following popular fads and current customs, content to sink themselves in the domain of intellectual knowledge and verbiage. . . . The 'teachers' and 'students' bewitch each other." As regards "verbiage," Yueh-lin observed, "Ninety percent accuracy is not as good as silence."

These are provocative ideas. The comments about fads and customs, about intellectual knowledge and verbiage, strike me as highly relevant to the contemporary poetry scene(s), which is all about intellectual bewitchment. Yueh-lin's observation is directly relevant to aspiring poets, whose aim at targets of form, meaning, content, and style often miss the mark: Ninety percent accuracy is not as a good as silence.

On Running into the Taoist Master "In Emptiness"

So, say my way differs from yours.
We both have old men's hair and beards.
They say words can kill faith.
I like to arrange spring blossoms in a rough old funeral jar.

—Kuan Hsiu, 8th century, trans. by J.P. Seaton

Now we come to the paradox: If it can't be said in poetry, why bother to write at all? As Hamill phrases the question:

If the essence of Zen is not to be found in words, why so much poetry in the Zen tradition? The use of poetry goes back to the very roots of Indian traditions, as well as to Chinese roots. In the birth of Zen, two poems play a particularly important role. Shen-hsiu, the great Ch'an master of the Northern school, wrote a verse:

This body is the Bodhi tree.
The mind is like a bright mirror.
Polish it and keep it clean,
let no more dust settle there.

Hui Neng write a verse in reply:

There is no Bodhi tree.
No bright mirror exists.
Since all is emptiness,
where could a dust mote settle?

(This teaching story using poems to tell the truth of Zen has echoed down the centuries. John Cage retold a version of the story, for example, in his lecture-performance text Indeterminacy.)

Poetry often says what cannot be said in prose. It was used for argument, description, ceremony, memorialization, and some were even koans—"cases" for meditation. Poetry is most capable of capturing the essence of a moment's experience. Ninety-nine percent accuracy in poetry is not as good as silence. A good poem says more than the sum of its words, leading the reader into the practice of understanding the great unsaid that is contained, framed in a poem's rhythms, words, and silences. In these ways, poetry opens the mind. "The mind is Buddha!" Hui Neng declares. All of this makes poetry an excellent aid to practice. The same might be said of poetry in the Bible.

Here is the essence at last. Why do we pursue the Way of poetry knowing all along it will fail us? Why does the paradox of wordless wordiness continue to come into being?

Because poetry is most capable of capturing the essence of the momentary experience. Poetry often says what cannot be said in prose—or would take much longer to say. The paradox of poetry, not only Zen poetry although perhaps it takes a reading of Zen poetry to arrive at this insight, is that poetry is always "moves upon silence," as Yeats wrote in Long-Legged Fly. Poetry always contains in it an echo of silence, an awareness that there is a layer of silence somewhere in the poem, waiting for the voice to still itself and come to rest. A good poem is a synergy, a sum of more than its parts; its parts are words and images and language, but a poem transcends those elements to become an embodied experience: if the poem succeeds, the reader may inhabit the experience from the inside. That poetry opens the mind, that it leads to revelation and insight, is the core of Basho's belief that poetry is a Way in itself, a path to enlightenment.

This is the balance-point of the paradox. It is what, in my own poetry, I keep returning to, in attempt after attempt to scale the mountain wall of words to arrive at that paradoxical balance-point where words meet silence. The Zen of Poetry in its paperback edition is, fortunately, small enough in physical size that I may carry it with me on my journeys, and consult it regularly. I will no doubt continue to seek a poetry of silence, and this anthology of Zen poets will no doubt serve as a traveler's guide for the journey. (May it serve you as well. Nine bows!)

I return again and again to the edge where words melt into wordlessness. Why bother to write poetry at all? There remains in every poet a need to find a way to express the inexpressible, as worn-down and hollow as that way might be.

This poor grass-roofed hut
of old brushwood may sound
miserable, but
I very quickly found it
altogether suiting my taste.

—Saigyo, 12th century, trans. by Sam Hamill

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice review. I was thinking about what poetry could help understand Zen. You point it out.

3:50 AM  

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