Thursday, October 27, 2011

Chia Tao Poem

So far this my favorite from the book of Chia Tao's poetry I've been reading. The beauty and isolation depicted here is compelling. And the image of the moon and clouds seems reads to me like a symbol for finding clarity of mind.

Overnight At A Mountain Monastery
(translated by Mike O'Connor)

Masked peaks pierce
the sky's cold colors;
here, the trail junctions
with the temple path.

Shooting stars pass
into sparse-branched trees;
the moon travels one way,
clouds the other.

Few people come
to this mountaintop;
cranes do not flock
in the tall pines.

One Buddhist monk,
eighty years old,
has never heard
of the world's affairs.

In O'Connor's notes, he references a story that floored me so much I have to include it. Apparently, in a book written by someone who spent time meeting with Chinese hermits in the mountains during the 1980s, there was a story about an 85 year old monk who had lived in a mountain cave for 50 years. The monk spoke up at one point during a conversation to ask "who this Chairman Mao was whom I kept mentioning".  Wow!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Chai Tao (779-843)

I'm enjoying a compilation of Chia Tao's poetry edited and translated by Mike O'Connor. I had never heard of Chia Tao (or Jia Dao), but I was at a bookstore and was looking through some clearance books that were all around martial arts and spirituality and saw O'Connor's book. It's short, but with this kind of poetry you can't just flip through it quickly and get much out of it.

None of these poems are haiku, but they have an austerity in their subject matter and the way they are written that creates the impact that the best haiku should have. There's a solitude and loneliness running through his work, a quiet that recalls the archetypal image of a monk sitting alone in some forgotten mountain monastery, meditating and writing poetry, while the rest of the world continues on.

The translator notates that Tao had been a Zen monk, and this really seems to inform his work. He also comments on the sometimes cold, dry, or lean feel to Tao's poetry, and he's right. Some of the poems are downright unpoetic (perhaps sometimes due to translation and/or untranslatability of certain passages). I lean towards believing in the strength of the translations, however, because O'Connor is a poet himself if I remember correctly and I find it hard to believe any poet would take time to translate works and render them dry if they were actually rich with symbols and description. Not to say there aren't symbols, but they're more the use of a word that stands for something, without embellishment. In terms of imagery, the poetry also often calls to mind very vivid landscape images but very few words are used to do this.

However, I find the austerity of Tao's poetry to be a strength given what he's trying to do and delivering. His verse seems focused on communicating something that is very immediate and 'in the moment' - sometimes almost like a flash of kensho frozen in his lines and preserved. If he were to embellish with a lot of adjectives and imagery, he would destroy that precision and clarity to no real end. The coldness of the poems to me goes hand in hand with a detachment in the tone that conveys a sense of Zen. There were several times reading his poetry that I recalled my Pete Retreat (see other entries in the blog), and that wonderful feeling of being really alone and away by yourself. There's a kind of undemonstrative happiness that comes out of that which I can feel in Tao's poetry sometimes too. There is also a sense of contemplative regret or melancholy breathing through a lot of the pieces (many are about saying goodbye to people). However, this kind of melancholy isn't depressing or a downer; it sweet, calming, and comforting. Like sitting alone by a fire in a blanket while a snowstorm blows outside....if you've felt this you know what I mean!

O'Connor's notes are pretty good. Sometimes they illuminate certain images (his Glossary of Symbols is really useful!) or just indicate where certain physical locations are. The introduction is excellent as insight into the man who wrote these works. Overall, a great collection.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

In That Mood...

Days pass
In games of solitaire
I feel
Moments moving through me
Like monthly bill payments

A dead planet
Round a star
To the point
From which I began

O for the solace
Of destruction
The desperate ruins
That urge
And impel

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Autumn Bike Rides

Been getting some good biking in as we get into autumn. Over the last few weeks I've racked up 86 miles either on my own or with Jim. This brings the season total to 319 miles. Still nothing to crow about, but breaking the 300 mile bar makes things a little less sad.

On one of the rides, I saw a praying mantis crossing the path. These are another animal I think of as an 'earth alien'.  Like the octopus and stingray, praying mantises (manti?) are creatures that just look otherworldly. They have a lot of special characteristics that make them unique. For example: some mantis' jaws can puncture skin and they are the only insect that can turn its head on a neck. Then there's that whole business about the females eating their mates while they are mating. And you have to love them because they are one of those voracious predators that eat tons of bad and/or annoying bugs (like dragonflies).  Stopped to take a picture of this one(click to expand). It was about 5 inches long and was doing this weird swaying motion on its legs as I got closer. Maybe this is a behavior designed to make it look even more like a leaf or piece of plant debris? Not sure, but it was kind of funny to watch.

Yesterday, Jim and I were riding together and the fall colors were really getting started, so Jim took some pictures. This is a big picture, so you can really see the beauty of the scenery and colors if you click and expand. With the slanted autumn light, the beginning of fall is just a gorgeous time to be riding the paths!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

October 5th - Bodhidharma Day

ink painting by Sesshu Toyo (1496)
From what I've been able to gather, this is the one Buddhist holiday that is a Zen holiday. The others seem appropriate for Buddhists only. Now, strictly speaking, the whole idea of a holiday or day of commemoration is probably nonsensical from a Zen standpoint. I wonder what Bodhidharma would have to say about 'Bodhidharma Day'. Somehow, I think he would find the whole idea preposterous and mightily disapprove.

My idea of celebrating this day was to stay home and meditate for a while. And this really does suggest a bad mindset. How is sitting in zazen a 'celebration'? Why would I want it to be? Why do I need an excuse to sit in zazen? How is sitting is zazen on this day any different from any other? The real driving force behind me wanting to celebrate this day is not celebrating Bodhidharma at all. It's that I've not sat in zazen for a long time, and I'm deluding myself with the notion of a holiday to get back into it. What a tangled web we weave, huh? Eeeesh.

Once I realized that, I decided that I would still take the day off as a way to start reasserting some control over my work-life balance. And I will meditate as part of that, because I do need to get back into it.  I've lost a good deal of my sense of peace, perspective, and discipline of mind without it.

And whether Bodhidharma would have approved or not, I do like the idea of a day to think about him specifically.  Despite all the mythos around him, Zen did spring from him. So what's wrong with taking a bit of time to think kindly of someone I owe a lot too?  More than the whole Zen thing, he has become a symbol of kind in my life.  As the cartoon below humorously illustrates, he represents the idea that my spirituality, my intellectual life, and my physical self (in terms of activity and fitness) are all part of the same thing and that they should all spring from the same place.