ZAZEN IN THE TEMPLE OF OUR CHOICE
We are sitting like Shakyamuni.
But what have we in common?
We have everything in common:
Suffering, old age, death, and aching knees.
One smiles, looking down.
Or is he frowning at knees?
One looks up through glasses.
Are they too smudged for vision?
Who can say what ails them?
Who can say anything at all?
Some have said lots of Dharma.
But now they just sit, just sit.
We hold our hands just so,
As if it made any difference.
THAT makes a BIG difference!
Wordless the Master paces.
His stick is preaching dharma.
Nobody listens but the Master.
Nobody listens TO the Master.
Our backs still smart from the Master.
We are sitting like Shakyamuni.
Poetry I am searching for
spoken in light
renews insight into art and nature.
No, what I mean is not for me to say
for it is channeled through me
from nature to you and out
beyond mere sense.
I desire truth in words that stay.
But I cling to words
that leave me deluded.
I pick at dead skin
and scratch the Buddha.
Booting MacBook as if it is indispensable
I wonder whatever happened to my fountain pen
and the loose-leaf scribbled full of private
words that echoed worlds for everyone.
Now light dances into sense as I tap each letter
as if in mind, not projected from mind to paper
as in the old days. And a tap instead of a swipe
wipes out blunders. It cannot be denied
that poetry has growing pains. Would this please
Emily and Tu Fu? Will it be read
by our children, or will they program
realization of the unlettered mind in space?
The True Poet imagines all as is
creating a word for each as-is
and a word for each as-isn't
a syntax for all interactions
ways of saying anything at all
about nothing in particular
as if everyone had died
or everyone turned out
to listen to the song
from mountains or oceans
in a language understood
by all, like a kiss.
Poet of snow
in my head? in the sky?
snow rushing past
faster than I can say it
each flake a word
I never saw nor
The poet that I am searching for
lives in imagination on earth
conceiving as she loves all beings
philosophizing as he wanders off paths to push
through thickets to the sky:
of languages out of grunts and shouts
dramas of murderous embraces
epics of explorations of the void.
Of all the poets who clamor for attention
some sing of flesh, others rage against Being
some master langue and parole,
Each poet, each child beginning to speak
no words, no world.
Once I imagined being one who would
speak to all people from within their hearts:
their worlds, my words
their lives in mine, as they gIve birth to my poems
heaven relighting earth.
Now there is no chance of that.
But I do not give up, I keep my eyes open:
The poet that I am looking for lives
in imagination on earth.
From early January I could not write a word, caught up in the massive demonstrations in Cairo, focusing on them day and night with Amy Goodman, Juan Gonzales, Sharif Abedel Kouddous and others reporting from DEMOCRACY NOW, and later with the Al JAZEERA English staff, most of them from Egypt—all of them superbly observant and articulate.
When Mubarak surprised everyone by withdrawing from attempting to rule Egypt, and left Cairo soon after his speech that indicated nothing of his sudden decision, I rejoiced like those in Tahrir Square. I could not return immediately to life in North Hollywood, where I am living.
I hung on for several days, watching, with hope, the popular cleanup and cooperation with the Egyptian military, which has been dedicated to serving the people. My computer broke down. I spent several days trying to repair it. When I returned to the news, the scene had changed, attention had shifted to other countries, and there were divisions among the people and those seeking to govern them. I wrote:
I COULD NOT WRITE
I could not write a poem
craving one to be
in spite of me.
Putting off poems
near the ending of my life
was putting off the rest of it.
Poetry is living
as if nothing is something
It takes time
out of time.
I am telling you tales
out of time
so far out of mind
there is no distance between us.
This morning, a note on my desk from friend Roger Davies, whom I remember best as a very small boy who had spoken little, but who meant as much as his fast-talking older sisters. He had written about the beautiful fast growing world which cannot be seen here in South Hollywood, though I could imagine its immense tranquility in Nova Scotia, where he had decided to live during the Vietnam War. This morning, a paper on my desk, and on the paper his poem and a note of longing for the perfectly natural world:
“Maybe those of us lucky enough to live that childhood paradise life of Pilgrim between whatever wars the US would be up to, have a longing for feeling, hence feeling alienated, for a peaceful state of contentment and acceptance by a beautiful natural world…”
In Praise of the Pretend and the Rumpled
When the sergeant
was barking, the recruit’s
mind was leaping
with the stray dog
across the field there,
as it sniffed its way
into an unknown destiny.
Where the boy’s shirt
was meant to be flat
as a sheet of steel,
it was rumpled like
the ravine he imagined
the dog’s nose mapped
in the memories of scent.
Clearly he wasn’t A1 material;
certainly he wouldn’t do.
When the allegiance
to the Breakfast of Champions
was each one’s destiny,
just like on TV,
he was seeing his family --
all leatherback turtles --
readying for the long
a white expanse of sea.
Though I have come to be known as the Nonzen Poet because of my email address and poems, I do not deserve that title, for I saw the original face of the Nonzen Poet much earlier. In fact, as I explained in KYOTO JOURNAL #48 more than a decade ago, I stumbled on the original Nonzen Poet on a beastly hot summer’s day in 1999 on Motomachi, the famous street of fashionable shops in Yokohama that began with MacDonald's (since transformed into a jewelry shop) and ended (and still ends) with Starbucks and a koban.
“Excuse me!” I exclaimed to the youngish person lying on the sidewalk, sunshine boiling about its androgynous face and radiating from its Dalai Lama T-shirt, with a silk scarf debonairly wrapped around its neck. “Hey, are you OK?” I asked.
“OK, KOed, living or dead, as the case may be,” was its reply, opening one eye that stared at one of mine, and then at the other.
"What are you doing down there?” I asked. “Boycotting Starbuck's? Going limp?"
"I am boycotting Maya," it murmured. "My zazen is horizontal."
Squatting beside the face, from which sweat was flowing copiously into a puddle under its head, I asked, “Are you some kind of zen freak?”
“Nonzen’s more like it,” was the laconic reply. “But what’s the difference?”
“The difference is, that if you are who I think you are, I can interview you for KYOTO JOURNAL. Would you by chance be the Nonzen Poet, for whom I have been searching high and low?”
“I am neither high nor low, over nor under, living nor dead, believe it or not.”
“Be that as it may, are you or are you not the person known as the Nonzen Poet of Yokohama?”
“So some say, others deny it. I am in the middle, muddled, whether on or off the Middle Way I have no idea.”
“I’m sure you're the one I’ve been searching for, or the none, as you wish,” I said ingratiatingly, squatting down in an awkward attempt to help it stand and walk inside, but I managed only to lean it against a window. I sat at a table, on which I rested my notebook, gazing down at the visage of my prey.
“Mind a few questions for my editor?” I asked.
“Not if I can reply mindlessly,” it replied, eyes open but without seeming to focus on me.
“How can you boycott Maya when you are in the thick of it--on Motomachi, the most luxurious consumerist thoroughfare in Yokohama?"
"Being on or off of it, in it but not of it is a matter of tranquil compassionate wise egoless interdependent detachment, that's all," it serenely replied.
“You're not even hot, sweating like that?” I asked.
"Spring, winter, summer, or fall, I scorn the cycles of karma," it intoned.
"I confess caring that I'm boiling out here. Would you mind being interviewed in Starbucks, where it's cooler?”
"The Tao has no temperature," it replied.
"Just what I wanted to know!" I exclaimed, scribbling this quote for my “Philosophizing in the Void” column. “Your name is legend," I added. "It is said that you exchange email with Daruma himself. Others say that you escaped from a crazy hospital. Still others fear that rightwing black trucks hunted you down and disappeared you. I have never lost my faith, searching everywhere for you, and for the Tao."
"I'm always where I am--on the Tao,” it assured me, and the Tao is everywhere…"
"Ahhh..." I exhaled.
"... and nowhere."
I gasped. My 0.5 mm. Mujirushi fine point sharp lead broke. I clicked frantically for more, hoping against hope for the last word on enlightenment. But no, the illusion came and went like all the others, and I was just as off the Tao as ever. It might well be everywhere and nowhere, but I was nowhere on the Tao, and everywhere dismayed.
"If that’s not your last word, what is?” I implored. "I've got a deadline! Does Daruma ever reply?"
The Nonzen Poet laughed so hard that it choked on its sweat and had to sit up in the lotus position.
"Are you all right?" I asked, willing to compromise principles if I could rescue it with an Iced Mocha Frappucino, Starbuck's Special for the Day. But it was laughing so blissfully as the coughing subsided that I saw no need to enter the exploitative consumerist multi-national neo-colonial enclave. The mysterious being was looking serenely down Motomachi as if it were the Tao itself. I looked where it looked, but saw only the chicest of chic shoppers entering and exiting chic shops.
"Did you really think Daruma would give a shit about anything?" it asked. "You must be kidding!" It broke out laughing again, but this time easily in rhythm with his breathing, like a mantra.
At last I worked up courage to whisper, "Excuse me, I have an abject confession. I’m too skeptical to be a Buddhist, or a Zennist, or anything else. I’m as skeptical as you.”
"I doubt it, " it replied.
"You even doubt that we are skeptical?"
"Certainly, I doubt everything, doubt as much as certainty."
"I feel exactly the same."
"In any case, let me confess." I confessed, "Twenty-seven years ago in despair I moved from endarkened America to Japan, meditated every day, studied the sutras, countless koan, every page of the BLUE CLIFF RECORD, commentaries, the complete works of Daisetz Suzuki, every word I could read on Buddhism. I explored countless temples and learned what I could from roshi who were most kind, patient, and wise, but there were always little chinks in their spiritual armor. I rejected traditions, authorities of all kinds. More importantly, I felt increasingly deluded by my own desire for enlightenment. Now all I can do is philosophize in the void, endlessly, for each issue of KYOTO JOURNAL, like a snake consuming its tail in eternal 69, impotently. Where is the Tao? Please, O Nonzen Poet, help me get back on track!"
The being abruptly rose! Astonishing me, it began walking briskly past me and all of the customers and well-bred dogs at Starbuck's outside tables. "Wait, wait, " I cried out, jumping up, panting. "Where are you going?"
"Nowhere, I'm always where I am, but if you continue down Motomachi you can get back on track at Ishikawa Station."
"No, no!" I exclaimed. "That’s not what I meant at all! Please just stop and show me the Tao or Zen or NonZen or Enlightenment or anything!"
It stopped in the shade of Charmy Tanaka's shop and contemplated in the windows manifold jeweled luxuries glittering in each other's glitter like endless galaxies; or was this vision just its reflection? Chilling, I closed my eyes, and when I opened them it was gone.
"Is this way in or out?" I desperately asked a cute saleslady in Charmy’s doorway.
"The way in and the way out are the same," she said.
You frown at me from light and shade
Between bare feet of Him Above
Kum-kum like a bullethole
You frown at me to die to live
Why are you sitting in a truck of straw?
Why is He dangling trousered limbs before your
Curious gaze, your gleaming gold
On shining nostril, wrist, and lobe?
Do you hear me write to you?
Do you see me speak at you?
Do we click exposures of each other?
Do we develop emulsions in the void?
Why are passersby passing by
Blasé in fashionable spectacles
As if you were not a spectacle of transport
From birth to death and back to birth again?
Why why are you so close
And I too too remote to touch
More than a lifeless page
Of one night eye in blazing light
The other gleaming through the shade?
on the light
as silence squeezes
meaning from the
I want to touch the moon
of a night no one sleeps through.
I want to star beyond
this iffy floor.
I want new galaxies
from day-old crusts.
I want to be touched by the moon!
“Why not?” makes it so:
a shooting star, dog barking far off just are.
Your light touch swirls auroras in our bed.
The darkness rhythms into song
snowing past on future, high on low.
I am a teller all told.
Daily for the first six days of 2011 I posted an entry for this Printed Matter Press blog, then rested on the seventh. Rereading them carefully, critically, as if I were a stranger to myself—as I am in my poem “In Woods as Dark as I”--I realized as never before how curious I am about others’ faiths that I cannot accept literally, how they feel, think, and revere gods as if real which as Blake recognized “reside in the human breast.” Or as Yeats wrote about the spirits that dictated some of his finest poetry and prose to him, “We have come to bring you metaphors for poetry”—not the Truth.
I sympathize, empathize, even identify with—temporarily, as I do with Hamlet, Blanche DuBois, Dionysus, and many other characters—true believers and their worldviews even if they are literally false, misleading, and deluding. Exploring other minds, good or evil, expands and enriches my own, detaching me from some of my own misconceptions and illusions. Whitman sang of himself as everyone, every being, Vedanta teaches that Atman is Brahman, and Mohini Chatterjee told William Butler Yeats to pray, “I have been a king,/I have been a slave,/Nor is there anything./Fool, rascal, knave,/That I have not been…” I cannot claim all that, though I try my best.
After my first two blog entries, my other four (so far) express my infatuation, madness, and reverence for the moon, which Akemi Shinahara’s image on the cover of NONZEN POEMS projects so enchantingly. Readers may wonder what it has to do with Zen, for worshipping nature is remote from Zen: so that’s why it’s perfect for NONZEN POEMS.
However, the moon suddenly acquired Buddhist meaning for me when I was initiated in a Refuges Ceremony led by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in his Vermont community in 1974, when he bestowed on me the Tibetan name of Yarda Damcho, Waxing Moon of Holy Dharma. Thereafter, for some years, when I looked at the moon I wondered whether I was becoming more enlightened, or indeed whether enlightenment might instead be all or nothing, in which case I was still in the dark. These puzzlements, preoccupying me like a mind-cracking koan, permeate SPEAKING OF LIGHT, my first book of poems from living in Japan (1979), which re-appear in NONZEN POEMS. For example, “Looking for My Face” (derived from a famous koan, with modifications), ends with “moon of my smile riising/fom the face before I as born” (69). In contrast to this Zen poem is my poem of disillusionment, “Zazen at Myoshinji” (61), written about Zen philosopher Masao Abe’s great meditation seminar in the famous 500 year old temple in Kyoto. My poems are nonzen because I failed, not because of Zen, as I hoped to suggest in “Why M Poems and I Are Nonzen” (83).
I also wrote about my Buddhist quest in TANTRIC POETRY OF KUKAI (co-authored with translations by Hiroshi Murakami, Bangkok: Mahachulalonghorn University, 1982) and reprinted by White Pine Press in Fredonia NY, 1987, which also published my AMONG BUDDHAS IN JAPAN in 1988). My wanderings off the Way, which could be captioned “Waning Moon of Holy Dharma,” may caution, if not guide, others.
"Meditation and water are wedded forever."
Sunlight like moonlight now and forever
sparkles waves into battlefield crosses
gulls dip and touch and sails pass over.
Five boys and a girl dive into the roaring
whitecaps, kick down, rise, calling
each other out to the gray horizon
where black hulls move like memories
of destroyers gunning in enemy waters.
Too soon, a thin voice calls, "Come back!"
They turn toward shore. Two dogs circle
an old man holding out his hands
to heads in whitecaps, and calling again.
When I was a boy before the war
breakers churned me in the rubble
bearing me forth again and again.
Now I watch from a dune, unwilling
to roll in currents of death and birth
unable to move like moon or sun
standing beech-straight, young and old
leafing in my dazzling vision
of Lake Michigan, now and forever.
I have loved the moon ever since, a naked summer baby, I waded in wet grass among sleeping bees and bats. Who did they think they were? The moon was anything I wanted, in or out. It was about to land as I raced to the water's sandy edge to lap its light, now in your loony eyes.
The whole blessed lake was lit as if the turned-on moon were dissolving in it. Lying with legs on slushy sand and lips in light as thick as cream, I closed my eyes, but moonlight shone through lids, flooding my body, drowning me most pleasantly.
Virgins, threshing moonlight as they swam, sucked frothy moonshine from their thumbs. They swam to shore, hugged each other warm, danced away the murky depths, and sang of mountains of the moon, their voices climbing up and sliding down the slopes until they saw me lapping at the edge.
They ooo’d and cooed all over me, they swept me up and fluttered through the sand, into high grass, rustling in breezing moonlight. Hushed, their lissome bodies gleamed. Through the affectionate air they passed, their hitherto untouched breasts caressed by its wanton breath. Without a giggle they danced in a ring around me, cooing in the grass. Swinging left and right, they hummed like bees who catch a garden’s scent and won’t let go. Unknown of masculinities, their unsullied individualities blurred in a ring of fleshy glow, humming high and low, louder, until they collapsed about me in the grass, their moonshined bodies squirming as they kissed me all over.
Rolling away from them, chortling, giving them the slip, I swam through dewy grass. And when they came upon me, I rolled upright on pudgy buttocks, raising my right forefinger to the moon. When they looked up I ducked between their legs and wiggled free. They pounced on me. I bounced erect, sitting again to point my finger up, the right forefinger always, steadying it until it did not move, fixed on the moon until they quieted down, they lingered in my pointiness, looking up in worship of their own reflected light.
Their lunar flesh enchanted me even more ecstatically than I was already polymorphously free versed, unknowing where my mother was, which tits to suck, so taking turns, sucked virginal wisdom till I dreamed of bright and dark, of warm and cool, or murmuring, of earthy odors mild, in unbroken doze, cuddled by communal flesh nourishing my flourishing heart-mind.
Rosy-fingered Dawn tickled open my eyes, and eyeing the virgins of the moon, I laughed at the hills and valleys of flesh which I climbed, tumbled, crawled among meadowy breasts, and sang out songs without words, higher and lower than they in choral bliss sublime, now in your dirty ears.
Baby breath in moonlight
astonished eyes in moonlight
ghost of a dog in moonlight
Moonlight on hedges
moonlight between glances
moonlight beyond barracks
Wanderers in moonlight
howlers in moonlight
devourers in moonlight
under the full moon:
are you anyone at all?
Enough of ordinary life.
under the full moon.
Anyone at all?
by full moonlight:
enough of everybody!
under the full moon!
Why is it on the cover of my NONZEN POEMS
(on the left of this page and in Akemi Shinohara’s blog herein?
Akemi created her enchanting image
after I suggested moon, lake, or snow to her
after my daughter Julia suggested a nature image to me.
I emailed them the above photograph of the full moon
That I had snapped from my front porch in Yokohama--
fuzzy, bright but gloomy, trapped (above) as I felt I was.
The moon has entranced me all of my life.
Just see “The snow/glare of/absence/under/the moon” *
“Moonlit falling snow/shapes faces flying/past, forever lost.”
Just see what I as doing “Under the December moon”
(page 5 of NONZEN POEMS).
I was deluded, far from Zen, in “The Moon in Milk” (16-17) and
when I found bones of First Americans near the
“lake of moons and mushroom woods
tearing my roots from Indian graves and dunes” (38)
and swimming “over moonlit stones” (44)
and singing “Three Snow Songs” under
“the moon/Over spiky woods (47)
and moon-worshipping in “Moon Bones” (50) dancing
“around the shining birch
wailing prayers to turn it green.
I climb up to kiss the moon.
Icy fingers of light
Close my lids.
Fool!—to fool with the moon:
The moon is only a moon!”
On the other hand, at the end of “Three for the Moon,”
I envision it as “the face/behind all masks/
wisemen have faced/in scripture or sky/
overseeing the dark/mind of vast affection” (53).
But in “Looking for My Face” (60)
“under the moon rising
from waves behind dark hills
moon of my smile rising
from the face before I was born”
I was deluded by a Zen koan.
Enchanted by the moon, and Akemi’s image of it above aizome waves, I cherish our book as a testament of aesthetic realization in a disillusioning quest for enlightenment.
(I’ll try to make more sense in tomorrow’s blog entry.)
I have seen the Shinto tori in the bay at Izu Peninsula and wrote about it
in my "How the Sun-Goddess Rose..." in NONZEN POEMS.
I have seen Dervishes whirl in ecstatic levitation online and will write a
New Year card to my Jewish Sufi friend Magda in England.
I told my Iranian hairstylist in North Hollywood about
"We Three Kings of Orient Are" because
the Magi were Zoroastrians in a Persian myth that she did not know but
worked with a Zoroastrian.
I gasshoed to the black Buddha wallhanging that Keiko gave me before I left
Yokohama, and to the iron Buddha below it that
poet Montri sent me from Bangkok, on my bookcase in North Hollywood.
I smiled back at the Indian lady with jeweled cumcum and
bangles hanging from her ears, smiling at the candles as
she dreams of dancing with Krishna,
as I remembered Raji smiling at birthday candles near Lake Michigan.
I smile back at the smiling Muslim boys, one looking as if he will soon play with
angels in paradise, as I remember my Iraqi friend Sa'ad Ahmed
who read to me from his jeweled Koran at the University of Illinois.
I shake in the African tribal dance, remembering the tribal king in robes
at my party at Goddard College in Vermont.
I laugh at the Hutterite boy jumping high for leaves, as I remember Mennonites
running under trees near State College, Pennsylvania.
I grin back at the turbanned Sihk, remembering the owner of an Indian
restaurant in Hollywood telling me the teachings of Guru Nanak while
I ate palak panir on garlic nan before it got cold.
I stare at the boy staring at the menora like my grandson Isaac during
the pesach in Hollywood led by his aunt, who studied to be a rabbi.
In these twelve photos, where is war?
I ask you, where is war?
I am an expat in my own country—a U. S. citizen now living in North Hollywood with my granddaughter and her three children near my older daughter (the other living near Boston), my son-in-law, his sister, and my nephew—but feeling no more at home in America than I did in Japan, where I lived in Osaka, Nagoya, Chiba, and Yokohama and taught at universities for twenty years, and where my beloved wife lives and teaches in her native country and our son in Tokyo (born in Michigan) performs classical and jazz cello.
Wherever I am I am almost as alienated (though not an alien) as the Martian hero of Heinlein’s science fiction masterpiece STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. Like the expatriated literary geniuses James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and others, I cannot feel truly at home in my so-called home country or anywhere else. But even worse than their alienation, mine is such that I do not feel that I live on the same planet where I was born, for neither air nor earth, people nor even nature is as it was when I was born 81 years ago, for Gaia is dying!
In this blog, I will explore this problem, which you, Dear Reader, may feel as well as I or know others who do. Below is a glimpse at the alienated depths of myself (or lack thereof) in an excerpt from “In Woods as Dark as I” in NONZEN POEMS. But after it I quote a life-enhancing autobiographical poem not in my latest book.
I am grateful to Joe Zanghi, who befriended me, co-edited, and published my best book of poetry last fall, and Akemi Shinohara for creating the enchanting cover. I miss my many friends in Japan, Japanese and others. who struggle to make the best of their estrangement. As for my new and old friends in America, they too struggle to endure alienation politically, sexually, romantically, religiously, aethetically (including entertainment and dining), and in other ways that I will frequently write about herein. I will welcome email sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
IN WOODS AS DARK AS I
I look at myself as a stranger
looks at a stranger he suspects
of suspecting him of suspicions
watching him enter the woods
at evening and disappear.
Now that I have been looked at
suspiciously I might speak
as if I had something to say
beyond suspicions, smiling,
as if I were not lost in the woods.
(continued on page 39 of NONZEN POEMS)
Morgan am I
from Welsh sea-dwellers
and Fata Morgana
of many forms, many lovers
from womb-caves in the sea:
the son of singing
(mothers of Jesus and
John the Baptist)
enchantress of children and
daughter of Clay
of babies and lilies
leaper of faith).
George Morgan Gibson
am I, the last
son of sons of the
protesting Word of
George who stabbed the dragon.
All in the name that I am.