Sunday, April 29, 2007

Buddhist meditation practice and writing practice have a long and tricky relationship. Simplistically, we might think they are complimentary—that sitting informs writing and writing informs sitting—when, in actuality, the relationship is more complex. When an unlucky interviewer asked Philip Whalen, "What is the relationship between Zen and poetry?" He quipped, "Zen doesn't exist! Poetry doesn't exist!" and slammed down the phone. In a different vein, the Buddhist poet Norman Fischer has pointed out, "Meditation is when you sit down and do nothing. Poetry is when you sit down and do something." Whether it is meaning making, image making, or ego making the slight duality—the making of something new or other—inherent in poetry proves difficult to reconcile with meditation practice.

Pine Valley, Ventana Wilderness, CA (2006)

While it is easy to mention Buddhism and poetry in the same breath, and to recognize the similarities in their approach and stance toward reality, the actual tension between these two life-long practices is rarely discussed in a complex and meaningful way. More often than not, it is politely glossed over like politics at a family reunion. Reading through interviews, essays, and poetry—from ancient China to present-day Philadelphia—however, one gets the feeling that for many Buddhist writers there exists a nearly palpable conflict between these two distinctly human undertakings. As far back as the ninth century, Po Chu-I wrote,

"Since earnestly studying the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness,
I've learned to still all the common states of mind.
Only the devil of poetry I have yet to conquer."

Gary Snyder has also explained,

"While I was in Japan I was always what is described as the lowest type of Zen student—the type who concerns himself once in a while with literature. So, I confess, I did go on writing poems from time to time, which is inexcusable! I couldn't help myself."

Similarly, Norman Fisher has spoken about his writing practice in ambigious terms. In a recent issue of Shambhala Sun, Fisher wrote,

"Though I know writing is a bad habit for a Zen priest, I can't help it… Though I hope it does somebody some good, I am not at all sure. It may even do some harm. More likely, it may be a waste of time."

What has been written about and well-documented are the connections between traditional Buddhist poetry and teachings and the various poetic forms and techniques that modern and postmodern Buddhist writers have experimented with since the beginning of the twentieth century. In the introduction to The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry, Andrew Schelling discusses the influence of Indian chanting on non-sensical (or "magical") Beat writing (i.e. Kerouac's Old Angel Midnight and Michael McClure's Ghost Tantras) and the opaque, Language-oriented verse of Leslie Scalapino; the importance of classical Chinese's clear-eyed intimacy on the work of writers such as Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder; the high-energy construction of haiku with its koan-like push for realization on huge numbers of North American poets; as well as the influence of Japanese poetic diaries and their tendency to memorialize experience on poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Joanne Kyger.

Surveying this work from a distance, one of the common threads that link these various projects and people is the notion of the writer as an active participant—engaged, pondering, investigating—the world within which he/she is very much a part. Rather than making meaning and/or explaining experience, these poets have sought to attend to experience—linguistically, ecologically, and close-at-hand. As Schelling points out, "To American poets… the practice of writing poems is not so much to make a thing as it is to trace the way the mind moves." It is within the subtle simultaneity of mental shifts, sensory perceptions, and linguistic twists where the real stuff of poetry happens. Seen through this lens, it is possible to look at writing as a "Way"—one of many pathways toward enlightenment, along with tea ceremony, archery, calligraphy, and flower arrangement.

On the other hand, to view writing as a "Way," in and of itself, is problematic for two reasons: 1) in poetry as well as meditation, there are many obstacles and pitfalls—from careerist tendencies to getting stuck in particular neurotic habits—that normally require skillful guidance of qualified teachers to break through, and thus far in America, at least, few, if any, Buddhist teachers /poets have advocated substituting meditation practice for a practice of poetry; and, furthermore, within the modern and postmodern poetic community there are as many pathways as there are people and few agreed-upon lineages such as you might find in successful American Buddhist traditions like Shambhala or the Soto Zen of the San Francisco Zen Center. And 2) while there is ample evidence of committed meditation practice improving the quality of the lives lived by numerous practitioners, the same simply can not be said for modernist and postmoderist philosophy and writing, which seem to produce as many self-destructive geniuses as they do sane ones. On a similar note, in his famous 1977 East Meets West interview, Gary Snyder explicitly differentiates Eastern and Western manifestations of crazy wisdom:

"The model of a romantic, self-destructive, crazy genius that [Baudelaire and Rimbaud] and others provide us is understandable as part of the alienation of people from the cancerous and explosive growth of Western nations during the last one hundred and fifty years. Zen and Chinese poetry demonstrate that a truly creative person is more truly sane; that this romantic view of crazy genius is just another reflection of the craziness of our times."

We could easily add Kerouac and James Dean to this list, Jim Morrison, maybe, and Kurt Cobain. As Snyder implies, the arts, as we have come to know them, provide artists with momentary flashes of brilliance and with the undeniably important freedom to express and memorialize experience, which is necessary to the very fabric of any culture. However, enmeshed within the urban and suburban, consumeristic lifestyles-of-the-moment and without recourse to freely drift among mountain mists, a la Han Shan, contemporary Buddhist poets, it seems, need the support of a committed meditation practice and/or regular contact with skilled teachers if they wish to become anything but armchair philosophers of Buddhist ideology.

If seen simply as a part of a larger Buddhist practice—impulsively taken up by some and avoided by others—, how, then, are we to view the relationship between meditation and poetry? Is poetry simply an insubordinate subset of Buddhist practice, just as likely to hinder a practitioners path as it is to help? Or is it a legitimate "Way"—standing side-by-side with meditation practice—for some? Or should we conclude that poetry is just something that people do—like cooking a meal and sweeping the floor—that should receive no scrutiny or special attention? And, what is the proper way to handle poetry as a Buddhist practitioner? Should confessionalism, with its tendency to fetishize experience, be frowned upon? Should chance operation, flarf, and sound poetry, all of which deemphasize poetic "meaning," be championed? Is haiku, with it's emphasis on momentary insight, at odds with an everyday-style of practice? And, is poetry a legitimate barometer of Buddhist insight, as some have claimed? And, finally, in light of poems being graphs of the mind moving, should Buddhist poets be evaluated less on the insights of individual poems and more for the insights demonstrated within a their whole body of work?

These questions and many more seem to be hanging out their in the ether and in need of answers. As the summer rolls on, and I have more free time, maybe I'll attempt to put some of these to rest. Others, I imagine will linger with us for a long time. What does occur to me, in wrapping up this ramble, is that if we are to look at poetry as a form of Buddhist practice, establishing some road signs along the path might make easier for others who are to follow.

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