Thursday, August 19, 2010

Reflections: Sensibility, a Poem

While I was at Antaiji I didn't have the freedom to respond to the calling of a poem. Due to scheduling I had to keep the 'lid on' most of the times when I felt a longer poem 'surfacing'. 

So maybe its not a surprise that the poem that follows gave me a lot of material for self-inquiry. I doubt I’m done with that, but feel there's been enough to post it now.


There are times, like the time
Approaching a change in season,
When the air carries with it
A memory we had no intention
Of calling up or recalling
From our adult deportment.

And so, unbidden, perhaps even
Against our will, the air marks
Our movement, imagined or real,
With the shadow of a thought
And a sting of sadness or regret
For what we think we’ve lost –
A bit of joy, a bit of laughter –
Nothing special, nothing really major.

But the air gasps as we walk by.
Sun dapples the leaves, 'still green',
We say, as if to reassure,
Walking in that way, no break
In stride, the way we've learned
To seem to ignore, but watch alertly
From the corner of our eye,
With the curiosity of the foreigners
That we are, the old guy
Wearing a donated fur in summer
 half-toppled over,
On his cardboard box mattress.

A butterfly flutters from flower to flower
And disappears in the tall
Grasses, burnt to straw by the dry heat
Of August. The woman who watches
Is as far removed from childhood
As Pluto from the sun, so there
Is no chase, but also, no chance
For a skinned knee. Her fingers instead
Reach to grasp and twist
A bit of fabric from her skirt.

Is it a miracle of light that we see
Or a miracle of sight that there is light?
What worth has sight
Without a bit of wistfulness
For the promise of a solar system
That never existed or is just out of reach
By some arbitrary definition
Of a void so very real.

For me, the poem touches on Zen practice -- both what it is and what it's not.

The void is real. It is infinite, has no boundaries, is ineffable, and can't be filled. Many people spend their whole lives trying to escape (like my own attempt to 'run' from this poem) or fill the void. Society teaches us strategies from an early age, but those strategies often end in disappointment and turn us into ‘the woman watching’. Society lies to us, tries to define the void, tells us it has limits, "If you manage to do x, y, z successfully, the void will be filled." Well, we're typically not successful. And even if we are, the sense of fulfillment doesn’t stay with us, so we excuse that by saying we weren't successful enough or that success is our birthright, expected, and move on to the next challenge. And the lie gets propagated.

Zen practice also can turn us into ‘the woman watching’ if we're not careful, because its a practice of restraint. We start with zazen or sitting to rewire our brains and hearts. Although its a practice of restraint, we're told the outcome is supposed to make us free. But we can get stuck in the desire for freedom and we can get stuck in self-denial.

What is free? Certainly not ‘the woman watching’ who's either kind of dead or anxious inside. Nor is it the children who might chase a butterfly, although a ‘child-like’ approach seems to be part of it.

As practitioners of Zen, we face the void. We let go and drop into it. We find the void is infinite, has no boundaries, is ineffable, and includes everything, even or especially ourselves. And a major source of the void is a sense of exclusion.

What happens after? Reality. Life goes on… Practice goes on...

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