Pilgrimage to the Temple of Words

 

Presented for Power of Poetry 2009 by Alan Cohen

 

          In his book Danger on Peaks, the poet, Gary Snyder, steeped in Asian culture and thought shares an email received immediately after the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddhas at the edge of the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan. The writer seems to find comfort in the idea that eventually, everything “…will decay.”

 

          Snyder reminds us that everything “…will decay” is only part of the story. He adds: “Ah yes…impermanence. But this is never a reason to let compassion and focus slide, or to pass off the suffering of others because they are merely impermanent beings.”

 

          He goes on to quote a haiku by Issa:

 

Tsuyu no yo wa

Tsuyu no ya nagara

Sarinagara

 

This dewdrop world

Is but a dewdrop world

And yet—

 

          Snyder suggests that “and yet— ” become our permanent practice, embracing our personal spark of compassion and focus in the ever flowing sea of impermanence.

 

*****

 

          The everyday English we use to navigate the world seems to work fairly well. We can give and get directions  and use such language to order products, follow recipes, describe architecture, and debate sports and politics.

 

It is, however, limited when we attempt to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas simultaneously, or to realize that various concepts — education, marriage, peace — are ongoing processes rather than immutably fixed concrete ideas. We get into the same old arguments that something must be either good or bad, black or white. We are disappointed again and again when we get to a peaceful resolution of a conflict, and then the amity does not last.  These are times when our language works like a one-way trap.

 

*****

 

 

          This is the Chinese character for poetry. It is a composite made of the characters “words“ and “temple“. Poetry is a temple for words. A temple is the place to open oneself to the experience of our connection to a wider world, universe, or way of thinking and being. One’s actions and speech in a temple deserve to be undertaken with care and intention. When we truly desire connection with something greater than ourselves alone, it is necessary to act with such care and intention —the essence of the behavior we call, “caressing”— and to make this behavior a part of ourselves, whether inside the temple or outside of it.

 

          It has been suggested that the Japanese language, built on the sound of vowels, connected to the breath of the cosmos, mirrors the natural world In Sanskrit, the word for the sound of the universe “aum”, is a fully released breath.

 

Languages like English, deriving, as they do, from German, (originally the Norse – sounds of the North, the cold, limited light, people), are thick with consonants, which stop the breath by shaping the mouth to craft particular sounds.

 

Is it possible that at such a basic level of thought and feeling the shaping of our mouth and tongue to produce consonants causes our thought process to constantly stop and start, by our breath being forced to contract and release abruptly through the doors of the mouth as language travels into the world?

 

          Again, that haiku from Issa:

 

Tsuyu no yo wa

Tsuyu no ya nagara

Sarinagara

 

This dewdrop world

Is but a dewdrop world

And yet—

          The Japanese, even if we don’t understand it, flows easily. The English version has a much harder feel even when we understand the ethereal concept of the dewdrop world. This poetic rendition is superior to an explanation because it imitates motion, fluidity, an aspect of the universal that stirs the otherwise inanimate, the concrete, into motion.

 

The Japanese haiku form, compresses these words to the essence of a profound idea, thus pulling us out of conventional thought patterns. When we live a life that includes occasional pilgrimages to a word temple it becomes necessary that we speak poetically, which literally derives from the root meaning “to create”.

 

          By embracing this realization it becomes possible to envision continuums rather than diametrical opposites when we think. As the yin/yang, symbol (originally the Chinese Tai Chi (“tai” way, + manner, “chi”, animating energy, i.e. the manner by which energy moves –the Grand Ultimate) demonstrates, white and black define each other, a small dot of each within the other. There is no North without South, or day without night. The word temple holds all varying degrees of everything. As related by Ikkyu, an ancient rascally Zen priest:

 

I'd love to give you something

but, what would help?

Self other right wrong

wasting your life arguing

face it

you're happy, really

you are happy.

 

          The world and everything in it is an ongoing process. Once we are trapped in the uncertainty principle of modern physics of either focusing on the speed or location of a particle by specifying one particle in isolation, the other is lost. However when we look at one particle, while realizing that we are just seeing one aspect of it rather than the entire physical condition in which it exists, we can remember, not forget, that we are a process too, ever changing in many ways.

 

          Institutions like peace, relationships or marriage are not stable entities. They are more like someone standing on an acrobat’s bongo board, a short plank poised on a cylinder. Standing stably on the plank pressed against the moving cylinder requires mastering the art of balance, which derives from realizing that a permanent static point does not exist. Stability requires a constant series of adjustments and corrections about a center. It takes effort and discipline to maintain ones equilibrium, but with practice, achieving balance while in motion becomes second nature. As Theodore Roethke says, “This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.”

 

          The temple is always open. We can find our path to it through practicing the poetic voice when we desire to live more fully in this dewdrop world.