Revolution is Poetry

I found this on the web earlier this month and I thought it was something that I must share. It’s by Reinald Arenas (1943-1990), a Cuban poet, novelist and playwright, who initially supported the Cuban Revolution of 1959 but eventually became disenchanted and rebelled against it. This is a passage from his memoir, Before Night Falls, which was made into a film in 2000. Apparently he is paraphrasing another Cuban poet and novelist Jose Lezama Lima (1910-1976):

A sense of beauty is always dangerous and antagonistic to any dictatorship because it implies a realm extending beyond the limits that a dictatorship can impose on human beings. Beauty is a territory that escapes the control of the political police. Being independent and outside of their domain, beauty is so irritating to dictators that they attempt to destroy it whichever way they can. Under a dictatorship, beauty is always a dissident force, because a dictatorship is itself unaesthetic, grotesque; to a dictator and his agents, the attempt to create beauty is an escapist or reactionary act.

The other day, I wrote that a smile can be a rescue and a kind word, liberation. In the same way, a revolution can be a poem and revolutionary acts can take many forms. This is from the English edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm. The writer is Sharif S. Elmusa, currently visiting professor at Georgetown University, Qatar campus, from the American University in Cairo, Egypt, where he is an associate professor in the Political Science Department. He is writing of the recent Egyptian Revolution:

They rendered acts of poetry – cleaning the streets, regulating traffic, protecting the national museum, guarding houses, breaking bread with someone – even more poetic. These mundane acts became inspiring moments, like that of a poem, spawning a new spirit, free of the dust that had settled on the conception of work and on those who perform it day after day. Writing a poem and engaging in a revolution are both acts of self-discovery.

The revolution dignifies the ordinary, and elevates it, just as poetry transforms common words into rhythms and meaning.

Since it would be wrong not to include a poem in this post, here is one from Diane Di Prima. Called “the original outlaw poet,” Diane Di Prima is the author of 42 books of poetry and prose, and her work has been translated into at least twenty languages. She is now the 5th Poet Laureate of San Francisco. From Revolutionary Letters (dedicated to Bob Dylan), originally published by City Lights in 1971:

beware of those
who say we are the beautiful losers
who stand in their long hair and wait to be punished
who weep on the beaches for our isolation

we are not alone: we have brothers in all the hills
we have sisters in the jungles and in the ozarks
we even have brothers on the frozen tundra
they sit by their fires, they sing, they gather arms
they multiply: they will reclaim the earth

nowhere we can go but they are waiting for us
no exile where we will not hear welcome home
‘good morning brother, let me work with you
goodmorning sister, let me
fight by your side.’


Empty Your Boat

Chuang Tzu (369-286 BCE)

In yesterday’s post, I quoted German philosopher Karl Jaspers as saying, “the Buddhist Sage goes through the world like a duck; he no longer gets wet. He has transcended the world by dropping it.” That reminded me of a passage in Chuang Tzu, the writings attributed to an early Taoist philosopher.

In the “Mountain Tree” chapter, I-liao, an officer of Shih-nan, tells the Marquis of Lu, “If a man is crossing a body of water in a boat, and an empty boat comes along and crashes into him, even though he is a hot-tempered man, he will not get angry. If there should be someone in the other boat, however, he will shout out to him to haul out of the way. If his shout is not heard, he will shout again; and that is not heard, he will shout out a third time and follow up with a lot of curses. In the beginning, he was not angry, but now he is; before, he thought the boat was empty, but now he sees a person in it. As he makes his way in this world, if a man can empty himself of himself, who can harm him?”

Thomas Merton, in his translation/interpretation of the same passage, put it this way:

If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you . . .

Who can free himself from achievement
And from fame, descend and be lost
Amid the masses of men?
He will flow like Tao, unseen,
He will go about like Life itself
With no name and no home.
Simple is he, without distinction.
To all appearances he is a fool.
His steps leave no trace. He has no power.
He achieves nothing, has no reputation.
Since he judges no one
No one judges him.
Such is the perfect man:
His boat is empty.

Merton (1965). The Way of Chuang Tzu. New York: New Directions.

We stand on a shore facing the river of the world, the sea of suffering. There is a boat. But it is not empty. It is filled with living beings that we have rescued. Our goal is to cross over the sea of suffering in this boat filled with others. We want to reach the other shore of Nirvana, the shore of happiness and bliss, where everyone will be enlightened and free.

There’s only one problem: we cannot see this other shore. We can journey on and on but we will never find it. We will see nothing but mirages, islands of illusion. We may think that as we journey along we will go through different stages, various phases, and that we will attain certain attainments, but these are only dreams in our mind.

We are already standing on the shore of Nirvana. We think it is a shore that borders the sea of suffering but that is only because we do not see clearly and we cannot distinguish what is truly before our eyes. Our mind is not yet free. We see attainments but there are no attainments, only change. There is nothing to attain and everything to change. The goal was never to attain anything or go anywhere, but simply to change ourselves where we are, and to rescue other living beings.

In order to accommodate passengers, we have to empty our boat. To liberate others we have to liberate ourselves, empty ourselves of ourselves. That is changing things where you are.

Ryokan was a Zen priest during the Edo era. He lived from 1758 to 1831. In Shapers of Japanese Buddhism, Aishin Imaeda writes,

Ryokan was a man of love. He loved everyone equally. He gave the clothes off his back to a beggar who came to his hut . . . he had boundless love for all living beings and all of nature . . . Ryokan lived by begging and was untempted by worldly things . . . He was completely indifferent to public criticism . . . To him there was neither beauty nor ugliness, good or evil, truth or falsehood, delusion or enlightenment, for he looked on everything without discrimination . . . Ryokan had only the bare necessities, for he had gone beyond all temptations of fame and fortune . . . Though Ryokan was a priest, he never preached or explained sutras. When he talked with friends or played with children, his pleasant smile impressed them with his goodness. This in itself was the true power of his Zen . . .

Like the idealized Taoist sage, Ryokan led by example. He taught by not teaching. His life was his teaching and the way he lived his daily life was his attainment. But he did not start out like that. He had to change himself, empty his boat, and once empty, it was then filled with all the people who returned his love, who were touched by his goodness, the people who were rescued, changed, by his presence in their lives.

To liberate someone or to rescue another, sounds like some grand act, but it’s not. It’s actually a very simple thing. A smile is a rescue. A kind word is liberation. If you can see this, then you know that when you empty yourself you also open yourself up to new possibilities.

Karl Jaspers saw existence as a state of being teeming with hope and potential. Each moment is potentially a moment of awakening. There is no attainment because there is no place you can go nor any other person you can be in order to attain. It’s all right here, before your eyes, in the present moment . . . in each potential moment. It is emptying your boat and uncovering your true self and your true mission. It’s change.

To understand is one thing. To realize, another. I think it is very difficult to grasp these simple truths deeply. We may understand intellectually, but it is hard to know them in the depths of our being. Harder than ascending to the stage of stream-enterer or becoming a once-returner, a non-returner, or an arahant. More difficult than fathoming the most profound koan, for this is the ultimate koan and we access its meaning and attain whatever there is to attain, not through attainment but through the way we live this koan called life.

Enlightenment comes when we have purged ourselves of striving and contention, for then we understand enlightenment is nothing more than real change that comes from within, intuitively, without conscious  aspiration toward something external. It does, however, require conscious effort and it’s not about being indifferent about the external world in any literal sense. A duck is not indifferent about water, but the duck does not get wet.

Emptying the boat of ourselves and then filling it with others – this is the action that sparks change. Knowing there is no journey to another shore only the inward journey to ourselves – this is the comprehension that reveals the nirvana shining all around us.

Self-portrait & caligraphy by Ryokan

I’m a fool, it’s a fact,
Living with the trees and plants as I do.
Don’t ask me about illusion and nirvana,
For here is an old man who just likes to smile to himself
As he crosses over streams on scrawny legs,
And when he carries around his bag in the springtime.
Such is my life,
And the world has no claims on me.



Herr Jaspers and Existenz

The German psychiatrist and philosopher, Karl Jaspers was born on this date in 1883. Although he rejected the label, Jaspers is regarded as an founder of Existentialism and a thinker who had a considerable influence on theology, philosophy, and psychiatry.

Many observers have pointed out the similarities between existentialist philosophy and Buddhism.  I am not sure they are that similar, however, and personally, I am a bit suspicious of Western philosophy because I always seem to find some hint of theism lurking in the depths, as opposed to Buddhism, which I feel is quite atheistic.

I think Jasper’s rejection of the existentialist label had to do with his view of ontological systems, which he saw as restrictive. Jaspers called his philosophy Existenzphilosophie or “Existenz-philosophy.”

Although he maintained that no precise objective definition of “Existenz” was possible, it refers to a state of freedom in which authentic being can be experienced. On one hand, Existenz is the fact of human existence, and on the other, “Existenz is not a kind of being; it is a potential being.” This latter meaning implies freedom in that as the ground of being, Existenz is a field of possibilities. It also refers to a sense of responsibility for one’s actions. Existenz is transcendent, not an external object, and being transcendent it is a reality that is beyond our ability to fully apprehend it.

In On My Philosophy, Jaspers wrote,

Man, however, is not a sufficient separate entity, but is constituted by the things he rices his own. In every form of his being man is related to something other than himself: as a being to his world, as consciousness to objects, as spirit to the idea of whatever constitutes totality, as Existenz to Transcendence. Man always becomes man by devoting himself to this other. Only through his absorption in the world of Being, in the immeasurable space of objects, in ideas, in Transcendence, does he become real to himself. If he makes himself the immediate object of his efforts he is on his last and perilous path; for it is possible that in doing so he will lose the Being of the other and then no longer find anything in himself. If man wants to grasp himself directly, he ceases to understand himself, to know who he is and what he should do.

Again, we can see a number of parallels to Buddhist thinking. In fact, I probably would have paid little attention to Jaspers had it not been for his connection to Buddhism, specifically an essay he wrote on Nagarjuna. When I was first trying to fathom the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy of that 2nd Century Buddhist thinker I found the essay (in The Great Philosophers) immensely helpful. I have quoted from it before, and I do so again today. Here he discusses Nagarjuna’s concept of sunyata or “emptiness”:

Emptiness permits the greatest openness, the greatest willingness to accept the things of the world as a starting point to make the great leap. Indifference toward all worldly things also leaves every possibility open. Hence the tolerance of Buddhism toward other religions, modes of life, views of the world. The Buddhist lives with all theses as expressions of a lower, worldly truth, each equally satisfactory as a point of departure toward higher things. This unrestricted openness attracts men . . .

Western reason presents an analogy to this Buddhist mode of thought, which is as infinitely open as emptiness. Both listen, both respect the opinions of others. but the difference is this: the Buddhist Sage goes through the world like a duck; he no longer gets wet. He has transcended the world by dropping it. He seeks fulfillment in an unthinkable unworld. For Western man, however, reason finds its fulfillment, not in any absolute, but in the historicity of the world itself, which he gathers into his own Existenz. Only in historical realization, becoming identical with it, does he find his ground; he knows that this is the source of his freedom and of his relation to transcendence.

Jaspers loses me at the end because I am not sure if he is suggesting that Western reason is preferable, nor am I convinced that historicity, which I believe he means as an awareness of the past, is absolutely crucial for obtaining freedom. I think a sense of now is far more important, since now is where we are experiencing existence.

But that aside: Happy Birthday, Herr Jaspers!


More Inspiration

I’m not sure where I got this from, I’ve had it for a while, but obviously it is a compilation of some popular quotes taken from various writings by Dogen (Mountains and Waters Sutra, Rules on Zazen are two). Some people find Dogen hard to understand. I can relate. But even when we don’t grasp everything he says, we can always appreciate it as poetry:

Even in a drop of water innumerable Buddha fields appear.

You should know it as a fact that mountains are fond of wise people and sages.

It is not only that there is water in the world, but there is a world in water. It is not just in water. There is also a world of sentient beings in clouds. There is a world of sentient beings in the air. There is a world of sentient beings in fire. There is a world of sentient beings on earth. There is a world of sentient beings in the phenomenal world. There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass. There is a world of sentient beings in a staff. Wherever there is a world of sentient beings, there is a world of Buddha ancestors. You should thoroughly examine the meaning of this.

Mountains and waters at this moment are the manifestation of the ancient Buddha way. Each, resting in its phenomenal expression, realizes wholeness. Because mountains and waters have been active since before the beginning, they are alive at this moment. Because they have been the self since before form arose they are liberation-enlightenment.

A flower falls, even though we love it; and a weed grows, even though we do not love it.

Do not travel far to other dusty lands, forsaking your own sitting place; if you cannot find the truth where you are now, you will never find it.”

Handle even a single leaf of green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha. This in turn allows the Buddha to manifest through the leaf.

Think only of today and this moment. Don’t spend your time looking forward tomorrow, because tomorrow in uncertain, demanding, and difficult to know.


We Need Inspiration

I finally saw Invictus last night. Clint Eastwood’s film about Nelson Mandela and how South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup. I thought it was good.  Much of what makes the film work is Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Mandela. I was moved by nearly every scene he was in. I have no idea how much dramatic license was taken with the events, but I felt as though I had a window into the soul of a great man.

The film is also about inspiration. Invictus means “unconquered” and is the title of a famous Victorian poem that inspired Mandela during his 27 years in prison. After becoming president of South Africa, Mandela wisely saw that his country was in desperate need of inspiration. After attending a game of the Springboks, the country’s rugby team, he thought that if the team could win the Rugby World Cup (in one year’s time), it would help unite the country and South Africans would be inspired “to be better than they think they can be.”

We all need inspiration. Some of the best sources of inspiration come from things that on the surface would seem to be rather trivial, like sports. Most of us are all for inspiration when it is the creative kind. When it comes to inspirational words or stories, however, sometimes I think we are too jaded or think ourselves too sophisticated to be able to appreciate these small gems of wisdom. Often, we’ll look down our noses at inspirational quotes, for example, and dismiss them as just some feel-good fluff.

Here’s an  inspirational quote that’s a perfect example of what I mean:

Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.

True, but sounds pretty hokey, right? Maybe that isn’t the right word, because it’s not really sentimental, although it may be a bit corny, like one of those phony Buddha quotes. Only this is a line spoken by Nelson Mandela in Invictus. Maybe it’s something he actually said, I don’t know. I think it ceases to sound hokey when put in the context of another quote from the film, spoken by a character reflecting on Nelson Mandela’s spirit: “I was thinking about how you spend 30 years in a tiny cell, and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there.” For me, that raises it to another level.

Quotes like that one, and mottos, maxims, sayings, proverbs, etc. distill great wisdom in a few words. They convey sometimes complicated truths simply. That’s the part that catches us up. Because they are simple, they can be easily dismissed.

Nearly every successful businessperson I have ever met, particularly in sales, has had some simple motto or inspirational quote that they lived by. When you try to look past the surface and engrave the truth of these sayings into your life, they are no longer merely a string of words designed to make you feel good (and what’s wrong with that?), they are small bits of wisdom that serve as reminders of what we are striving for in life, and when faced with challenges they can help us keep up the momentum and not give up. It’s very easy to give up or become resigned to falling short of our own expectations.

In Tibetan Buddhism there is the practice of Lojong or “mind training” based on a set of sayings or proverbs, like inspirational quotes, concocted in the 12th century by Geshe Chekhawa. Here’s a few:

When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi.

Be grateful to everyone.

Always maintain only a joyful mind.

Change your attitude, but remain natural.

Don’t try to be the fastest.

Don’t seek others’ pain as the limbs of your own happiness.

There’s 59 all together. But I think they left out a few. Like “Silence is golden” and “Happiness is a warm Buddha.”

These are the kind of inspirational words that some people love to poke fun at, yet a number of today’s prominent teachers promote lojong practice, including Pema Chodron, Ken McLeod, Alan Wallace, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and the Dalai Lama. They’re not too proud to be hokey. What do they know that we don’t?

They know that a simple truth can be profound, and that it can be a springboard into even deeper truths, if you let it. Even the uber-cerebral Ken Wilber recognizes the profundity of simple truths. In the foreword to The Practice of Lojong, by Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, he writes:

It is Rinpoche’s belief, which I heartily second, that not only are the secrets of Lojong an antidote to much of today’s emotional pain and suffering, they contain the very practices that can fully awaken the mind and liberate awareness. And not just in a passing, self-help kind of fashion, a “Gosh-I-feel-better” kind of way, but by striking right at the heart of suffering itself, while simultaneously pointing to the enlightened or fully liberated mind.

Lojong practice requires seeing these little mottos differently.

So, to wrap this thing up, the next time you are tempted to look down upon someone’s inspiration quote, inwardly smirk at some proverb, or criticize someone for using them, think twice. Maybe they’re on to something you haven’t figured out yet. Maybe they’re the smarties.

We need inspiration. It’s hard enough to come by, so I don’t think it’s such a good idea to just dismiss inspiration out of hand because it’s too cute, comes from a source we think is silly, or doesn’t measure up to our standards. The inspirational words that might be too sweet for your tea, may be a lifeline to someone else, and to you, too, once you get past your preferences and prejudices.

Always keep in mind these inspirational words from the immortal Chinese detective, Charlie Chan:

Any powder that kills flea is good powder.