194th Anniversary of Whitman

In 1819, 194 years ago today, a human being was born in West Hills, New York to somewhat poor Quaker parents, the second of nine children. He became one of America’s greatest poets. His name, Walt Whitman.

whitman-1869Much has been written about the influence of Eastern thought, especially Buddhism, in Whitman’s writings. I think there is little question that he was influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism. Yet, I’m not convinced that influence was as significant as some folks maintain. I’ve seen him called a “Buddhist sage,” or “American Buddha.” I’ve even seen descriptions of Whitman’s “meditation practice.” However, I think through his appreciation of living in harmony with the natural rhythm and flow of life, he had more in common with the wandering Taoist sages of China, which he probably knew little about, and I suspect that his mind was too undisciplined to engage in what we would consider meditation practice.

In Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shoei Ando writes, “[The] tendency toward inward reflection and self-conquest did not belong to Whitman, who was indolent, dreamy, fond of calm aesthetic contemplation, and destitute of practical intention for self-purification through discipline.”

Walt Whitman was a natural-born, free-wheeling, mystic poet, who soaked up many influences and wrung them out in his own singular way. His spirituality was born out of an artistic bent, not a religious one. Nonetheless, we can certainly appreciate his nearness to Buddhist thought.

For instance, Ando notes that “Whitman, believing that ‘if anything is sacred the human body is sacred,’ never subordinated the body to the spirit, but strongly insisted upon the equality of both.” In this way, Whitman differed from many of the transcendentalists with whom he is often associated, men like Emerson and Thoreau who were influential in preparing the collective consciousness of America for Eastern thought, but still clung to a rather Christian view of the body as “nothing but a part of those impurities which cloud and obscure the divinity within man.”

Whitman’s view could be compared to the Japanese Buddhist concept of shiki shin funi or “body and spirit are two but not two.” Shin is the Japanese translation of the Chinese character, xin, meaning “heart, mind, spirit, essence.”

Look at these verses from Whitman and then the words of Zen master Dogen:

All hold spiritual joys and afterwards loosen them;
How can the real body ever die and be buried?

Of your real body and any man’s or woman’s real body,
Item for item it will elude the hands of the corpse-cleaners and
pass to fitting spheres,
Carrying what has accrued to it from the moment of birth to the
moment of death.

“Starting from Paumanok”

Our Body comes from our learning the Way, and what has come from our learning the Way is our body along with our Body. The whole universe in all ten quarters is synonymous with our one real physical body, and the coming and going of birth and death is also synonymous with our real physical body.”

“On Learning the Way Through Body and Mind” (Shinjin Gakudo) 

Both, to me, are asking us to transcend our coarse conceptions about body and mind, and birth and death, to cast off the limitations of our thoughts. And both equate the body, not with impurity, but with spiritual grace and a certain sublime beauty for it, as with the mind, is a microcosm of the vast, unfathomable universe.

Whitman also recognized the oneness of self and nature (esho funi, “life and environment are two but not two”). In “I Sing The Body Electric”, he wrote,

As I see my soul reflected in Nature,
As I see through a mist, One with inexpressible completeness,
sanity, beauty . . .

Sadakichi Hartmann, the German-Japanese critic and playwright who introduced haiku to America, had a number of encounters with Whitman that he recorded in Conversations with Walt Whitman, published in 1895. On one occasion, Hartmann asked him “Do you believe that mankind can be improved by books?”

Whitman replied, “I can hardly say that I had the idea to better mankind. I grew up like a tree — the poems are the fruit. Good literature ought to be the Roman cement; the older it grows — the better it serves its purpose.”

Over a century has passed since Whitman’s last poem was published posthumously in July 1892. His thoughts, his works, his life itself, is like the Roman cement, older, better, and quite unintentionally, if we are to take his humility at face value, still serving a great purpose.

Now, here is something I didn’t know existed. The University of Iowa describes this as the rediscovery of the “tape-recording of what may be an 1889 or 1890 wax-cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading four lines of his late poem ‘America’.” The background story of this recording is rather interesting. You can read about it here, in an article by Ed Folsom for the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

Click on the arrow below to listen.


Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love . . .


For Memorial Day: “Elegy in Joy”

Today is Memorial Day, a date set aside to remember those who have died while serving in the United States military. Since the great majority of those men and women lost their lives while engaged in armed conflict, I think it is also a good time to reflect on the meaning of war and it horror.

And remembering should not consist only of mourning, but also healing. When we leave wounds unhealed, we fail to adequately honor the memory of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Rukeyser2Below is an excerpt of a poem by Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980). An exceptional poet whose work reflected the themes of feminism, social justice, and Judaism. At one time she was also a reporter. As literary editor of Student Review, the leftist undergraduate magazine of Vassar College, she covered the 1932 Scottsboro trial in Alabama. Later, she supported the Spanish Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War; was jailed in Washington for demonstrating against the Vietnam War; and went to South Korea in the 1970s to protest the death sentence of poet Kim Chi-Ha, which resulted in one of her last poems, “The Gates.”

“Elegy in Joy” was part of a collection, Elegies, published by New Directions in 1949. The publisher says that the poem were “written over a seven year period from the end of the Spanish Civil War, through World War II, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, to the start of the Cold War.” It is a poem about healing, and about peace.

Alice Walker, best known for the critically acclaimed novel The Color Purple, once said “Muriel Rukeyser loved poetry more than anyone I’ve ever known. She also believed it could change us, move the world.”

Elegy in Joy [excerpt]
by Muriel Rukeyser

We tell beginnings: for the flesh and the answer,
or the look, the lake in the eye that knows,
for the despair that flows down in widest rivers,
cloud of home; and also the green tree of grace,
all in the leaf, in the love that gives us ourselves.

The word of nourishment passes through the women,
soldiers and orchards rooted in constellations,
white towers, eyes of children:
saying in time of war What shall we feed?
I cannot say the end.

Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings.
Not all things are blest, but the
seeds of all things are blest.
The blessing is in the seed.

This moment, this seed, this wave of the sea, this look, this instant of love.
Years over wars and an imagining of peace.  Or the expiation journey
toward peace which is many wishes flaming together,
fierce pure life, the many-living home.
Love that gives us ourselves, in the world known to all
new techniques for the healing of the wound,
and the unknown world.  One life, or the faring stars.

Copyright © 1949 by Muriel Rukeyser.


Dylan at Todai-ji

Here is a real video treat to commemorate Bob Dylan’s 72nd birthday today.

BD-GME-1BIn May 1994, Dylan performed at The Great Music Experience, a concert starring Japanese and international musicians staged in front of the 8th century Buddhist temple of Todai-ji, in Nara, Japan. Todai-ji is the headquarters of the Kegon (Huayen or Flower Garland) sect, and is also houses the world’s largest statue of a Buddha, a bronze figure of the Buddha Vairocana, also known as Daibutsu, which you can see in the video below.

The concert, put on in cooperation with UNESCO, was held over three nights (May 20-22) and, in addition to Dylan, featured performances from such people as Joni Mitchell, Jon Bon Jovi, Wayne Shorter, Richie Sambora, The Chieftains, INXS, Ry Cooder, and a host of Japanese singers and musicians.

Bob and Joni Mitchell in the finale.

Dylan’s performance marked the first time he was back by an orchestra, the Tokyo New Philharmonic orchestra, conducted by the late, great Michael Kamen. Bob does three songs, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, I Shall Be Released, and Ring Them Bells. The video clip also includes the all-star finale, a reprise of I Shall Be Released. Bob’s performance is stellar.

It was reported that when he walked offstage, Bob remarked that he had not sung so well for 15 years. Some months later, Q Magazine wrote, that  A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall was “no ordinary version…[he] really opens his lungs and heart and sings, like he’s not done for many a year…The only word for it majestic.”

Bob passes by Buddhist monks on his way offstage.
Bob passes by Buddhist monks on his way offstage.

You might also notice among Bob’s backing musicians, percussionists Jim Kelter and Ray Collins (of Elton John fame). The music was later mixed by Beatles’ producer, George Martin.

I had never seen this until a few days ago and I found it stunning. Majestic, indeed. Soaring. Beautiful arrangements and orchestrations, Bob singing at his nuanced and melodic best, and a truly magnificent setting. Watch for yourself.

Musicians said the collaborations, however rewarding, were difficult given the differences in musical backgrounds. “The only thing holding us together this evening is the shining Buddha,” said Michael Kamen. (New York Times)

Thanks to johannasvisions.com, Nothing but Dylan FaceBook page, and hollisbrown000.


If You Meet the Buddha on the Street

Last Friday, May 17th, was celebrated as the Buddha’s Birthday by many dharma followers around the world. It’s known as Vesak, which refers to the lunar month falling in April and May, and is actually a celebration of not only the Buddha’s birth, but also his enlightenment and death.

I used to go to Vesak ceremonies here in Los Angeles. They were always put on by Theravada monks, and they were pretty boring. It mostly involved having people line up to bath a statue of a baby Buddha with water, along with some speeches by monks with thick accents who used many words to say very little, and then lunch. The lunch part always bothered me because the monks would eat first while everyone else waited.  Anyway, I quit going.

In the Japanese traditions, like Zen, Vesak, called Hanamatsuri, is celebrated in April. This year it was on the 8th. The Japanese do not go by the Chinese Lunar Calendar as many other Asia countries do. But then, the birth date is arbitrary as no one knows when the Buddha was born.

Which brings me to the old Zen saying, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. There are various interpretations of this phrase, but I have always taken it as an admonition against idealizing the Buddha too much. Which, of course, throughout history many of his followers have done, and continue to do.

Allegedly a portrait painted when he was 41 by his disciple, Purna, that supposedly resides in a British museum. Seems rather iffy . . .
Allegedly a portrait of Buddha painted when he was 41 by his disciple, Purna, that supposedly resides in a British museum.

Frankly, I doubt if we met the Buddha on the road, we would recognize him. We only know the canonized, lionized Buddha, not the historical one. We’d probably think him to be some homeless person. Rather than a nice, fresh brightly colored robe, the Buddha probably wore what we would consider beggar’s rags. The robes of mendicant’s at that time were made from scraps of cloth scavenged from trash. Instead of the neat mane of curly hair we see in paintings and on statutes, I imagine his hair was an unruly mess and he wore a scraggly beard, like other mendicant philosophers of the time, although its possible his head was clean-shaven. No doubt he would seem uncouth and brutish in comparison to our modern manners and sensibilities. And he probably stunk to high heaven, because they didn’t bathe all that often back then. He might have been Black.

Whatever the case, I think it’s safe to say he didn’t resemble Keanu Reeves in The Little Buddha, and I doubt he had a halo. But no one knows. Indeed, what we can say for sure about the historical Buddha is not much.

Tradition offers us the dubious story of how he was born out of his mother’s side. That is a standard mythological device. Almost all of the world’s great religious figures are said to have had miraculous births.

Evidently, Gautama was from Kapilavastu, a town on a busy trade route north of Banaras, near the area known today as Nepal.  He belonged to the Shakya clan, who inhabited a territory that was about fifty square miles in size. The Shakyas had a republican style government at the time, not a monarchy, so it’s unlikely that his father, Suddhodana, was a rich and powerful king, instead he was probably the elected head of a tribal ruling council.

Soon after the Buddha’s passing, or perhaps even during his lifetime, his followers began to elaborate his life story, borrowing elements from traditional folklore and other myths. By magnifying his early life to that of a royal prince enjoying every luxury and contrasting it with his period of extreme asceticism, they were able to illustrate the Buddha’s concept of the Middle Way, a path that runs between sensual indulgence and self-mortification. According to the Buddha, the key to spiritual wayfaring is moderation, to live a well-rounded life by avoiding either extreme.

Since so much is unknown about the Buddha, it’s hard to say how he would feel about the veneration afforded him. I remember reading years ago how the Buddha expressly forbade his disciples to worship his relics, and yet, there is an early sutta in which he gives precise instructions on how veneration of his relics should be carried out. So, who knows?

I have great respect for traditional Buddhism, but much of it is centered around the monks. I like Buddhism that is centered around the people.

I think everyone has a right to view the Buddha however they wish, as long as it’s reasonable. He’s open to interpretation. My Buddha wouldn’t like all this adoration. He’d say, “Don’t take so much care about me, take care about others. Don’t waste time bathing some stupid baby Buddha statue, bathe a homeless child. Give some clothes to the needy. Do something meaningful.”

My Buddha would have said to the monks, “The people eat first. We eat last.”


Experience is the Ultimate Teacher

Although I devote no small amount of space on this blog to a discussion of Buddhist concepts, I have to say that overall, they are not that important. Not as important as practice, which is something I’ve said many times.

I haven’t delved much into the details of practice, which consists of meditation and/or the chanting of mantras, because I think it is a subject best handled through personal communication. You can’t learn meditation from reading words in a book or on an Internet page. It must be imparted to you from someone who has enough experience to guide you. It is also best learned through actual practice, doing it, so that you gain your own experience.

Unfortunately, too many Westerners try to approach Buddhism first through the concepts, as I have also noted a few times. Science, logic, and reason seem important to them, and when they are faced with ideas that are at variance with any of these three things, or does not conform to their preconceived ideas, they adopt a doubtful, pessimistic attitude, which I suspect is difficult to shake in the long run. Some will even form the opinion that mediation is some sort of dogma.

Buddhism is not about acquiring knowledge. It is about acquiring wisdom, and there’s a difference between the two. Buddhist wisdom or prajna, is not like a light bulb going off over your head, but is rather an intuitive feeling experienced only through meditation. It’s something that is subtle and difficult to explain satisfactorily. It has to be experienced.

Nowadays, folks throw up the Kalama Sutta and proclaim this as a “charter for free inquiry” and a license to judge everything according to science, logic, and reason. But I don’t think that’s what the Buddha was saying.

tnh-meditationThe Buddha does indeed state, “Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning . . .” He doesn’t say do not take these things into consideration, just don’t rely solely on them. Most importantly, he says “when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good . . .” In other words, you have to experience the teachings yourself to know. And while, reading can be an experience, what is actually referred to here is the experience of mindfulness, of meditation, practice.

You can give neither meditation nor Buddhism’s concepts a fair shot with a mind full of judgment, prejudice, and discrimination. In order to live a life of freedom, you must first free your mind.

The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddha Mind, Buddha Body: Walking Toward Enlightenment