When Great Poets Die

This blog appreciates poetry and laments the loss of remarkable poets.

Maya Angelou, herself a great soul, wrote:

Seamus-HeaneyWhen great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Those words seem a fitting elegy for Seamus Heaney, Irish Poet and Nobel Prize winner, who died Friday at the age of 74. Poet Robert Lowell called him the greatest Irish poet since Yeats.

The Irish have two great artistic traditions, music and poetry. Although some might argue there is a third, the art of drinking. I like to think that the Irish (and I count myself as one) have made great music because they love to dance, usually while drinking, and they have written great poetry, because every true Irishman has a gift for the blarney.

Contemporary Irish music and poetry has had little to do with blarney, though. Rather, it’s been a product of an affection for the beauty of the earth, and a reaction to the affliction of blood and strife that has troubled Ireland for so long. And while that would characterize a good portion of Heaney’s works, his poetry held much more. In presenting Heaney with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, Östen Sjöstrand, member of the Swedish Academy, noted “it must be said that Seamus Heaney never reduces reality to a matter of political slogans, he writes about the fates of individuals, of personal friends who have been afflicted by the heedless violence – in the background somewhere there is Dante, who could yoke the political to the transcendental.”

The Nobel committee awarded Heaney the prize “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past,”  which describes his work far better than I ever could.

And when great souls die . . .
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

The Cure at Troy is Heaney’s adaption in verse of Sophocles’ tragedy Philoctetes. Here is an excerpt:

Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.

– – – – – – – – – –

Excerpt of “When Great Trees Fall” from I Shall Not Be Moved, Maya Angelou, Random House, 1990

Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’s PhiloctetesFaber & Faber in assoc. with Field Day, 1990


The Supreme Art of War

Sun Tzu, author of the ancient text Sunzi Bingfa  or “Sun Tzu’s Military Rules”, said:

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Sun Tzu was a military general, a warrior who understood that there is almost always an alternative to war.

Wednesday, at the commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington, former President Carter said “I believe we all know how Dr. King would have reacted” to such things as new I.D. requirements to exclude certain voters, high unemployment, and so on. Shortly afterward, President Obama added his words, lauding King’s dream and accomplishments. I wonder how Dr. King would have reacted to the military action against Syria Obama is evidently trying to sell to a skeptical Congress and an American public weary of war.

Perhaps, Dr. King would say something like this, remarks made a mere four months after the historic march:

And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace . . . They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.”

When I see the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of State going around talking about a country in the Middle East and “weapons” and the need make sure the country in question is “held accountable” through military action, I can’t help but feel that I’ve sat through this movie at least once before, and I didn’t much care for it.

There are arguments both for and against a strike on Syria. There are various takes on the possible consequences. They are all out there, on television, on the Internet, so I won’t rehash them here.

As a Buddhist, I wonder how the Buddha would react to the current situation. From what we know about the Buddha, from the early texts, it appears that he believed in the power of dialogue and diplomacy. The Mahaparinibbanna-sutta tells the story of how Ajatashatru, the king of Magadha, was about to launch an attack on the neighboring Vajjian Republic. Ajatashatru sent a messenger to the Buddha to seek his advice. The Buddha did not give a direct response, rather he said that “As long as the Vajjians do all things enjoined upon and expected them, they will not be defeated or ruined.”

Hearing this, the messenger replied, “So, Gautama, the Vajjians cannot be overcome in battle; they will be overcome only by diplomacy or internal dissention.”

The messenger took this message back to the king of Magadha and war was adverted.

The reason Ajatashatru wanted to strike against the Vajjians is unclear, but also unimportant for this discussion. The takeaway here is that the Buddha suggested an alternative to war. He understood the deeply corrupting effects of violence, and that depending on war to solve the problems facing humankind, or as a tool to protect civilians and preserve security, is an unwise strategy.

Such a strategy is actually reckless. It accomplishes only a little in the short run, and often unleashes further suffering and more violence in the long run. Diplomacy, on the other hand, is “smart power,” as our previous Secretary of State described it. Someone else, I don’t remember who, said diplomacy is useful when you want to talk to people you really don’t like.

As long as there is a possibility for dialogue and diplomacy, there is an alternative to war.

Now that the British have voted against military strikes in Syria, President Obama has signaled that he may willing to go it alone. But UN chief Ban Ki-moon has pleaded for more time to allow the United Nations inspectors in Syria to establish the facts and to give diplomacy another chance to end the Syrian conflict. Instead of touting our military might, the U.S. would be better served by exerting the full force of our diplomatic influence and resources to press the Syrian regime to allow unfettered access to the UN team investigating the alleged chemical weapons attacks.

Once again, all we are saying is give peace a chance.


The Slow Burn of Change

Today is the 50th anniversary of “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

mlk-march-on-washingtonThe 1963 march drew over 200,000 people, at that time the largest demonstration ever held in the nation’s capital. Security was tight for the event. On duty were 5,900 police officers, 2,000 National Guardsmen, and 4,000 soldiers. The sale of liquor was banned in Washington D.C for the first time since Prohibition.

Many of the organizers and those with spots in the program had spent years, decades even, fighting for civil rights. They had been subjected to threats, beatings, numerous arrests. The keynote speaker, Martin Luther King Jr., had been arrested nearly 30 times himself.

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has since been immortalized, but it was not the only speech given on that hot summer day. Mrs. Medgar Evers led a “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom” that included Rosa Parks; remarks were made by the National Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis, now U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district; and speeches were given by Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and others.

A. Philip Randolph in 1963
A. Philip Randolph in 1963

Note the prophetic words spoken that afternoon by A. Philip Randolph, an African-American civil rights leader who was the March Director:

The months and years ahead will bring new evidence of masses in motion for freedom. The March on Washington is not the climax of our struggle, but a new beginning not only for the Negro but for all Americans who thirst for freedom and a better life. Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, of federal aid to education and there you will find the enemy of the Negro, the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seek to dominate the Congress.”

When you consider that we still face many of these same issues, it seems that little has changed in five decades.

On this same day, in 1917, ten suffragists were arrested while picketing at the White House. They held signs that read, “Mr. President, what will you do for Woman Suffrage?” and “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” I don’t know about liberty, but it seems that many women are still waiting for equality.

Lucy Burns in prison, 1917.
Lucy Burns in prison, 1917.

One of those suffragists was a woman named Lucy Burns. She co-founded the Congressional Union and the National Woman’s Party. She spent more time in prison than any other American suffragist, and the story of her activism behind bars, and the brutality she endured, is compelling and inspiring.

We are often asked to salute those who have risked their lives on the battlefield of war. Today is a good day to remember and salute those who fought on another kind of battlefield, people like Lucy Burns, A. Philip Randolph, Dr. King, and thousands of men and women whose names you’ll never hear, who marched, went to jail, risked their lives and sometimes lost them, to confront inequality and injustice.

And when we are discouraged that change takes so long, we should keep in mind that the forces which propel social change grow stronger over time, so change is certain. Each succeeding generation embraces a piece of the change that the previous generation resisted.

Sometimes change is a slow burn, simmering beneath our everyday consciousness, a subtle fire that moves over ground imperceptibly, but surely, and if temporarily doused, is always capable of rekindling itself  . . .

There were times when I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will

– Sam Cooke


Toni Packer: “Dropped Away”

You won’t find her obituary at the LA Times, nor at the NY Times, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, or at CNN. You will find one for Julie Harris, the great actress who passed away Saturday, of course. And for Charles Pollock, the designer of the popular office chair. And there’s one for Sheila Walsh, an activist nun who lobbied for the needy. But scour the Internet and you’ll find very few mentions of the passing of a pioneer woman author and meditation teacher named Toni Packer.

She died August 23rd at the age of 86.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at the slight, if that’s the word for it, but given the high profile Buddhism has these days and the growing interest in meditation, I do find it rather odd. Toni Packer truly was a pioneer and that is important.

tonipackerShe got involved with Zen Buddhism in the late sixties, studying under Philip Kapleau, one of the “founding fathers” of American Zen. By the early eighties, however, disenchanted with the Japanese formalism in Zen, and inspired by the writings of J. Krishnamurti, she set out to forge a new path, one that in her words centered on “the work of this moment.”

In 1981, she established the Genesee Valley Zen Center. Four years later, most of the Zen aspects were laid aside and the name was changed to Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry & Retreats. As the Shambhala Sun noted, in one of the few notices about her death I’ve found, “Toni called herself a friend rather than a teacher.” In a 1996 Tricycle interview, she said, “When I do say that I’m not a teacher, I mean something very simple: I do not have that teacher image of myself. It dropped away quietly.”

Somehow I feel that “dropped away” is apropos to describe her passing. For some time, she had been living in a hospice, bedridden due to a number of medical conditions. I have no knowledge of her final days, but I suspect that she “dropped away quietly,” peacefully, with no fear and no illusions.

I didn’t know Toni Packer, but I know that she was a remarkable woman. I never heard her speak but I’ve read her words and they have resonated with me. I am not as soured on Asian forms as she; however, I am very much aware that forms are empty.

I did think it was important to say a few words on this blog about her presence and her passing. I invite you to learn the details of her life here at Wikipedia, visit the website for Springwater Center, and to read this touching remembrance of her by Seth Zuiho Segall.

This is an excerpt from a talk given by Toni Packer at a February 2006 retreat:

Can we throw out all of our previous ideas of attainment and watch freshly whether there is something we wish to attain, today, this instant? Listening from moment-to-moment, without knowing ahead of time. If you know something ahead of time, like Faust anticipating gaining land from the sea, that wouldn’t count! That is already living in the realm of fantasy, and we’re trying to see whether we can live actually, this moment, concretely, not in fantasy. Can this anticipating, wanting, or striving toward attainment come into awareness by itself? I can’t speak for you, but is it possible for each one of us to turn awareness inward?

Awareness does not really know inward and outward — whatever is going on this instant simply appears. And what is going on? . . . In fully observing what is going on here this instant — is there a noticeable slowing down? Awaring the franticness often results in slowing down. It is a seeming paradox. And the more slowing down of thoughts, the clearer the vision. In hecticness there is very little that can be seen clearly. But as soon as everything slows down, we see in much more subtle detail what is happening. Not what we want to see — let’s be very careful because there is great power in our desire to shape things — hectic wanting can produce mirages — but what’s here, actually. If we urgently need to see clearly, then there is a good likelihood that we will.”


Bamboo Mind

In “Discourses on Vegetable Roots” Hung Tzu-Ch’eng, wrote,

Human nature is frail; the path of life is far from being smooth. Where a journey is hard, therefore, wayfarers should know how to take a step backward; on the other hand, where it is not so difficult and it is possible to go on, one should have the grace of yielding a little.”

We humans can learn how to yield by observing nature. For instance, bamboo stalks are brittle and can easily snap off from the force of a strong wind. But, they are also flexible and they bend to the wind. By yielding in this way, the bamboo finds success. It survives. For human beings, advancement is not always progress. Sometimes withdrawal, taking a step back, is progress. By knowing when not to advance, and when to bend, we can get through life successfully. We can learn from the way of bamboo.

We can also learn from the way of water. The ancient philosophers of the Tao and of Ch’an Buddhism often advised emulating the adaptability of water. For instance, the Tao Te Ching tells us that nothing is more soft and yielding than water, and yet it overcomes things that are hard and rigid. Water benefits all things, and yet it does not strive.

In terms of Buddhist practice, yielding means we should not be too rigid in our approach and cling to any one point of view. It is difficult to perceive the true nature of reality, the nature of others, or even our own nature, when we stubbornly cling to positions and opinions. Attachment to a view is drsti-paramarsa, which itself is a sort of perverted or false view. Nagarjuna said, “One who does not accept the view of another and clings to his or her own construction is devoid of wisdom.”

And what applies to Buddhist practice, also applies to daily life, for ultimately there is no separation between the two.

The species of bamboo known as Giant Bamboo can grow over 100 feet in height. Giant Bamboo are one of the fastest growing plants in the world, and their stalks are hollow. By being empty inside, bamboo is able to absorb more energy and yet use less energy. If the stalks were solid, they would not be able to grow as fast, or as tall.

Those who can let go of the urge to coerce satisfaction from life only through relentless advancement, and by trying to force things, will find truer satisfaction and greater success at the end of the journey. This is one way to understand what it means to “become empty,” and it is what Hung Tzu-Ch’eng meant when he wrote,

Let us make the mind as empty as the interior of a bamboo . . . When the mind is empty, one’s nature reveals itself in its true state. A person trying to look into his or her own nature without without putting their mind at rest is like trying to see the reflected moon by disturbing the water.”