This blog is about Buddhism but as regular readers know I occasionally veer off in other directions, one of which is poetry. I am an eclectic reader, and so my taste runs from e.e.cummings to Dylan Thomas to poets such as Galway Kinnell who passed away Wednesday at the age of 87.

galway_kinnellI met him once. I don’t remember what year but sometime during the 90s, at the Chateau Marmount, the place where John Belushi died. Kinnell was giving a poetry reading there and it was a rather bizarre afternoon. Before the poet himself got up to read, Jennifer Tilly read one of his poems. Now, I had always assumed that her dumb/dizzy persona was just an act, and I don’t want to say that it’s not, or that she is unfamiliar with poetry, but it was clear she was unfamiliar with Mr. Kinnell’s poetry. What she was doing there is anybody’s guess.  But she was fun to look at. In fact, all the Tilly girls were there and they were all dressed in black, and a bit rowdy as I recall.

Some writers cannot read aloud. They are either monotone or they possess a terrible speaking voice.  Kinnell’s voice was pleasant to listen to, middle-ranged, and his oral presentation engaging. I’d brought a copy of his Selected Poems with me, that he signed afterwards, and we had a brief conversation.

In an appreciation for The New Yorker, fellow poet C.K. Williams goes into more detail about Kinnell reading aloud, and offers these words about the man’s work,

there’s no one whose work has so often and with such consistency brought into the world a sense of wonder and exaltation, no one who so often discovered rich new harmonies of poetic language, no one who devised so many metaphors that resonate through so many levels of materiality and spirit, uniting the physical with the moral and passion with thought. In short, there’s no one whose work has elaborated so ample and comprehensive a vision of the lives we’ve lived.”

That is a summation hard to improve upon. I won’t try. As far as his life is concerned, read his obituary at the LA Times. You can also visit his website.

As for the poetry . . .


A black bear sits alone
in the twilight, nodding from side
to side, turning slowly around and around
on himself, scuffing the four-footed
circle into the earth. He sniffs the sweat
in the breeze, he understands
a creature, a death-creature,
watches from the fringe of the trees,
finally he understands
I am no longer here, he himself
from the fringe of the trees watches
a black bear
get up, eat a few flowers, trudge away,
all his fur glistening
in the rain.

And what glistening! Sancho Fergus,
my boychild, had such great shoulders,
when he was born his head
came out, the rest of him stuck. And he opened
his eyes: his head out there all alone
in the room, he squinted with pained,
barely unglued eyes at the ninth-month’s
blood splashing beneath him
on the floor. And almost
smiled, I thought, almost forgave it all in advance.

When he came wholly forth
I took him up in my hands and bent
over and smelled
the black, glistening fur
of his head, as empty space
must have bent
over the newborn planet
and smelled the grasslands and the ferns.

Galway Kinnell, “Lastness (part 2)” from Selected Poems. Copyright © 2001 by Galway Kinnell.


Harmonizing Our Planet

A draft UN report to be approved this week says that climate change may have “serious, pervasive and irreversible” impacts on the planet and human civilization, but that governments still have time to “avert the worst.”

A recent paper released by the Department of Defense, “Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap,” labels climate change a “threat multiplier” because “it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism.” Climate change is also classified as an Immediate Security Risk, one that approaches the level of the Cold War threat as nations with nuclear arms struggle to deal with resource shortages and environmental dislocations.

While other countries, especially those that belong to the European Union, are taking climate change seriously, here in the United States there is still a great deal of skepticism about it. Hopefully, this warning from one of America’s most “establishment” institutions will help change that. In the meantime, according to Reuters, the United States has stated that much of the information contained in the UN report “may be impenetrable to the policymaker or public.” Whether this means we are too thickheaded, or if our minds are simply closed, I don’t know. Probably a combination of the two.

But I do feel, as I’m sure most of you do, that we must continue to change our concept of the environment. Far too many people still see humans as rulers of the planet. We should be the harmonizers of our planet.

Human beings suffer the disease of separation – separation from the environment and each other. Buddhism sees this as a root cause of all suffering.  To meet the challenge of harmonizing our planet, each of us should try to establish harmony in our life, and share harmony with others.

Harmony is not just some lofty or pleasant notion to aspire to, it is practical, even critical. The EPA says,

Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

What the EPA describes is being called environmental wisdom worldview.  Survival for all depends on how well human beings sustain the earth. Historically, we have not done a very good job. This “new” environmental wisdom mirrors the wisdom found in the principle of interdependency taught by the Buddha 2500 years ago. How successful we will at implanting this wisdom depends, I think, on how well we can grasp another bit of Buddhist wisdom, shared by Taoism, that if your harmonize your inner world, you will be capable of acting with wisdom in your relationship with the external world.

Do you think you can conquer nature and control it?
I do not believe you can succeed
Nature is sacred
One cannot control it
If you try to control it, you will ruin it
If you try to hold it, you will lose it

– Tao Te Ching


Happy Mind

Everyone wants happiness. There is no question that it is a paramount quest in life.

The Journal of Positive Psychology just published a new study by Paulina Pchelin and Ryan T. Howel, “The hidden cost of value-seeking: People do not accurately forecast the economic benefits of experiential purchases.” Long title, huh? The conclusion they reached is this: “In spite of the experiential advantage, people consume material items in the pursuit of happiness.”

In other words, although most people know that an afternoon spent in a park is a more enjoyable experience, they will still head for the mall. I don’t know how much money it costs to conduct studies like this, but any of us could have told them that for free. It seems they did not accurately forecast the economic downside of their experiential study.

Anyway, we all know the old adage “money can’t buy you happiness.” But there are plenty of folks who either ignore it or don’t believe it’s true. Perhaps the problem is that people are confused about what constitutes happiness and how to go about getting it.

In another recent study, Stanford researcher Jennifer Aaaker says, “Although the desire for personal happiness may be clear, the path to achieving it is indefinite. One reason for this hazy route to happiness is that although people often think they know what leads to happiness, their predictions about what will make them happy are often inaccurate.”

What’s more, she suggests that searching for happiness can lead to less happiness.

The Tao Te Ching says that “sages do not contend.”  The word “contend,” in addition to the sense of contentiousness, means to “go after” or “push for.”  So, a sage or a buddha does not go after happiness and they are happy, or maybe they don’t even look at life in terms of happiness, it is satisfying enough to just be.

Well, we all know this, right?  And yet, we often find ourselves grasping after some sort of self-gratification or pleasure, and then feeling disappointed when it isn’t all we hoped for.  Buddhism defines happiness as achieving a state that is free of suffering. Buddha said that suffering comes from wanting things. He said the greatest suffering comes from not getting what you want, and that the second greatest suffering comes when you get what you want.

The solution, then, seems rather simple: stop chasing after happiness. In The Book of Life, Jiddu Krishnamurti is quoted as saying,

The moment you are conscious that you are happy, it is not happiness, is it? So you cannot go after happiness. The moment you are conscious that you are humble, you are not humble. So happiness is not a thing to be pursued; it comes. But if you seek it, it will evade you.”

To stop chasing after happiness is easier said than done, for happiness takes on many forms, and many of the myriad ways in which we search for it are so subtle that we are not aware of what we are doing, or we can be so busy seeking whatever is happiness means to us, that we fail to see that it is all around.

This is one reason why meditation is such a valuable tool, because it helps us see the happiness present in the now.  As Nagarjuna said in his Commentary of Bodhicitta,

A happy mind is tranquil. A tranquil mind is not confused. To be unperplexed is to understand the truth. By understanding truth, one obtains freedom from suffering.”


Come Healing with Leonard Cohen

LC1bI first became interested in poetry around 3rd or 4th grade after I read e.e. cummings’ poem “in-just spring,” and I used to borrow books of poetry from the school and city libraries, but I didn’t actually own a book of poetry until years later. It was Selected Poems 1956–1968 by Leonard Cohen. I still have that book. If you were to open it, you’d find an inscription: “To David on his 17th birthday, Love Dad.”

That was a long time ago, and the book, its author, my dad, and I are all still around.

Not only that but the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter has a new live album titled Leonard Cohen – Live in Dublin set for release in December. The video from the album premiered on Oct. 16. It’s called “Come Healing” and it’s from his critically acclaimed 2012 studio album Old Ideas.

Now, as you probably know, in addition to being a poet and songwriter, Cohen is also a Buddhist. In fact, he ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk in 1996 at the Mount Baldy Zen Center here in Southern California where he also spent several years on retreat.

Any influence that Buddhism has exerted on Cohen’s songwriting seems to be in between the lines of his lyrics. Like Bob Dylan, Cohen is Jewish, and yet both infuse their songs with Biblical imagery. In “Come Healing,”: ” The splinters that you carry/The cross you left behind” and “And let the heavens hear it/The penitential hymn.” The song is quintessential Cohen, dealing with reparation and devastation, desire and betrayal, faith and loss, and absolute love – reoccurring themes for the man someone once dubbed “the high priest of pathos.”

Yes, Leonard Cohen is still around, these days sporting a fedora that makes him look a bit like a latter-day Philip Marlowe, Private Rabbi, prowling the mean streets of the City of Lost Angels. According to Rolling Stone, he told the crowd toward the beginning of his one of his Dublin sets, “I’m not quite ready to hang up my boxing gloves just yet. I don’t know when we’ll meet again, but tonight we’ll give you everything we’ve got.”

Come watch Leonard Cohen drop to his knees to “Come healing of the body/Come healing of the mind.” Full lyrics after the video.

Come Healing

O gather up the brokenness
And bring it to me now
The fragrance of those promises
You never dared to vow

The splinters that you carry
The cross you left behind
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

Behold the gates of mercy
In arbitrary space
And none of us deserving
The cruelty or the grace

O solitude of longing
Where love has been confined
Come healing of the body
Come healing of the mind

O see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart
Come healing of the reason
Come healing of the heart

O troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The Heart beneath is teaching
To the broken Heart above

O let the heavens falter
And let the earth proclaim:
Come healing of the Altar
Come healing of the Name

O longing of the branches
To lift the little bud
O longing of the arteries
To purify the blood

And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb

O let the heavens hear it…


Expecting Realization

As many of you know, Dogen was a 13th Century Japanese Buddhist, the founder of Soto Zen. I am not a Zen Buddhist, yet I am. Just like I am a Tibetan Buddhist, but then I’m not.  But you don’t have to Zen to be familiar with his Shobogenzo, “Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma”, a collection of ninety-five essays on the dharma. Lessen known, outside of the Zen tradition, is the Shinji Shobogenzo, essentially a collection of 300 koans. A koan can be a story, dialogue, question, or statement, they are often paradoxical, and often an object of meditation.

chinese-bamboo1dOne koan goes like this:

A student once asked the Zen master Tsui Wei, “What is the essence of Buddha-dharma.” They happened to be in the lecture hall where there were other monks around. Tsui Wei said, “I’ll tell you later on, when there is no one is around.”

In the afternoon, when the two were finally alone, Tsui Wei, “Now that we are by ourselves, I can tell you the essence of Buddha-dharma.” Tsui Wei took the student outside and pointed at the bamboo growing in the garden. “See?” said Tsui Wei. “Here is a tall bamboo. And over there, a short one.”

In his essay Yui Butsu Yo Butsu, “On ‘Each Buddha on His Own, Together with All Buddhas’,” Dogen wrote,

Buddha-dharma cannot be known by ordinary people. This is why since ancient times no ordinary person has realized Buddha-dharma . . . Because Buddha realized awakening all by himself, he said that each Buddha on his own, together with all Buddhas, has been able to fully realize It.

When you realize awakening, you do not think “This is awakening just as I expected.” Even if you think it is, awakening always differs from your expectation. Awakening is not like your conception of it. Therefore, you cannot realize awakening as you previously conceived. In Buddha-dharma you do not know how awakening has come as it has. This is something to reflect upon: What you think one way or another before your realization of awakening is not an aid to realization.

Now, I am sure you understand the story about the bamboo.