April is coming to end, and as well, National Poetry Month. I hope you enjoyed the poetry posts. Since this will probably be the last one for a while and because it’s no fun having your own blog if you don’t showcase your own stuff, a couple of poems from yours truly today.

On this date 19 years ago “not guilty” verdicts in the trial of the policemen involved in Rodney King’s videotaped beating set off six days of riots here in Los Angeles. The largest in U.S. history. I remember the following morning going up on the roof of my apartment building, which has a spectacular view, and seeing the fires burning all across the Los Angeles basin. The sky to the east was a solid wall of black smoke, as if hell’s darkest storm was moving in.

Here is the poem I wrote some time later, after things had cooled down and the National Guard was no longer patrolling the neighborhood and life had gotten back to something approaching normal:

in the city of angels

el pueblo grande
boils and bubbles
like a brea pit
fear and anger
rise from the pitch
like hungry spirits

incendiary questions:
why’d the cops beat him?
how come they got off?

sacrificial fires are lit
on asphalt altars
the hungry spirits are fed

the night cries
no justice no peace

and when the smoke clears
in the char of morning days later
what is revealed?

only mammoth humanity
stuck in the tar

© 1992-2011 dmriley

By the time you read this, the Royal Wedding should be over, and I say thank goodness for that. Now we can get back to obsessing about Charlie Sheen, or someone equally psychedelic. Needless to say, I did not watch the wedding, nor did I watch the last one with Charles and Diana. Unimpressed as I am with the Royal Family, at first I was equally blasé about Princess Di. Over the years, though, she did come to grow on me, for purely lecherous reasons (after all, she was an attractive woman), and partly because I felt sorry for her. Yet, in spite of any empathy I had, I couldn’t help but also feel that she was essentially a victim of her own desire. It’s an old story. Musicians and actors and other would-be celebrities longing for fame and fortune and when they get it, they can’t handle the pressure. There had to be some part of her that wanted to be a princess, that fantasized about one day becoming the Queen. As the famous Chinese saying goes, be careful what you wish for . . .

I did get up early and watch her funeral. By that time, I had something invested in her story and the part she played in her own tragedy aside, it seemed clear to me that the Royal Family had abused her horribly. And I’m not embarrassed to say that I shed a few tears.

I wrote this poem that same day, and rereading it now, I think I must have been influenced by the song Elton John sang, a reworking of “Candle in the Wind”:


a rose
is cut

no more petals
in a grail
of eyes

shall we kiss
the hand of immortality
that plucked her up
& set her upon devotion’s throne

shall we bow
to all the mornings
she tried to save herself
from the life
that devoured her

princess dreams put her
back against the wall
which is perhaps preferable
to the silence of empty bedrooms

shall we cut some roses
to see
how exquisitely
they fall
our fascinations

how achingly
they wither
in the mad dog sun

© 1997-2011 dmriley

It’s still National Poetry Month, which is sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, so that means more poetry. Today, the quintessential Chinese poet,  Po Chu-i

Po Chu-i (772-846) was a government official who was a popular poet during the Chinese Tang dynasty. And a rather prolific one – he supposedly wrote over 2800 poems. He was also a member of the Hanlin Academy (“brush wood court”), an elite scholarly institution founded in the 8th century that lasted until 1911.

However, Po Chu-i himself was not elitist. He wrote deceptively simple poetry that was often sympathetic to the troubles and concerns of common people. He wanted to make his work accessible and it is said that if any of his servants could not understand one of his poems, he would immediately rewrite it.

A serious student of Ch’an, Po, like most Chinese Buddhists, also studied Taoism. The Taoist influence is evident in his poetry’s realistic quality and how it reflects the theme of harmony with nature and between people. However, the Ch’an influence was the greater of the two.

In his introduction to The Selected Poems of Po Chu-I, David Hinton writes, “Po’s poems often include the explicit use of Ch’an ideas, indeed he is the poet who really opened mainstream poetry to Buddhist experience, his work becoming a major source of information on Buddhist practice in his time.” (Which should tell you how little we know about Buddhism then.)

Burton Watson, translator of Chinese and Japanese literature, in his book Po Chu-i: Selected Poems, says that Po was most famous for his “simplicity of language” and for “an abiding desire to portray himself, whatever he may have been in real life, as a connoisseur of everyday delights, a man confronting the world, particular in the years of old age, with an air of humor and philosophical acceptance.”

Here is a poem that Hinton chose to translate almost verbatim, without any additional words, capturing Po’s simple poetic style:

Flower No Flower

Flower no flower
mist no mist

arrives at midnight
and leaves at dawn

arrives like a spring dream – how many times
leaves like a morning cloud – nowhere to find

Po also wrote poems of social protest. Early in his career, his politically flavored poetry caused him to be exiled to Hsun-yang where he served as Chief Magistrate. This poem from the Hsun-yang years was translated by Arthur Waley:

Visiting the Hsi-Lin Temple

I dismount from my horse at the Hsi-Lin Temple;
I hurry forward, speeding with light cane.
In the morning I work at a Govermnment office-desk;
In the evening I become a dweller in the Sacred Hills.
In the second month to the north of K’uang-lu
The ice breaks and the snow begins to melt.
On the southern plantation the tea-plant trusts its sprouts;
Through the northern crevice the view of the spring ooze.

This year there is war in An-hui,
In every place soldiers are rushing to arms.
Men of learning have been summoned to the Council Board;
Men of action are marching to the battle-line.
Only I, who have no talents at all,
Am left in the mountains to play with the pebbles of the stream.

Here are two poems that I translated myself:

Rain on Autumn Night

Cold, cold this third night of autumn
Rain makes me sleepy
Alone, this old man is contented and idle
It’s late when I extinguish the lamp and lie down
To sleep, listening to the beautiful sound of rain
Incense ashes still glowing in the burner
My only heat in this lodging
At daybreak, I will stay under the quilt to stay warm
And the steps will be covered by frosty red leaves

Lao Tzu

“Those who speak don’t know,
Those who know don’t speak.”
It is said that these words
Were written by Lao Tzu.
Now, if we are to accept
That Lao Tzu was one who knew,
Then why did he compose a book
Of five thousand words?

This poem, inspired by Po, was written by the great American poet William Carlos Williams, circa 1920:

To the shade of Po Chu-I

The work is heavy. I see
bare branches laden with snow.
I try to comfort myself
with thought of your old age.
A girl passes, in a red tam,
the coat above her quick ankles
snow smeared from running and falling –
Of what shall I think now
save of death the bright dancer?

W. S. Merwin, also a serious student of Buddhism, whom I wrote about in this post, composed this poem just last March:

A Message to Po Chu-I

In that tenth winter of your exile
the cold never letting go of you
and your hunger aching inside you
day and night while you heard the voices
out of the starving mouths around you
old ones and infants and animals
those curtains of bones swaying on stilts
and you heard the faint cries of the birds
searching in the frozen mud for something
to swallow and you watched the migrants
trapped in the cold the great geese growing
weaker by the day until their wings
could barely lift them above the ground
so that a gang of boys could catch one
in a net and drag him to market
to be cooked and it was then that you
saw him in his own exile and you
paid for him and kept him until he
could fly again and you let him go
but then where could he go in the world
of your time with its wars everywhere
and the soldiers hungry the fires lit
the knives out twelve hundred years ago

I have been wanting to let you know
the goose is well he is here with me
you would recognize the old migrant
he has been with me for a long time
and is in no hurry to leave here
the wars are bigger now than ever
greed has reached numbers that you would not
believe and I will not tell you what
is done to geese before they kill them
now we are melting the very poles
of the earth but I have never known
where he would go after he leaves me

Taking a break from some of the serious, and perhaps dry, material of the past week (not that today’s piece has a lot of yucks), with another post commemorating National Poetry Month.

“Greatest” is a highly subjective term (and I am assuming that most are unfamiliar with this poet) but I am taking my cue here from Lawrence Durrell, a great writer himself, known for the Alexandria Quartet, who once said,

I have read “The Black Angel” and would give five years of my life to have written it. If Thompson wrote other poems as explosive and majestic as this one, he would rank amongst the greatest spiritual poets in English. And not just in this god-forsaken century, either.

Well, the poet in question did write other poems as good as “Black Angel”, a long piece which begins with these lines:

One day that black and shining angel who
Haunted my nights in Arles and at Ajmeer,
Monster of beauty loud with cruel gems,
I shall encounter in some lane at noon
Where painted demons have struck dumb the walls.

Lewis Thompson was born in 1909 in England. Early in his life he was introduced to Buddhism and began to read Eastern scriptures. He did not attend a university, instead he schooled himself, with a particular focus on anthropology and psychoanalysis. According to Richard Lannoy, who edited Thompson’s lone collection of poetry,

Thompson believed that in the West all was distorted and fragmentary, while in the East he could find what was clear, classical, and complete. He wished to travel to the East and was given money for the fare to Ceylon by Sir Arnold Wilson, a Persian explorer, who took pity on Thompson.

He left England in 1932 and traveled to India where he lived for the remainder of his life. Lannoy says that he “wandered the country living off of what others would give him in the form of food and lodging.” In 1936 Thompson entered into an intimate relationship with a guru named Jnani, or “Man of Knowledge”, which lasted for seven years. Following that, Thompson lived at the Rajghat School in Benares where he was writer-in-residence and employed as a librarian.

In Thompsons final years he battled a number of chronic health problems. For a while, he received some financial support from G. D. Birla, a businessman who was also a friend of Mahatma Gandhi’s. In fact, Gandhi was staying at Birla’s home when he was assassinated in 1948.

Thompson’s died alone in his room on June 23, 1949 from the effects sunstroke. He was 40. In addition to poetry, he also wrote a prose book, however none of his work was published during his lifetime.

As a poet, Lewis Thompson has been compared to Blake and Rimbaud. The latter was a considerable influence on not only his style but also his entire approach to writing. I was completely awe-struck when I first encountered Thompson’s poetry in the late ‘90s. It was an experience similar to the one I had reading Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, one of the greatest novels of the last century, some twenty years before, and then later, the work of Cormac McCarthy. In each case, I thought, this guy is so good, how can I or anyone possibly write anything after this? Truly powerful writing can make everything else seem like the work of rank amateurs.

Thompson’s poetry may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It can be dark, the imagery shattered and shifting, arcane. Yet he produced frequently lyrical and exquisitely beautiful works.

Here are several poems from the collection, Black Sun, edited by Richard Lannoy:

The Myth is Killed

The daylight burns itself away –
But endlessly – in a pure void;
The lusty leaves put forth in it
Live less than withered, more than dead.

All purposes, shrunk to a point
And vanished, leave nobody here –
Only a burnt-out thread of dream,
Not snapped, not binding, ripe and sere.

None ever crossed the phantom bridge,
The rainbow, or the razor-edge:
They fell who though it real, or reached
A heaven of new bewilderments.

The trammel snaps, the rainbow melts,
The dour edge sharps itself away:
None travelled there: the myth is killed –
The dream of nights, the dream of day.


All night the meteors fall –
Blossoms of future music . . .
In ships becalmed
By sleeping birds.

My memories haunt the moment of my birth
And leave me nude:
Like bees in honey they forget themselves.
I walk the world in which I do not die –
Tombless, with no authentic name.


Pure winter sun the deft and lyric light . . .
River-boats idle on the dancing wave
Laced with a ripple net of swarming fire.
Sheathed in incessant lightnings as he bathes
A jasper boy echoes the sparkling air,
The laughing mirror of water and of wind.

And as more northerly cold hardens in sheaves
Of crystal creaking like hyacinth, the bright
Fathomless atmosphere, tuned about sound
By countless sparking facet’s interplay,
Builds like the centre of a gem a spire
Crisper than frost and richer than a crown,
A carven pinnacle to house a god.

Giant causeways bear his immeasurable gait:
The implacable dancer lighted in all eyes. –
Dark with excess of splendor, like a flame
Transparent in the sun; bull-dense, adroit
With adamantine joy; his drenching gaze
Chilling with rapture whom it lights upon;
Pure calm and pure caprice – brute meteor
Blinding at noon the still, ethereal blaze.


It’s National Poetry Month and I’m celebrating with posts featuring spiritually oriented poetry and today it’s the poetry of Kukai.

Kukai  (774–835 CE), also known a Kobo Daishi, was a pivotal figure in Japanese Buddhism, founder of the Shingon or “True Word” school, a form of tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism.  He was a priest, an engineer, a scholar, a calligrapher, and he is thought to have invented kana, a syllabic Japanese script. As a matter of fact, Kukai is said to have composed one of the most famous of all Japanese poems in kana. It’s called Iroha and here is an English translation by Professor Ryuichi Abe:

Although its scent still lingers on
the form of a flower has scattered away
For whom will the glory
of this world remain unchanged?
Arriving today at the yonder side
of the deep mountains of evanescent existence
We shall never allow ourselves to drift away
intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams.

Kukai not only wrote poetry, he wrote about poetry, and these two aspects of his life have been largely ignored by modern scholars. His literary criticism was appreciated by renowned poets such as Fujiwara no Sadaie (1162-1241) and Matsuo Basho (1644-94), and during his life Kukai’s poetic ability was recognized by the literati at court, and by the emperor.

Words were important to Kukai, as indeed much of Shingon Buddhist practice is the recitation of words – seed-syllables, mantras. His theories on language were influenced considerably by the Mahavairocana Sutra, which maintains that all speech contains the ultimate reality and the source of speech is the eternal spirit of the universe. A Shingon manual I have states,

The doctrines of Shingon Buddhism and the teachings of Kobo Daishi can be said to begin and end with the aspiration for the realization of enlightenment. The Mahavairocana Sutra is a stura that explains the virtues of Mahavairocana Buddha, who is the source of life, and those virtues of the Buddha are expressed in the Sanskrit letter “A”, which is pronounced “Ah”. This letter A is the mind that aspires to be enlightened, and knowing that one’s own mind is to know one’s own aspiration for the realization of enlightenment.

In The Weaving of Mantra, Abe writes, “Kukai argues that the letter A, the first syllable of the Sanskrit alphabet, is the mother of all letters, words and languages.” A is called the Body of Truth. Meditation on the letter A is called ajikan. Practitioners meditate on the sound and meaning of A, as well as its form:







Kukai’s poems are “dharmic” in the sense that he used poetry to express dharma or truth, more than to appreciate beauty or to ponder his feelings.

Here are three poems, translated by Morgan Gibson and Hiroshi Murakami, taken from Kukai’s work Poems That Sing Ten Images:

Singing Image of Heat Waves

Sunlight streams on the spring landscape.
Heat waves shimmer in the meadow.
Their essence is entirely empty and not existing.
In it the astray are distressed, forgetting their home.
Heat waves far off look real, but close up are nothing.
Heat waves look like running horse or a stream, but are nothing.
Fantasies arise from wrong thinking.
Beautiful men and women fill a fortress;
But it is wrong to think that men and women have essential being.
Sages and wise men are only assumed to be so.
The all-voidness of the five functions of body and mind is the real truth.
The Four Devils and Buddha are also inconceivable.
Yoga-mind is uniquely enlightened.
A flame of the World of Truth is self-illuminating.
Do not be conceited or self-satisfied. Even yoga-mind is temporary.
Bliss of the Great Void Only is my true Empress.

[The five functions of body and mind refer to the five skandhas – form, sensation, conception, volition and consciousness. The Four Devils are defilements, skandhas, death, and lust. The Great Void Only refers to supreme enlightenment.]

Singing Image of Foam

A fine rain falls from heaven.
Many kinds of foam spreading on water
Are born then perish as water changes.
They are not born from self or other, but from the chain of causation.
Things arising in visions are mystifying.
Buddhas in the mind make them. Never suspect or doubt them.
Fundamentally, Truth and Mind are one.
Not to know this is extremely pitiful.

Singing Image Of A Whirling Ring of Fire

Whirling fire becomes a square and a circle as the hand moves.
Many changes are made according to our will.
One eternal word, “Ah!” turns into many other
Expressing innumerable Buddha-truths.

April, comes she will,
When streams are ripe and swelled with rain . . .

- Paul Simon

One of the nice things about a blog is that regardless of whether you have a theme or not, you can blog about pretty much anything you want. While I try to stay focused on Buddhism here, occasionally I do veer off in other directions, and one of them is often poetry. But, you see, I really don’t believe poetry is that far off the subject, but I am getting ahead of myself.

It’s the first day of April and sorry, no April Fools joke from me. I’d rather tell you that it’s National Poetry Month. Had I remembered that, and thought ahead, I might have saved a few of last month’s posts for this month. But I didn’t, so here in April you can expect a bit more on poetry.

Each April since 1996 the Academy of American Poets sponsors National Poetry Month when “publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools and poets around the country band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture. Thousands of businesses and non-profit organizations participate through readings, festivals, book displays, workshops, and other events.”

You can head over to poets.org and see what events and programs they have lined up. As I said above, I plan to celebrate with a few more poetry posts than usual, highlighting “spiritual” poetry.

Since the title of this blog, The Endless Further, comes from a phrase coined by a great poet, I think it is fitting to kick off National Poetry Month with that poet, Rabindranath Tagore.

Now I can tell you that just as I consider most poetry to be romantic, I feel that nearly all poetry is spiritual. Now, when I make these sorts of remarks, I am using the key words in a very broad sense and have in mind the salient and universal qualities of “romantic” and “spiritual.” I have a feeling that Tagore would understand what I mean.

In his introduction to Tagore’s Gitanjali or ‘Song Offerings’, W. B. Yeats, not a bad poet himself, noted that Tagore sprang from a “tradition, where poetry and religion are the same thing, [passed] through the centuries, gathering from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion, and carried back again to the multitude the thought of the scholar and of the noble.”

Really, everything is spiritual, especially as Buddhism views it, since everything we think, see, say and do involves our mind and that is where Buddhists find spirituality. Chih-i taught that a single thought moment can permeate the universe and that all phenomena in the universe in contained within that thought moment.

Tagore put it this way:

The same stream of life that runs through
my veins night and day runs through
the world and dances in rhythmic

It is the same life that shoots in joy
through the dust of the earth in
numberless blades of grass and breaks
into tumultuous waves of leaves and

It is the same life that is rocked in the
ocean-cradle of birth and of death,
in ebb and flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the
touch of this world of life. And my pride
is from the life-throb of ages dancing
in my blood this moment.

In this same vein, Joseph Campbell, in a lecture from 1968, “The Inspiration of Oriental Art” (Myths To Live By), said,

Listen to the sound of the city. Listen to the sound of your neighbor’s voice, or of the wild geese honking skyward. Listen to any sound or silence at all without interpreting it, and the Anahata will be heard of the Void that is the ground of being, and the world that is the body of being, the Silence and the Syllable. Moreover, when once this sound has been “heard,” as it were, as the sound and being of one’s own heart and of all life, one is stilled and brought to peace; there is no need to quest any more, for it is here, it is there, it is everywhere. And the high function of Oriental art is to make known that this truly is so; or, as our Western poet Gerhart Hauptmann has said of the aim of all true poetry: “to let the Word be heard resounding behind words.” The mystic Meister Eckhart expressed the same thought in theological terms when he told his congregation, “Any flea as it is in God is nobler than the highest of the angels in himself. Things in God are all the same: they are God Himself.”

This should give you an idea of what I mean when I say all poetry is spiritual in one way or another. Poetry finds the sacred in the profane, and vice versa. It sees “a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower.” To me, Ginsberg’s Howl is as spiritual as anything Blake wrote. And cumming’s “in Just-spring, when the world is mud-luscious” is just as religious and transcendent as any poetry found in the sutras.

But, enough. Let’s get with the poetry. Most of Tagore’s poem were actually songs, meant to be sung. Here are two more from Gitanjali. Perhaps you will be familiar with them, and perhaps you will enjoying reading them once again, or for the first time.


Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers
But to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain
But for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield
But to my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved
But hope for patience to win my freedom.
Sarvamangalam! Blessings to all!


The time that my journey takes is long
and the way of it long.
I came out on the chariot of the first gleam of light,
and pursued my voyage through the wildernesses of worlds
leaving my track on many a star and planet.

It is the most distant course that comes nearest to thyself,
and that training is the most intricate which leads
to the utter simplicity of a tune.

The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own,
and one has to wander through all the outer worlds
to reach the innermost shrine at the end.

My eyes strayed far and wide
before I shut them and said `Here art thou!’

The question and the cry `Oh, where?’ melt
into tears of a thousand streams
and deluge the world with the flood of the assurance `I am!’