What Book!? Buddha Poems from Beat to HipHop

Book Reviews

Madhuri’s review of a poetry book edited by Gary Gach, and remembers an experience she had.

What Book!?What Book!?
Buddha Poems from Beat to HipHop

edited by Gary Gach
Parallax Press, Berkeley, California
(Publishing division of Unified Buddhist Church, Inc.)
246 pages
Paperback and Kindle: amazon.comamazon.co.ukamazon.de

I carried this book around with me for several months, reading a poem or two at a time in odd moments. It was particularly nice to open it at breakfast and be surprised at some new poem. I found the book soothing, sometimes deep, sometimes silly, often fun – and it would tend to leave me with a feeling of healthy, bracing clarity and upliftedness.

148 poets are featured – including famous ones like Gary Snyder, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jack Kerouac, – many Japanese ones – many women, including Yoko Ono, Hester G Storm, Maxine Hong Kingston, ‘Anonymous Tibetan Nuns,’ and a teenager and an eight-year-old girl.

The Tassajara Zen Center in California is cited sometimes in titles or verses – many of the poets seemed to have passed through that venerable and estimable retreat place. And in the back there is a satisfying list of mini-bios for all the poets.

I like the rather wild quality the West Coast vibe brings to this collection. Buddhists can otherwise seem earnest and staid – at least in their unenlightened state! But here we have many, many people who have sat Zazen for extended periods, and found themselves the better for it – inner eyes opened, Mystery entered, things slowed down, amazement at life bestowed, and individuality heightened – while finding themselves in the universal ebb and flow of the Sea of Being.

One of the first poems is from 1905 though, by the Zen monk Soyen Shaku:

En Route to America

Like this boat on this spring ocean
A monk comes or goes by the karma-relation
The horizon seems to be exhaling endlessly
The current, however, takes us to the New World
Yesterday, the whales swam around us.
Today, the clouds shut off the sight of old Japan.
Following the course of Bodhi-Dharma
From the West to the East I go.
Then turning to the South, I may visit
India and Ceylon again, making a pilgrimage like Sudhana
Before long, our boat will enter the Golden Gate
And the sea-gulls, perhaps, may guide me to the destination.

S.S. Cleveland, June 1905

I liked this because it was both completely humble and unpretentious, and yet full of visual freshness and possible symbolism – which you are not demanded to explore; you can also just read it as a calmly poignant scene with much stillness somehow in it, despite the movement described.

Then there is a short one I enjoyed much, by Allen Ginsberg:

Walking into King Sooper after Two-Week Retreat

A thin red faced pimpled boy
stands alone minutes
looking down into the ice cream bin.

September 16, 1995

What suchness; and yet a bit of awakening surprise too, at just how long a human might feel the need to spend contemplating the different flavours of ice cream. And… again, stillness of a kind is in it. Because the poet had in some measure become still in himself, in the retreat.

Then there is the Very Short Sutra on the Meeting of the Buddha and the Goddess, a blatantly Tantric poem by Rick Fields, which I really got into. It’s 3 pages long in fact – and later I found it on YouTube, read aloud by several different performers, complete with music – highly recommended!

Of course, Osho gave us a very wide variety of meditation techniques; not just sitting meditation – though Zazen is of the essence; sitting still, watching the breath, watching the thoughts; watching. Finding ourselves as the observer, not the observed. Wonderful things happen with this quiet method.

But Osho also told us that modern humans need catharsis – to let go of our accumulated pasts and conditionings, including that which is stored in the body – before we can really sit still. Ergo, Dynamic meditation! Kundalini – Chakra Breathing – Mystic Rose – and all the rest. And we know how these unlocked us, cracked us open, shook us all up, relieved us, and set us free – so that we have now in our hands so many tools – all those active meditations; and Zazen as well. Lucky we are!

Our great good fortune was borne home to me by an experience I had… in a time of my life where I was in a worldly way lost – homeless, couch-surfing, and yes, in myself also somewhat anxious and bewildered – though not really freaked out. Only kind of. Anyway.

I’d been on a dating site – hoping really for some kind solid man to rescue me – and had been corresponding with a Buddhist of great erudition and eloquence. He was a semi-retired Judge, spoke exotic tongues, and seemed to have an altruistic bent. In any case, I love a good letter, and he wrote them; so I was answering him warmly. He was a practising meditator of many years’ experience. We agreed to meet.

I was at the time house-sitting for an absent sannyasin in Bristol, and I welcomed the Judge for tea at the homely little bungalow. He was much more rotund than I’d expected (it’s often that way with dating sites, I’ve let them slack off into dis-use now). He had a baldish head, and a stern mien, and was neither short nor tall. He did not smile when he greeted me. He came in and sat down solemnly in a big wing-back chair while I went to prepare tea in the nearby kitchen.

As I was bringing in the tea he suddenly said loudly, “Do you think that if you hate your mother, it might adversely affect your relationships with women?”

“Um…” I replied, nonplussed, “I think it very well might.”

“My mother,” he went on in his loudspeaker tone, “was a C**T!” (I’m asterisking the word because it is a word I find so eughghy that I just don’t want to write it.)

Then he told me stories: how, back in Ireland in his teens, he’d gone to a dance in another, distant town; and his mother had carefully packed a supper for him to take: a packet of sandwiches filled with garlic sausage, so that girls would stay away from him! The mother, it seems, was a devout Catholic, and wanted her son to be one too. He was very angry about all of it.

He and I went for a walk in the nearby park. He walked behind me; I was wearing a green knit skirt with a frill round the hem, and I knew that my rear view was about as nice as it ever gets. But I could feel emanating from him no interest, no admiration, no visual spark of appreciation! This was… dispiriting and… well, shall we say, unusual? I, however, could feel with the aura of my back the encumbrance of the watermelon he carried before him – how it could not have been fun, lugging that belly around. No wonder he was grumpy.

We sat down for a while on a bench to meditate. I was curious… Yes, I could feel something rising, some polished, powerful, energy moving skywards. I could enjoy the big silent space of it, on and on. And yet… that mud-flat of anger in him – un-dissolved, unaddressed in any effective way – was tying up his heart.

He left not long after, saying brusquely that either I would contact him again or I wouldn’t. I didn’t of course; and he vanished from my screens, inner and outer both, right then. But when I think about him now I feel the tragedy of it – all that sitting meditation; decades of it – and all that emotional constipation. What a waste of living energy and joy! And what a narrow escape we all had!

So it seems that for many if not most of us, sitting meditation isn’t enough. I did do a mini-demo of Dynamic for him, there in the sitting room; he took it in, but I don’t know what use he got out of it. You have to do Dynamic it’s just not a spectator sport!

Some of the poems in this book, however, bring in such a slice of presence, of delight, that I’m not going to belabour the issue any more just now; will just enjoy the poems anyway, even though none of them are about Dynamic (I’ve written quite a few!)

I think any meditator, of whatever stripe or stripes, will enjoy this charming, friendly, quite absorbing book. I love the juxtaposition of dailiness and cosmic scope contained in it – pirouetting from microcosm to macrocosm and back again – the Zen love for detail-of-the-moment, like haiku illustrates, is deeply nourishing. Enjoy!


Madhuri is a healer, artist, poet and author of several books, Mistakes on the Path being her latest memoir. madhurijewel.com

Comments are closed.