Translated and introduced by Francisca Cho
Edited by Andrew Schelling
by Charles F. Chicarelli
Edited by Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob
Reading these four books together—two on poetry, two on the visual arts—we are reminded of the grandeur of Far Eastern traditions, and of the questions that then face Western Buddhist artists. Should we imitate the Far East? Are our own avant-gardes the appropriate Western version of Buddhist artists? Or is there, even here, a middle way?
The intertwining of longing for an absent beloved with the theme of religious search is familiar to Western readers, from the Christian glosses on the Song of Songs, to the mystical poems of John of the Cross, to The Divine Comedy. This isn’t just a metaphor; in many people’s lives—certainly in Dante’s—the two experiences have blended with each other. Now we have a distinguished Far Eastern instance, in Francisca Cho’s translation of Manhae’s Everything Yearned For.
Manhae (1879–1944) is a classic in Korea. He was a Zen monk and a political activist, as well as the coauthor of the Korean declaration of independence from Japan. His poetry has therefore sometimes been read as political allegory; but Cho is surely right to stress its erotic and spiritual intensity. The exquisite nature tropes common to Far Eastern poetry are in evidence but are given a unique inflection. Searching the beautiful world for traces of the absent beloved, the poet discovers thusness, and eventually the thusness of his own searching self:
“Whose face is the blue sky peeping through the dark clouds driven by the zephyr at the rainy season’s end?
After burning, embers become fuel again.
Whose faint lamp is my heart, burning for reason unknown through the night?”
(“I Don’t Know,” p. 6).
It is a leap to go from Manhae’s classicism to the welter of contemporary styles in The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry. One approach to this collection would be simply to enjoy the fact that at a time when poetry is said to be increasingly marginal in American culture at large it has become a more and more prominent form of letter writing among our far-flung sanghas. This is something we have in common with the classical Chinese and Japanese, and something, surely, to be proud of.
Another approach—more a poet’s, perhaps—is to be curious about how Buddhist experience and our own American poetic traditions have meshed, and how they haven’t. Gary Snyder, and the T’ang dynasty masters he learned from, clearly still cast a long shadow. Snyder’s trademarks—a brisk, moment-to-moment alertness to the natural world; a sense of how such alertness can release us from the self-ramifying chains of our own minds; a mixture of compassion and dry Western humor—have brought an aura of enlightenment into poetry without sermonizing or ever straying far from the American language. Add onto that a slight goofiness common in Zen circles, and deployed particularly sweetly by Snyder’s old friend Philip Whalen, and you have the main strategies of roughly half the poems in this volume.
Another strategy might be explicitly to expound the dharma. This is risky, if only because there are so many cautions against it in Buddhist literature: “the pointing finger is not the moon.” By far the most successful of the poets who undertake it is Jane Hirschfield. Part of Hirschfield’s secret is her visual and auditory richness, Chinese-sounding (in a different way than Snyder’s):
“Nuzzling the festive altars from plaintain to mustard, from budded thistle to bent-stemmed rye.”
Another is her ability, as in a good teisho, to flesh out advice until it evokes experience, not just doctrine:
“Between certainty and the real, an ancient enmity.
When the cat waits in the path-hedge,
No cell of her body is not waiting.
This is how she is able so completely to disappear.”
(“Against Certainty,” p. 102)
T. S. Eliot said, in his own Christian context, that he wanted to write not “devotional verse” but the poetry of “a man in search of God, and trying to explain . . . his intenser human feelings in terms of the divine goal.” What one misses in American Buddhist poetry—unlike Manhae!—is this emphasis on “search” rather than attainment, and on the “intenser human feelings” as they erupt, even in the midst of meditation. One is grateful to find it in some of Norman Fischer’s poems, and particularly in Chase Twichell’s, which have titles like “Marijuana” and “Topiary Rooster,” and could be called “confessional” except for sudden inklings of a detachment Buddhist mindfulness would later ripen.
Perhaps because of the editor’s Naropa University affiliation, poets of the self-styled avant-garde seem overrepresented in this anthology, poets of other traditions underrepresented. It’s possible to see why Leslie Scalapino’s poems have some relation to Buddhist practice; harder to see why Harryette Mullen’s do. One particularly mind-boggling omission is W. S. Merwin. Perhaps he was asked and refused his permission, as he did for the earlier anthology Beneath a Single Moon; but he is mentioned in Schelling’s long introduction only as a translator. One wonders why. Here is a major American poet whose work has deepened through decades of meditative practice, though he never sounds like anyone else, and rarely even mentions Buddhism. That surely deserves, at least, our curiosity.
Buddhist art in Asia is marked by extraordinary fidelity to long-established archetypes. In America it is being associated with efforts to voyage beyond traditional forms into pure creativity. The two art books illustrate these divergent trends.
Chicarelli’s is a joyous gem of a book, compact and brilliant, a treasure to accompany you whether to Sri Lanka, Nepal or the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art. The styles and varieties of buddhas, bodhisattvas and related deities are introduced progressively in a narration, first of the Buddha’s life story, then of Buddhism’s spread through Asia. The book is a tour-de-force survey of the Buddhist art of India, Central Asia, China, Korea, Japan, Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. In addition to learning about art, the reader will also be instructed in the differences between Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana and Zen Buddhism. A novice will quickly learn to distinguish the various events and occasions depicted, then to appreciate the specific robes, eyebrows, etc., of each local Buddha tradition. The more one learns the more one will wish to reread this dense compendium, with its beautiful color photographs and its useful bibliography, glossary and index.
Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art is one of the products of the ambitious project Awake: Art, Buddhism and the Dimensions of Consciousness. Through consortia held over several years, this project is aimed at exploring “the common ground between the creative mind, the perceiving mind and the meditative mind.” The project was inspired by D. T. Suzuki’s lectures in the 1960s, attended both by the philosophic art critic Arthur Danto and the radical music theorist John Cage. But the book documents similar currents in French theory, from Proust’s explorations of the depths of the non-moi to Barthes’ link (as reported by Stephen Batchelor) between the photograph and Buddhist ideas of emptiness and suchness.
The project, of which this book is one of two publications, brings together well-known Buddhists (such as Stephen Batchelor and Yvonne Rand), psychologists and art critics. The anthology includes Linda Bamber’s Buddhist reading of American poetry, where familiar examples from Gary Snyder and Wallace Stevens are supplemented by some surprising ones, especially from Emily Dickinson. Indeed, a brief progression of lines from Dickinson (“Fourth, no discovery—Fifth, no crew—Finally, no Golden Fleece—Jason—sham—too”) evokes the familiar sequence of the Zen oxherding pictures and their accompanying verses, as presented by Chicarelli (climaxing with “Whip, rope, person and ox—all merge in No Thing”).
This book shows us that Buddhism today is no longer simply a path to escape from the devouring maw of American culture, as it was in the time of Thoreau. It is becoming part of that culture, but may also be losing in translation. A practicing Buddhist might object that there is far more written in this book about emptiness than about compassion. One is not easily persuaded by “the distinctly Buddha-like outline of [Marcel Duchamp’s] urinal, often commented on.” Nor will all be eager to situate Duchamp’s mustachioed Mona Lisa within the context of the iconography of an androgynous Avalokitesvara because of Japanese paintings of Kuan Yin “with similar facial hair.” But who are we, when the author of this last connection is a Taiwanese Buddhist, head of the fine arts department at Changhua University, with a doctoral thesis on Duchamp from the University of Illinois? Something is slouching here whose destination is uncertain, and perhaps is more American than Buddhist. In the meantime, not knowing, some of us will continue to take refuge in the smiling images of the Buddha.