Andrew Schelling is a poet, translator and essayist whose writings are known for their ecological focus and their engagement with the poetic traditions of Asia. He has published fourteen books, including The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry (Wisdom Publications, 2005). Schelling teaches poetry and translation workshops, courses in literature and ecology-based poetics, and the Sanskrit language at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where he has been on the faculty since 1990. He is also a faculty member of Deer Park Institute in the Himalayan foothills of India. Wes Nisker and Barbara Gates interviewed Schelling in Berkeley, California, in 2006.
Inquiring Mind: We want to talk about poetry and Dharma and the interplay of the two.
Andrew Schelling: I see poetry and Dharma as very similar in that they are both explorations of our life in the world. The reason they look different is because Buddhism has a religious, canonical basis to it. But the Buddha himself refers to Dharma as a raft to get across the river. In other words, it is a way of making a journey as opposed to a dogmatic explanation of our reality. I consider poetry a similar kind of vehicle.
IM: The Buddha tells us to test his teachings against our own experience, and perhaps that becomes an invitation to express the truth for ourselves as well.
AS: Exactly. Buddhism has been rich in poetic interpretation because it encourages expression of your own understanding, of your personal epiphany. That’s also one of the reasons Buddhism has been able to move so readily from culture to culture and slowly take on the flavorings, the tastes, the cultural aura of Tibet, China and Japan. And now California. [Laughter]
The poetic tradition in Buddhism goes all the way back to the time of the Buddha and the Theragatha, the songs of the early mendicants who were probably disciples of the Buddha. Later we find what became enshrined in Zen as enlightenment poems, or poems that testify to one’s understanding. Looking back, I think poetry has been alongside the spread of Dharma the whole way and was often used in teaching it.
IM: That remains true today, at least in the Theravada tradition in the West, where many teachers use poetry to help express the Dharma.
AS: Contemporary poetry?
IM: Contemporary, as well as older poems from Ch’an or Zen. But in fact, the poets most widely heard on vipassana retreats are probably Rumi and Hafiz from the Sufi tradition.
AS: I think the closest link between poetry and Dharma lies in Zen and can be found in dokusan, the personal meeting between the disciple and teacher. In this meeting the student is expected to respond to some challenge that the teacher has made, and the classic exchanges have become collected as a mysterious poetry, a type of folklore. A famous example comes from China. The Fifth Zen Patriarch wrote a verse of poetry on the wall of his monastery and said that he would transmit the robe and the staff of Dharma to the person who could best complete the poem. The illiterate kitchen boy, Hui Neng, understood the poem and came up with the best response. The two poems appear in the Platform Sutra. The whole contest was like an early poetry slam. [Laughter]
IM: In your book of essays, Wild Form, Savage Grammar, you claim that in India a story from the Ramayana, about an archer who shoots a bird, contains what’s considered to be the first poem.
AS: It is a case of spontaneous poetry. The poet Valmiki was charged by his master with telling the story of Rama. He was wandering through the forest trying to figure out how to tell this tale when he suddenly saw an archer shoot a bird. The bird was a curlew, which doesn’t have much meat nor much in the way of feathers, so it was a wanton act of killing. What was worse was that the archer shot the male bird while it was in the act of making love to its mate. The heartbreaking sight of the female bird beating her wings on the ground and crying out in grief prompted Valmiki to curse the archer. Later, in a moment of reflection, he realized that not only did the curse make him feel much better about his own grief but that it had come out in a rhythmic form that could be set or recited to music. The belief is that this is how poetry originated in India.
IM: A poetic curse!
AS: A curse against the wanton destruction of a wild being, a sentient being.
IM: Speaking of a rhythmic curse, you claim that the sound of poetry affects us at least as much as the meaning of the words.
AS: Poetry works with language at many different levels, and sound is the most immediate. For instance, in Buddhism some phrases have been formalized as mantras and dharanis, and while they may have some meaning attached to them, the point is more the sounds of the syllables themselves, the overtones that open up levels of awareness. It’s similar to a magic spell. In India, the teacher traditionally gives the student a mantra or a dharani, which is often composed of grunts and snarls or invites humming and crooning.
Think about how much we use pure sound in our lives: babies and their mothers, the cooing of lovers. Somebody cuts you off in traffic and you don’t deliver a rational discourse on how he should drive better—the expletive is sharp, forceful, loud. Our lives are full of those emotional events that activate our animal body, our animal voice.
What was most exciting to me about twentieth-century poetry was the return to that feeling of poetry as a function of our human/animal bodies. Poetry ceased being a ward of the English departments and re-created itself in the language of the street, of the people. The Beat poets famously reintroduced oral performances of poetry in the 1950s, so that now, in any city in the United States, you can find poetry readings. That is testimony to the awareness that something happens in poetry that’s not just words sitting on the page.
IM: What is a dharani?
AS: My understanding is that a mantra has some recognizable words in it, such as the well-known “Om mani padme hum,” where the words mani padme mean “the jewel in the lotus” but the om and the hum are purely magical language. A dharani, however, has no recognizable words. It is all magical language. It is more hidden and tends to resonate with feminine deities.
Lately I’ve been doing a practice that focuses on the bodhisattva Manjushri. His syllable is dhih, which, if you look it up in the Sanskrit dictionary, is the verbal root that means “to meditate.” But Manjushri’s dharani is “Om a ra pa ca na dhih,” which has no lexical meaning. It is a series of sounds that gets repeated over and over again, almost like a musical phrase, like the notes that an Indian tabla player will call out and then repeat with his fingers on the tabla.
IM: So the phrase creates a particular vibration or feeling.
AS: Exactly. In India, and later in Tibet, the spiritual masters and shamans recognized the power that resides in syllables that the human voice can enunciate. In traditional India, every syllable was known to be inhabited by a deity.
IM: Do you feel as though contemporary poetry has returned to this sense of the magical sounds of language?
AS: Yes, and it was the Beats who revived poetry as an oral tradition. I don’t think it is coincidental that so many of them were deeply affected by Hinduism and Buddhism—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Diane di Prima, Michael McClure.
IM: How does the use of sound relate to awakening or a shift of consciousness?
AS: Language is one of the primary ways that our mind reveals itself to us. In a fascinating book called The Prison-House of Language, Fredric Jameson claims that everything we say has got ideological connotations and that in fact our ordinary use of language imprisons us with very socialized ways of thinking. I believe that what Buddhism has always attempted to do is find ways to use language in a renewed and illuminated way, to spring us free.