Wednesday, December 21, 2011



The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry, Ed. Andrew Schelling
(Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA, 2005)

Off the Program: Reading the Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry

Reading The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry, I’ve been having a little trouble with the “Buddhism-ness” of some (though by no means not all) of the poems. The title of the book (albeit the second word refers to the publisher) puts me off a little too. Like, oh, you’re dispensing “Wisdom” right off the bat. Just so we know. Imagine what stones would be thrown if you had used that adjective for a secular anthology: The Wisdom Anthology of Postmodern Poetry. Using that framework to present poems by Buddhists replicates a religious structure of authority that, lately, I have been finding less than useful. If I were to edit a book like that, I would go far out of my way to cut out that word. Because (and I think Basho might agree) being a Buddhist is often about being a fool.

It’s why I like the poems of Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, Hoa Nguyen, Harryette Mullen, and Norman Fischer (all included in the anthology). The editor, Andrew Schelling, seems to have chosen a number of poems for their odd turns and curious juxtapositions. They surprise, they embrace contradiction; they come directly from lived experience, without spouting the jargon of carefully enforced calm or “wisdom,” as in Hoa Nguyen’s “Buddha’s Ears are Droopy Touch His Shoulders”:
Buddha’s ears are droopy     touch his shoulders
As scarves fly out of windows and I shriek
At the lotus of enlightenment

Travel to Free Street past Waco
To the hole in the Earth
Wearing water

I’m aiming my mouth
For apple pie

I have to admit that some poems, like those of Gary Snyder and Jane Hirschfield, no longer feel vital to me (as they once did). I can’t deny that, like Kenneth Rexroth, their work had important roles in sparking and continuing a tradition of Buddhist writing in the U.S. But now their poems only remind me of the replication of nostalgic Asian tropes that continue to bedevil American Buddhism.

In my opinion, Siddartha Gautama—commonly known as “The Buddha” or “The Awakened One”—was a guy who discovered a route by which humans could gain insight into their condition and possibly reduce suffering, but he probably didn’t espouse all the hierarchical and baroque permutations on his teachings that many of his followers developed decades and centuries after his death. Glenn Wallis says something useful about this that questions the practices and assumptions of many contemporary Buddhists:
“Two aspects of employing a Buddhist framework are particularly disturbing to me. The first is that it usurps the practitioner’s actual, lived, experienced, process. That is, time and time again I have heard people use the same formulaic, doctrinal vocabulary to talk about meditative practice and the meditative life as a whole. Some see in such speech patterns evidence of “entering the stream” or maturing on “the path.” I see it, rather, as a disturbing symptom. I see the employment of borrowed language as a sign of evasion, of taking comfort in the warm embrace of community at the expense of the very purpose that that community is (ostensibly) meant to serve, namely, the combustion of delusion. I see it as a sign that someone is prescribing to a program, rather than engaging a potentially excoriating – and, to a great extent, lonely – practice of self-and-reality-knowing.

What is that practice? Perhaps a stance—to listen, to notice that which one often goes through life denying:
I’ve changed
Shrunk probably
Noticing the prominence of my skeleton
This word I wanted to fondle
That I threw out into the world
That never had a meaning or referent
Except to stand for all I do not know and fear
Now I can feel what it wanted to tell me
—Norman Fischer, “I’ve Changed”

The practice of Buddhist meditation, Buddhist study, is lonely, despite the comforts of sangha (community) that are available, nowadays, in the Western world: “I take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha.” It’s lonely because the experience of meditation is never what others say it is or will be. It turns out to be your own path, after all—a dream sans the comfort of interpretation; it often comes out funny, crooked, or angry, and all the best meditation in the world won’t erase the mud:
People of color untie-dyed. Got nothing to lose but your CPT-
shirts. You’re all just a box of crayons. The whole ball of wax
would make a lovely decorator candle on a Day of the Dead San-
teria Petro Vodou altar. Or how about these yin-yang ear-rings to
balance your energy? This rainbow crystal necklace, so good for
unblocking your chi and opening the chakras? Hey, you broke it,
you bought it! No checks accepted. Unattended children will be
sold as slaves.
—Harryette Mullen, “Souvenir from Anywhere”

Erasure is not what’s needed. Replicating the nostalgic language or borrowed authority of a religious tradition only distances you from truth. Better to shine a light on the raw edge of the everyday life:
That is why I encourage people, as Thoreau put it, to keep language close to the bone. Let the language come out of the knowing – out of your bodily experience – and not the other way around. Because each of us has a particular perspective on “the knowing,” our language will be, at least to some degree, unique to each of us. It will be fresher, richer, more vibrant, and more honest than the borrowed language of Buddhism or any other pre-established framework allows.

Yet, still, I have to talk about these things. What language should I use? One possibility is the language of poetry.”—Glenn Wallis

(Read more of “Making Decisions” by Glenn Wallis HERE.)

Coming back to poetry. Why? Maybe the arts—poetry, the visual and plastic arts—take you back to the body, to corporeality, which, in all its pain (I write this as my migraine slowly winds down to blessed relief), beauty, messiness, and complexity, says so much that religion can’t. Sangha is good, community is good — it has important functions. Some point to the fact that communities can sometimes become insular, their traditions and habits inbred. Yet, Wallis notes that one of community’s functions is to “dispel delusion.” I do think that American culture and religion (indeed, all religion) embrace programmatic elements that generally go unacknowledged because we assume that our ethos of “individuality” and “independence” saves us from that. Well, it doesn’t; and when programmatic behavior goes under the radar, our best intent can be subverted.

[First posted in a different form at Okir, July 10, 2011]


Jean Vengua's blogs include Okir and she is the author of the poetry collection Prau (Meritage Press).

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