Just One Breath: The Practice of Poetry and Meditation
IN THIS WORLD of onrushing events the act of meditation—even just a "one-breath" meditation—straightening the back, clearing the mind for a moment—is a refreshing island in the stream. Although the term meditation has mystical and religious connotations for many people, it is a simple and plain activity. Attention: deliberate stillness and silence. As anyone who has practiced sitting knows, the quieted mind has many paths, most of them tedious and ordinary. Then, right in the midst of meditation, totally unexpected images or feelings may sometimes erupt, and there is a way into a vivid transparency. But whatever comes up, sitting is always instructive. There is ample testimony that a practice of meditation pursued over months and years brings some degree of self-understanding, serenity, focus, and self-confidence to the person who stays with it. There is also a deep gratitude that one comes to feel for this world of beings, teachers, and teachings.
No one—guru or roshi or priest—can program for long what a person might think or feel in private reflection. We learn that we cannot in any literal sense control our mind. Meditation cannot serve an ideology. A meditation teacher can only help a student understand the phenomena that rise from his or her own inner world—after the fact—and give tips on directions to go. A meditation teacher can be a check or guide for the wayfarer to measure herself against, and like any experienced guide can give good warning of brushy paths and dead-end canyons from personal experience. The teacher provides questions, not answers. Within a traditional Buddhist framework of ethical values and psychological insight, the mind essentially reveals itself.
Meditation is not just a rest or retreat from the turmoil of the stream or the impurity of the world. It is a way of being the stream, so that one can be at home in both the white water and the eddies. Meditation may take one out of the world, but it also puts one totally into it. Poems are a bit like this too. The experience of a poem gives both distance and involvement: one is closer and farther at the same time.
TRADITIONS OF DELIBERATE ATTENTION to consciousness, and of making poems, are as old as humankind. Meditation looks inward, poetry holds forth. One is private, the other is out in the world. One enters the moment, the other shares it. But in practice it is never entirely clear which is doing which. In any case, we do know that in spite of the contemporary public perception of meditation and poetry as special, exotic, and difficult, they are both as old and as common as grass. The one goes back to essential moments of stillness and deep inwardness, and the other to the fundamental impulse of expression and presentation.
People often confuse meditation with prayer, devotion, or vision. They are not the same. Meditation as a practice does not address itself to a deity or present itself as an opportunity for revelation. This is not to say that people who are meditating do not occasionally think they have received a revelation or experienced visions. They do. But to those for whom meditation is their central practice, a vision or a revelation is seen as just another phenomenon of consciousness and as such is not to be taken as exceptional. The meditator would simply experience the ground of consciousness, and in doing so avoid excluding or excessively elevating any thought or feeling. To do this one must release all sense of the "I" as experiencer, even the "I" that might think it is privileged to communicate with the divine. It is in sensitive areas such as these that a teacher can be a great help. This is mostly a description of the Buddhist meditation tradition, which has hewed consistently to a nontheistic practice over the centuries.
Poetry has also been part of Buddhism from early on. From the 2,500-year-old songs of forest-dwelling monks and nuns of India to the vivid colloquial poems of Kenji Miyazawa in 1930s Japan, there is a continuous thread. Poetry has had a primary place of respect in Chinese literary culture, and many of the best-known poems of the Chinese canon are touched with Ch'an and Taoist insight. Some of the finest poets of China were even acknowledged Ch'an adepts—Bai Juyi and Su Dungpo, to name just two.
Although the Chinese Ch'an masters liked to say "The lowest class of monk is the one who indulges in literature," we have to remember that blame is often praise in the Ch'an world. The Ch'an training halls, with their unconventional dharma discourses and vivid mimed exchanges, and the tradition of the Chinese lyric poems, shih, with their lucid and allusive brevity, were clearly shaping each other by the early Tang dynasty.
Ch'an teachers and students have always written their own sort of in-house poems as well. In formalgung-an (koan) study, a student is often called upon to present a few lines of poetry from the Chinese canon as a proof of the completeness of his or her understanding—an exercise called zho-yu, "capping verses" (jakugo in Japanese). Such exchanges have been described in the book A Zen Forest by Soiku Shigematsu, a Japanese Rinzai Zen priest. Shigematsu Osho has handily translated hundreds of the couplets as borrowed from Chinese poetry and proverb. They are intense: