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Category: Buddhism

POEM: After Jack

After Jack

You start with the legs crossed
or kneeling or sitting in a chair
with your hands just so or no
particular way at all.
The breath comes slow, deep
or else it doesn’t: who’s to say?
In the brain an alto sax plays
and then Pedro strikes a guy out
and then there was that one time
you told someone how you felt
and it didn’t go well
and then something is scuttling
through the leaves outside
and then you think of calling her
or think of writing to them
and then dinner tonight,
maybe try the Indian place?
Oh that’s right
you’re supposed to be breathing.
I mean you ARE breathing
otherwise there’d be a whole new
set of problems but you’re not
paying attention and really
attention is where it’s at,
where it’s all it’s at, as
Lenny stumbled that one time
after he’d taken up lecturing
rather than bits.
Breathing, right, you won’t forget
but you will probably because
today the zoo is full of little imps
and they love jumping
on the Samsonite of your memories
and then there was the time
you took the dog back
because it bit a kid in the neighborhood,
busted right through the door
and chased the kids around and got one
and then you think of the way
they asked if you ever expected to be
with someone like them
and how that question has never quite
sat right, you know? and yet
you did expect it
but now it’s over and it always
comes back to that in the end doesn’t it
the overness of it all and then
you remember to breathe.

/ / /

25 August 2023
Charlottesville VA

This is poem 35 in a series called 50 Days Till 50 Years. I’m writing a poem a day between now and my 50th birthday. I’m going to try to focus on memories of my past, and the people who inhabited it.

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POEM: Chasing Answers To Questions Unknown

Chasing Answers To Questions Unknown

From the moment Father Edgar walked into the room,
I knew I wanted to be a monk.

When we changed teams, moving across the street
to the Methodists, I decided to become a minister instead.

At 15, newly into prog rock and Depeche Mode,
I discovered it was possible to not believe in God.

I flew 10,000 miles to clap hands and bow,
to ring bells and make mochi and stare up at statues.

For Christmas in 1997, Jen bought me a book
about the Lotus Sutra. It was over my head.

Three years later I was in our spare room, incense
burning on the credenza, legs folded, hands in a mudra.

Over the next two decades I went back to the cushion
time after time, trying to quiet the monkeys.

Eventually I threw in the towel, but somebody threw it back.
After all, a frood has to know where their towel is.

/ / /

22 August 2023
Charlottesville VA

Thanks to S for the title.

This is poem 32 in a series called 50 Days Till 50 Years. I’m writing a poem a day between now and my 50th birthday. I’m going to try to focus on memories of my past, and the people who inhabited it.

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POEM: Fitchburg Metta Sutta

Fitchburg Metta Sutta

Kannon Bodhisattva looks down on my van
as I pass below an outcrop of rock
so I do a u-turn & head back for a visit.
The Vietnamese Buddhist temple sits on a steep
hill overlooking a small post-industrial town
somewhere near the middle of Massachusetts.
A journey of two thousand five hundred years
from India to China to Vietnam to the U.S.
ends in the driveway of a 19th-century house
that’s been put to a new use.
Kannon is the embodiment of compassion;
a being who has reached enlightment
but has chosen instead to stay here
with the rest of us until we can go, too.
That kind of work needs to be done everywhere,
& Fitchburg, Mass. is as good as anywhere else.
I walk around the building taking photos
of the statues & the flowers & the signs
(none of which I can read) & then I stop
& bow before Kannon to show my respect
& because I could use some compassion.
A light rain begins to fall.

/ / /

6 July 2022
Pittsfield MA

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Now vs the future

One of the most challenging parts of life for me is the tension between living in the moment and understanding that the moment changes. I want to be someone who is getting the most out of life as it really is. But sometimes life sucks, and I find it easy to get bogged down in the idea that the sucky bit is how life will be going forward. That’s not true, of course. If I look back I can clearly see how much things have changed, and how often things that seemed hopeless turned out not to be. What I can’t see if I look back though, is any period where the relatively better times lasted very long. One of my missions these days is to try to figure out why that is, and if there are fundamental aspects of my behavior or perception that have led to the constant upheaval I’ve experienced, or prevented me from finding … contentment, maybe? I get that these questions are both ancient and common, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to answer them.

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My unintentionally secret podcast

A couple years ago a pal in the UK asked me to make a podcast explaining Buddhism for young-ish listeners. This podcast was to be used in UK school programs on general religion. I made a series of 3-minute podcast episodes giving my responses to the study questions my pal sent me, and published all that at I think it’s kinda fun. You can listen to the whole series in 33 minutes, so check it out and let me know if I should make more of these.

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Buddhism can be pretty @#$&^% useful

Thought process I went through just now:

1. I wonder if I should have a conversation with my sister about what my intentions are when one of our parents dies.

2. I might feel differently about that situation when it actually happens.

3. There’s no need to deal with it until it occurs.

4. That applies to so much of life. Too much planning and overthinking and playing out stories. 

5. The better way is clearly just to deal with what’s actually happening right now.

6. That @#$%& Buddhist approach sure does get proved right quite often. 

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Poetry and the present moment

The idea of living in the present moment is central to Buddhist practice, which I’ve been trying my hand at for more than two decades. As I’ve come to understand it, the basic concept is that the past has passed and the future is unknowable, so the only time with which we can interact is this moment right now. And right now. And … you get it.

The instruction to remain centered in the present is one of my favorite parts of Buddhist philosophy. It’s also remarkably difficult to do, at least for me. No matter how much the present might be demanding my attention, I still find myself caught up in memories and daydreams, returning to past successes and failures, and turning over future visions in my mind.

Poetry can be an aid to present-minded living, serving as it does — or at least as it can — as a textual photograph of a moment. This is supposed to be one of the main methods of creating haiku, for example, though I find even in that form I am often mired in the past. The more I deviate from the nature-word-plus-present-description method of haiku, the more likely it is that my tiny poems will contain sharply pointed thorns of memory.

I overheard one of my coworkers this morning talking about an “on this day” post they’d received on Facebook and how it had dredged up difficult memories. I’m glad to not be on Facebook, because I have too many memories I’d prefer to avoid. And yet, when left to its own devices, the Zuckerberg in my skull is all too happy to pull up some scene I’d sooner escape.

Perhaps one problem, if that’s the word, is that my current life is — or seems — very small. I work in an office during the day. After work I retreat to the 32 square feet of my van, which is where I spend most of my non-work time. This might be an excuse, but I feel like these circumstances don’t lend themselves to the kind of noticing so fundamental to poetry. So instead of seeing things in the world around me, I mine the shafts in my brain for the ore I need to write.

That last paragraph does feel like an excuse now that I read it again. Noticing can happen in any circumstances, and the present moment is the present moment, no matter what it contains. Maybe this whole essay can serve as a call to action for my own writing (I accidentally typed “righting” — a useful accident?); a reminder to pay closer attention to what might seem mundane or confined. I guess we’ll all find out together whether I heed that call in the weeks and months ahead.

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POEM: Tomodachi

for AJ

There is some sort of path here,
though it’s hard to make out,
even in good light.
Kalyana mitra:
good friend, virtuous friend,
noble friend, admirable friend.
In any case we’re well-meaning,
always looking for ways to make
the other’s life better.
At the very least that’s metta,
loving-kindness, which is all
I can ask of anyone these days.
I mean, I’ve mixed up
the Pali and Sanskrit
in this poem, so who am I to judge
how lives entangle?

/ / /

3 May 2022
Pittsfield MA

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POEM: Proof Of Life

Proof Of Life

The condensation on the windows is proof of life
for passersby who might try to see past the curtain
or the blacked-out covers into the interior
of my not-exactly-a-home on wheels.
I’m sitting upright, my bottom half in a sleeping bag,
my top half shrouded in a wool blanket,
meditating because it seems like the right thing to do.
There’s an insistent bird in the leafless tree
outside the rear window of the van, its song
one I would have been able to name just a few years ago.
That knowledge, like so much I used to contain,
has passed through the bone safe of my skull
into the poorly designed container of the world.
In more than twenty years of meditation
I have rarely quieted the dancing monkey
who jumps from one sparking synapse to the next
          with a shrill laugh.
I keep at it because I don’t have a control group,
so no comparison can be made.
A text from my sister: “Peace and stability are just ahead.”
She is not, as far as I know, clairvoyant,
but I’d rather believe her than lend credence to myself.
The bell dings and I use the remote starter
to turn on the van I’m sitting in.
It’s easier than crawling up front.
Soon the heat will kick in and I’ll do the crossword
and the bird will keep singing or else it won’t.

/ / /

20 April 2022
Pittsfield MA

(NaPoWriMo Day 20)

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haiku: 27 July 2021

this morning: metta
“happy, healthy, safe, at peace”
then: a weed whacker

/ / /

27 July 2021
Greensboro Bend VT

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haiku: 22 July 2021

stained glass, warm sunlight
there’s nobody here but me
or not even me

/ / /

22 July 2021
Greensboro VT

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