Ripples in reality

crochet ripples

There was a nearly mystical sense of revelation last Thursday, when it was announced that gravitational waves, predicted by Einstein 100 years ago, had finally been observed. What seemed almost unbelievable, merely fictional, was now the objective reality of our universe. How to celebrate? I wrote a poem:

Gravity Waves

The world had never yielded to him
its inner life; he worked,
he walked about the city, he ate,
looking after himself but waiting.
Sometimes he forgot he was waiting
or what he was waiting for,
and the world became a stranger
rushing past on the street.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw her
at the supermarket, and then at the gym.
They talked. And they talked,
and ate, and fell in love.
His heart’s machinery bloomed into vision,
and he could see the world’s secret workings.
On the day they said gravity waves
were now proved, he bought flowers
for his wife, and they celebrated the love
that ripples through the universe –
shaking the loom of our woven moments,
that might seem unreal, but exists.

Congratulations to all those physicists at LIGO and Virgo, and in praise of neo-Platonism.

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Love and Separation: Sonnet 64

Wriothesley

It’s all very well to write about experiences of beauty, of encountering the beautiful, and about how poets have managed to capture and even communicate their experience of beauty in the form of words. And it’s all very interesting to connect beauty and poetry with Buddhist practice, even with the teaching of the Buddha. But our actual human lives are by no means necessarily always characterised by vivid experiences of beauty, and our Buddhist practice may not be so sweet either. In this post I want to explore how poetry can nevertheless help us understand and engage in practising the Dharma, right at the cutting edge of life’s difficulties.

In the Pāli canon we find a teaching of the Buddha called ‘Five topics for frequent recollection’.[i] They are five simple reflections, and, as the Buddha says, they are for men, women, householders and renunciates. They are for everyone. They go like this:

  1. I am of a nature to age; I am not free from old age.
  2. I am of a nature to get ill; I am not free from disease.
  3. I am of a nature to die; I am not free from death.
  4. I will be parted from all that is pleasing and precious to me.
  5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, joined to my actions, and actions are my refuge. Whatever actions I might do, good or bad, of these I will be the heir.

These are extraordinary sober reflections. Indeed, they do not end there. The Buddha also recommends that we consider these five topics in relation to everyone else as well as ourselves. But why should any of us reflect in this way? What is the point? The Buddha goes on to explain that, while we are young we are often intoxicated with youth, to the extent of acting in brash and heedless ways; but reflecting on age undoes this. Similarly we are often intoxicated with health and life, taking them for granted, and acting heedlessly. The fifth and last reflection is a vivid reminder that, as we act, so we become. This may seem obvious but is sometimes difficult to remember.

But the fourth recollection – that I will be parted from all that is pleasing and precious to me – is not so simple either to state or even to understand. The Buddha explains that, because of desire for those who are precious to us, we act badly, and this reflection corrects this. But I personally find this hard to understand. In fact, I find this recollection the most difficult. It slips out of my grasp, my heart rejects it. But then I came across the following sonnet by Shakespeare:

Sonnet 64

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal, slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the wat’ry main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate –
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

The sonnet is addressed to that same mysterious young man as most of the sonnets are; possibly a patron, not necessarily a lover, certainly a friend. Or perhaps it is unhelpful to think of Shakespeare’s sonnets as if they represent the feelings of a particular man toward some other particular man. Perhaps they work rather on their own literary level, creating in the reader an empathic feeling of love from their form and grammar, then exploring various details of passion and loss. The reader, reading Sonnet 64, imagines his or her own most precious love, as subject to time as anything else in this sublunary world.

But somehow the very beauty of the poem, the enduring grandeur of its rhymes, the power of its diction, allows a difficult thought about inevitable loss the space to move and gain momentum: I will be parted from all that is precious and pleasing to me. The poem gives courage. Rather than allowing the small-minded conclusion that, if all love is passing, there is no point – a conclusion that another part of us will always reject – the sonnet allows the larger, almost heroic conclusion that, indeed, love is nothing that we can hold on to, but a great heart can know this and yet still love. The poem allows this conclusion, but the love that results will perhaps not be so intoxicated by exultation. It will be more capable of a true appreciation.

Also based on talks at the Frome Triratna group, 23 Sep 2015, and at the Bristol Buddhist Centre, 24 Nov 2015.

[i] From Aṅguttara-nikāya 5:57. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the entire discourse is available at https://suttacentral.net/en/an5.57.

Dharma, Beauty, Poetry: ‘The Bright Field’

Cézanne landscape

The Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, is often described in the Pāli texts as ‘lovely at the beginning, lovely in the middle and lovely at the end’.[1] Many of us have experiences of intense beauty, when the world in some way reveals itself as lovely: a landscape, an act of kindness, the slant of light through the blinds. These experiences, I believe, are immensely important for our spiritual lives, for they give us a sense of how things are not what they seem. Our preoccupations, and the way our lives are buffeted by the ‘worldly winds’ of gain and loss, fame and obscurity, praise and blame, pleasure and pain,[2] can make the world seem jaded, though perhaps occasionally pretty. But when beauty breaks through we might experience the world anew, afresh, in all its innermost glory, as the theatre of divinity and liberation.

It seems that the Buddha was familiar with the potential of such experiences of beauty to liberate. The third of the eight so-called ‘liberations’ (vimokkha) makes this explicit. It is described simply enough: subhan’t’eva adhimutto hoti, ‘One becomes focused only on the beautiful’.[3] The word for ‘beautiful’ here (subha) also means splendid, pleasant, auspicious and good.[4] Just like the English word ‘beautiful’, the subha (or in Sanskrit, śubha) is an aesthetic experience that reaches deep into our moral lives. The ‘liberation’ alluded to here is not the final release of nirvāna, but a temporary state of liberation from the defilements that is a tremendous encouragement on the way.

The commentary relates the third liberation to meditation practice, specifically to concentration on an attractive meditation device (kasina), and also to the practice of the brahmā-vihāras or ‘divine abidings’, of benevolence (mettā), compassion (karunā), gladness (muditā) and equanimity (upekkhā).[5] While it might be perfectly true that Buddhist meditators have vivid experiences of the beautiful in meditation, I don’t think that we need to limit the scope of the beautiful to formal Buddhist practice. What if the beautiful breaks through as we are riding along a sunlit cycle path? Our minds and hearts may be, for some moments, liberated by such a powerful aesthetic experience.

So, what is this beauty? Somehow it is an experience that is attractive and pleasing, but at the same time, and most importantly, an experience that takes us beyond what we know. There is a transcendent dimension to the experience of beauty, a dimension that is deeply mysterious really, though probably not unfamiliar to most of us. Perhaps it is most familiar for us when listening to music, that art form that seems at once most abstract and most directly in touch with the heart.

Poets also sometimes try to translate such experiences of beauty into poems, hence attempting to evoke through imagination, in words, something of what they have seen and known. Readers might not only be reminded of their own experience of beauty, but be inspired not to forget that such experience is possible. My favourite poem of this sort is by R.S. Thomas:[6]

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give up all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Thomas (1913–2000) was a priest in the Church of Wales as well as lyric poet. His poetry is infused with Christian imagery as well as the sense of his native Wales. It is easy to imagine him travelling in the Welsh hills, perhaps visiting one of his parishioners, a sheep-farmer, and him seeing the sun break through to briefly illuminate a small field. Such are our experiences of beauty: attractive, ordinary, transient. But Thomas returns, in this poem, to that passing aesthetic experience, and goes deeper into its significance.

That experience was ‘the pearl of great price’ and ‘the one field that had / the treasure in it’. These are images from the Gospel of Matthew (13:44–6). Jesus teaches that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a field with treasure hidden in it, like a man who finds a pearl – someone seeking the Kingdom will sell everything they have to buy that field, to buy that pearl. But Thomas radically shifts the message. Now he realises that he must give up everything he has for the sake of aesthetic experience. He must centre his life on beauty, rather than seeing the bright field and then going on his way. Why must he do this? Because ‘Life is not hurrying / on to a receding future, nor hankering after / an imagined past.’ The poet realises that the normal human way, of living in a thin and jaded present, thinking of the future to which we hurry, or the past which now seems more attractive than it ever did at the time, is a mistake. The bright field holds the key; the aesthetic experience is the gateway to the living present moment, in which we go beyond our thoughts, preconceptions, proliferations, into a realm of meaning and significance we could characterise as divine.

Vivid presence in the moment – this is the gift of beauty, beyond the narratives of the ego, rather like mindfulness practice, but depending here on beauty rather than awareness. And this vivid presence in the moment ‘is the turning / aside like Moses to the miracle / of the lit bush’. This is a reference to the story in Exodus 3 of Moses hearing the voice of God in the burning bush, the miracle that led Moses to become a prophet. In this way, Thomas compares the lit field to a divine encounter and the beginning of prophecy. And this miracle of the lit field is a brightness that has the radiance of youth. It is the essence of those youthful experiences of beauty, of love, of vision, which we perhaps look back upon as adults as an enjoyable phase, but one that inevitably gave way to adult concerns with things like career and family. But, says R.S Thomas, the beauty of the lit field is not transitory as youth was, but rather is the eternity that is possible in this life.

The Buddha often described nirvāna as the ‘deathless’ (amata), the ‘undying’. This does not signify eternity in the sense of a state of infinitely prolonged life, but rather a state that is beyond time. And this is perhaps what R.S. Thomas too was hinting at – the way that the aesthetic experience of beauty contains within it, as it were, in its nature as being an encounter with the divine, a hint or taste of what is beyond time, beyond this arena of consecutive minor events.

I’ve used ‘The Bright Field’ as an example of a poem that brings to life the experience of beauty, like lighting a candle, reminding us perhaps of the great flashes of light we have ourselves experienced or could. This experience of beauty is connected at its root with the deep meaning of the Dharma. May we all remember to value our experiences of beauty.

Based on talks at the Frome Triratna group, 23 Sep 2015, and at the Bristol Buddhist Centre, 24 Nov 2015.

[1] In one of the formulas that we find in the Pāli texts, it is said that a good report has been heard about the Buddha: so dhammaṃ deseti ādikalyāṇaṃ majjhekalyāṇaṃ pariyosānakalyāṇaṃ, ‘He teaches the Dharma that is lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle, and lovely at the end’. ‘The end’ (pariyosāna) means ‘conclusion’, as in, the conclusion of one’s Dharma practice, which is the realisation of nirvāṇa.

[2] These are the lokadhammā, ‘qualities of the world’, described at Aṅguttara Nikāya 8:6 etc.

[3] The formula is found in the Mahānidāna sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 15, and elsewhere.

[4] Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary, s.v. śubha.

[5] For instance, in the commentary on the Mahānidāna sutta, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi in The Great Discourse on Causation.

[6] This poem is from the 1975 collection Laboratories of the Spirit, and also in Collected Poems 1945–90.

Roads, Boats and Buses: recent writing by Triratna Order members

Copied over from the Western Buddhist Review

Maitreyabandhu, The Crumb Road, Bloodaxe: Tarset, 2013, £9.95 pback
Rijumati Wallis, Pilgrimage to Anywhere, O-Books: Winchester, 2011, £11.99 pback
Simon Okotie, Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon?, Salt: Cromer, 2012, £8.99 pback

There is a rich variety of talent in the Triratna Buddhist Order, nicely illustrated by these three very different kinds of books by Order members, all published over the last few years – one a volume of poems, one a travel memoir, the last an off-beat novel – with an admittedly tenuous transport-related link between them.

The Crumb Road

Maitreyabandhu is one of the few poets in the Order to have really succeeded on the contemporary poetry scene. His first collection, The Crumb Road, has had some glowing reviews and recommendations, and contains several prize winners. Maitreyabandhu, who lives and works at the London Buddhist Centre, trained first as an artist and has turned to poetry more recently. Something of his artistic background appears in some poems on Cézanne’s genius and peculiarity. Otherwise these poems are not painting-like but are beautiful, convincing glimpses of moments in the narrative of life.

Many poems explore childhood memories, including a long sequence called ‘Stephen’ about a first love affair. These poems have the flavour of coming to terms and of gratitude, and this is true even of the long sequence, in which love is like a pretty green weed in a disturbing, harsh landscape. Other poems move between recognisable experiences and fables, and although Buddhism never directly shows its face, qualities of presence and kindness run through the whole volume, as well as an attractive absence of the poet’s vanity or ego. Maitreyabandhu’s language stays mainly plain, his metaphors restrained, although some poems manage delicately effective rhymes. In this sense I like Maitreyabandhu’s explorations of the heritage of poetic form, while at the same time his poems themselves feel tremendously authentic in their themes.

In an essay in Poetry Review (101:3, autumn 2011), Maitreyabandhu defends a Romantic ideal of poetry as the expression of Imagination, that transcendent synthesising power. He begins this essay by describing how a poem of his called ‘Rangiatea’ manifested, with his tutor’s encouragement, through the madness and euphoria of creative imagination, and this long poem was my personal favourite of the collection. Beginning from an oblique reference to a Maori story of an island where ‘you could stay / and find the peace you wanted’, the poem shifts to telling an apparently unrelated story, though everything eventually converges at a higher, implied level. Maitreyabandhu has a gift for character and narrative as well as a pitch-perfect imagination, and I wonder if he might write a novel soon.

Contemporary poetry can often be difficult to access, perhaps partly because the gold has not yet been separated from the brass or soon-to-be-forgotten dross. The volume of poems by Maitreyabandhu, however, offers a lovely way in to the busy restaurant of contemporary verse.

Pilgrimage to Anywhere

Rijumati’s book Pilgrimage to Anywhere is a compelling travel memoir. A 42-year-old man, a longstanding member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, a capable and responsible director of a large Buddhist right-livelihood business, decides to throw everything in and embark on a round-the-world trip with no itinerary or goal, and the self-imposed rule of avoiding long-haul flights. He departs from Le Havre on a container ship bound for Colombo, and from this point as a reader I was hooked. Rijumati is a confident traveller, but also sensitive and intrigued by the people he meets, so his journey is an active and engaged encounter with the world. One the other hand, Rijumati is a spiritual pilgrim, travelling to find something, though he is not sure what, possibly only the experience of having to let go into the flow of what happens, and his open-hearted idealism takes him deeper into the travelling experience than a tourist would go. He ends up, for instance, making his way through Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Siberia, bumping through post-Soviet landscapes, just because… there is no reason, really, though he has his soul seared in the process.

His subsequent travels in Japan, the USA and Mexico are happier – he has come through – and Rijumati shows himself an intelligent traveller, enraptured by geology, sociology and history as he heads south. In Mexico he encounters ancient cultures he did not know about, and his Euro-centric assumptions are put into larger context. Rijumati’s journey ends with a fairy-tale romance in Cuba, representing an almost archetypal home-coming after the solitary journey; significantly enough he gives up his no-long-haul-flights rule for the sake of love.

There is something very inspiring, I find, about stories of renunciation and idealism, and Rijumati’s travel memoir draws the reader into a vividly remembered, well-paced narrative. The book could have done with some more editing, to take out the typos and remove the superfluous Prologue and Epilogue, but otherwise this is a great read, and a valuable contribution to the genre of Order Members’ spiritual memoirs (which includes, as well of course as Sangharakshita’s memoirs, Nagabodhi’s Jai Bhim, and Taranatha’s Steps to Happiness, both published by Windhorse).

Harald Absalon

Finally there is a first novel by Manjusiha, writing as Simon Okotie, curiously entitled, Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? Manjusiha, also living in London, dedicates the novel to Maitreyabandhu, suggesting the circulation of encouragement in the arts of the imagination within the Triratna movement. But there could hardly be a greater contrast than that between the sincere lyric confessional mode of Maitreyabandhu’s poems and the post-narrative absurdity of Okotie’s writing. Nevertheless, Harold Absalon is in its own way even more of an imaginative achievement, and stands in a venerable lineage of fiction that simultaneously creates and then mocks its own illusions (I thought of The Master and Marguerita).

The plot, if that is the right word for it, is so thin that it hardly bears mentioning. A detective of some sort, clearly inept, is on the trail, as it is called, or as he calls it, of the wife of the Mayor’s transport advisor, Harold Absalon, who has disappeared. Or so he says. After the slightest of orientations in the narrative world to which the reader must assent, the narrative digresses along the byways of the detective’s thought processes, which could be characterised as intelligent, analytic, obsessive and quite obviously proliferative in the sense that one cannot help but think there is something going on beneath these thoughts, bearing some important yet unstated relationship to them, which if one were able to learn what that something was, would explain and in another sense destroy those interminable wanderings. It feels a bit like a comic version of W.G. Sebald’s intensely internalised narrations. And of course the narrative suspense, such as it is, of the novel is made precisely out of the gradual, though partial revelation of that hidden something.

On p.56 the detective gets on a Routemaster bus, and the remaining three-quarters of the novel take place thereupon. It is hard not to begin to remember, in vivid sensual detail, the feel of the top deck of a crowded old London bus, with its smells, its noise, its lurching progress, and its ambience of a damp box full of quiet longings and ill-hidden thoughts. This ambience comes to life in this novel, as the reader encounters the stream of consciousness of one peculiar character among recognisable types. The detective’s thoughts are mostly quite harmless, almost boyish, or at least boyish when they turn to sex, but attuned to the need for precision in language and concept, without which the world would be a worse place, and the reader is left to savour the peculiar new light that gets shed on words like ‘corner’ or ‘fear’, or on certain turns of phrase like ‘cliff-hanger’. And the detective, for all his proliferation, is a precise observer of mores, such as the etiquette around allowing one’s neighbour on the seat of a bus arise and leave.

It is probably evident that I enjoyed this novel. I enjoyed its language, its invitation to the reader to enter its world on its own terms, its pace and play; I enjoyed the gradual revealing of what might be going on, and the character of the protagonist, so absolutely at sea in his urban landscape, so determined to work it all out, on his own terms, with tremendous idealism and commitment. The novel does have a conclusion, which in its own way is both mysterious and satisfying, but I am not going to reveal anything about it. You’ll have to get on the bus.