Thursday, 25 December 2014

Friendly Limerick Bonanza

There was a young girl of Penang
Who started a fashion shebang
She stayed up all night with her elves
And let them make clothes for themselves,
Then she cooked for them chocolate meringue.

Having eaten up all the meringue,
In the moonlight, they danced and they sang,
But as dawn started breaking,
The earth began shaking
The elves left all their clothes and they ran!

Unperturbed, the young girl sipped ginseng,
It was just a delivery van
Bringing stock for next night
No need for the elves’ fright
Though it suited just fine with her plan.

When the fashion dealership rang,
She struck a fine deal for her gang.
As light filled the skies,
She scrunched up her eyes,
That delightful young girl of Penang!

Painting: Nocturne with Elves (~1860) by Gustave Doré

Morning Poem (Mary Oliver)

Morning Poem

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

—Mary Oliver

Painting: St. Rosa of Lima, pray for us


The mosquito is so small
it takes almost nothing to ruin it.
Each leaf, the same.
And the black ant, hurrying.
So many lives, so many fortunes!
Every morning, I walk softly and with forward glances
down to the ponds and through the pinewoods.
Mushrooms, even, have but a brief hour
before the slug creeps to the feast,
before the pine needles hustle down
under the bundles of harsh, beneficent rain.
How many, how many, how many
make up a world!
And then I think of that old idea: the singular
and the eternal.
One cup, in which everything is swirled
back to the color of the sea and sky.
Imagine it!

A shining cup, surely!
In the moment in which there is no wind
over your shoulder,
you stare down into it,
and there you are,
your own darling face, your own eyes.
And then the wind, not thinking of you, just passes by,
touching the ant, the mosquito, the leaf,
and you know what else!
How blue is the sea, how blue is the sky,
how blue and tiny and redeemable everything is, even you,
even your eyes, even your imagination. 

—Mary Oliver

Green Shoots

Last night I dreamt of many things,
Of snowy mounds and elven rings,
Of caterpillars smoking weed
And armoured dragons drinking mead,
But never did I dream of you,
Nor shooting stars, nor wishes true,
For these are real if we can see
Around us in reality.


Scrabble Games

It all started off when I played NUDE
And left you the chance of a triple
I never meant to be so crude
My finger slipped across the button
And consented to the move too soon.
I’m glad you weren’t in ravenous mood
To take advantage
of my jutting N
Or perhaps you couldn’t reach my NUDE
To get a leg-up on my letter
So played HANG against it, nothing better.

Still, this stopped me playing on
it myself.
What in good faith could I do,
Go C and E and CHANGE
Or play elsewhere a turn or two
And leave your HANG to stew?
In the end, I kept the game alive
And took the lead with triple STIVE
Which means to fill a chamber full
Rendering hot and close and stifling.
I then came back and turned your HANG
Into the Chinese river CHANG.

Next I planned a setup tease

GOBAN pronounced go-bang,
Or Go, the game in Japanese.
Which left the G to climax on GUITAR,
But before I played upon the G,
You covered up the spot with GLUES.
Not all was lost, I’d found my muse

Instead of GUITAR, I played SITAR
An instrument more pretty still,
Whose hollow’s round and not so big
as the music had its fill,
You poked me one last time with TIG.
Though one had won, and one had lost,
We went to sleep without a care,
Our scrabble play had been such fun!
Having sowed and sawed so good and true,
The only thing that I had left
Upon my rack was U.



Sometimes I think
the Navajo had it right…
there has only ever been
one wind in the world.

One wind blowing for all time,
one wind touching all of us,
one wind moving in all of us,
one wind we call many names.

I don’t know any other way
to explain how seeing you,
outside, the wind in your hair,
could seem like the whole world.



I love all films that start with rain:

rain, braiding a windowpane

or darkening a hung-out dress

or streaming down her upturned face;

one big thundering downpour
right through the empty script and score

before the act, before the blame,

before the lens pulls through the frame

to where the woman sits alone

beside a silent telephone

or the dress lies ruined on the grass

or the girl walks off the overpass,

and all things flow out from that source

along their fatal watercourse.

However bad or overlong

such a film can do no wrong,

so when his native twang shows through

or when the boom dips into view
or when her speech starts to betray

its adaptation from the play,

I think to when we opened cold

on a starlit gutter, running gold 

with the neon of a drugstore sign

and I’d read into its blazing line:

forget the ink, the milk, the blood —

all was washed clean with the flood

we rose up from the falling waters

the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters

and none of this, none of this matters.

—Don Paterson

Emptying Out

this poem didn't come from me, poems never do,
it didn't come by thinking what was pleasing, what was true,
it came by unannounced because that's what poems do,
and it left me just as quickly paddling in the blue.


In that Great River

I don’t write poetry when I wish,
I write when I can’t,
when my larynx is flooded
and my throat is shut.

—Anna Kamieńska,
(June 2010)
“In That Great River: A Notebook”


The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

—Billy Collins

Loving You

I take it all back. Life is boring,
except for flowers, sunshine, your perfect legs.
A glass of cold water when you are really thirsty.
The way bodies fit together. Fresh and young and sweet.
Coffee in the morning. These are just moments.
I struggle with the in-betweens.
I just want to never stop loving 
like there is nothing else to do,
because what else is there to do?


Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Three Theories of Everything (Ellis Potter)

The following are notes on a talk by an ex-Buddhist monk Ellis Potter who then converted to Christianity. I fear I might have fallen short in representing his views to which perhaps the only remedy is reading his book (see the link below). Following the talk, there was a response from a Buddhist perspective by Rachel Harris and then a Q & A.

More about Ellis Potter's book on which his talk was based: 

Ellis Potter, Three Theories of Everything


There seem to be three absolute world views: monism, dualism and trinitarianism. These world views need not be religious, but they all seem to involve a belief in a perfect reality, in the existence of imperfection or suffering in our experience or misapprehension of reality, and in proposing a solution to this imperfection.

Monism. This is a theory of perfect unity. Since unity is stable and faithful, suffering is understood as fragmentation of that unity. According to this world view, all is One, Tathata, Buddha nature, just so, with an undifferentiated quality of possibility. Experience of ego-consciousness and alienation is caused by an illusion of separation, and enlightenment is waking up from this illusion. The metaphor of merging with unity is of a droplet becoming one with the ocean, and in this there is also an idea of redemption or salvation. But because we do not awaken to the All, we suffer the wheel of life, and reincarnation.

The path to enlightenment often involves the practice of meditation to quieten consciousness. In Hindu philosophy, this is the practice of raja yoga. The word yoga means literally “union”. The yoga that tends to be practiced in the West is a ritual form of physical exercise (hatha yoga), but as well as meditation (raja) and movement (hatha) there are at least four other branches of yoga, or ritual paths to union: through work (karma), through devotion (bakhti), through desire (tantra) and through wisdom (jnana). Each of these paths are full of wisdom and there is much that we in the West can learn from them. The repetition of a mantra for example can create a powerful healing vibration. The ritual practices are very therapeutic. But the lesson I think we ought to learn most of all from Eastern wisdom is the importance of the ordinary.

Zen Buddhists might be said to be nonists, believing in nothing, but a pregnant nothing in which everything is possible. There is a proverb that if you see Buddha on the path then you should kill him, the idea being to kill the idea and be Buddha, to transcend belief and realize Buddha nature.

Dualism. According to this theory, imperfection is not caused by separation from what is, but from an underlying imbalance of what is. The world is full of antipodes: light/dark, wet/dry, male/female, up/down. When the opposites are in harmony, life is good. In ancient Chinese thought, divination was conducted based on combinations of solid and broken lines giving rise to the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching. Each circumstance was understood as requiring an appropriate response to keep things in balance. It is difficult however to see dualism as an absolute theory, because what is the opposite of a river? What is the
 opposite of time? Despite these difficulties, this does not make dualism any less logical than monism, but just a different paradigm, and like monism, it can be very effective when put into practice.

Trinitarianism. This theory is inspired by the revealed knowledge of Christian theology which offers us a glimpse of things beyond space and time which we would not be able to realise on our own. According to this theory, the universe in its creation is both completely unified and completely diverse, and the cause of imperfection is neither separation nor disharmony but alienation from God. The original perfection of God is the Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit which includes both the objective and subjective viewpoint, both the form of God the Father to command and the freedom of God the Son to obey, the Holy Spirit blowing like a wind, in-dwelling and empowering all. There is a dynamism in this Trinity yet there is nothing in creation that is not in the Creator, so the starting point is fully complete. Although the Father commands and the Son obeys, hierarchy does not imply inequality because both are equally God. The father in a family may wear a crown, but then like Jesus it should be a crown of thorns; it is the suffering of responsibility.

Truth is fact plus meaning, and meaning only comes into being through relationship. In the famous words from Genesis, we see that being with precedes being: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. The meaning of Jesus is in his relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The crucifixion of Jesus wasn’t just symbolic; it was an actual physical emptying for others, but because each of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit also empty themselves for the other two, each are filled twice over.
We all have fundamental needs to be seen and heard, to make a difference, and to be wanted. Where do these needs come from? Maybe God has these needs. If I don’t have needs, then it means I don’t have trust, trust is the basis of love and God is love. The way out of suffering is not by letting go of needs because the needs can be a joy for God to satisfy but by letting go of self-centredness and becoming other-centred, like Jesus emptying out for others. While God is three, the devil is one because he is exclusively self-centred. It is the black hole of self-centredness that causes suffering in the world. God is other-centred. The Biblical solution to our alienation from ourselves and from God is in this holistic unity of a trinity.
Response by Rachel Harris: I’d like for you to pause a moment and feel  the sensation at the soles of your feet. In the Psalms, it says “be still and know that I am God”. Within the experience I just suggested, there were no concepts. God is beyond concepts and understanding. Emptying out concepts, there is only awe. When Christians talk of letting go of self-centredness and the possibility of closeness to God, and the Buddhists of emptiness and stillness, we are all talking about the same thing. Religion can be divisive as we see in the world today — the news is not good — but this is caused by an error. It’s important not to degrade religion and set ourselves up as different. Why am I a Buddhist? It is a result of causes and conditions. The way we engage depends on where we come from individually. I could not have said these things to you here a hundred years ago. I like a saying of Ato Rinpoche that we are all holding onto a branch of the great tree of faith. It’s important to be committed to the branch we are holding onto, but this does not involve saying that we are right and the other wrong.

Q. Jesus is not a concept, he actually existed! (Rachel) But for us now, he is, we are not experiencing him now. America is a concept.
Even if Buddha didn’t exist, that he is just a concept wouldn’t detract from his teaching.

Q. Is religion just metaphorical? (Rachel) Religion is a tool, a practice. If a practice is helpful, good, if not, then not. It is not a piece of cosmology.

Q. Why did you become a Christian? (Ellis) I was interested in reason, and when I was young, faith was taught as an enemy of reason, so I
became interested in Buddhism. I was interested in absolutes and philosophy and those who would listen to me despite my crazy questions. But who is asking the questions? In Buddhism, asking is asking, in Christianity, the “I” which is sustained by Christ. I found it involved less faith to believe in Christianity, faith as small as a mustard seed according to Matthew, so the smallest possible faith led me to Christianity.

Painting: “Lord's Prayer” by Tissot 

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Being Alive to The Things we Find Hard to Bear

These are some incomplete notes taken from memory based on a brilliant dhamma teaching on suffering by Yanai Postelnik.

First: Check in with yourself. It is very important to be with ourselves. Put aside mobile phones, emails, thoughts of things which must be done, or things which might have been or have been. Check in with yourself. We imagine that if we do this the world will collapse without us, but let the world look after itself for this time of retreat. It will have to do so after we're gone, so let's give it some practice. Instead of turning away from ourself as we do habitually in looking out into the world and getting lost in achievement and appetite and distraction, especially to avoid feelings of boredom or loneliness or stuckness or existential angst or pain, all the things we use to paper over just being with ourselves and really feeling these things, instead let us turn inwards. Let us give ourselves space to just be. Let us meditate.

Secondly: Be alive to the things we find hard to bear. Buddha's whole teaching is said to have been described by himself as concerning just one thing: suffering and freedom from suffering. But isn't this two things? Buddha is appropriating the idea in Indian philosophy of the one thing through which everything else might be known, and then perhaps subverting it. Buddha's first noble truth is the realisation of suffering. This is sometimes misunderstood that life is suffering. Rather it means the existence of suffering and being alive to this, realising the existence of things which are hard to bear. They may not be impossible to bear. It's not true we can't bear them. We often do. But these are things which cause difficulty. Buddha's own story is how as a young prince he came to realise the existence of ageing, sickness and death, and fourthly the possibility of liberation, this witnessing of suffering which shook him profoundly ironically because he had been protected from it until then and therefore was so alive to it. His first noble truth reflects this awakening to suffering of his youth, and indeed his means of attaining enlightenment also reflected another childhood experience, an experience of unity which came through curiosity. Let us turn inwards then with the eyes and ears of our love.

Thirdly: Suffering is manifold. The four-fold: birth, age, sickness and death correspond to stages in life. Sickness doesn't mean a cold or something which we might get when young but really that which we cannot recover from. It might even be translated as "decay". We often think of "tooth decay", but the whole body decays. As well as physical things which are hard to bear, there is also mental suffering, such as the suffering of anger, greed, loneliness, boredom, being separated from what we love or being close to what we hate or fear.

Fourthly: Suffering is not mine alone. The great Thai monk Buddhadasa used to begin his speeches, "Dear brothers and sisters in birth, ageing, sickness and death…" This points to a profound but simple practice. Whenever we see someone, to think: this is someone who suffers, who finds things hard to bear. Then, instead of our habitual liking or disliking the people in the world around us, we feel a common bond. My suffering is not mine alone. Others suffer also, perhaps in different ways. Another powerful practice is listening to the suffering of others with compassion, without feeling the need to blame and without even trying to fix it. Just being present to each other's and our own suffering can have a profound effect. It's fine to fix things, but from a place then of silent wisdom. We meditate in silence to connect with ourself. Connecting with ourself, we connect better with people around us. Let us meditate not only for ourselves.
Fifthly: Suffering is conditioned by our reaction to it. Sometimes suffering can come from the way we react to suffering. Instead of looking how to avoid it, or our tendency to blame it on someone else, or on ourselves, could we instead pause and learn from the experience? When the weather presenter describes the forecast as "miserable", they are referring to a human emotion, but the rain need not be seen this way. Often the worst it can do is to make you wet.
Sixthly: Transform suffering into blessings. Buddha's teaching doesn't end with the existence of suffering. Suffering is an experience which we all have to go through, and we cannot wholly avoid. When we experience it, it's often important not to avoid it because it's a guide which must be listened to, experienced and learned from. How can we learn from it? This requires a certain vulnerability. Staying with compassion, transform suffering into blessings. This is not something that can be accomplished with thought. It is a kind of wisdom that arises from silence, finding space and togetherness, being alive and present to the situations and things that trouble us, and immersed in that experience, coming through them.

The Well of Grief (David Whyte)
Those who will not slip beneath 
    the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water 
    to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink, 
    the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering 
    the small round coins 
        thrown by those who wished for something else.
—David Whyte from Where Many Rivers Meet 
    ©2007 Many Rivers Press

Why then do we not despair? (Anna Akhmatova)
Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold 
Death's great black wing scrapes the air, 
misery gnaws to the bone. 
Why then do we not despair?
By day, from the surrounding woods, 
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.

And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses—
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breasts for centuries.

—Anna Akhmatova (Translated by Stanley Kunitz.)
The Unbroken (Rashani)

Khalil Gibran, "On Pain"

Your pain is the breaking of the shell
that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break,
that its heart may stand in the sun,
so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder
at the daily miracles of your life,
your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart,
even as you have always accepted
the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity
through the winters of your grief.

Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician
within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink
his remedy in silence and tranquillity:
For his hand, though heavy and hard,
is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings,
though it burn your lips,
has been fashioned of the clay
which the Potter has moistened
with His own sacred tears.

The Serenity Prayer (Reinhold Niebuhr)

God grant me the serenity 

to accept the things I cannot change;

courage to change the things I can;

and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time; 

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; 

Taking, as He did, this sinful world

as it is, not as I would have it; 

Trusting that He will make all things right

if I surrender to His Will;

That I may be reasonably happy in this life

and supremely happy with Him

Forever in the next.


Everything is Waiting for You (David Whyte)

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone.
As if life were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone is your dream-ladder
to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
— David Whyte from Everything is Waiting for You
    ©2003 Many Rivers Press

After Great Pain (Emily Dickinson)

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

Lovers' Truth

The desert is a pathless land
For every path is steeped in sand.
Since we embrace the desert wide
We must not from our sadness hide.
For sadness is a ray of light,
A star that guides us through the night.
Lest I forget, lead me brave friend
But lead your own path till the end.

—okei (2013)