For poet Ocean Vuong, being an artist requires an allegiance to wonder and a willingness to get close to what scares him. As he shared on an episode of Life As It Is, Tricycle’s monthly podcast with editor-in-chief James Shaheen and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, he thinks it is the task of the writer “to look long and hard at the most difficult part of the human condition—of samsara—and to make something out of it so that it can be shared and understood.”
Vuong wrote his latest book, Time Is a Mother, in the aftermath of his mother’s death, and the collection addresses a variety of forms of loss, both personal and communal. On Life As It Is, Vuong discussed Buddhist rituals of mourning, how he protects his sense of wonder, and how his Buddhist practice influences his approach to writing—and how he lives his life. Read an excerpt from the conversation below, and listen to the full episode here.
Sharon Salzberg: As a child, you attended Baptist church services with friends, where you say you developed an infatuation with Noah’s Ark and the idea of building a vessel for the future when the apocalypse comes. Can you speak a little bit more about Noah’s Ark and what it means to you?
Ocean Vuong: As a child, I thought it was real. I was 7 years old, going to a Baptist church in my neighborhood, and I experienced these myths. To me, the myth of Noah’s Ark made perfect sense—it reminded me of the myth of Le Loi that my grandmother would tell me about, where an ancient Vietnamese king defended his country from Chinese invasion by going to the lake and summoning a turtle, who leapt out and gave him a sword to defend the country. I thought that was real, and so when I heard Noah’s Ark, I was like, “Yeah, that sounds right.” I was fascinated by the idea of this great flood coming and then this responsibility of discernment, which is so important for Christian thinking. And I think for me, it’s important for Buddhism, too. Another way to translate mindfulness is discernment. What good things will you put into what you make, regardless of what you’re making? You can be a shoemaker or a poet, but when you really think about it, it becomes no longer a task or a job but a vocation that is invested with a spiritual intention. And that makes the work so much better. It also makes you so much better because you’re now imbuing the object and the task with a personhood. If two people cook the same recipe and one of them cooks it with intention and with love, that meal will come out a lot better. Noah’s Ark was so important to me because I realized that I always had the agency to decide what words to use. If the poem is the ark, then which words? You have to interrogate yourself, why this word, as opposed to the others? It’s a profound, elongated practice of imbuing care into what you do.
James Shaheen: You begin your latest collection, Time Is a Mother, with a line from the Peruvian poet César Vallejo, who writes, “Forgive me, Lord: I’ve died so little.” Can you share a little bit about that epigraph and the relationship you see between poetry and death?
Ocean Vuong: I love Vallejo. To me, it has that quintessential plea to a higher being, which is poetry’s classical condition. Before Homer began The Iliad, he pleaded to the muses: “Help me do this. I can’t do it myself.” In Buddhism, I think that same plea occurs, but it’s more horizontal. It’s a plea to the world: “Help me do this, world.” It’s a plea to the people we know, the books we’ve read, our teachers, present and gone. The spiritual crisis of the artist is to say that I’m not there; I can’t do this on my own. I think what Vallejo means by “I’ve died so little” is “I know so little.” To die so little, to suffer so little, is to know so little. Pain is also a vehicle of knowledge. It may very well be knowledge itself. I think that is actually the seat of a lot of my work. I included that epigraph to remind myself that we’re never there. If the destination is clear in sight, then there’s no point of going, no point of navigating the world. And so everything begins with this cry, but also this admittance, that we’re still so far from the knowledge that we need.
Pain is also a vehicle of knowledge. It may very well be knowledge itself. I think that is actually the seat of a lot of my work.
Sharon Salzberg: You’ve mentioned that you live across the street from a cemetery, and you’ve been practicing death meditation since the age of 15. How has your relationship to this practice changed over the years, and how has it influenced your writing?
Ocean Vuong: It influenced my writing, and it influenced my life. You do death meditation, and it’s hard to really be mad at anybody because you get close to this condition that, as mammals, we are so terrified of. That’s such a beautiful thing. You see an ant and you slap the table next to it, and it scurries in absolute frantic energy trying to preserve its life. I think that’s such a beautiful fact that we’re all in this to stay longer, and then the fact that we have to leave reminds us that there is that final door. When we think about passing through that final door, it’s hard to have these petty thoughts about who does the dishes or who takes out the garbage or something a colleague said in a committee meeting. It all fades away. And so it’s a really powerful tool to center ourselves back to what matters, back to that Noah’s Ark. To me, these two philosophies go hand in hand. The death meditation takes us back to the workshop of the ark. It’s like now that the silly pettiness is out of me, I can get to work and build something valuable and useful to myself and others. Ever since I was 15, that has been my North Star.
When we think about passing through that final door, it’s hard to have these petty thoughts.
But despite how much death meditation I’ve done, it never prepared me for the death of my mother. I thought that I was some sort of expert, particularly among my family. There were about eight of us there, and I was kind of leading the way. I was able to read the signs of death, and I could tell my aunts and uncles what was happening. When my mother took her last breath, all of a sudden, I realized I was just kneeling next to her bed wailing, screaming into her sheets. And I realized that there’s nothing that you can do to prepare for the ultimate truth. There is, in retrospect, a beauty in watching death occur because it is the ultimate truth. Honesty, for example, is truth that requires a medium. Honesty is the vehicle of truth. But death needs no vehicle. It is itself. And I’ve never seen something so truthful before and so devastating at the same time.
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