I’ve just returned home from the New Year sesshin at Zen Mountain Monastery, where I’m a student of John Daido Loori. Basho was there, too. Not in person, of course (having died in 1694), and not in print, since reading and writing are not allowed during sesshin. But he was there nonetheless, a stowaway in my mind, because I was trying hard to achieve what the poet Elizabeth Bishop, in another context, called “a perfectly useless, self-forgetful concentration,” and Basho’s poems, which spring from exactly that kind of mind, have been another of my teachers.
For those who have never attended a sesshin, to say that it’s an arduous and intense experience would be the understatement of the kalpa. Seventy or eighty participants gather at the monastery for a week of concentrated practice. There’s no talking or eye contact. Attention is turned inward, away from the world’s distractions, in fierce scrutiny of the fiction that is the self. As the great thirteenth-century Zen master Dogen put it, “to study the self is to forget the self.” Sesshin provides a rare opportunity to practice this difficult work. The days become a complex flow of zazen, care-taking of the buildings and grounds, liturgy, oryoki (highly formalized, ritualized meals), and rest. But mostly zazenabout eight hours out of each day, which begins at 4:20 and ends with lights out at 9:30. When the body is perfectly still and the senses have nothing to play with, the mind’s activity is the only show in town. “Mind that abides nowhere must come forth,” says theDiamond Sutra. It was there, in the active silence of the zendo, that Basho’s words would appear in my mind like petals falling, there and then not there.
The making of poetry, like zazen, requires us to constantly confront the exact nature of the self. In a recent interview the writer Lucy Grealy speaks of “the space between the T who is being written about and the T who is doing the writing.” It’s in this small rift that Basho’s startling transparency becomes apparent. His poems are expressions of a human consciousness that has made itself nearly invisible in language. The poems open right where the self might appear but does not, as if their roots were in one world and their flowers in another:
A cloud of flowers—
Was that the bell of Ueno
There’s a human presence in this poem, a hearer, but it’s unlocatable, floating somewhere between the flowering branches overhead and the sound of the temple bell. It simply perceives and reports its split-second moment of consciousness, which consists of nothing but a tiny disturbance—the bell—marking an otherwise vacant perception of flowering trees. The sound is like a scribble of wind on a still lake; the object of perception and the act of perception are one and the same. Of this poem Robert Aitken writes that it expresses “exactly the condition of the Zen master sleeping on a tiger.” Kaijun Mold, one of the monastics, gave a talk during sesshin in which she spoke of a “second naturalness,” or innocence, which comes after long practice, when the mind’s seemingly tireless commentary finally wears itself out and a different kind of consciousness is possible. I think this is what the poet Robert Hass is talking about when he says that Zen provides “people with training in how to stand aside and leave the meaning-making activity of the ego to its own devices. Not resisting it, but seeing it as another phenomenal thing.” This notion of a second innocence interests me both as a poet and as a practitioner because it goes to the heart of the always-underlying questions in all its guises: What is the self, anyway! What voice speaks to the world out of poems that outlive their maker, as all poems ultimately do? What happens to the self, the mind, when it stops thinking and seems to disappear? Where does it go! Where does what go!
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