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Dharma Talk – Zendo, May 3, 2008

1. Barry is away today and asked me to give the talk.

2. Last week, he left us with a stark image of a man hanging for his dear life by holding onto the branch of a tree with his bare teeth unable to use his hands and feet to get to a secure place, to save himself, in other words.

3. That image represents our realization of impermanence as the fundamental reality – of our own mortality and that of any and every person or object we hold dear.

4. That is the bad news.

5. For the good news Barry talked about once seeing on TV really old people, bent-over old, decrepit-old, singing. Singing not to forget their condition but in the full realization of their condition. Singing amidst impending doom, if you will. That is a strange kind of good news.

6. That life is impermanent will appear as bad news to most reasonable people but to take the realization that there is no escape from impermanence as good news?? That appears to be stretching it. But apparently, that is what we were being told by our teacher that life’s impermanence is both good and bad news.

7. Barry has also said at other times: That Buddha should have just stopped when he expounded the First Noble Truth that all Life is suffering. Are we being told, “hey guys, guess what? There is really only bad news?” In the light of this teaching what should we make of the third and fourth Noble Truths of cessation of suffering and the eight-fold path leading to the cessation of suffering? Are they simply palliatives to soften the blow of our no-way out predicament?

8. And where does our practice, this hard, disciplined day-in and day-out sitting, where does this fit into all of this?

9. In the Pakistani culture, life’s many contradictions and predicaments are often explained through poetry. Poetry is not only used for romance but for getting through the myriad difficulties, frustrations and harshness of daily life. It is used as the thrust and parry in every-day arguments; it is used many times as a political weapon to resist oppression from dictators and to galvanize opposition to them. But above all, poetry, which is both avidly recited and sung, is used by a number of people as simply a way to accept life as suffering.

10. I was quite pleasantly surprised to come across an article on this arcane Pakistani phenomenon in Los Angeles Times of all places by staff writer Henry Chu about a month ago. Here is some of what he said in an extended excerpt: “Pakistan may be home to Islamic terrorists. It boasts a nuclear arsenal and an omnipotent military. But it is also a place where lyrical expression still holds great power to inform, inspire and even mobilize the masses, as it has in recent months, to the government's dismay. That power derives from the fact that poetry is woven into the fabric of everyday life here in a way seldom found in the West. Drivers of three-wheeled taxis paint their own witty ditties on the backs of their vehicles. Families of newlyweds commission special odes to the bride and groom. Ordinary Pakistanis drop original or well-known couplets into general conversation.”

11. “On her return from exile last year, slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto visited Lahore, Pakistan's cultural hub, where one of her first acts was to pay respects at the tomb of the revered poet Mohammed Iqbal. His birthday is a national holiday. (Imagine a U.S. holiday for Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson).”

12. “Poetry's ability to stir the soul has roots that stretch back centuries in South Asia, to the great Sufi mystics who rhapsodically described encounters with the divine. Their poems also gave voice to the feelings, thoughts and concerns of common folk, who, being largely illiterate, often used spoken and sung verse to share ideas and stories.”

13. Salima Hashmi, daughter of the famous poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz said: "I think in times of crisis, the true subject comes out, the true subject being what the Sufis call the ability to stand up and have your head sliced off, because through that you will live forever. Poetry is used very much to give courage, to get you to stand up above yourself." End quote.

14. “Stand up and have your head sliced off?” Too strong for me. I wonder if I will have the courage. But we can see in it Bodhidharma’s meeting the Emperor…he couldn’t have answered the emperor the way he did without being prepared to have his head sliced off. And what about the man holding on to his dear life clutching the branch of a tree with his bare teeth and looking down into the abyss? What about him?

15. Anyway, I’d like to read one of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poems. He is considered one of the most influential and famous Urdu poets of the 20th century and his poems are widely recited and sung all over India and Pakistan. (Read here from the book).

Agha Shahid Ali’s translation of Faiz (from The Rebel’s Silhouette):

Before you came,
things were as they should be:
the sky was the dead-end of sight,
the road was just a road, wine merely wine.

Now everything is like heart,
a color at the edge of blood:
the grey of your absence, the color of poison, of thorns,
the gold when we meet, the season ablaze,
the yellow of autumn, the red of flowers, of flames,
and the black when you cover the earth
with the coal of dead fires.

And the sky, the road, the glass of wine?
The sky is a shirt wet with tears,
the road a vein about to break,
and the glass of wine a mirror in which
the sky, the road, the world keep changing.

Don’t leave now that you’re here-
Stay. So the world may become like itself again:
so the sky may be the sky.
the road a road,
and the glass of wine not a mirror, just a glass of wine

16. This poem always reminds me of the Zen saying, which goes as following: “Before I started my practice of Zazen, blue mountains were blue mountains and white clouds were white clouds. After starting the practice blue mountains were not blue mountains and white clouds were not white clouds. But now that I am enlightened, blue mountains are blue mountains and white clouds are white clouds”

17. So what about our prosaic questions about good news and bad news? What does our practice do for us? Is there only One Noble Truth?

18. Our practice of sitting, of labeling our thoughts and paying attention to bodily tension is not a very poetic activity; it is hard mundane work. To constantly dig deeply to mine and expose our secret practices against staunch personal resistance is very upsetting and requires inordinate amounts of persistence, honesty and courage.

19. But if we keep at it and are lucky we may hear an answer, which will surprise us entirely because it will be totally elusive, exactly like the effect of good poetry or good music, nothing really to hold on to. “Ineffable” is perhaps the word.

20. After all when we chant the identity of relative and absolute, what we are also chanting is the identity of the prosaic and the poetic, of sound and music, of suffering and cessation of suffering, of good news and bad news, of the Buddha and us. Gassho