Billy Collins' Dharma. Lessons in simplicity and naturalness from a dog. Barry Magid July 10th 2010

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Dharma
by Billy Collins.

The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.

Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance—
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers?

Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.

If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she
would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.

On the bulletin board downstairs Claire posted a copy of a short article of mine in Buddhadharma on practicing alone, and somehow the editors decided to illustrate this article with a very large picture of a dog curled up, I guess, next to a zafu or something. I have no idea what the dog is doing there. There’s a very small picture of me in the corner. I don’t know why the dog gets the bigger picture, but maybe this morning instead of dharma we’re going to be talking about dogma.

My favorite dog poem comes from an anthology of poetry supposedly written in the voice of the dog, an anthology called Unleashed. There’s a poem, it’s entirety goes:

You’re going to eat that?
You’re going to eat that?
You're going to eat that?
I’ll eat that!

Now that poem, actually, can serve as an excellent paradigm of what dokusan is supposed to be. This is pure presentation of the state of mind, right? The whole thing in a moment. That’s who and what I am, what I want.

So Billy Collins writes a poem called Dharma, and I think I know Billy slightly and I can say that there’s not a Buddhist bone in his body. So what is he doing writing this poem, Dharma, and what is he illustrating for us? I think it’s a wonderful lesson in how we look at simplicity and naturalness and how those things are fetishized in Buddhism and in other practices, and how we somehow manage to make such a big deal out of being simple.

Billy Collins contrasts the natural life of his dog with the ostentatious simplicity of Thoreau and of Ghandi, making a big show of going off, living a simple life, and so there’s a certain kind of irony about any kind of practice that goes to all this trouble to act naturally, and the dog is a very nice model of, as he says, a life without encumbrance. No possessions, just following her nose and her breath, and yet she eats all the cat’s food and wants that rub behind the ears, and most of all she has her master as her god. Any analogy you can think of in Zen circles?

What we very elaborately construct as natural so often has buried beneath the surface all sorts of needs for idealization and reward and little rivalries with the cat. We can make a big show of our simplicity but we need to stay aware that like the dog, acting natural is not necessarily as pure as it is simple.

I don’t want to load down a good poem with too much commentary. That wouldn’t be in the spirit of simplicity, so I’ll just end here by reading it one more time.

Next Talk

Barry Magid September 4th 2010 The three gates of Zen practice

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