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Our relationship to desire and attachment Barry Magid February 11th 2012

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Entangling Vines

This morning’s edition of your Zen Prairie Home Companion will begin with a poem by Mr. Ezra Pound. This was written about a hundred years ago. It’s called Mr. Housman’s Message. I should say it’s intended to be a parody of A. E. Housman who you may not be all that familiar with anymore. Housman was a very popular turn-of-the-last-century English poet known for a collection called A Shropshire Lad. He wrote poems of elegy and loss. They were love poems but they were all poems about lost and unrequited love. Pound, who was busy translating the troubadours, wanted his love poems to be a little more alive and lusty than Mr. Housman’s. So this way Pound’s response was to what he thought was rather anemic poetry of his time. It was said that Housman looked like he was descended from a long line of maiden aunts.

Mr. Housman’s Message

O woe, woe,
People are born and die,
We also shall be dead pretty soon
Therefore let us act as if we were
dead already.

The bird sits on the hawthorn tree
But he dies also, presently.
Some lads get hung, and some get shot.
Woeful is this human lot.
Woe! woe, etcetera...

London is a woeful place,
Shropshire is much pleasanter.
Then let us smile a little space
Upon fond nature's morbid grace.
Oh, Woe, woe, woe, etcetera....

Now I read this as an introduction as well to a little koan because it says something about our relationship to desire and loss and attachment. Pound was basically indicting Housman for wanting to have this kind of arms’ length relationship to life and desire and attachment and we must be careful that in our Buddhist practice, when we think about attachment, we don’t think of it as something that we’re simply better off without. We have to figure out how to do it right rather than not do it at all. I’ll read the classic koan upon this subject.

An Old Woman Burns Down a Hermitage

There was an old woman who supported a hermit for twenty years. She always had a girl, sixteen or seventeen years old, take the hermit his food and wait on him. One day she told the girl to give the monk a close hug and ask, “What do you feel just now?” The hermit responded,
An old tree on a cold cliff;
Mid-winter -- no warmth.
The girl returned and told this to the old woman. The woman said, “For twenty years I’ve supported this vulgar good-for-nothing!” So saying, she threw the monk out and burned down the hermitage.

Now the hermit is embodying a certain kind of ideal and it’s relevant to our discussion of precepts because the hermit is saying, for instance, the way not to misuse sexuality is to not have any at all. We don’t have to control our feelings if we don’t have any feelings in the first place, so we’ll make ourselves into an old tree on a cold cliff. No warmth. This is more or less saying there’s no difference from the people sitting in the zendo and the stone Buddha sitting in the garden. It’s a strange thing to aspire to, sort of the thing that Pound is complaining about with Housman. He’s prematurely given up. His reaction to lost love is to never love again. The hermit’s response to temptation is to simply become unfeeling.

What is going to be our alternative to this? I don’t suppose we think that the hermit should have just grabbed the girl, but what would we like to see as the appropriate response? What do we do when the young girl comes in to dokusan and puts her head on my lap? I hope I don’t get tested by that this morning. Let’s just try to answer that as a thought experiment, shall we? What would you do?

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