This poem in 28 lines serves in a way to be an American version of the Bhagavad Gita, which took a lot longer, 700 lines, I believe. Indians are much more long-winded about these things. But if we look at the central theme of this, it is about entering over and over again into the stream of life, and here, particularly, the stream of love. How many times have I said I love you? How many times you’re beautiful?
The Bhagavad Gita, of course, frames the stream of life in terms of war. The poem is a dialogue between Arjuna and god Krishna on the eve of a great battle between relatives, between rival families, noble families, and Arjuna is seeing how empty and repetitive the cycle of war is, and basically asks Why? Why must we fight? What will possibly be accomplished by this great battle? And Krishna tells him that even once one has seen that it’s all predestined, that it’s all empty, that there’s nothing to accomplish, one must do one’s duty. One must fulfill one’s role, one must wholeheartedly re-enter the stream of life, even the stream of conflict and death.
And this poem contrasts the sublime, the claps of thunder, the wrath of god thunder. The sublime means the experience of the world of nature as frightening and awe-inspiring that puts man and everything we do in perspective, a frightening perspective in comparison with the absolute. And each thing that we do, which may seem so trivial, dabbing the hot sauce off the chin, between flights in the Denver airport, how many times have we fallen in love, how many times have we seen love end, how many times have we been disappointed? Not just us, but everyone. This endless cycle. And the swami, sitting in his hut in the mountain overlooking it all, sees from one village to the next to the next, takes out a cigarette and inhales deeply. The swami’s perspective is not simply one of detachment. It’s not simply one of the perfection of the self. His final gesture is inhaling deeply from a cigarette. Inhaling deeply of mortality. There’s an echo in that cigarette smoke and watching smoke from the sugar beet plant drift east from Minnesota. This world of destruction. We see it but we’re not apart from it.
See, practice is not about making us more and more apart from that world, whether it’s war or love or loss. It’s not about perfection. See, it’s a terrible corruption of practice to use it to create a fantasy of an ideal that we’re forever pursuing and failing to attain. It’s a terrible corruption of our practice to imagine it will make us immune to love and loss, immune to feeling the suffering of the world at war or the planet being degraded. We’re not going to find some perspective that allows us to be invulnerable, and we’re not going to find a perspective that enables us to fix any of those things once and for all. We may engage the world and relieve the suffering in one corner of it. But suffering will always go on, wars will always go on, love and loss will always go on, and our practice is to let us be part of that world, and to love the world in its imperfections. Love ourselves in our imperfections. Right in the midst of impermanence.