from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

space, as in Mu and Ma

Sitting in the osteopath's waiting room leafing through a copy of BBC Gardeners' World magazine is not the most obvious place for a brief reminder (if such a thing were possible) of some of the fundamental teachings of Zen, even in an article by Monty Don. Don, who once upon a time, I learn, practised Zen, was writing in relation, of course, to planting; with a view to being aware of the space between things.

As a follower of a Celtic spiritual path who has also practised Zen meditation for more than 4 decades, I still meditate (most days). However, since my teacher Ken Jones died a few years ago, I've not been on retreat, and feel myself apart from the sangha – community – associated with Ken, the Network of Engaged Buddhists. (It is also true that my sangha is the whole world, human and other-than-human – this vast network in which I too have a tiny part to play. I remember this in my morning practice.)

An outcome, though, is that I have become lazy in my studying and discussion of Zen teachings (not the praxis, as I do genuinely bring, or try to bring, most of my presence, most of the time, to whatever I'm doing – the now-trendy practice of mindfulness, originally a Zen practice). But it's hard to stay inspired and committed to study without others who share that path.

So the article woke me up. Thank you, Mr Don.

Mu in Zen Buddhism ('Wu' in the Chinese Chan teachings, Chan being the forerunner of Zen) like most concepts in Zen, is not easily defined by what it is; not even by what it's not; more, somehow, by eliding the two. Paradox is central to Buddhism, and can often be a problem to the Western dualistic mode of thinking. Traditionally, Mu tends to be translated as 'nonbeing' which might best be explained by the analogy of non-attachment, another Buddhist concept, which is not the same as detachment. However, in English 'nonbeing' doesn't quite capture the fertile sense, as I see it, of 'the creative void'.

Mu is often translated as meaning 'emptiness', but that's not the entire picture. We could also call it 'not fullness', in the sense of an absence of the clutter of things, actions, thoughts that constitute much of our daily lives in the West. But it's also being and not-being; form and formlessness in a continual interplay, like the dance between particle and wave in quantum physics.

For myself, I tend to think of Mu as 'the creative void': not a 'dead' emptiness, but more where everything is held in potentia, yet to emerge into form; a container for the not-yet-manifest, from which things emerge and into which they dissolve, if you like simultaneously; in a continuum. The teaching in which we first find written (I believe) the concept of Mu is called 'The Gateless Gate', which conveys well the 'both/and' path of Zen.

Ma is related, but is more to do with the space between things once they have taken form. When I attended a painting retreat in the Brecon Beacons many years ago, we spent much of the week practising what is known in the art world as 'negative space': noticing, and painting, the gaps between the struts and seat and back of a chair; the space between leaves; the shapes between people –

... that twig quivering
where the bird

Ma is all about relationship: the interval between notes; the line-breaks and stanza-breaks in a poem; the relationship between robin and twig, between me and you. The pauses, the silences, the moments-between-moments, the breathing-places where things that are in form, or events that have happened, or the brief hiatus between systole and diastole are what contain and, significantly, shape our experience of them.

In poetry, I encourage people to look at the shape of a poem on the page: to use consciously the white space of a page, to make careful decisions about where they break a line, or a stanza, to choose how they use punctuation (or to choose not to) with an awareness of the impact of these choices on the imagination and experience of the reader (or audience). Contained within Ma, as I understand it, is also the idea of 'less is more' (viz the haiku): so often more is delivered to a reader by what is not said than by what is.

And then there are relationships between people: you will remember what Kahlil Gibran famously says about marriage (my paraphrase, from memory): 'And let there be spaces in your togetherness / Let the winds of the heavens dance between you... For the oak tree and the cypress dwell not in each other's shade / And the pillars of the temple stand together / But not too close together'. 

And Rilke, too: 'Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest humans infinite distances exist, a wonderful growing side-by-side can occur, if they succeed in loving the distance between them that allows each to see the other whole and against a wide sky.'

Here, in West Cornwall on the Atlantic, I'm loving listening to the wild wind, and am gazing out at the dusky sea below me. The ocean seems a good metaphor for formless form – shape and no-shape, ceaselessly moving, impossible to capture in words, bounded by land and yet utterly uncontainable too.

To margins

and nameless places

to that twig quivering
where the bird

to the tilt of our lives
and away from
each other

to words
and to
speaking without them

©Roselle Angwin

Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.
Read more at:
Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.
Read more at:

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

let it be enough some mornings (poem)

Is it time for a poem? This one's old now, but I still like it:

Let it be enough some mornings

High tide, a wild morning, wild and stormy,
and you take the leaf-deep stony path
above seal-grey waters
        where the geese are dragged
through the sodden air like ripped-away prayer flags
in a crazy disordered dance, and the waves
slap hard on the mudflats’ flanks,

and for once questions like
what use is poetry, if you’re starving, or a refugee
squeezed between torture and war, or bleeding alone
in some dark alley
have momentarily flown, though left you unguarded;

but bent low over the creek the damson tree
drops unremarked a cargo of fruit
on the waters --

mornings like this
grey and green with straggled leaves
and the rain storming the opaque sky

let it be enough now to hear this one curlew keen,
to have one last bedraggled swallow skim the thick air
over your head, see the inkcaps’ effortless
overnight arrival,
            to witness one small flower --
samphire, or a late marsh marigold --
struggling through black mud on its journey upwards

against gravity, pointing the way --
let each day be a small triumph, let it be
two fingers to death.

© Roselle Angwin, in Looking for Icarus

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