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

Thursday, 10 July 2014

before the world was made

OK, guys, while I wait for those OTHER poems to roll in (hint) (and B has I know set the bar high with a sonnet; I wasn't expecting formal verse, so please don't let that put you off!) here's something completely different:

I am completely in love with The Waterboys' album 'An Appointment with Mr Yeats'. Every song is a poem by W B, set to music by Mike Scott (Yeats himself wrote a sequence called 'Words For Music Perhaps'). Mostly, I'm in love with their setting of his strange little poem called 'Before the World Was Made'. In my head all week I've been hearing this song. The last two lines of the two stanzas (the first is from a man's perspective, the second from a woman's) read:

'I'm looking for the face I had
Before the world was made'


'I'd have him love the thing that was
Before the world was made.'

It's always seemed to me that this is a very profound statement. In Zen Buddhism, there is also the concept, or koan – and I think our current understanding of it comes from Eihei Dogen, that great teacher and master of gnomic quotes who in the early C13th introduced Soto Zen to Japan – of 'what was your face before you were born?' (This, or variations on it, is well-known from a collection of koans, or Zen 'teaching riddles', translated at 'The Gateless Gate'.)

The point is not to confuse, and they're not intended to be ridiculous statements, but to show us the pointlessness of resorting to intellectual understanding to grasp the nature of reality. Koans are to wake you up and move you beyond the false dualities of self and other, good and bad, etc, and to help you find your way to a state of perfect unity beyond notions of the little self. 

In other words, how can you know this face, own this face or get rid of this face? And who is the 'you' it belongs to? What were we before we were made?

Behind this is the idea that the purpose in incarnation, which brings with it perceptions of the apparent duality in which we live, is to evolve a consciousness that can, eventually, move beyond this dualistic mode to full realisation.

Zen resists wordy conceptual theorising. Its intention is to lead you to the direct experience, even if only in moments, of 'no-self', if you like.

Dogen says:
Cease practice based
On intellectual understanding,
Pursuing words and
Following after speech.
Learn the backward
Step that turns
Your light inward
To illuminate within.
Body and mind of themselves
Will drop away
And your original face will be manifest.
Beat poet and Zen practitioner Philip Whalen put it like this:


Because... all three are true, and none of them, ultimately. 


* from Metaphysical Insomnia Jazz Mumonkan xxix, inspired by the Original Face-koan.

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