Before I returned to the Catholic Church in 2002 after about thirty years of wandering, I spent about ten years informally studying and practicing Buddhism.
I first discovered Buddhism in my twenties through translations by Kenneth Rexroth in One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. Unlike most of the poems in English I was reading at the time, this poetry made sense to me.
Rexroth’s translations of poems by Chinese poet and calligrapher Su Tung-p’o (1036-1101)*, also known as Su Shih, especially resonated. “Rain in the Aspens,” for example, captures the grief I felt on many sleepless nights for my inability to make my way in the world:
My neighbor to the East has
A grove of aspens. Tonight
The rain sounds mournfully in
Them. Alone, at my window,
I cannot sleep. Autumn insects
Swarm, attracted by my light.
“The Turning Year” spoke to me of my failure to see the good in my life and the instability I was feeling:
Nightfall. Clouds scatter and vanish.
The sky is pure and cold.
Silently the River of Heaven turns in the Jade Vault.
If tonight I do not enjoy life to the full,
Next month, next year, who knows where I will be?
When I began writing poetry seriously in my thirties, Chinese and Japanese poets in translation – particularly those translated by the scholar Burton Watson – became my most steady guides. I closely studied the work of American and English poets, but poets such as Su Tung-p’o gave me an understanding of the self and the world lacking in the work of writers of my own heritage.
Many Christians are uncomfortable with Buddhism. Some think it just another pagan practice. Some see it as excuse for self-gratification. Others see it as a faint echo of the truth found in Christianity. Others fear syncretism, or the potential blending of Buddhist and Christian practices.
While I understand the suspicions held by some Christians, I have found through my own experience of Buddhist poets wise companions who help teach me about renouncing the world and the careful observation of life, nature, and the self.
In Awesome Nightfall: The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyō, William R. LaFleur writes of how the Japanese monk and poet, who has become a primary model for me, experienced “internal demons” that made him long “for the left-behind world.”
Saigyō (1118-1190) feared, LaFleur says, that this longing would “rob him of his vocation”:
Shaking the bell
on this mountain, am I loosened from
the world now?
Can I shake my self enough
to know what lies ahead for me?
When I am attacked by a longing for the misadventures of my past and thoughts that attempt to prevent me from seeing the sinfulness in these experiences, I too fear the loss of my vocation – to live life fully and completely as a Christian.
Despite the differences in our faith, I feel a kinship with Saigyō. His self-examination helps me examine my own thoughts, my own demons, and helps me remain true to my own vocation, which requires that I renounce the world more each day for Christ.
In another poem, LaFleur writes, Saigyō speaks of the rigor of Buddhist practice on a mountain where he and others traveled to experience “severe, often painful, disciplines”:
climb from caves in thick
bamboo grass beyond
the mists: body now bending along
stark rock forms at Ants’ Crossing.
The poem leads me to three thoughts: the rigors of my own Christian practice as I seek to spend more time each day in prayer; my need to pick up and carry my cross, no matter how difficult; and my need to be as attentive as is Saigyō to nature, God’s creation, wherever I am.
The precision of LaFleur’s pure and clear English allows me to see for myself the “thick bamboo grass beyond the mists,” and how God reveals himself to us in the beauty of moments like this. To see them, though, we must slow down to look.
The world gets in the way of such careful, attentive observation, which is why as Christians we require prayer, vigils, and fasting to take us out of the world. Once out of the world, we see with new eyes.
A good Christian prayer can often be nothing more than our expression of gratitude to Our Lord for moments we truly see the beauty in God’s creation, moments in daily life when he reveals himself to us. I am grateful that Buddhist poets have helped me understand this.
* Some sources list the date of his birth as 1037.