Koans Rhyme with Poems

Over the summer, the editors of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle approached me, asking if Rattle might help them with a poetry discussion group.  Though we have no direct ties to Buddhism, I thought it might be interesting to participate.  I’m not a practicing Buddhist myself — I’m too much a spiritless materialist to succor the notion of reincarnation or Buddha-nature — but I’ve always had a strong affinity for their philosophical and psychological views, which in the end comprise the bulk of their theology.  I went through a phase where I read a lot of Buddhist texts, and maybe I’m being too honest here, but my hunch has been that the Buddha got it right, but his message was corrupted by the canvas of the Rigveda, and then 4,000 years of the same human ambitions and anthropomorphisms that have dogged every religion since the beginning of time.  I even spun a fantasy that, when the Buddha said “reincarnation,” he meant moment-to-moment — the fact that we’re not the same person we were 10 minutes ago, let alone 10 years ago, and in that time even your bones have been replaced.  The miracle of reincarnation is the constancy of consciousness itself, which is reborn relentlessly, even as the body itself changes.

In any event, Buddhist scholars have been thinking about the nature of our reality, intelligently and unbiasedly, for an awfully long time, and their observations are as insightful as they are fascinating.  And much of it relates to poetry.  I’ve already talked about the poem as mantra (“mind-tool”) — poetry as a spell, a hypnotic string of words that alter your mental state.  In my opinion, that’s the best definition of poetry there is.  But that’s not all eastern religions have to offer.

Poems are also koans.

In the Zen tradition, koans are little stories teachers tell their students to mess with their heads — in a good way.  Koans are often presented as faux-riddles which cannot be resolved rationally.  Pop culture is familiar with many of these: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  “If a tree falls in the woods with no one around, does it make a sound?”  The teacher will present a question like this, as if there were an answer, and then the student will meditate on his or her failure to find a response. (For more on how this works, see this anecdote by Huston Smith in Shambhala Sun.)  When you fully engage a koan, the effect is a subversion — and thus exposure — of the tired and routine workings of the mind.  You can almost hear the gears grinding up there, as the mind tries to make sense out of the nonsensical, and with that comes the stunning revelation that the mind is not you — it’s something else, something less than yourself, something outside yourself.  If you can sense your mind flailing, who is doing the sensing, who the flailing?

So in the end, the koan has little to do with the koan itself — the koan really lies within the response it triggers. It’s a process, not a product.

But in many respects, koans do have answers.  For every scholarly analysis of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” there’s a Buddhist scholar analyzing Two Hands Clapping.  Koans always seem to invite critical thinking at the same time as they subvert it.  The medium is the message, but that doesn’t mean their aren’t messages in the medium, too.  Here’s an example, a koan in narrative form:

When Bai Zhang consulted his master on his development, Ma Zu stared at a feather duster. Bai Zhang said, “If we want to use it, we have to take it from its place.” The master retorted, “If we take your skin from its place, what would become of you?” Apparently ignoring the master’s retort, Bai Zhang held up the feather duster. Ma Zu said, repeating Bai Zhang’s words, “If we want to use it, we have to take it from its place.” Bai Zhang then returned the feather duster to its original place. At this instant, Ma Zu gave a shout so loud that Bai Zhang was deaf for three days. Later, when classmates asked him about his temporary deafness, he said, “What deafness? After awakening, I just took a rest.”

If this passage sounds baffling at first, don’t worry.  It’s a story-equivalent of one hand clapping, meant to short-circuit your usual thought process.  But still beneath that, there is meaning.  When the two men speak of the feather duster, it’s a metaphor for the ultimate Oneness of reality — there is only one universe, all things connected, but to use any object within that universe you must first make it an object, which makes you a subject manipulating the object, dividing the ultimate Oneness into finite Multitude (the mind is a knife, carving up reality into discrete units).  When Ma Zu asks about separating him from his skin, he’s asking what would happen if the Oneness were separated from the Multitude, to which Bai Zhang replies, by using the feather duster, that Oneness and the Multitude are actually the same things, interpreted differently.

Ma Zu then tests his student further, with his own words, a kind of “Are you sure?”  In returning the feather duster to its place, Bai Zhang shows that he only understands in theory, not in practice, so Ma Zu shouts his student deaf, where he will be alone in his own mind for three days, receiving no instruction.  It is only then that Bai Zhang understands the lesson lies not within the words alone, and becomes enlightened.

I don’t know if that explanation makes sense without a working knowledge of Buddhism — but the point is that a koan is not just a transformative tool, it’s also a parable, with real metaphysical wisdom locked inside.  A koan is both things simultaneously — if it were just the information, the lesson, then it would not be a koan.  A koan is an instruction that must become an experience to do its job.

And that is what poetry really is.  You can read ten books on “The Waste Land,” exploring all the allusions and symbols and structures, but they will never add up to the experiencing of “The Wast Land,” because a poem is only the confrontation with the poem itself — the transformative, resonant response the poem gives us has nothing to do with the footnotes, and everything to do with the indescribable mystery and music within it.  There are many answers, but none of them are the answer — it’s the process that answers, not the product.

The problem with what we call “hallmark verse” — a category into which the majority of poems submitted to any magazine fall — has nothing to do with sing-songy meter or forced rhyme or mushy subjects.  Bad poetry, fake poetry, hallmark verse is all product, no process.  It’s the Cliffsnotes to the koan, rather than the koan itself — it lacks the magic of mystery, the transformative power of subversion.  So many writers seem to get an idea for a poem, and then merely pass that idea along, as if they’re passing along the answer to a question.  They might as well be writing letters or diary entries.  When you write with a message in mind, the message is lost.

A poem must be more than the message; it must be an experience.  All the novice admonitions — “show don’t tell,” “avoid cliches” — are subsets of this one lesson.  Poems are koans.   That’s why it’s so hard to write real poetry, but so easy to fake it.  Answers are easy; transformations are hard.

Which brings me to this week’s poem in the Tricycle discussion group, Jane Hirshfield’s “Those Who Cannot Act,” first published, along with her interview, in Rattle #26.  It’s the best example I know of a what I’ve been talking about:

THOSE WHO CANNOT ACT by Jane Hirshfield

“Those who act will suffer,
suffer into truth”–
What Aeschylus omitted:
those who cannot act will suffer too.

The sister banished into exile.
The unnamed dog
soon killed.

Even the bystanders vanish,
one by one,
peripheral, in pain unnoticed while

© Jane Hirshfield, from the book After, HarperCollins, 2006.

We can talk about this poem for pages and pages, for days:  the poem’s ending into stark silence, the voice of those who have no voice, the implicit responsibility for those who can act.  My favorite part of the poem is that it forces us, the readers, to be among those who cannot act — we’ll never be able to finish the poem, it will only end in frustration.  All of those elements are there, and worth discussing.  But they never add up to the experience of the poem, the haunting, wrenching truth that lies beneath it.

Like a sculptor carving marble blocks, the statue itself what remains, a poem is really the sum of all that isn’t said.  Poems happen within us — what matters is the leap they make us make ourselves.  A new koan:

A student gives the MFA instructor a poem to read overnight.  The next day the student asks, “Was my poem any good?”  The instructor replies, “What poem?  All I see is you.”

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