Reading Poetry for Zen

Description

“Some years ago I wrote a piece called ‘Soul in Zen’ in which I opposed the archetypes of spirit and soul. Spirit was seen as moving towards clarity, light and the eternal, while soul was the domain of the evanescent, the suffering, the beautiful.” n.d.

A talk by John Tarrant
Edited by Rachel Boughton

Some years ago I wrote a piece called “Soul in Zen” in which I opposed the archetypes of spirit and soul. Spirit was seen as moving towards clarity, light and the eternal, while soul was the domain of the evanescent, the suffering, the beautiful. The essay found its way into the hands of Robert Hass when he was teaching a poetry workshop. He read pieces of “Soul in Zen” aloud, and wherever I had written “Zen,” instead he said, “poetry.” This simple transposition made it clear to me, at least, that spiritual work and the arts can be very near each other. Both of them tell us what life is, how not to lie to ourselves, how to endure and how to love.
My seven year old daughter is learning to write a kind of haiku — three lines and a season word are the rules. The other night she was in my writing room in the barn, jumping from the window sill onto the floor. She wrote:

Jumping from a high place
sounds like a big wind coming.
Autumn night.

That is simply her life but it is also a gate — into the grownup world of writing, the largeness of coming winter.

For me, reading Basho before bedtime is something I do, like meditation, that consoles and shapes me. Naturally, I notice the things that fit my life, the way my daughter notices what jumping sounds like. Basho, for all his careful observation, is not for me a poet of nature. He is so often on pilgrimage that he doesn’t see the seasons come around in one place. The rose mallow and the girls singing their old fashioned rice planting songs are the observations of someone who is finding out how to be anchored on earth, sustained by the touch and taste of life during a brief visit, someone who does not want to see the seasons come around in one place.

So reading Basho before bed is like meditation, not because it makes me calm, but because it leads me out onto a plain where a journey will begin.

If the arts and the spiritual work are sometimes very near it is that they lead us to love the journey itself. Here, we see, is the place of jumping from window sills in autumn, here is the rose mallow, eaten by the horse late in the 16th century, and here is the longing to be grounded in one place and the simultaneous excitement to go on, to find out what other weather will buffet us, what other songs the birds will sing, what other words can be substituted for “Zen.”