Prose from Poetry Magazine

“Buddhists Like School and I Don’t.”

An experimental poet meditates on the intersections of language, writing, and God.
If a bird has a problem with its whistle, it has to whistle to fix it.

God is unevolved and therefore cannot be apprehended by the senses, and as such exists as the witness of what is and also as light and energy, neither of which can be touched except by touching itself.

You put your hand to your cheek and touch your own light and your own energy.

You can call light and energy by the name of God if you want.

If you don’t want to say God, you must expect this choice to help make you lose your bearings until you understand how it moves around, shifting its position from being in you and of you, to being far from you.

Divinity—Trinity—What’s the difference?

No difference? No difference, no words. No word for difference, no identity. The genealogical and psychological search for an identity hitherto unnoticed, unknown, leads nowhere. The world is the unconscious but nature is not symbolic.

The quest for a condition that exists in two separate states is what confuses people. The person looking for “me” (a fixed identity) is also the same person looking for (a vapory word) “God.” This split search can only be folded into one in the process of working on something—whether it is writing, digging, planting, painting, teaching—with a wholeheartedness that qualifies as complete attention. In such a state, you find yourself depending on chance or grace to supply you with the focus to complete what you are doing. Your work is practical, but your relationship to it is illogical in the range of its possible errors and failures. You align yourself with something behind and ahead and above you that is geometric in nature; you lean on its assistance, realizing the inadequacy of your words.

Simone Weil said in “Human Personality”:

At the very best, a mind enclosed in language is in prison. It is limited to the number of relations which words can make simultaneously present to it; and remains in ignorance of thoughts which involve the combination of a greater number. . . . The intelligent man who is proud of his intelligence is like a condemned man who is proud of his large cell.
Yes, the problem of vocabulary in these matters is obvious, because a solution to the problem is made of the words. Who doesn’t know that? If a bird has a problem with its whistle, it has to whistle to fix it.

All voices tend toward song, and the vibrations of music in the vocal cords deeply influence the way spoken words are heard.

Franz Rosenzweig noted:
In actual conversation, something happens. I do not know in advance what the other will say to me because I myself do not even know what I am going to say; perhaps not even whether I am going to say anything at all. . . . To need time means being able to anticipate nothing, having to wait for everything, being dependent on the other for one’s own.
I understand that what is heard is what is already in the past and the proof for that is measurable. Sound has to travel a little way; it has to overcome space in order to reach a pair of ears. In this space of time, a few distortions can occur. Anxiety, misunderstanding can intervene, even heartbreak. Indeed, words themselves can, if allowed, seem to lose their original intention on their way out of the mouth.

Socrates believed that the soul is eternal and contains knowledge of all things. In the trauma of birth, the soul loses its memory and has to start all over again. But in the experience of living and learning, it finds its way back to the truths that it lost.

* * *

Revision is the path taken by an autodidact like me. In revising you teach yourself. You find your own information buried in your body. It is still alive until you are not.

Right until he committed suicide in the end, Socrates had the high spirits of someone who knew (as in recognized) himself (his own condition).

One way to understand your own condition is to write something and spend a long time revising it. The errors, the hits and misses, the excess—erase them all.

Now read what you have rewritten out loud in front of some other people. They will hear something that you didn’t say aloud. They will hear what was there before you began revising and even before the words were written down. You won’t hear anything but the humming of your own vocal cords.

It’s the same as what Remy de Gourmont in his “Dust for Sparrows” wrote from the point of view of the listener:
Never have literary works seemed so beautiful to me as when at a theatre or in reading, because of lack of habit or lacking a complete knowledge of the language, I lost the meaning of many phrases. This threw about them a light veil of somewhat silvery shadow, making the poetry more purely musical, more ethereal.
Even while I have gone back over the words, I have never been sure of the need for it, the use of writing at all, the value of any completed poem, or the idea that writing might lead somewhere. I haven’t really known what I was doing, only that I would keep on doing it. It is a form of promiscuity and wanderlust. I could just as well have been a barmaid or a mailman. I could just as well throw all these papers in a river before sniffing some helium and letting go, because it was in the end only a part of the natural world.

* * *

A Benedictine friend said there are three levels to transreligious experience: “My religion is best.” The second level: “All religions are the same.” And the third level that changes the first two: “Through a deep reading of my own tradition, I find that all religious traditions converge.” Likewise, through a deeper reading of my own language, I should be able to uncover a few words that correspond to certain transcendent words in other cultures.

I shouldn’t need to co-opt words like Brahman and Atman, no matter how much I am drawn to them and the novelty of their sound.

I must find in English the words that bear the same force as those two do and share their meaning. This is my job.

The worst sinners are the clerics who give God human attributes. Humans after all evolved from being slime into being beasts, and like all creatures, it was fear that drove us to change our form over time. Fear of being devoured, swallowed, and turned back into slime. Watch the scaled animal turn into a bird out of sheer terror, and you will see what humans went through, too. Humans are still formed from those evolutionary stages and revert to bestial behavior when threatened.

Even if all of evolution happened, from the eye of eternity, in one wink, as a swift unveiling to the present day, this movement would be nothing like the stillness of God. This stillness is not something you come to, after years of struggle, or learn about, then encounter, or find refuge in, after a fight. It doesn’t await you in a specific location.

God is always in the same everyplace, without an adjective, an adverb, or a verb tense. The creator is creation itself. A baboon has knowledge of God just as a bee does, and a human child or a leaf.

Fear is what holds humans back from evolving to full solidarity. Providing safety for people—it has to be an action for all people. This is the difficulty. Everyone has to be safe for everyone to be safe. This is the messianic message.

There are people like me who read a love letter over and over again. Every time they see a different message and a different level of love, and, until they have, read it backward and forward several times, and de-emphasize certain words. In fact, they cannot rest.

For these people sound is eternal, it has no beginning or end.

For others, the search for the right word produces a conclusion to a beginning.

In both cases, happiness is the goal.

Will I be happier if I call God Brahman?

Will I be happier if I call God Divine?

Will I be happier if I study the Trinity?

Will I be happier if I discard the concept of both One and Three and head toward the Zero that is emptiness for Buddhists and fullness for Hindus?

I will only be happier if I write a poem.

The trees billow under a vague gray sky.
Nearby and not far away, suffering.
        And the end of me.
But if I know I have everything
        Then I can begin.
Lucky to enter completion conscious.
Lucky to be well. To have my cell.
Wine, words, wafer, in all their forms.
* * *

The winter has returned. The warmth that signaled spring has been replaced by an angry frost. The arms of the pines lift and drop in concession to a low wind. This is tornado country. People have basements to hide in. If a water tower gets hit, surely it tips over and out comes a geyser. Someone only yesterday told me that the harm we have done to the world is now irreversible. At the same time we can finally look through a telescope strong enough to see the beginning of the universe. It is not a beginning if it can be seen still happening from where we stand on earth. The cardinal whistles at the top of a spectral elm, or is someone writing on a slate of air?

* * *

Without the children, there is only one reason to live and it is the same reason that justifies having children in the first place.

Perhaps it is the only justifiable reason to have life: to see and to be.

There we will create a little home school and theater and call it the world.

One child is my right eye, the boy, when I am looking at my face onstage.

The other child is my left eye, this is the first girl.

The third child is my mouth, this is the second boy.

The fourth child is my right ear and the fifth is my left.

The sixth child is my throat and the seventh is yet to come.

At the age of seven, a girl might devote her life to perpetual virginity. A boy might put his second foot into purgatory.

It is the beginning of the age of reason and if a child has been taught by Jesuits, at the age of seven he will belong to the church forever.

If she has been taught by nature, she will be wild and happy forever.

* * *

Are we in for a surprise?

The future is like magic. It wears no robes or veils but arrives naked, tossing its surprises to the right and the left. How does it arrive? It neither comes from ahead nor do we enter it running. This is because it and we can only approach what is always coming toward it and us. There is no possible action or sound that can be made without being received elsewhere, thereby describing and deciding the future, which only wears the attributes of something recognized as past.

Is there such a thing as truth objectively speaking? This question curves around and demands that I ask myself why I am asking the question in the first place, what good an answer will do for me before I am annihilated. If I am convinced that the story of your life and thought reveals the truth about our condition on this planet, then will I be happier as I proceed? Why else am I asking it?

* * *

While I am still alive, going to work always feels brand new, like a dive off a very high board into a stone-riddled ocean. I am never able to predict what will happen. Once I am there, with my students, time becomes self-contained within the four walls of the room. There seems to be no future.

Martin Buber said, “Good is direction and what is done in it.”

I always tried to keep the classroom an egalitarian space with no competition allowed in. I tried, especially as I grew older, to lead them to the source of their work and to locate where its resolution might lie.

I wanted my students to deepen their own measure of themselves, using their stories or poems as others might with yoga.

In some classes I made my students write children’s stories to get them back to the source of the story as a form, to relearn the archetypes, to find the basic plots that suffuse all works of fiction, to use objects carefully, and only a few, to write in short purposeful sentences. I helped them study the ethical problems that are generated in simple terms in children’s stories. The old stories by Grimm, Perrault, Andersen, Wilde—these were my chosen few to start with. Then, later, newer stories like The Little House, The Little Engine That Could, Mike Mulligan, The Story of Ferdinand—and Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter.

Sometimes when I taught, I felt as if I were planting an apple orchard in the rubbery char of Ground Zero because I still loved a country trail and did not believe in the unconscious but in correspondences. This made me old-fashioned.

Why write if it is not to align yourself with time and space? Better to wash the bottoms of the ill or dying. Better to have no vacillating in your heart or mind, as Emerson recommends, and to participate in what he calls abandonment.

“Only the act remains, unbound, absolute. It fuses subjects seeing and objects seen into itself,” Michel de Certeau wrote in his poetic essay “White Ecstasy.”

* * *

One night I dreamed I was writing a play and in it my students were looking up at me with the blurry eyes of young sheep and / or addicts of sex and drugs. Behind me there was a large mountain with flags blowing there. And horses stood ready to climb . . . no, not just to climb, but to race to the top, driven by each one of the students who wanted to be first to touch a flag. We couldn’t tell which flag was closest, because of the distance, but three set forth with charging ambition.

One held the horse too tight, another too loose, and a third found herself on a horse that could not climb. The first was bucked off. The second was taken on a wild ride. The third found herself seated on a sitting horse. Up above the flags were flapping in streaks of hard wind.

And two more students volunteered to climb on foot. They reached the top, and somehow I was there beside them, but the flags had blown away and so there was no way to know who was a winner, who was not.

Around us lay heaps and humps of mountain ranges, brown and white, and streaked with rock-like plants. The wind still whirled around our faces. All their work had no meaning, without markers and prizes. Not just their work. Their lives seemed futile. Our lineaments were transparent and so were our skins.

The two students had what they called “panic attacks” and begged me to tell them: what is life worth living for? Unfortunately I woke up in my sheets and could not send my message back to the world of dreams. My poor students! What could I have told them too late? I stared into the pallid milk of dawn and the words came out aloud: “To see and to be.”

* * *

Yeats said he believed:
in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe in [several] doctrines, which have, as I think, been handed down from early times, and been the foundations of nearly all magical practices. [Two of these] doctrines are—

1) That the borders of our mind are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.

2) That the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.
On Ascension Day in the middle of May 1999, I went on a retreat hoping for a revelation. I hoped that I would find better words for spiritual phenomena than I was finding in the Catholic Church during the Eucharistic prayer and the homilies. I prayed the doors of heaven would fly open and I would see at last; I prayed because I did not believe any of it would happen. The flights from London to Italy were delayed because of the bombing in Belgrade. It was reported that in Venice people actually felt the ground quiver from the explosions.

In Florence my companion was mugged by a group of teenage girls—“gypsies” waving and jabbing cardboard at us while one of them grabbed her purse and kept it. Marauding hordes of tourists angrily waited in long lines to see artworks and to eat.

Students were waving anti-war banners behind the Duomo. The city itself seemed defeated by engines and their human drivers, but both the students rebelling and the artwork offered some signs of resistance to bad progress.

The Villa San Leonardo al Palco (a former Franciscan monastery) sat high on a winding hill inside a semicircle of hills, then out across Prato, an orange-roofed, steamy little suburb. The gardens were a maze of high hedges dotted by rose bushes of all colors and species, and their fragrance permeated all of the three days.

Our rooms were clean cells with a variety of views.

We ate sometimes in silence, sometimes boisterously in a cool refectory where we were served Tuscan soups, bread, wine, cheeses, pasta. There were at least five hours of meditation each day, with about sixty people facing the chapel altar, a huge wooden crucifix, two meditation pillows, candles, the Benedictine Laurence Freeman and the Dalai Lama, who had organized this dialogue.

We got up early and went to bed around ten. Most everyone for those days spoke of a kind of brain buzz that was like a “strobe light effect,” but no one could sleep.

It was a silent retreat with whispered encounters on balconies and in the gardens. Each morning we were led on a mindfulness meditation through the wet dewy hedges. One day it rained, but most of the time there was a dull sun. Birds, roosters, a dog barking, farm machines buzzing, scooters, and horns honking around the twisting stone-walled streets and bells, bells, bells.

The Dalai Lama left twice for very short periods, accompanied by police and a helicopter that signaled his return. For the better part of the time we were all confined to the monastery, and no one was allowed in.

The buzz of the helicopter reminded us all of the war outside the walls of the monastery. And as usual I was distressed by the assumption that the only way to come face to face with the truth is by fasting, meditating, practicing compassion and altruism, and entering a cell. Isn’t it possible that those are conscious disciplines for a few people that most others suffer in the course of an ordinary day: being hungry, getting high, crying out to God, being lonely, fair, generous, and full of pity for others?

* * *

There were two dialogue sessions when the Dalai Lama and Laurence Freeman talked, each in turn, and His Holiness through a translator.

The first morning the subject was scripture; the second morning it was image.

In the afternoon, the participants were given time to ask questions, and then we met in small groups for conversation and to prepare one collective question for the Dalai Lama.

Many of the questions seemed to involve the problem of suffering, as the presence of Kosovo and an occupied Tibet loomed large.

Many of the participants were Buddhist practitioners and many were Christians who had been practicing meditation. The Dalai Lama taught us Tonglen meditation, which is focused on suffering and liberation from it, and he directed a Buddhist ceremony at one of the afternoon meetings; later he gave the homily on loving others.

“Don’t talk. Act,” he stressed.

He confessed that he didn’t know for sure, but he believed that prayer did nothing for anyone else, especially in political or wartime situations, unless perhaps a person was praying for someone very close to her, like a child or other family member.

He kept insisting that one could become deeper through prayer and meditation, but it should not be used as a substitute for other-directed action. He was very empirical, very practical, yet he said that he used divination and dreams to help him make decisions after he had already consulted with others and thought things through himself.

Being there was like wandering through an atmosphere far above sea level or visiting a dream to which you knew you could never return. The snowy whiteness of the English Benedictine beside the maroon-robed Buddhist intensified the sense of being in a symbolic dream system.

While the Dalai Lama made it clear that he believed that people should first learn their own religious tradition in depth, he was convinced that meditation would deepen their understanding and practice of it and help them to serve the suffering world.

He was glad to explain Buddhism, and to share some of the rituals (pinches of rice falling like rain during a rite for generosity), but it was clear that the reason he was involved in this whole enterprise was not to win converts to Buddhism but to encourage Christians to be more Christlike in the service of world peace.

There are “parallels,” he admitted, between Christianity and Buddhism, but the two are fundamentally separated over the question of God. In response Freeman didn’t do the usual thing and give attributes to God or get into the architecture of the Trinity. Instead, he showed how the Catholic tradition aspired to nondualism. The Dalai Lama seemed heartened by this, but not entirely convinced.

All this time I hoped that they would not be able to sense my bitterness, exhaustion, lack of hope, critical witnessing of others, my inability to concentrate or meditate, the way my mind raced, my selfishness, my excess reserve. I prayed they would not sense or see me at all. Buddhists like school and I don’t. They have lessons for everything and they enjoy sitting in the position of students, learning how to interpret their own gestures.

The next lesson we discussed was the Christian idea of mercy. “Mercy” was presented as a radical concept closer to the Buddhist word compassion than to the Christian word love.

And now, surprisingly, a woman was introduced as the image of compassion and an object of the Dalai Lama’s greatest admiration. Mary! He didn’t make fun of her apparitions but believed that they had really occurred and that she was sending us important messages about the necessity for peace. She was, in a very real way, the Christian Buddha, and he was perplexed by her removal from Protestant religions.

At one point the term highest values came into the conversation as the common denominator for every civilization—what we all could agree on (for instance, the desire for happiness)—when talk of God fell flat (as it should). The two monks wanted to articulate the highest values from two entirely different cultural bases and to see if they converged.

The Dalai Lama repeated his conviction that the only way to end mental and emotional affliction was through altruism and the practice of service to others. What he liked best about Jesus was his self-sacrificing action (kenosis). Again he said that meditation was service to oneself in order to serve others, a kind of recharging of the batteries.

Through meditation and prayer one should continually aspire to altruism by envisioning all human suffering present in every person and society; and by altruism he meant the continual active practice of putting others before oneself.

On the last morning, he reiterated his point about the importance of adhering, if possible, to your own religious tradition. Why? Because each religion has at its heart the same message about altruism. Therefore, nothing could be more valuable than to crack open and rediscover the tradition that you already understand, in order to find convergence points with others.

He loved teaching Buddhism to others, because it contributed to this deepening and merging. Originally he was drawn to Christianity because of the Catholic aid workers who helped the Tibetan people in India at the onset of their diaspora. In their generous action he envisioned the potential for a world peace movement that was based in tolerance toward other religions and philosophies.

A Tibetan hymn was read aloud by the translator, begging Buddha not to enter Nirvana and leave the suffering world behind.

At the end of the program we all gathered in a huge outdoor circle for our goodbyes and photographs, and the Dalai Lama walked over and selected my arm to hold.
Originally Published: February 27th, 2009

Fanny Howe is the author of more than 20 books of poetry and prose. Howe grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied at Stanford University. “If someone is alone reading my poems, I hope it would be like reading someone’s notebook. A record. Of a place, beauty, difficulty. A familiar daily...

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
  1. March 2, 2009
     peter sims

    thank you for this Fanny. I read it very early this morning and felt happy. You capture, I think, some of the spirit of conversation which upholds our world. The alternative is those endlessly propagating forms of pedagogy that threaten it.

    In this spirit I find I disagree with Weil's comment about language. It is concepts that enclose us and language that helps in the task of genuine conversation. As in music, silence is a part of language. A silence outside of language is like a reality outside of experience - unthinkable.

  2. March 3, 2009
     tom zipp

    Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul-

    Nicolas Malebranche

    17-18th century priest/philosopher

  3. March 7, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Fanny Howe writes :

    "The worst sinners are the clerics who give God human attributes. Humans after all evolved from being slime into being beasts, and like all creatures, it was fear that drove us to change our form over time. Fear of being devoured, swallowed, and turned back into slime. Watch the scaled animal turn into a bird out of sheer terror, and you will see what humans went through, too. Humans are still formed from those evolutionary stages and revert to bestial behavior when threatened.

    Even if all of evolution happened, from the eye of eternity, in one wink, as a swift unveiling to the present day, this movement would be nothing like the stillness of God. This stillness is not something you come to, after years of struggle, or learn about, then encounter, or find refuge in, after a fight. It doesn’t await you in a specific location."

    I understand that it's difficult to write about God. & that Ms. Howe is addressing many different things in this piece, including exaggerations & distortions of spiritual ideas that she wants to counteract.

    Here she wants us to recognize the utter & incomprehensible otherness of God. But in the process I feel she, in turn, distorts the truth.

    For me, anyway, the foundation for everything is that at the center of the divine creation stands the very apex of that creation, the living Image of God. So we can't say that God is simply Other; God is also amongst us, we see God's face in human beings, we see the working-out of creation in the unfolding process of time & history. God has chosen to shed that otherness, & join with the creation & suffer with it.

    & in this very process human beings can take hope in the redemption of time, history, humanity, creation itself. God has entered into it.

    I think we are asked to bear witness to the "glory" (the beauty) of creation, & to love God in return. We are asked to trust in the wisdom & mercy of God, not sacrifice ourselves to our own (self-ennobling) notion of suffering & sacrifice. "I desire mercy, not sacrifice". Whether we choose to participate or not, we are all suffering in & with the birth-pangs of the earth.

    Love is the ultimate criterion. Sometimes steadfast love requires sacrifice; sometimes it requires openness, humility, trust, joy - gratitude.

  4. March 8, 2009
     Lemon Hound

    Fanny, so nice to see you here on the web, and on Poetry Foundation.

    “Don’t talk. Act,” he stressed.

    Important to stress the fact that meditation can be retreat, but designated as and when. So many seem to think of poetry as retreat, nature poetry in particular.

    Retreat works after one has actually engaged...

  5. March 10, 2009
     Jacqueline Gens

    HI Fannie----So happy that you had the experience of meeting the Dalai Lama up close. He certainly had the good nose to hold the arm of a kindred mind rich with intelligent inquiry!.

  6. May 27, 2009
     Alexi Adrejka

    Interesting piece, Fanny. However, the notion that "Buddhists like school.." is a grossly reductive generalization. Aside from the fact that to "like" varies tremendously on the subjective level, from one individual practitioner to another, there are complex differences in emphasis from one sect to another. But something tells me this changes our authors view not a whit, nor a hair of a whit.

  7. June 11, 2009
     David Bircumshaw

    I like this public intimacy between belief
    and disbelief, it restores my faith in
    doubt. Or should that be 'revision'?