spirituality, ritual, and being a selectionist-buddhist

Dad&Mum We had our first formal zazenkai today after a few years of hunkering down in formless practice. As formal as it gets, I suppose, given my tendency to laziness when it comes to form and ritual. Yet those moments of chanting and prostrations are a lovely dance we should all take part in if we are to learn to embody practice, to live vow.  And I felt it was important to honour the 7th day after my mother’s death.

Oh.  That’s my father and mother to the left.  They cut quite a dashing couple in the old days – which were actually the new days for them.  New days of hope that the British Occupation would bring them comfort and opportunity – which it did.  I think the picture is taken after WW II and around the time of Great Optimism.  They were both rising stars in the newly formed government, sometime after Aung San’s assassination and the military take over by Ne Win in 1963.  By then, they had learned to weave through the many political ups and downs including losing much of their acquired wealth when Ne Win demonetarized the Burmese kyat.  In fact, they had both retired and built their dream home only to have my father return to work when asked because, drawing from the rhythms of his poverty-ridden childhood,  he couldn’t imagine a world that didn’t need him or a family that ever had enough money to survive.

This was their legacy: work hard, do what’s necessary, never wonder if things could be better, make them better by waking up each morning and doing what is necessary.

Monk: What is the essence of your practice?
Basho: Whatever is needed

So today, we chanted the Honoring of the Bodhisattvas, lowered our bodies to the ground in gratitude for all the Bodhisattvas and Mahasattvas, the Stream of All Our Ancestors which now includes my parents and the parents of some of my friends whose mothers and fathers made their transition this week.

There’s a reluctance about the form of practice.  I feel it in myself even now after these years of lighting incense, bowing, prostrating, and stepping back before turning away from the altar.  As if somehow I would like this Buddhism to be something pure and separate from the religiosity of my childhood, the cathedrals and the black-frocked Christian European priests speaking to us poor Asians as if we were just south of a Neanderthal lineage.  And yet I resist the neo-spirituality I find that sucks in Buddhism as the panacea for and talisman against all sins past and future.

So yes, I’ve shopped my way around but in my defense it was only because of my ignorance of the many factions (I use that deliberately).  I grew up in a cultural Buddhism which had little to do with meditation and a lot to do with chanting at the pagodas, prostrating and feeding male monastics.  That said, a bit of buffet-surfing was to be expected and having (quickly) settled in Zen, I am quite content and even allow my Latin-Mass Catholic heritage to relish in the rise and fall of Namo Shakyamunaye Buddhaya.

Still, I have to say that meeting so many on this path who are caught in the confounding of being spiritual and being non-religious frustrates me.  Even more do claims to a Selectionist-Buddhism, as if that makes it more spiritual, annoy the heck out of me.    If there was one thing I learned standing my parents’ deathbed – even a decade apart – was that rituals don’t help ease the pain.  That’s not why we step into that space.  Rituals offer an opportunity to see how our mind grabs the nearest thing and makes it fuel.  That’s all.

And that’s likely the most important teaching we will ever receive whether it’s lifting a cup of coffee to our lips, checking the rear view mirror before backing out the driveway, packing our life’s belongings to cross an ocean, or bowing to the stream that awaits us as future ancestors.


Note bene: Interestingly, I am reading Dispirited: How contemporary spirituality makes us stupid, selfish and unhappy by David Webster.  He has a fascinating thesis on spirituality having been hijacked by the New Age and the buffet mentality of seekers.  The book is good if somewhat problematic in being poorly edited, the occasional philosophical rant and difficulty with having to infer whether he’s talking about “authentic” or “let-me-look-spiritual”  spirituality.  But I’m liking it and, for the more philosophical among you, it may be worth the read.  (He actually does a great job of it on his blog post, Spiritual But Not Religious.)

elegant spirit – book review of The Art of Haiku

(W)ithout an elegant spirit there could not be an elegant word or style.

Nijō Yoshimoto (1320-88), pg. 46

The Art of Haiku: Its history through poems and paintings by Japanese masters (Shambhala Publications) by Stephen Addiss is a multi-layered map of the origins, development, and art of Japanese haiku.  Prolific in his writings about Japanese art, poetry, print, and Zen, Addiss has yet to  disappoint despite the large volume of work he has produced.  His books have ranged across the genre of Japanese art from the instructive How to Look at Japanese Art (1996; co-authored with Audrey Yoshiko Seo) and the whimsical series of haiku-themed print collections (A Haiku Menagerie, Haiku People, & Haiku Humor) to the more serious examinations of Japanese art as a cultural and spiritual form in 77 Dances, Haiga: Takebe Sōchō and the Haiku-Painting Tradition, and Art of Zen.  Addiss also curated the work of Hakuin for an art show, The Sound of One Hand, which opened in New York in 2010; you can read a review here.

I had a momentary concern that after all his contributions to the literature of Japanese art everything that needed to be written about the topic had been effectively exhausted.  In fact, the first paragraph of the book seemed to suggest it would be a compendium of art and poetry by the Trinity of haiku, Bashō, Buson, and Issa with a little Shiki thrown in for good measure.  Almost  immediately, Addiss disabuses this notion and begins a well-articulated and organized teaching of the definition of haiku (despite the confusion of how to define it) and paints a very comprehensive portrait of this art form that few can truly master.  He closes the chapter deftly by moving into a description of haiga, a “visual-verbal art” that is the intersection of calligraphy, art, and poetry.

Having established the historical and cultural coordinates, Addiss proceeds at a steady pace; he methodically explores the development of poetry from the early forms as song (tanka) into an ever-expanding dialogue between poets, lovers, scholars, or friends (tan-renga).  Addiss breaks up the academic, albeit totally accessible, portions of the chapters with examples of the topic (tanka, renga, haikai, haiga, etc.) using the works of various poets.  This approach lends the book its greatest charm and value.  Not only is there an opportunity to learn the intricacies of the production of haiku and all its variations, we are offered tours into the deeper structures of the poems.  Addiss not only places the poet’s work in historical and personal context, he also uses the haiku to demonstrate how the themes are developed and the nuances of song linger in the use of particular syllables or sounds (a “cutting word” like ya as a pause, kana to complete the verse, etc.).

This level of detail is never overwhelming or superfluous to simply enjoying the haiku.  Addiss writes with the skill of a seasoned teacher who is equally familiar with the verbal and visual traditions.  The writing flows smoothly and is compelling, never interfering with the possibility of simply reading the haiku for their own beauty.  The explanations are lean in expression and, even in the rush of trying to get the book read to a deadline, penetrated sufficiently that I felt a growth spurt in understanding the intricate beauty of this art form.  The comprehensiveness of the first two chapters becomes invaluable when Addiss introduces us to Bashō, Buson, Issa, and Shiki.  Using their haiku, Addiss provides a new perspective on their lives.  The association of Bashō with frogs leaping into ponds and with long interior roads is fleshed out with insights to his emotional side.  Finding a toddler left on the road by parents who were too poor to care for him, Bashō wrote:

 for those who have heard the monkey’s cry,
this abandoned baby in the autumn wind –
 why?  how?

How did he deal with this?  What deep sadness did it stir in him as he tried to understand the vagaries of this floating world?  Addiss offers little solace but much insight to Bashō himself.  Other poems reveal a cheeky side of Bashō when he composes verses about rice cakes being pooped upon by warblers and one of equanimity in the face of his impending death.

In the chapter on Buson, we enter into a world of dispassionate observation and use of sounds to project the content of his haiku.  As with Bashō, Buson’s haiga amplify the feelings in the haiku and bring together the elements of the verbal and visual through art, calligraphy and poetry.  With Issa, we dive into the pain of his life rendered through his haiku.  There are verses here that may not be as familiar to us and this lends freshness to the conventional stories of a beloved poet.  

About the loss of his mother

  my lost mother —
every time I look at the sea,
  every time I look . . .

The “floating world”

  in this world
we are flower-viewing
  over hell

Realizing that Buddha exists everywhere

  where there are people
there are flies
  there are buddhas

Throughout the book, Addiss takes his time navigating in a gentle rhythm between the haiku and the exploration of its form and structure.  Again, the flow gives the chapters an easy-to-digest feel and rarely is the reader overwhelmed by details or explanations.  However, the chapter on Senryu and Zen and the final chapter on Shiki and other modern poets were regrettably short.  And yet, and yet…  it leaves room for more come in the future.

To my delight, buried in the scholarship and easy flow of the Masters of haiku, there was an unexpected treasure.  In Chapter 4, Followers of Bashō, he introduces the women haiku masters.  Poets such as Kana-jo wrote haiku on the seasons, Chine (1660-88) wrote of travels with her brother, also a haiku poet.  Her death poem captures the fleeting and vibrant nature of living and dying.

  easily blazing
and easily extinguished —
  the firefly

Chigetsu, Sute-jo, and Sono-jo wrote poems that serve as sharp observations of their life and culture, nature and the everyday.

  just like scarecrows,
how sorrowful —
  a group of nuns


  with water as a mirror
you can paint your eyebrows—
  willow by the river


Second generation from Bashō, Chiyo-ni composed haiga that expressed her sentiments in strong, tight strokes and an ear for sound.  She wrote one a haiku considered the most famous by any male or female poet.

  the morning glory
has claimed the well bucket —
  I’ll go borrow water


This chapter adds to the growing works on women in zen and might be one of the few that shows their creativity in the zen arts.  For this alone, the book is worth its weight in sumi-e ink sticks.

The Art of Haiku is a book seems intimidating however it lends itself well to being read at four levels: an anthology of haiku, a source of information about the history of haiku, an articulate lesson in the form and structure of haiku, and a well-organized, attentive work shedding a fresh light on the nature of the male and female masters of haiku and haiga.  And, in the spirit of what I learned about the power of repeated phrases in haiku, Nijo Yoshimoto words seem equally applicable to Addiss, himself a master of haiku, calligraphy, and zen art:

  an elegant spirit
fires the heart
  with elegant words and style

What better way to celebrate 108 Zen Books’ 3rd anniversary!

Thank you for walking this road to the interior with me.