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By Royal W. F. Rhodes


The Montréal Review, April 2022



By W.S.Merwin

(Copper Canyon Press, 2008)



When we hear the word "Zen", associations line up for us: flower arranging and tea ceremonies, quick ink calligraphy and a samurai's swordplay, monks kneeling stiff-spined beside a meditation garden of meticulously raked sand. Silence. Or we hear haiku, that short, formal poetic exercise of counted syllables, or the koan, the verbal conundrum designed to break down our discursive and linear mode of reasoning to draw us to live in the moment the "isness" of who we are. "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" (Or more accurately: "What is the sound of one hand?")  Even in that instance our Western-trained minds attempt to "solve" the puzzle, as if it were a trick question for which we can trick out an answer: An example of such a crude trick is the gesture of  raising one fist,  and clenching and unclenching it.

What is the sound? Nothing. What is the sound of something that has no sound? A Zen teacher might respond in that way, more in line with the tradition.

Or we hear echoes of the Beat poets, the "Dharma Bums": Kerouac, Ginsberg, Merton, Ferlinghetti, and with them look into the "empty mirror" for a "glimpse of nothingness", or we learn "Zen and the Art of Archery" or read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", revealing how in our journey the Buddhist idea of "no self" frees us from Cartesian dualism. Non-separation, the holistic, radically interdependent being, direct mind/mindfulness, direct transmission, awareness and wakefulness in all our activities. This points to Zen. This is "walking the Middle Path" to use the root metaphor. And this spirit is playfully present in the words of the legendary coach of the LA Lakers, Phil Jackson, rewording a koan-like Buddhist teaching: "If you meet the Buddha in the lane, give him the ball!" (The the original form of this koan is: "If you meet the Buddha on the path, slay him.") Do not bowdown to some external authority, as if it were a divinity.

We are told in one biographical review (Dinitia Smith, NYTimes/Feb.19,1995) that Merwin moved to Hawaii to study with a Zen Buddhist master (Robert Aitken), and there combined the rigorous practice of Buddhism (daily sitting meditation -- zazen), 45 minutes before breakfast and before dinner. And that he often liked to quote the 13th-century Buddhist teacher, Dogen: "You must let the body and mind fall away." Another reviewer (Dwight Garner,NYTimes/June 30, 2010) wrote that with Merwin's change in location: "Tropical foliage started to bloom in his poems, and punctuation began to vanish." So I want to look with you at the Zen-like qualities and marks that emerge in a non-didactic way from Merwin's "The Shadow of Sirius". Let's get serious about Zen, and hope my voice like punctuation will begin to vanish.

Up front I have to make the formulaic legal disclaimer. I am not an expert in Zen thought and surely not in practice, nor a literary critic, nor a deeply-read explorer of the mountain of Merwin's poetry, essays, or translations --mountains that Zen has made to cease to be mountains before they can, in a secondary immediacy, return to be just mountains. They elude this poor hiker. I suspect I am, like at least some of you, new to these texts, someone who asks the un-Zenlike question of these poems, or of all poetry: What does it mean? Instead, we encounter something strange: writing that refuses to categorize, that engages directly with disarming directness, that is authentic by recourse to no external source of value, that is just what it is, a present presence that mirrors the Buddhist teaching: "Be awake," like a sharp slap to the ego. And in this empty mirror we see the messy, meandering, maddening, mysterious, mine/not-mine, mindful, beginner's mind. But be warned: Objects in this mirror may be closer than they appear.

So let's begin, us beginners, and move from my distracting words to his poetry. And what I want to talk about are three topics that keep recurring as I read these poems: breathing, naming, remembering, and what can be called the Zen lessons implied in Merwin's non-didactic, non-direct, non-doctrinaire voice, a knowing that is also an unknowing. A beginner's mind again.


Reading these poems is like translating the air into pure breath. You have to take a deep breath first, and plunge into an engulfing element. And as heart, mind, breathing, and body synchronize these poetic lines are encountered in quiet, ecstatic rhythms of immediate, unmediated existence. We are like the fish who no longer need to be told to be conscious that we are in water, as we are in pure being. Poetic speech is breath, and the writing of poetry seeks simple transparency, becoming apparently as effortless as breathing. "The Shadow of Sirius" begins with a classic invocation to a muse in "The Nomad Flute". It is like the awakening breath used with that Zen instrument of music and meditation, the shakuhachi bamboo flute: "Let me hear your long lifted note". And repeating, like rhythmic breathing: "do you hear me/...do you still hear me" -- sound and silence are enjambed together, they play in "still hear". We could render it: Do you hear what is still? A paradoxical oneness. "does your air/remember you/ o breath of morning/night song morning song/ I have with me/ all that I do not know/ I have lost none of it". In unknowing we truly know. Knowing and remembering we have with us, and are the same as our breathing. This is what the lions in China guard ("Shi" in Chinese), erroneously called "Foo Dogs" like those stone beasts you can pet that guard many libraries or museums around the globe. The lions in this poem are pointers to where that breathing came from. Perhaps in this regard we can reflect on the way Merwin "vanishes" customary punctuation. A friend told me that lack of such apparatus made him feel in reading Merwin as though he was hurtling towards a cliff edge and found himself precariously cantilevered over sheer openness, balancing on empty air, as he had to choose how to read and when to stop lines. But this also frees us from predictable expectations: seeing lines afresh, punctuated only by our guessed-at stops for breath, removed from the already given, pre-determined -- here is something like crazy Zen, lines made madly anxious and dangerous and risky: made alive, made to live, to make us hear the world-altering instruction, as Rilke worded it: "Now change your life." This is Merwin's challenge in "A Momentary Creed" (p.110). What is the elusive I that I posit  by virtue of my iPod, iPad, iPhone, iMax, and the immortality of eBay. Instead, just just breathing deeply.


Naming and the use of words are fundamental aspects of those experiences and insights we call "religious" (whatever that means). As Zen sprang from twin roots in Chinese Chan (meditation) Buddhism and Taoism, we are reminded of that classic Taoist teaching: "He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know." (Tao Te Ching, #56), and "The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao" (#1). By the way, this insight should reveal to you something about the authority of your present speaker. But in the act of naming there is diminishment, a constriction of the more direct experience, a stepping back from encountering the ineffable. "Remember how the naked soul/ comes to language and at once knows/ loss and distance and believing// then for a time it will not run/ with its old freedom" -- until the present tense is lost in the tangle of vocabulary and explanation, reducing us to "believing" rather than direct "seeing", "through the noise of questions" ("Note",p.9). We possess words (and are possessed by them): naming we are named, "wailing/ back the first breath/...early but already/ not original". Even at our birth we are already born into the trap of words, the limit of names. "apparently we believe/ in the words/ and through them/ but we long beyond them/ for what is unseen/ what remains out of reach". We mistake this verbal "Raiment" (the title of this poem) for the truth; we learn and are taught to want: the array of colors, sizes, fabrics. "we dress in difference/ calling it ours" (note that play of "in difference" and the sound of "indifference" we equate with what is truly "ours") -- we are what we own, rather than "no self." We assume the veils of illusion we think we want, not what we actually need. Our modern version of Descartes should say: "I shop, therefore I am." And we substitute a word, a singular word, often for the complex, irreducible encounters that are human. See "Going" (p.58). Words/names become then, a filter, a clouding, limiting lens, as in "Nocturne" (p.60): "The stars emerge one/ by one into the names/ that were last found for them/...by watchers whose own/ names were forgotten". Here is the impermanence of what we take to be permanent in imposing names, as if philology were ontology. They are no longer wild, unbridled descriptors, but a wildness we tame by naming. Verbs are domesticated into nouns. But constant change is the essence of living: "born to brief reflection/ recognition and anguish/ from one cell evolving/ to remember daylight/ laughter and distant music". breathing deeply.

And so also in "Day Without a Name" (p.61): "Not today then/will it be here after all/ the word for this time/ the name its age/ today nothing is missing/ except the word for it". We think of the poet as wordsmith, maker of terms, to translate perceived reality, but nature in naturing needs only itself: nameless, faceless, limitless. "the morning is too/ beautiful to be anything else". Our imposed anthropocentric worldview pales before the biocentric power of what just is. Life possesses identity and color beyond name, as Merwin writes in "A Letter to Ruth Stone" (p.67): "Now that you have caught sight/ of the other side of darkness...//now you will be able to envisage beyond/ any words of mine/ the color of these leaves/ that you never saw...// you know there was never a name for that color". Like the Taoist rejecting Confucian categories of colors, musical tones, and tastes that instead cause blindness, deafness, and a spoiled palate (Tao Te Ching #12), Merwin's perception is that one experiencing the non-being of all things, from the other side of darkness, sees the emptiness of all things, our invented claims of finding a true name for the 10,000 things is part and cause of our suffering. And when he turns to his "late poems" and their "worn words", it is because those words on which we inevitably fall back :have come the whole way/ they have been there". The named Tao, the way, the path, and the Buddhist Middle Path are guides, signs, indicators, only that. What is important, what is not lost in experience, is life as it is lived on the "whole way".

Do we actually see what is there before us or import what we desire to see? Opposed to the hungry eye of desire is the eye-ing of being, looking into the void -- sunyata -- the emptiness of all things. We are emptiness in meditation, the empty mirror we look into, bearing the weight of nothingness. That has a meaning profound enough to let meaning be absent, what is the impermanent, unsentimental, admonishing, burning glare of being itself. Zen practice seeks to be mindful in action, rather than conscious of a specific goal or having thoughts about action, that mental buffer that takes us out of the immediate moment in our typical multi-tasking, distracted mind-set. And its secret? When a Zen monk asked his dying Master the secret of Zen, the old man asked: "Have you had breakfast?" "Yes", the young man replied. "Then wash your bowl," the old monk said and died. Enlightenment is present in the ordinary. Zen, like a poem, is not meant to mean, but to be, to hit us with the force of a hint that we cannot treat as a possession.


Sometimes it is in recollecting that we know for the first time where we are. See: "Far Along in the Story" (p.15). The boy while tracing the flight of a flock of cranes (traditional Asian symbols of long life) thinks  he hears a voice in their calling, "but he/ could not hear what they were calling.../...but he went on/ trying to remember something in/ their calls until he stumbled and came/ to himself with the day before him/ wide open and the stones of the path/ lying still and each tree in its own leaves". Here is a succinct Buddhist lesson about the connection of the human to nature, and how the boy could not come to recognize the calling until he "stumbled" -- until he was not in human control with its sense of power -- only then "he came to himself", in the words of Master Dogen: "...letting body and mind fall away". And at that moment of falling into nature, a moment of sudden illumination/enlightenment, what Zen would call "satori": "that moment he remembered who he was/ only he had forgotten his name". Remembering no longer was distance- making, but the product of his stumbling out of the world of name and into the realization of no self, no name. That remembering, both the past and the future, is as direct at times as a photo, as Merwin writes in "A Likeness" (p.25): "I open an old picture of you/ who always did such things by magic.../beautiful in a way/ I would never see/ for that was nine years/ before I was born/...I have only what I remember". His poems repeat the awareness of being out of time: "...the sight of a morning before I was born" ("September's Child", p.98) and "It is at last any morning not answering to a name...[what] "I seem/ to have heard before I/ was listening" ("Grace Note", p.105). That beginner's mind of fresh immediacy is like a solution to a Zen koan: "What was your original face before you were born?" The past is not complete; it is also the future. The past is never finished with us. The surprising picture, suddenly faded, is already who the poet remembered. "The Dream of Koa Returning" (p.53) is like the classic story of Chuang-tzu who dreamt he was a butterfly, and upon awakening wondered if he were a man who dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who dreamt he was a man. Remembering/dreaming shakes up our understanding of our true identity and that of others: "...you let/ me breathe you touch you taste you knowing/ no more that I did" -- the oneness of all, our interconnected being, allows separation only by our conscious reflection: "...when I/ began to think of losing you.../ you were already/ part memory part distance" ("Youth", p.39). Memory can lead us back to immediacy or it can re-inforce the separation and distancing. We could not know ourselves happy or unhappy, if we were "at no distance" ("Traces", p.31) from our immediate selves. The best memory is to be in the remembered moment.

Merwin ends "The Shadow of Sirius", not with shadow, but with the morning light again: "O nameless joy of the morning" ("The Laughing Thrush", p.113) -- with laughter like that of the Laughing Buddha of the future, Maitreya, that we often see pictured as that jolly, rotund, pot-bellied figure of future enlightenment: "...the one time/ in the whole of before and after/ with all of memory waking into it." Remembering is that future moment of fulfillment.

What Merwin wrote in a foreword to a work by his teacher, Robert Aitken Roshi, translating Basho,  can be applied also to him:  "With a plainness, a lack of ostentation, and at the same time an authority that are the fruits of years of study, he tells us poem by poem what to listen for and how to listen to [the poem] and to ourselves." [Robert Aitken, A Zen Wave (New York: Weatherhill), p.15].

At this point I end (and begin) with a remembered poem by Merwin:  "Unknown Age" (p.73):

For all the features it hoards and displays
age seems to be without substance at any time
whether morning or evening it is a moment of air
held between the hands like a stunned bird
while I stand remembering light in the trees
of another century on a continent long submerged
with no way of telling whether the leaves at that time
felt memory as they were touching the day
and no knowledge of what happened to the reflections
on the pond’s surface that never were seen again
the bird lies still while the light goes on flying.

(The New Yorker -- May 21, 2007)


Royal W.F. Rhodes is the Donald L. Rogan Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at Kenyon College.


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