This summer, July 5 – 8, some of the country’s most celebrated contemplative poetic voices will be headlining the first ever Buddhist Poetry Festival at Zen Mountain Monastery. The festival spans an overflowing weekend of workshops and readings, writing and reflection, designed for anyone who resonates with Dharma and poetry, regardless of their own previous level of engagement. In addition to featured events, participants will have opportunities to join monastics and residents in periods of meditation, as well as liturgy, and communal meals. Yet the festival will also open up the usual Monastery schedule to be more, well, festive. In short, there will be something for everyone.
Looking back, looking inwards
Poetry written and shared within the mountains is, of course, a Zen tradition. David Hinton, one of the festival’s featured poets, is among the leading translators of ancient Chinese hermit poets. As he explains in Hunger Mountain, these writers—some reclusive monastics, some government officials in exile—observed the intertwining flow of all things most clearly when in the presence of mountain landscapes. In several books of essays that frame his translated work, Hinton’s exploration of how language and landscape meet and meld is captivating, and he expertly weaves a narrative that moves from philosophy to poetry to pictograms. His latest work, Desert, is a book of original poetry, taking up the approach of the mountains and waters literary form and adapting it to the American landscape.
Following a keynote reading, David Hinton will sit down for a conversation and Q&A, a format that will be replicated by all the featured poets.
How can language arise out of and somehow capture this ever-fleeting moment? How can it successfully capture the essence of an insight?
Reading the works of Hinton and fellow festival poets Jane Hirshfield, Ocean Vuong, and Chase Twichell, we see the role poetry can play within practice. Margaret Gibson, another of the weekend’s headliners, comments: “…a poem is the skilful means that draws and holds that person or object and whatever I am together—within the skin of the poem those two inscribed, made briefly one thing. In this way writing becomes a meditative practice, a concrete process, a way to learn how to live…”
Over Gibson’s numerous and highly lauded books, we can trace the writer’s long-held desire for revelation through years of Zen meditative practice. A student of the late Peter Muryo Matthiessen, Gibson and her teacher shared an uncompromising attention to detail and a self-reflective inquisitiveness. With her assumption of varying voices in her work, the reader is rarely secure about just who is asking the questions and who is being addressed, yet the result is always enthralling. From her poem, “Strange Altars” comes the following:
Who sends the mind to wander far – who brings it
home? You think
this asking is easy? A rationed calm? An abeyance,
flowing and cool?
Eat the question, you swallow fire – a ruthless
unoathed fire that
Swallows you completely.
Writing as a form of spiritual practice and engagement is something all the authors have in common, and will be a key topic during The Buddhist Poetry Festival. As Daido Loori says in The Zen of Creativity, “The creative process, like a spiritual journey, is intuitive, non-linear, and experiential. It points us towards our essential nature, which is a reflection of the boundless creativity of the universe.”
Jane Hirshfield exemplifies this path. She was twenty-one when she began to study Zen, training for several years at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. “It’s what I did instead of graduate school,” she’s said. She describes how writing, for her, is a parallel and echo of spiritual practice: “The combination of focused awareness and open permeability that goes into writing poetry is very similar to meditative mind, but the difference is that when I write, I am leaning my attention and my intention a little more into the realm of language, thought and expression.”
And she reflects that “[Zen] is simply a path towards entering your life more fully, a way of knowing the taste of your tongue in your own mouth. The path of poetry and shaped words is much the same, I think — each increases what we can know of human experience.” She captures the simultaneous simplicity and difficulty of awakening and the importance of bringing such clarity into the daily activities of one’s life. A number of her poems, like “Da Capo” speak to this:
Take the used-up heart like a pebble
and throw it far out.
Soon there is nothing left.
Soon the last ripple exhausts itself
in the weeds.
Returning home, slice carrots, onions, celery.
Glaze them in oil before adding
the lentils, water, and herbs.
Then the roasted chestnuts, a little pepper, the salt.
Finish with goat cheese and parsley. Eat.
You may do this, I tell you, it is permitted.
Begin again the story of your life.
By focusing on and celebrating several beloved writers, the festival provides an opportunity to study their work and learn more about the creative process from trusted and experienced voices. Chase Takusei Twichell, a highly regarded poet and ZMM sangha member, captures some of the wonder of poetry by likening it to the “mind-to-mind transmission” of Zen between teacher and student. “The best poems are exactly that,” she writes. “They leap from mind to another without stopping to explain exactly how they did it. Poetry cannot be paraphrased because it can’t be apprehended by a purely literary mind. I think this is why so many people are afraid of it.”
Elsewhere, in her poem “Cities of Mind,” Twichell muses on her own ambivalence with the creative process. Not accidentally, much of the language employed could double for a description of the mind in meditation.
From up here on the parapets
I can see skeletons of meaning strewn
Among stones, all the way east
to Childhood’s shaded rooms.
To the lie the cities
I’ve not yet imagined,
And those I never will.
Let’s admit it’s an addiction,
How else might we speak of it?
As an anxiety? In any case,
I seem to like its fangs in my heart.
The Buddhist Poetry Festival was created in celebration of this impulse to creatively share those personal experiences that seem to touch upon universal. Be it our observations of the elusive present, encounters with impermanence, or yearnings of the heart and mind, these sketches of reality can clarify our our own experiences, while fostering a sense of community with fellow practitioners across space and time.
One writer with these thoughts on his lips represents a new generation of poets influenced by their spiritual inquiry. Ocean Vuong, whose 2016 debut Night Sky with Exit Wounds was a bestseller, is also focused on the festival’s main theme: responding to the cries of the world without resorting to inherited dualities. A Saturday afternoon panel discussion will approach that question head on as all our featured poets will describes their own engaged, creative processes.
In an interview with Tricycle Magazine, Vuong speaks of this moment in our nation’s history; a moment not too different from other moments of the past, when creative expression has fostered and community and shown us all that we are not alone.
“Poems surfacing amid fear and destruction remind me of the Buddhist allegory of the lotus blossom, a beautiful, lush bloom on the surface of a pond whose roots are in the mud. In this political climate, our fear is more visible, but that fear has always been there. The blossoming of these poems reminds us of this—that our roots have always been in the mud, so to speak.”
In addition to scheduled activities, readings and workshops at the Buddhist Poetry Festival, there will be unstructured points, giving plenty of opportunity for conversations over meals, optional meditation sessions, time for personal writing or to simply explore the Monastery grounds.