A MONK IN MEDITATION 鐵笛倒吹 七十語

A man may own
may volumes of great knowledge
and never have time to read.
An illiterate may take such books
and fashion a stool
on which to sit in meditation.

Which of these is truly wise
which the greatest fool.
Wipe your mouth
with this page
at the conclusion
of the meal.


A reflection on Case 75 of the Iron Flute Koans.

ALTERNATE HISTORY

My mother wanted to tell me
of my great-grandmother,
a woman she barely knew,
but who she imagined more fully
that life itself
would ever have allowed.
History, in her hands
was malleable, you could
shape it in ways never happened.
She wanted to tell me
but she knew that
her grandmother wouldn’t approve
of adopting when your womb
was perfectly serviceable,
certainly not for a man
more than a decade older
who could not uphold
his most sacred obligation.
She wanted to tell me,
but I am adopted
and this woman can be
no more than a story
of passing relevance to me.

SAYING, NO PLEASE

“Every once in a while,” he says
and the screeching in my head
drowns out what follows. I know
what he means of course, that is
the easy part, but the gulf between
meaning and saying is so broad
I can stop and count the traffic
of ideas floating by, each seeking
its own purchase, each finding none.
It could be worse, I know, he
could have said “each and every
once in a while, and he does that
as well, though not in a while,” 
but even the once was enough.
I notice he is gone, and I wonder
how much life flowed by
while I was otherwise engaged.

WHAT DID YOU DO

When they asked him
what did you do during the war
he said “I just stood guard.”
When they asked him where
he said “A station, just
a station, like most others,
I just stood guard.”
When they asked him
did you see the trains
carrying the bodies crammed
into cattle cars
he said “I saw many trains,
it was just a station, but mostly
I looked at the sky, wishing
for the sun, but mostly it was gray
and there was smoke
from the chimneys.”
When they asked him
why did you wear
the lightening bolts
he said “I was a ski instructor
but I broke my leg
so I stood at the station,
just a station like most others.”
When they asked him
did he know of the ovens
he said “They made bread
which we ate each night
when there were no potatoes.”
When they asked him
about the Jews
he said “I knew no Jews;
there were none in the town
where I stood guard
at a station, just
a station like most others.”
When they asked him
what he did after the war
he said “I prayed, just
prayed for my sins,
sins like those
of so many others.”

ARLINGTON NATIONAL

As the plane slowly descends
the cemetery appears
through a break in the clouds.
The headstones are arrayed
in neatly ordered geometries,
unknown to those who lie beneath,
and those who water
the always verdant lawns.
Mausoleums cluster

in a small village,
from which no one ever moves,
and rest comes easily
to those who lie within.

RHINOCEROS

If I ask you to bring me
an atom of oxygen, where
will you search for it, how
will you isolate it, so that
you have captured
a single atom
that you can bring
in response to my request?
It may take some time
and great effort
to satisfy my desire.
Or you may simply
smile and tell me
to breathe and choose
the atom I wish
from the multitude
you have provided.


A reflection on case 3 of Bring Me the Rhinoceros (koans).