PHOTO

Oddly I have a photo
of my grandmother’s grave,
but not one of my mothers,
either of them actually, and
we’ve yet to have a funeral
for the one who raised me.
I forgive the one who gave me life,
for she gave me to one she felt
could care for me well and
she slipped away into death
before I found out her name.
I do have a college yearbook
photo of her, and that will
have to do every day, and
especially on Sunday when she
will have been lying
in the soil of West Virginia
for sixteen years, and I will
be mourning her passing for four.

RULER, PLEASE

You search without end for a way
to precisely measure life in all of its aspects.
You will not be dissuaded by the fact that you can no more
control its span than you could control your need to breathe.
You say you picked the sperm and egg,
that their union you carefully orchestrated.
You believe all things can be measured,
if you can only identify proper metrics for the task.
You know precisely how tall you are, how much
you have shrunken over the years,
how much your waistline has grown.
You can count your good deeds, have a rating scale
that says your next life will be karmic payback hell.
You are taken with measurements of all sorts,
so much so that you often forget to fully live.
You say that this loss doesn’t matter much,
for living boldly, thoroughly, gives you
far too much more to measure.

CHOSHA’S STOP ILLUSORY THINKING

Before life there is death,
before death there is life.
In life there is death,
in death there is life,
a worm cut in two,
each half moves,
in each a new worm
or is there one worm.
This I ask you, but
answer or no answer
both are full
of Buddha nature.


A reflection on Case 20 of the Shobogenzo (Dogen’s True Dharma Eye)

INTO THE SOIL

She wants to know if I
want to her gloves while planting
so I don’t get dirt deep in my skin
and under my nails.
There is no way I can explain to her
there is a certain joy
in placing my fingers into
the just wet soil, in moving it
with my hands, squeezing
small clods of earth, watching
bits of soil fall away.
It is certainly dirty work
but I know that this
is as close as I can get
to the earth from which I came
without engaging in that
final, eternal intimacy.

A TURN

He is never certain what to do on days
like this one, when the winter takes
a particularly nasty turn, the temperature
hovers at utter emptiness, and the wind
elects to try to enfold everything it can reach
in a coat of frost, that bleaches life away.
He walks each day, through the nearby park
if the weather is the least bit cooperative,
through the neighborhood when not, where
at least he can take a small shelter from the wind
in the shadow of houses closed up tightly,
life walled away within, smarter, he imagines
than he is, his fingers ill-gloved, slowly losing
all feeling, but this is his practice, something
he does because it requires doing, heeding
an edict from an unspoken voice. And later
emerging from a hot shower, feeling limbs
restored, he glances at the weather in hopes
the next day will be kinder, and slow in coming.

UMMON’S FAMILY TRADITION 鐵笛倒吹 七十一

The greatest teacher
is one who offers nothing
and shouts it silently
once the student has departed.

You cannot know
what the blind man sees
for you cannot see
through his eyes
and the deaf woman
may hear a symphony
in a flower.

When asked what is
your practice
do you answer: life?


A reflection on case 71 of the Iron Flute Koans