They were not optional in our family,
once a week, half an hour, that and
at least 20 minutes daily, the youngest
got the choice of times.
He quit after a year, his sister
was three years in and went on another
and I was eight years staring
at the 88 keys, so many of which
would never get used, useless
as were the pedals I couldn’t reach
at first and rarely needed later.
It was upright, as I was supposed
to be, but only was in sight
of my teacher, and I thought
Bill Evans had it right, leaning
over the keys insuring that they
wouldn’t make an escape.
I stopped when my parents realized
how much they had spent
on what they would never enjoy
and I would as soon forget.
Today I again took up the brush,
carefully mixed the sumi-e ink
and with hand poised over a sheet
of anticipating rice paper waited,
knowing that the moment for a stroke
was imminent but not yet at hand,
and I dare not force it for brush
painting is a practice that cannot
be compelled, a gentle merger
of idea, brush, ink and paper,
and if any are missing, a sadness
that can only be irreversible.
Today the brush considered the ink
and decided it was not a good day
and so I cleaned it carefully, set it
aside with the block of ink,
and rolling the rice paper, promised
it, myself, that we would repeat
this exercise until the moment was
right and the image was ready to appear.
A wise Buddhist teacher
once told me that anything you do,
if you do it mindfully, can be
a form of meditation, and I have
taken this into my practice,
albeit with mixed success, but that
is one reason they call it practice.
Walking silently, following
your breath in and out, aware
of your feet, the earth, the sky
is definitely meditative.
Chopping onions, carefully drawing
the knife thorough the layers
creating neatly incised bits
is certainly meditative.
Sitting by a pond watching
the sun slowly set it ablaze
as the breeze ruffles the surface
is absolutely meditative.
But folding laundry, no matter
how mindfully I approach the task
always and quickly morphs into
a mindless search for the missing sock.
Why do you climb the mountain
and seek entry
into the small cabin.
Why do you give up
your home in the valley.
You should be turned away
for if you seek
a higher understanding
you demonstrate to all
there is no depth
to your practice.
A reflection on Case 94 of the Iron Flute Koans.
He is four today. He’s been practicing being four, so it is somewhat second nature. But he made a decision. Next year he will be five. He was going to be 27 next year, but decided that can wait another year. I asked him why he was delaying, he said, “You get better presents when you are four or five.” I confess his logic, but wonder what I should do with the tie and cardigan I bought for his next birthday?
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.
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
do you answer: life?
A reflection on case 71 of the Iron Flute Koans
When I was twelve, I think,
maybe in the last days of eleven,
and in my third year of piano lessons
my teacher, Mrs. Schwarting, she
of no first name, and a steady hand
that could squeeze the muscle
of my shoulder, a taloned metronome,
gave me a small plastic bust
of Beethoven, told me to place it
on the piano, so that he could watch
my daily practice and insure
my eyes were on him, not the keys.
Ludwig is long gone, lost
in one of our moves, one less
gatherer of the dust of other activities.
Now, sitting on the bench,
flexing fingers demanding independence
I realize that his smile was one
of age, thankful for his deafness.
Previously published in Fox Cry Review, Vol. 23, 1997 and in PIF Magazine, Vol. 20, 1999.
He likes the sitting, at least at first. It does calm him, as it is supposed to, and he knows he needs calm in his life. Even his knees accept the stillness for a while. Soon enough they begin to question the wisdom of this practice. Good for him, maybe, but hell for them, regardless of the position, lotus, seiza, chair. Hurt a bit less, hurt a bit more, but hurt certainly. He can ignore his knees longer and longer each time, but he knows that sooner or later he will give up, when the silence becomes deafening.
It always seems odd that the teacher
asks me to think about my practice
when the heart of my practice is learning
how not to always think about things.
But the heart of practice is exactly
these oddities, for nothing is exact.
In the fourth vow I strive to attain
the great way of Buddha, but I know,
as the Heart Sutra reminds me, that
there is “not even wisdom to attain,
attainment, too, is emptiness.”
And so I sit in confusion each day,
and bits of delusion fall away,
like the hair on my ever balding scalp.