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

LUDWIG

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.

ZAZEN

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.

PRACTICE

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.

OLD MONK

The old monk stooped carefully,
gingerly picking each browning leaf
from the dry garden and gently
placing it in the sack he carried.
With each leaf he would increase
his count, always certain that it
fully fell into the sack.
When the last leaf was picked
and even the autumn tree
dared not drop another this day,
the monk dumped the leaves
onto the stone of the garden
and stooped carefully,
gingerly picking each browning leaf.
A watching visitor asked the abbot
if the monk had dementia,
but the abbot smiled and said,
“He is the sanest one among us,
watch how he wholly engages his practice.”