If you are able to speak maintain silence, If you can bear the silence, listen to the song the sea sings. If you can sing with the sea count the grains of sand that wash in on the next wave. If you lose count, begin again before the wave recedes. If the wave recedes before you finish counting, bid it farewell. After you bid farewell return to your cushion and listen to the silence which is the body of the dharma.
If, sitting at your meal you hear the song of a bird, what do you do? You may tap your chopstick rest, and perhaps he will answer and repeat his sweet song. If you tap a second time and there is only silence is the bird rejecting you or offering his song to another, flown from your window.
Perhaps you should tap again and hear the sweeter song of silence that echoes over the garden and zendo. On a distant limb the small songbird smiles.
The most important lessons he taught were in those moments when he was absolutely silent, the smile across his face shouting across the background din of everyday life, his eyes wide with a sort of childish awe that I had long since given up as adolescent.
The child sees everything for the first time regardless how many times she has gazed at what we adults are certain is the same scene, a pure iteration, hears each call of the cardinal as a never-before-heard song, not the now boring chorus of a too long repeated lyric, its melody now painful.
His lessons too easily slipped away, as he did a few years later, mourning a poor substitute for memories that eased into the damp ground with him, but the smile of my granddaughter at seemingly everything and nothing, her laughter at the squirrel inverted from the crook arm of the bird feeder defying the shield below to stop his constant thefts, the giggles at the clouds filling the sky with characters I could not hope to see, brought him back, and with him the joys of my childhood long suppressed.
She asks innocently, listening to the wind whispering through the bare branches of the oak, “How long have you lived in this poem,” pointing to the page of marked and remarked typescript. He looks at her as if discovering she’d grown another head, peeking out from between her well-polished teeth. “I have no idea what you mean,” he says, “I write the poems— it is up to you to furnish them.” She grimaces, “That’s so wrong,” a third head appeared, grinning, “if you build poems on spec they are sterile little boxes that you foist off on the unwary. Plant all the flowers you want around it, it will still have the antiseptic smell should we dare step into it. That’s just the difference between us,” she adds, “I can see the song of the wind played by the trees, but you, you see only the blankness of the unadorned walls.”
It is hard, looking back, to recall just how many hours I spent searching with a fair amount of diligence for just the right song to express my love. Most often I would find it, but only after that love had been replaced by another, demanding a new song — you cannot use the same song for two different loves, that crosses well over into tacky. I have to admit I’ve given up totally on that quest, even as the number of available songs has grown exponentially, or so the various streaming services suggest. I have only a single lover now, have for twenty years, and as her hearing has slipped away it is her lips that read mine, and that is all the song we need.
Mockingbirds greet the morning
Great Blue Herons stare
imagining their voices
night sweetly welcome the dawn
The great temple bell
awaits the morning, the monk,
its daily purpose
cast deep within the metal
always verging on release
Smoke of incense too
prostrates itself to Buddha
soon a morning breeze
or the freedom of the sky