“In the Zen tradition, there tends to be a direct willingness to face the uncomfortable truths of birth and death, arrival and departing, and grief. Part of the power of the poetry of Zen is the extremely piercing effort to bring us close to these truths.”
At the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, head of the Mountains and Rivers Order, is speaking of his recently published book, O, Beautiful End: Memorial Poems (Dharma Communications, 2012), which he will discuss at a reading at 4 p.m. Sunday, October 14, at the Phoenicia Library. These poems, composed to be delivered at memorials for monastery residents and relatives, are part of a long tradition of employing poetry as a liturgical element and as a teaching tool on the path toward enlightenment.
Shugen, who is also abbot of the Zen Center of New York City and director of the National
Buddhist Prison Sangha, has the responsibility of conducting memorials at the Mount Tremper monastery, a role formerly taken by his teacher, monastery founder John Daido Loori, who passed away in 2009. O, Beautiful End includes two memorial poems for Daido.
In her introduction to the book, poet Anne Waldman writes of the related Zen genre of jisei, a death poem written at the final moment of life by the practitioner, monk, or master.
“It almost always about their own passing,” clarifies Shugen, “using it as a moment to give some final teaching on the deeper meaning of life and death.” Daido, however, slipped so gradually from consciousness that he did not deliver a jisei. Memorial poems, Waldman remarks, serve a ritual purpose similar to jisei.
Shugen does not consider himself a poet. “I had some unfavorable experiences with poetry in grade school and high school,” he says. “Teachers who dissected every line and symbol just killed it for me. When I began formal Zen training, I was exposed to poetry through the teachings. I began to read Whitman, but I was having difficulty hearing his voice.”
In the early 90s, Allen Ginsberg came to the monastery for the first time to lead a retreat. Listening to Ginsberg read his poems aloud, Shugen, who had trained as a classical musician, recalls, “I heard it for the first time — poetry is music. It’s not just words on the page — it’s very alive.”
As he progressed in his practice and was called on to officiate at funerals, he began to write poems himself.
For a memorial service, a poem has several functions. It honors the person who passed, helps the living through the grieving process, and offers a teaching that derives from the experience of bearing witness to death.
Shugen does not necessarily know his subject personally. “I talk with the person asking for the memorial, usually a relative of the deceased,” he explains. “I ask them to give me a portrait. What were they like? What did they love to do? What was their life like? It’s also to get a feeling of their relationship with the person. I meditate and hold those impressions in my mind as flavors, without actively thinking or trying to construct a portrait. Then I begin to write.”
The poem “For Fabienne” begins:
By the edge of a poet’s pond
the spine of an upturned canoe
emerges through the melting snow.
Its canvas — marked by the signs
of voyages long past — merges now
with the softening earth.
After establishing an image that does not directly describe the person but captures a quality of their life and death, usually in the context of nature and the season of writing, the poem goes on to refer to the truths of impermanence and passage, those difficult facts that Zen confronts.
Wood and fabric are clearly transformed.
Where is the vessel?
Then there’s a cry of pain.
Aiieeee . . . . .
“Crying doesn’t mean something,” observes Shugen. “It’s an experience that changes us, a vehicle of passage through into a clear place.”
In the latter part of the poem, he says, “having been brought face to face with life and death, there is a turning back towards life, coming back into this world.”
Standing on the icy shore, mother and son slip,
splashing into the cold, shallow waters.
A shock of silence — then
peals of laughter echo across
the brightening sky.
One of the poems in the collection is addressed to the father of Mujaku, a monk at the monastery. Shugen conducted a memorial for her parents when her father passed away, 20 years after her mother’s death. “She had a difficult life,” Mujaku relates, “and my father was a violent person. I thought I had dealt with their lives over the years, but when I came here, it hit me hard. The memorial and the poems were like a wind that came through and cleared years of my mother’s sad life. It eased something in me, and for my father — well, if you believe they’re still there, I felt like it was healing for him as well.”
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold will speak about poetry and its role in Zen liturgy and practice, and will read from his book, O, Beautiful End: Memorial Poems, at 4 p.m. Sunday, October 14, at the Phoenicia Library, 9 Ava Maria Drive, across from the post office in Phoenicia. Seating is limited, and a large audience is expected, so pre-registration is required. Call the library at 845-688-7811 to register.