Sunday, May 6, 2012

Self-examination in Poetry: Metaphors Be With You

Since April I’ve been at the temple every Sunday but more weeks than not I’m out of town (either in Minnesota helping in my mother’s transition to assisted living or in Texas with the on-going settlement of my late sister’s affairs). So for the Wednesday study group we’ve been trying Skype as a way for me to conduct the class when I’m not in Chicago. The class gathers at the temple and my husband uses a large monitor hooked to a laptop for the members to see me coming over the internet.

In our second try with Skype, we had a lively discussion – at times I couldn’t make out all the comments when people were speaking at the same time. We read two poems by Kotaro Takamura (1883-1956) which were translated by Rev. Gyoko Saito and Joan Sweany in A Garland of Bright Flowers (poems and essays by various Japanese writers) published privately by Joan Sweany as “Orchid Press” in 1995.

I found it intriguing that Rev. Saito was drawn to translate Takamura’s poems and articles but the anthology he and Joan Sweany put together gives very little information about the writers. They only note that Takamura was known as a sculptor and had studied under August Rodin. There wasn’t much more information on him at the English version of Wikipedia. I wanted to know how Buddhism influenced Takamura. His father (Koun Takamura) and the master his father worked under were both sculptors of Buddhist statues. In the translation of one poem there was a reference to a place called “Iwano prefecture” so I went into the Japanese version of Wikipedia to find that Takamura had lived in Iwate prefecture and for a while was associated with the brother of the poet Kenji Miyazawa (who died before Takamura went to Iwate). Miyazawa in turning away from his parents’ Jodo Shinshu faith, turned to Nichiren Buddhism and his work shows the strong influence of the Lotus Sutra. Takamura, however, seems to have an affinity with Zen.

Image of Kotaro Takamura from Wikipedia.

Here’s an except from Takamura’s poem “To a Mob” which generated much of the discussion:

Look at the starved faces of those who curdle in anger

            Clumping their eyebrows into a snarl;

Look at their weakness and fear

            Irrelevant to the essential.

You secondary selves separated by screens!

You who float weightless like animals on water.

See that poverty of yours, then look at the clear moon

            About to unfold over the hill.

Feel how this winter night is charged!

One member of the group, Joe, took the references to “starved faces” and “that poverty of yours” literally and thought Takamura was putting down poor people. I reminded the group that after reading all the Joseph Campbell material in January and February, we should appreciate the use of metaphors in expressing spiritual themes. (The Star Wars flavored subtitle above is from a placard I saw in the University of Minnesota alumni magazine.) The “starved” and “poverty” in the poem describe the lack of spiritual richness.

I was glad that Lisa made the criticism that I was going to make – in this poem and in some other Buddhist writings (Zen in particular), there is a tone of arrogance and an elitist attitude. The poet from his enlightened perch is looking down on all the deluded beings who are so out of touch with the deeper reality of life.

But the poem is valuable if we read it for our own self-examination. It is the “clear moon” that charges up the winter night that makes me see how lost in petty concerns I am – I know I operate like an animal floating around, walled off from others by the screens of my arbitrary judgments. And I know how much I snarl and curdle in anger, too crippled by weakness and fear (defending and asserting my ego-self) to touch what is the essential (hongan, the innermost aspiration of unbounded Life). I am sure that is how Rev. Saito read the poem – hearing its expression of Namu Amida Butsu.