Thursday, May 29, 2014

From the Pure Land: Poetry and Jazz

For this month, I just want to plug two sources of inspiration for me – the avant-garde music of Renee Baker and the articles in Poetry magazine. Last Thursday I attended “CreateFest III” a collection of musicians directed by Renee Baker performing at the Peoples Church. It was very challenging for me to listen to the jazz-influenced improvisation music (with spoken word and dancing), especially when my daily commute music is mostly pop stations. The day happened to be the 100th birthday of Sun Ra and one group got everyone chanting “Space is the place” to invoke his spirit.

(Sun Ra photo by Andrew Pultier/Redferns)
Although I knew about Poetry Magazine from articles in the Chicago Reader and last year I did a memorial service for the father of someone on the magazine staff, I became interested in it when a new member in our weekly study group brought up the article “The Poetic Torture-House of Language” by Slavoj Zizek from the March 2014 issue. So when I got a solicitation in the mail, I decided to get a subscription. Reading the June 2014 issue, I have the same reaction to the CreateFest concert – I need to be more exposed to these experimental kinds of expression.
Why? Because it doesn’t bring me closer to the “Pure Land,” Jodo which should actually be translated as “realm of flowingness,” if I keep using the same phrases and wordings in talking about it. In jazz and poetry, I’m confronted with ways of expression that shake me out of my fossilized thinking – I’m hearing the “flowingness” of life and not the tied-down neatness of structured presentations.
Now I understand a little better why Rev. Gyoko Saito was so attracted to Joseph Jarman and his wife Thulani Davis. (Rev. Saito arranged for both of them to receive tokudo ordination at Higashi Honganji in Kyoto though neither seems to have much affinity for or knowledge of Shinran’s teachings.) It wasn’t so important to Rev. Saito that Joseph or Thulani “got” Buddhism, but it was important to deepening his own understanding of Buddhism to be exposed to Joseph’s expressive music and Thulani’s spirited writing about the African American experience. Rev. Saito saw with other ministers it’s so easy to get trapped in a cocoon of classical Japanese culture in presenting Buddhism in America. For the teachings of Shinran to come alive in this country, we need words and music that speak to our heart of hearts and not just to appeal to an intellectual attraction to exotic Asian culture.

Poetry magazine
Renee Baker