Friday, May 27, 2011

XVIth Century North Indian Poetry (1)

July 3, 2010    
 My first encounter with Indian poetry was Tagore's Fireflies. I was reminded of Japanese haiku, and didn't go much further until one summer in Laguna, years later, I took a private class on the Bhagavad-Gita with one of the local yoga teachers, Florence Bercut. She adhered closely to Sivananda's (?) instruction and was steeped in Vedanta. 
    The course was a revelation to me. I recalled Firefliesand prowled used bookstores for a long time before I found Gitanjali and Poems of Kabir in Denver. Then I learned that Robert Bly had done some translations of Kabir, what he calls "versions." I acquired some anthologies of Indian literature and started reading. Again and again I returned to Kabir and the other bhakti poets: Mirabai, Nanak, Surdas, in much the same way I come back to Rumi and Rilke, Traherne and Hopkins. And here I need to point out that I can read only the last pair in their original language. For the rest, I must rely on the skill and insight of the translators, their poetic aesthetic and knowledge of the path.
     Rilke and Rumi are available in numerous versions: academic, scholarly transliterations, stiff imitations, liberal interpretations and "channeled originals." Thus far, I haven't found a satisfactory text that is faithful to both the poetic language of the poet and the ecstatic consciousness represented in the poem's content. A tall order, I know, yet Coleman Barks does it often with Rumi, Mitchell and Poulin sometimes with Rilke.
     I've been reading Bly & Hirshfield's versions of Mirabai and Kabir (Beacon Press), and also In Praise of Krishna (trans. Dimock & Levertov). These praise songs and poems from the Bengali celebrate the Divine Incarnation of Lord Vishnu as Krishna and his lila (play) with the gopis (cowherds) of Vrindaban. There is a rhythm in the language and vitality in the imagery that I completely miss in Tagore's translations.
     There was a recent article in the New Yorker magazine about Tagore. One of the observations the author of the article offers is that Tagore tended to tone down his own verse for his English readers. It seems likely he did the same to Kabir.  

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Durable fragility

     My appreciation for the fragility and durability of this physical body has deepened profoundly over these past weeks. Having not been a patient in any sort of house of healing for many years, since last Independence Day, I've been hospitalized six times for fairly serious health matters, undergone three surgeries and can anticipate three more. 
     I'll become Medicare eligible in about three months, so in the meantime, I want to continue to heal and recover as much strength and endurance as possible. I am witness to the body's remarkable capacity to endure --first the illness and its painful symptoms, then the application of remedies, and third the process of recovery.That is durability.
     At one frightening point in my recent confinement, it became painfully difficult to breathe. Fluid around the lungs had so inflamed them that inflation became painfully sharp. Panting through the episode as pharmaceutical compounds dripped into my arm, I felt the precious worth of every cubic inch of air. That is fragility.
    These antinomies seem to suddenly abound. The paradox and ko-an are everywhere I seem to put my attention. A book just came to my library by Lewis Thompson, Black Sun, and it is all antinomy and paradox. Jean Liedloff's Continuum Concept explodes premises with paradoxes. My body becomes a ko-an when the envelope that contains my heart is flooded and a-flame. 
     Today I feel good. So grateful to be here, to be alive. Enjoying very much this mysterious and magical moment.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Profound Moment in History

Late August, 1998. Pasadena.

    "We're living through a profound moment in history," my friend, Andy, told me the other day. 
     His parents, one Russian, one Polish, named him Anatole, but he grew up as 'Andy.' He knows how I resist this media wave, fixed on the Millenium. The numbers are irrelevant, relative, arbitrary. If you follow the Gregorian calculations, it's a thousand years. If your calendar reckons time from the lunar months of Abraham, or the flight of the Prophet, it isn't 1998. Some of us mark the passage of time from the days of the Pharaohs or the first dynasty of Atlantis. A few remote communities may be beyond the reach of Y2K angst altogether.
     "What makes this bundle of years so special, O Wise One?" I asked. "Sure, we're in it. That makes it important, but think about what our grandmothers lived through!" I said. "Global wars. Global depression. Global transportation... And their grandmothers lived through wars, the Civil War, the Boer War, the Restoration of the Meiji dynasty, the Suez Canal, the Third Republic! Every moment in history is profound, Andy, to the people who live it!" I paused in my rant.
      "For sure, man," he said, "if I can describe it." Long pause. This is an articulate guy, so, I wait. "It's got to be gaining momentum, Luz. Just look at this week --
      "The liberal leader of the most powerful state on the planet admitted to the world that he lied about what he was doing with a young woman on his Presidential staff. This same leader, the year before 'ended Welfare as we know it,' and claimed savings of hundreds of millions of dollars for tax-payers. Later that same week, he gave orders to send 100 Tomahawk missiles ($1,000,000 / unit) into northern Africa and eastern Afghanistan. And that's just the American highlights...
    "McGuire and Sosa both had homers. Yeltsin fired his Cabinet. Aung San Suu Kyi is barricaded on a bridge in Burma. Serious earthquake in Japan. Heavy flooding in China. Armed insurgencies in Colombia, Angola, Indonesia, Mexico...." Andy stops and looks at me, question on his face, It's bad, right
     "Sounds pretty normal," I said. "The wave is not crashing today, Andy. Last week it was bombing the embassies in Africa. Clinton came back from China. Roy Rodgers and Frank Sinatra died. There's your historical marker," I offered.
      Andy sighed, "Yeah, what a voice."
      "No, Roy Rodgers." 


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Education I, concluded

The way we reward teachers and students is so peculiar, and the way we pay for our schools is so unfair. Education is something we all benefit from, it is common wealth. Turning it into private property or auctioning it in the marketplace, both are obscene.
     Re: mental health. In too many schools too many teachers experience "burn-out." Consider the growing numbers of students and teachers who take prescription drugs to help them get through their days at school. Why is the number of school-age suicides not declining? 
     Re: quality of service. Why is it so difficult to  keep good teachers? Why does the number of students who drop out of school keep growing? What does your neighborhood school look like? Is the environment well-kept and clean? Do the buildings appear to be safe and maintained? Is the school open or fenced? Do the classrooms have enough books and desks for every student? What about the school district next door?
     Re: virtue. Although test scores mean a lot to the people who have the power to allocate resources, scores have little to do with education. Education is about cultivating the minds and character of the next generation. The root sense, of virtue, is of strength and knowing what is right, a sense of justice. There are, I believe, many virtuous teachers and students who want to gain virtue, but the spiritual crisis that seems to permeate American culture makes virtue an unprofitable commodity.
     For most of my life, I've been a student or a teacher. My experiences in many varied learning environments, my apprenticeships, my readings, and observing and thinking about education, have not brought me enlightenment or practical recipes that will save education in America. (My apologies, what were you expecting?) There are some people who have also been plowing this field, working this mine, shoveling shit at times, but wanting to get out of this catastrophe and into the Next Thing.
     In recent times, The Whole Earth Catalog stands as a sort of benchmark, an encyclopedic collection of the most interesting non-mainstream ideas and heresies we could find. It remains a great example of a Tools resource. Other interesting bits came from Paul Goodman and Michael Harrington, Joe Chilton Pearce, Bucky Fuller and Marshall McLuhan. There are many more in my list of great teachers, and they are not all male. But for now, I offer these giants for your (re) consideration ....
     Be well.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Be Welcome!

Here we are.
There's nowhere else we can be.
Only here can we taste this moment,
feel and know the wonder of being alive.

This is the place to hear the songs
the whale and whippoorwhyll sing,
to say the words we've not yet said,
and embrace those we hold most dear,
for it is here in our hearts 
all our joy and jubilation,
all our travail and sorrows come to us,
here, only in this moment, this life.

In the blink of an eye it will all end.
All we have is this moment under heaven.
All that we have, all that we love,
is right here, right now,
where we are. 

Consider the possibility:  
         There is another way to see, to speak, another way of being, a way to live that deepens, enriches and expands conscious appreciation of this moment. It is archaic and revolutionary, unfashionable to some, too simple for others. It was known in the most ancient times and taught by masters in every generation. We should remember and honor them and tell their stories: Moses, Krishna, Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed, Zarathustra, Quetzalcoatl, Nanak and Meher Baba, Baal Shem Tov and Kabir, and so many more.


 In so many texts you read, "When the student is ready, the Teacher comes." Today we seem to have a "Teacher Crisis" as well as a "Student Crisis." Let me persuade you that the mess I observe in American public education has several dimensions: economics, mental health, quality of service and virtue. Grant me at least these four and an opportunity to quickly make a few points.
       Re: economics. Who gets paid more per hour of "contact time"? A school teacher in a classroom setting or a motivational speaker in a "productivity seminar" setting.