friend of mine who was a member of a Zen sangha once told me that he and his wife were the only ones not to pass the test of the koan, which is a riddle to get students to think out of the box and prompt enlightenment. And while he didn’t tell me what the koan was, I decided to prepare myself in case one day I was in that situation. (Ah, the things we prepare ourselves for.)
GIVE US A HAND
Perhaps the most famous koan is this: What is the sound of one hand clapping? If you think about it, you may realize as I did, well, not a clue. I did some reading about this and it apparently takes three years to resolve this problem. And in the answer I read, the Zen student extends his hand to the teacher. I’m thinking, that’s it? That can’t be right. Where is the sound in that?
Take this example, which I’m not sure is actually a koan, but let us imagine it is. A monk falls over a cliff. On his way down, falling through space, he sees a blueberry bush. He grabs a blueberry. “How delicious,” he says.
Initially I thought, okay, during an emergency, you can take a deep breath, admire the sunshine.
You get a ticket, for example. Now, in France, tickets are no laughing matter. Parking violations are considered to fall into three categories: annoying, very annoying, and super annoying, which is dangerous. Once I needed a scale. I scooted in a space in front of the store, not really a parking space, and did like all the French people. You put on your hazard lights to show you’ll be right back. And right back I was. Except that I had parked partially in a crosswalk, which was very annoying to the mother, for example, who was pushing the baby in a stroller. The mother was, of course, theoretical because I had been gone all of five minutes. But the policeman affixing my ticket to the windshield was adamant. Well, I said to him, it can’t be nearly as annoying for her to go around me as it is for me to pay the fine of 135 euros. The scale I had purchased was now worth its weight in gold. The policemen laughed and carried on with the ticket.
What is the blueberry, so to speak, in that case? The cobblestones on the pretty street?
After a while, I got to thinking that life itself was an urgency. Gotta get to work; grade those papers; take out the dog. And if we keep popping blueberries, what would that give us? How delicious, how delicious, how delicious, a constant refrain. I think we would have more fun.
This delicious idea of celebrating the moment is captured beautifully in Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Postscript.” There’s this moment, which you have to catch, because you don’t even have time to park. And the speaker and the readers for that matter are described as a “hurry,” an interesting designation. “Hi, I’m hurry.” Makes you stop and think, right? We have often said we are in a hurry, but to be a “hurry”? I like it. If I am ever asked the sound of one hand clapping, I will recite this poem. And the tramps in Godot. I think they have a secret literary life, stripped down, and raw, but they know we are a “hurry” too. And that is why we are waiting. We are all waiting for those moments to catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
by Seamus Heaney
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
IN HEANEY’S WORDS
“It could have been given a long Wordsworthian title, something like Memorial of a Tour by Motorcar with Friends in the West of Ireland, but that would misrepresent the sudden, speedy feel of it.
“Now and again a poem comes like that, like a ball kicked in from nowhere: in this case, I was completely absorbed in writing one of the last of the Oxford lectures when I had this quick sidelong glimpse of something flying past; before I knew where I was, I went after it.
“It came from remembering a windy Saturday afternoon when Marie and I drove with Brian and Anne Friel along the south coast of Galway Bay. We had stopped to look at Mount Vernon, Lady Gregory’s summer house–still there, facing the waters and the wild; then we drove on into this glorious exultation of air and sea and swans. There are some poems that feel like guarantees of your work to yourself.
“They leave you with a sensation of having been visited, and this was one of them. It excited me, and yet publishing it in The Irish Times was, as much as anything else, a way of sending a holiday postcard–a PS of sorts–to the Friels.”
And Lady Gregory is …? A dramatist who cofounded Abbey Theatre in Dublin with William Butler Yeats and Edward Martyn.
IT’S ALL YOURS
When I teach this poem, I have the students find the end of the first sentence. That sets the scene, I tell them. And the rest is something of a turn. Choose one word in the last sentence, I direct them, and let’s see if we can use it to make sense of the poem. Kid after kid raises a hand: I like “soft,” I like “buffeting,” I like “sideways,” I like “heart.” The poem I tell them is for you, not something to flog the meaning out of and master.
AND SEAMUS HEANEY IS?
Born in Northern Ireland, (13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013), like Yeats, he won the Nobel prize in literature. The Yeats Summer School in Sligo, Ireland, was frequented occasionally by our own faculty at Sections Internationales de Sèvres. And Seamus Heaney was a fervent supporter of the Yeats Summer School, sometimes offering a poetry workshop and readings of his poetry. Heaney was like a distant family member of our team, a second cousin twice removed, who circulated in a tangential realm to ours, but animated our school none-the-less.
The idea for this post came on a walk with friends near Lake Ontario. A lake was inland to our left and somebody compared the wide Great Lake to the ocean. I don’t have pictures of the inland lake and the Great Lake together, but you get the idea. This first one is Lake Ontario, and the second is the lake nestled nearby.
In books, it’s not so much the scenery that blows the heart open, but the perspective. I just finished a book called, Love, by Roddy Doyle. Two old friends in a bar who haven’t seen each other in many years. The story overlays the current lives of the men with their shared boyhood, just as they were emerging into manhood. The past and the present work together like the inland lake and the sea in Heaney’s poem. And the effect is very much like the “hurry through which known and strange things pass.” And our hearts are the better for it.
And here’s a modern take on Irish dancing! (A bit random but joyous)