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Tuesday, Aug. 31, 1999

Buddhist riffs that are and aren't poetry


For some time now, the trappings (if not the tenets) of Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy have been making their way into the popular Western consciousness.

We've had bands named Nirvana and albums called "Secret Samadhi," body lotions with names like Aura and Chakra Bliss, and now a traveling incense designed by fashion mogul Donna Karan.

If Madison Avenue has caught on, it's safe to say that beneath the outer representations of Buddhism lies a deeper manifestation of consciousness in art and daily life.

"What Book!?" celebrates this manifestation in poetry. Not that it is a recent phenomenon. The Transcendentalists, and later the Beats, led the way to a literary exploration of Buddhist philosophies, while the teachings and meditation practice of Zen were popularized in the West by D.T. Suzuki, Nyogen Senzaki, Shunryu Suzuki, Robert Aitken, Kazuaki Tanahashi and many others.

Zen temples and meditation halls now proliferate in big American cities and small towns. Community gatherings, or "sangha," are as popular as town meetings. "What Book!?" is the literary equivalent of such a gathering.

Buddhism's reach stretches wide in these pages. Editor Gary Grach has done a wonderful job compiling these varied and vibrant poems. There are haiku and rants, sutras and sonnets, songs and confessions. There are pages of calligraphy, "sumi-e," language poems and jazz riffs.

From haiku to hip-hop, from Japan to Poland, from Asian-American poetry to the words of honorary dharma trekkers, this collection hops with heart, inspires and entertains the reader, in part because of the sheer freedom of expression it encompasses and embraces.

Here's a personal favorite by Japanese eco-poet Nanao Sakaki:

If you have time to chatter Read Books If you have time to read Walk into mountain, desert and ocean If you have time to walk sing songs and dance If you have time to dance Sit quietly, you Happy Lucky Idiot

The title and contents of the book beg the questions: What is Buddhism? What is poetry? What is a "book" and what is a "block party?" At the same time, any definition or need for one is obsolete.

Here, Buddhism has taken root in world consciousness and been transformed into individual poetic expressions of Buddhist core philosophy and mindfulness. This moving poem by the Japanese-American poet Lawson Fusao Inada is a good example. It's spaced out artistically in the book, but here rendered in text only:

A Nice Place Outside the rest home RESTING in his wheelchair in the shade my father said: "THIS is a nice PLACE" and I couldn't tell if he meant the REST home in general, the shADEy space with the birds chirping, fountAIN flowing, spring breeze flowing, or the world.

Authors run the gamut from priests and spiritual leaders such as Kaz Tanahashi, Shunryu Suzuki, Norman Fischer, Tenshin Reb Anderson and Chogyam Trungpa to musicians Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Takehisa Kosugi and Yoko Ono.

Poets who have studied Buddhism or who have a close connection with the natural world such as Jane Hirshfield, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lawson Fusao Inada, Nanao Sakaki, Robinson Jeffers, Bob Kaufman, Jack Kerouac, Jo-anne Kyger, Gary Snyder, Ar-thur Sze, Czeslaw Milosz, Di-ane De Prima, Cid Corman, Antler, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Sam Hamill, Al Young and Ko Un grace its pages.

Well-known authors Derek Walcott, Maxine Hong Kings-ton, William LaFleur, Jim Harrison, bell hooks, Thomas Merton, Kenji Miyazawa, Ste-phen Mitchell, Paul Reps, Kenneth Rexroth and the Beastie Boys' Adam Yauch round out the picture. Each has a radically different ap-proach to Buddhism and to poetry, which is this book's great surprise and charm.

There's a wonderful sense of joyfulness and humor in these pages. There's also a sense of listening, seeking, seeing, appreciating, being fully in the world and its con-tradictions.

Or, as poet Al Young puts it, "Starlight is what we're made of, is how we function clear-ly." It's clear that Buddhism and poetry have found perfect pitch in "What Book!?" In its pages, the poets are laughing. This is an open invitation to join in the party.

Zen priest Norman Fi-scher's "The Narrow Roads of Japan," published last year by San Francisco's Ex Nihiko Press (1998, $9.95 ISBN 0-9663224-1-X) is a new take on Basho's famous travel diary, "Oku no Hosomichi," updated for the 20th century.

This time, the pilgrimage is made by a California poet and co-abbot of Green Gulch Farm, who spent a year at Rinso-in temple in Yaizu studying with Shunryu Suzu-ki's son, Hoitsu Suzuki.

The traditional "haibun" here becomes travelogue, so-cial commentary and spiritu-al and cultural quest.

I can be/Taken by lan-guage/Elsewhere, lan-guage/Frees me from place.

Culture clashes abound, yet Fischer's wise humor and philosophical searching spark the more mundane lessons of everyday life. What is unspo-ken takes on great weight.

Fischer is as much observer as observed:

Because of insecurity/Or what to do/With tongue which in this case/Just hangs.

In the end, the journey is complete:

International Culture: To-kyo Symphony Orchestra plays Tchaikovsky -- does it seem odd? If not then I can do Zen.

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