Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Your recently released Vow to Poetry includes essays and manifestos on poetics, Buddhism, and activism. In one of the articles, “Kali Yuga Poetics,” you proclaim: “Now more than ever the poem is a call to responsibility and action. To witness, grieve and alleviate suffering.” How might the experience of poetry lead us to activism?
Poetry needs the breath. It needs the voice. It needs the body. It needs the mind. It needs to be able to dream. To imagine. Thus poetry depends on and recognizes the preciousness of our existence in the service of this particular art and of course in the service of so much more. It is rooted in the palpability of our existence and the inter-dependence, the pratitya-samutpada, of all of existence. And the poem wants to sing out, to communicate, to wake you up. The maker of the song who has this urge, this gift, sees how others are faring on the planet, including other writers incarcerated for their beliefs, who scratch their poems on prison walls, smuggle them out in samizdat publications and so on. Think of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whose first husband was executed, whose son was imprisoned under Stalin. She wrote Requiem for all women whose sons were in the Gulag. I am not talking about an easy, therapeutic confessional poetry that just talks about how you, the personal “I,” feels. Or suffers. It’s of a higher order and command. So there’s a way—through Shakespeare, Blake, Emily Dickinson, through poetries and cosmologies of cultures all over the world—that great poetry can inspire you to care for the planet, and for all its creatures and greenery.
Poetry has always been a radical presence in my life. I sometimes think it has saved my life. Its dark beauty. You know Emily Dickinson’s line “My wheel is in the dark”? And it’s not just about content. It rides you in so many other ways. You could say that the poetry of this last century and the current “dark ages,” where we are dominated by the lords and ladies of materialism, is in many ways a poetry of loss, impermanence, grief. “Can we make art after Auschwitz?” is the famous Theodor Adorno question. Yes, we must, I believe. It’s an imperative to articulate our humanity in this way. Poetry is still available to us, even as we move into stranger technologies and stranger modes of living. One needs a mind for it but it doesn’t cost anything, doesn’t require any gadgetry. In that way it’s also like spiritual practice.
What kind of activism has Buddhism led you to?
Buddhism has helped me appreciate others in a more profound way, in that one sees that everyone is suffering, everyone has a broken heart. Every face, as in Blake’s line, shows “marks of weakness, marks of woe.” Everyone is just a hairy bag of water, a poor klesha-ridden confused being. Even when they are arrogant and completely wrongheaded (in my humble opinion) and evil and barbaric, you can’t give up on them! Everyone wants to be loved, appreciated; everyone craves some kind of personal power. Everyone craves a decent life. But the power has to be debrutalized. Activism is part of Buddhist mind. The Bodhisattva Vow is Activism 101! You work to alleviate the suffering of other human beings, right? Isn’t that the point? Obviously you need to get your own trip together first, and there’s the rub. We have this precious human birth and freedom, and yet with so many of us who are privileged in this way, there seems to be an incapacity to get beyond our minor aches and pains. Gary Snyder has spoken of how our whole continent is haunted by the ghosts of decimated peoples, particularly the indigenous Native Americans and extinct animals.
Building and sustaining community and providing safe zones—primarily artistic and literary—has been the main thrust of the activism in my life. And traveling all over the planet to teach, perform, help poetry communities get started. Activity that often extends to modes of protest and demonstration and letter-writing campaigns and vocalizations of all kinds to protect these zones and by extension the whole metaphorical neighborhood! Last January 20—Inauguration Day—I went to D.C. with a group of poets to protest the “selection” of George W. Bush. We were there in solidarity with many African American citizens who had been disenfranchised in Florida and elsewhere, such as Cook County, Illinois, where 120,000 votes went uncounted.
I would say it is a spiritual practice to make sure everyone in America is granted the right to vote.