The Moon Thief in Urthona

I’ve written a poem in response to a zen koan. The Moon Thief will be published in the forthcoming spring issue of Urthona.

‘The Moon Thief ’ came out of an encounter with the koan in the poem’s epigraph: the great Zen poet Ryokan, meditating in a mountain hermitage, offers his clothes to a thief but cannot give him a full appreciation of the moon. Mark writes: ‘I was walking home from work and suddenly thought, “there’s another side to this story.” Working in and around the silences of the koan brought many scenes and characters over time.’

This long poem relates the quest of a drifter and thief desperately seeking a treasure that will heal his inner wounds. He stumbles upon Ryokan, the Japanese hermit poet. In this version, the chance encounter changes everything for the thief – but what will he find at the summit?

Here’s the original koan that inspired the poem.

A Zen Master lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief sneaked into the hut only to find there was nothing in it to steal. The Zen Master returned and found him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. The Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

From Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbours

Subscribe to Urthona: Journal of Buddhism and the Arts to read The Moon Thief. The next issue’s theme is ‘the beauty of friendship’ and it looks great.

An early draft of ‘The Edge’

There’s a poem in The Tide Clock titled ‘The Edge’. Here’s an earlier version of it that perhaps works in its own right, before the poem took a different turn. This version is more overtly about zazen: zen meditation practice.

Just Sitting

Waves relinquish the carracks,
make fractals, circles, then stillness.
My shadow drifts on the water,
part of the headland, tailed with rock.

Children play on the fringe of all
they can and cannot imagine.
The green sea peels back and here I am
between the inbetween; grateful,

coping, very nearly thriving,
content to be this not-self after all.
I’m scenery in someone else’s childhood
on a spit of land between blue nothings.

A fishing boat threads the bay
golden with a brazen shining stitch
lit by the falling sun. My legs ache.
So much for zazen. I have an itch.

The Tide Clock version:

The Edge by Mark Cooper

Read the rest of The Tide Clock here.

Narcissus Looks Again

The pond was deeper than expected,
a giant footprint stamped into the earth.
It was home to a fifty-pound ghost koi
called Persephone. Music became silence,
became music again. Moonlight shone on the tiles.
Persephone broke the water with her tail.
Now gaunt and middle-aged, I saw the moon glint
on water like a ten pence coin, miles down,
and the carp circling the moon.

Of the combustible and useless varieties of trees

Reading Fire Season, Philip Connors’ account of his experiences watching for forest fires in the Gila mountain range, I was struck by the following passage:

My own insights are fragmentary, fleeting. I write something in my notebook and forget it an hour later. I do not so much seek anything as allow the world to come to me, allow the days to unfold as they will, the dramas of weather and wild creatures. I am most at peace not when I am thinking but when I am observing. There is so much to see, a pleasing diversity of landscapes, all of them always changing in new weather, new light, and all of them still and forever strange to a boy from the northern plains. I produce nothing but words; I consume nothing but food, a little propane, a little firewood. By being virtually useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become useful, at last, to myself.

— Philip Connors, Fire Season.

There are a few old themes at work in this paragraph. Take Case 129 from Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo: Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, compiled in 13th Century Japan:

When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked,
“What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”
Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”
The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”
Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”

A lot could be said about Connors’ experience of the moment in relation to Buddhist thought (or non-thought) but it will do to note that non-striving and mindful awareness seem prominent here. Now let’s look at his closing line, “By being virtually useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become, at last, useful to myself.”

Notice that Connors doesn’t say he is useless to the culture – he’s performing an important duty, after all – more that he is forgotten by that culture. He here echoes Chuang Tzu’s dream-parable of the useless tree. In it, an old carpenter named Shih, encounters a large oak standing in a field. His apprentice admires the tree but Shih admonishes him, explaining that the wood is so gnarled and filled with knots that it’s not worth cutting down. That night, the old oak appears in Shih’s dream to explain that trees which bear fruit are cut, pruned and interfered with, so that they cannot live long; trees that are otherwise useful are cut down for their wood. The gnarled oak reveals that it has spent many years trying to become useless and that this uselessness has indeed become very useful to it. Would the tree have reached its enormous size if it had been useful to carpenters?

Connors, P. (2011) Fire Season. London: Macmillan, pp. 52–3.
For commentary on Case 129 of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, see Schireson (2011) Zen in Fresno and Central Valley. Available online: http://kuzanzen.org/2011/04/non-thinking/ [Accessed: 02/03/2015].
For more Chuang Tzu / Zhuang Zhou try The Book of Chuang Tzu, translated by Martin Palmer, or The Tao of Nature in the Penguin Great Ideas series.

Shikantaza in Yoda’s cave

LUKE
What’s in there?

YODA
Only what you take with you.

It occurred to me that entering the haunted cave on planet Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back is like shikantaza meditation, which translates literally as ‘just sitting’. They both seem to be situations in which you cannot avoid facing yourself. The challenge is to bring your attention to whatever is present with you in the moment without getting caught up in a habitual reaction, such as decapitating your delusion with a laser sword. After this experience, Luke learns that the fear he felt in the cave was only projected onto Vader, really it was deep inside himself. The deeper connection between these characters is also hinted at. A skilful scene.

Run

Across the beach at low tide. Wet trainers on shining sand. Around the back of the island, sharing the view where people block the path. Catching breath against the granite when cars inch by. Past the bowling green, onto the coast path. Over rubble, up hills. Round the headland, into a new bay. Uphill to the boulders, clambering with fingers and toes. Just sitting on the rock, watching thoughts and the boat halfway between the lighthouse and this weathered, lichened rock and me.

Supermoon

Looking at the moon through a pair of binoculars, you really get a sense of how round and big it is. And yet how small when you see its craters silhouetted against undiluted darkness and realise how large a portion of the surface each one covers. Then there are the seas: great ash coloured bruises. All this seems obvious. I’ve just described the moon — nothing special here, you’ve seen it a thousand times — but think how obscure this really is: a speck of dust orbiting a speck of dust orbiting one of 300 billion stars in at least 100 billion galaxies. Viewed from anywhere else in the universe, it is essentially another dark patch of sky… but luminous to us. If we are not astounded by such a sight, we should learn how to be.

Things as they are

Last night I read a fascinating essay in the LA Review of Books on Donald Richie, an expatriate writer in Japan. I was struck in particular by this quote from Richie’s The Inland Sea:

The innocent does not look for reasons behind reasons. He, secure in the animal nature that all of us have and only half of us admit, is able to see that all reality is what the West finds merely ostensible reality. Reality is skin deep because there is only skin. The ostensible is the truth.

Whether he’s right or not, that’s a profound thought in our age of explanations. It reminded me of the scene in Zen in the Art of Archery where another expatriate, Eugen Herrigel is struggling to allow his bow to ‘shoot itself’. His vocation, philosophy, seems to be a major hindrance:

He had, so Mr. Komachiya told me later, tried to work through
a Japanese introduction to philosophy in order to find out how he
could help me from a side I already knew. But in the end he had
laid the book down with a cross face, remarking that he could
now understand that a person who interested himself in such
things would naturally find the art of archery uncommonly
difficult to learn.