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An Afghan Buddha koan

[ by Charles Cameron — for Madhu ]

Our friend Madhu has requested that I post poems here on occasion, and this particular poem made me think of her and her request, so here it is:

A copper and gold koan

The world happened, the world is drifting away,
the farther away the world floats the deeper into the mists.

In Mes Aynak, Afghanistan, the remains
of a buddhist monastery already eroded by time are adrift,
a sitting buddha is floating into the mist,
headless, gold paint still on his knees and robe,
the devotion has drifted, lifted its focus
to the one without a second, the buddha left
whatever he left in memory, lingering, to gather aromas
of other ideas, realms, dust, archaeology, oblivion,
there is change, ceaseless change,

and adults must decide: is the wealth implied by the copper
beneath the buddha worth more than a trace of halo,
as the moon moves once again across a brilliant night sky.

Koans are those brilliant paradoxes zen buddhism uses to pry the mind open, I think they’re important aids to handling complexity, and I have a post about them coming up shortly. Here, it’s enough to say that the issue of copper mining vs archaeology in Mes Aynak seems to me to be a living, breathing koan.


It’s awkward, when you write an “ekphrastic” poem, a poem about a painting or photo, to have the image right there when the poem is read, because it trammels the reader’s mind in much the same way that a film can trammel the mind of a reader into “seeing” only the film-maker’s Gandalf, no longer her or his own.

And I’m going on at some length about this, because next up is the image from which that particular poem was built, but I’d like the image to be, as they’d say in the newsprint world, “below the fold” as you read the poem.

So here it is, #4 in a fine series of photos in a Foreign Policy photo essay which I recommend, although I’ve taken this particular (smaller) version from a CNN page, since the subtitle in the lower right corner explains the basic situation handily:

You can hear the archaeologist Brent Huffman, who took the photo, talk about the situation here — local reactions pro and con, who the Taliban are shooting at, the likelihood that the Chinese operation will in fact benefit the locals and more:

The koan of balancing material with immaterial values remains, but in this circumstance the likelihood of local Afghans receiving litter or nothing from the mining project likely tips the scales.

You can petition Afghan President Hamid Karzai for preservation…

But then he’s another wild-card in the continuing Great Game, isn’t it?

6 Responses to “An Afghan Buddha koan”

  1. Derek Robinson Says:

    .. “litter or nothing” you say, and I know it wasn’t precisely meant that way but I love how aptly your finger fumble rhymes with Joyce’s (from his omnibus of same, Finnegans Wake) “letter lost in a midden heap.” Or as Heraclitus the infamously Obscure had it, “The fairest order is just a heap of garbage emptied out at random.”

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    My fingers is dyztypic.

  3. Madhu Says:

    I am always so happy when you post your poems, although this subject doesn’t make me happy. Horrifed at the desctruction of art but it’s also all too easy sitting comfortably in a far off place to judge and dismiss economic activity.
    Is there an example of such a work being spared because of a deal done with the company and others interested in preservation? Like, some interested art NGOs pooling resources to preserve a part of the artwork as it goes about its business? Has any such squaring of the circle occurred, any prominent example? I suppose the Buddha statue is simply too large in terms of the engineering of the mine? I sometimes wonder if we didn’t spend so much money of economic development work if there would be more aid money for this sort of thing….
    And, as with most of my off-the-cuff observations, I’m sure there is something really wrong in the thinking process! 

  4. Madhu Says:

    By “we”, I mean Western governmental aid agencies that look at economic development as the key to our aid regimes.

  5. Madhu Says:

    Fading wall paintings have a certain fascination for me. It’s funny, I just went to a talk by an artist and he mentioned that all drawing or artwork is in someway a memory, even if it’s imagined. We have a mental image–a “memory”–and strive to recreate it.
    So, in my memory: Fatehpur Sikri, early 90s:  morning, empty-seeming, birds circling above in the pale pink-gray sky which always seemed faded to me in person and in memory, in front of the the faded wall painting in Maryam’s palace and me thinking, “someone stood here and painted this and it’s all gone except the peeling paint.”
    Obvious observation but no less poignant for the obviousness….

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    Oh Madhu, you make me long to hear again the sounds of the shehnai drifting across a river from a distant wedding party at dusk…

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