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Joshu and the poets

[ by Charles Cameron — From Joshu, Japanese zen master who recommends having a hot coal caught in your throat, metaphorically speaking, to Isaiah, Hebrew prophet, to whose lips it is said an angel pressed a burning coal ]
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Said Joshu, proffering the word “Mu” in answer to the question “Does a dog have buddha nature? in one of the great koans of the Zen text, The Gateless Gate”:

If you really want to pass this barrier, you should feel as though you have a hot iron ball in your throat that you can neither swallow nor spit up. Then your previous conceptualizing disappears. Like a fruit ripening in season, subjectivity and objectivity are experienced as one.

You have a hot iron ball in your throat that you can neither swallow nor spit up. That’s how you must feel, so that by means of this koan, “your previous conceptualizing disappears” and “subjectivity and objectivity are experienced as one.”

There are few barriers in our contemporary western world so difficult to pass — “the first responders running towards the burning Twin Towers as everyone else was running away” would surely qualify.

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And yet and yet.

And yet, the thing is, “buddha nature”, or”original face” as another koan names it, the condition in which “subjectivity and objectivity are experienced as one” is prior to the condition in which they are experienced separately as “subjectivity” and “objectivity” — it’s “original”.

So if yo find yourself suffering from “subjectivity” and “objectivity, you’ll need that “hot iron ball in your throat” to get back to origins. But if you’re there, where “subjectivity and objectivity are experienced as one” — no problem.

In fact, after you’ve “solved” — “resolved” might be better — a koan, your zen master is liable to suggest you look through a book of “capping verses” such as this one, Zen Sand, kindly published by the University of Hawaii Press, to find one verse that caps or sums up your experience.

The thing being that some poet wrote that verse, after experiencing something very close to what you experienced.

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Which suggests that either:

literally hundreds of poets arrived at “subjectivity and objectivity are experienced as one” without going through the “hot iron ball in your throat” stage by being poets, in other words, they simply kept to the “original” state beyond dualism — in which case poetry sounds like a fine route by which to avoid all that throat-blistering terror or..

the poets routinely go through the “iron ball” barrier on their way to poetic clarity — a possibility which would oleave traces, surely, in their poems..

Such as:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.
And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note of my dark sobbing.

That, as you may know, is Rilke, in the first of huis Duino Elegies.

Or this:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring. ..
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing…

World sorrow — can there be any greater?

But those words are the words of a Catholic priest, a Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins — and I left out the two most remarkable lines in that poem, lines in which he despairs of the Holy Spirit or Comforter, and the Virgin Mary, Mother of the world in Catholic theology:

Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?

Coming from a Catholic pruiest, those are noteworthy, certainly surprising lines.

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Or this, from Rilke again, triggered by Hopkins’ speaking of “world-sorrow” — here Orpheus speaks of Eurydice:

A woman so loved that from one lyre there came
more lament than from all lamenting women;
that a whole world of lament arose, in which
all nature reappeared: forest and valley,
road and village, field and stream and animal;
and that around this lament-world, even as
around the other earth, a sun revolved
and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-
heaven, with its own, disfigured stars —:
So greatly was she loved.

It may be the poets ahve swallowed more grief than that “hot coal” could muster — but then consider the story told in Isaiah 6. 5-7,. Isaiah speaks:

Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.

Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.

One may always wish, trembling, for an angelic visitation.

2 Responses to “Joshu and the poets”

  1. Grurray Says:

    Porcia, the wife of Brutus, reputedly died by eating hot coals.
    Also, of possible interest to you Charles is that today is the feast day of Barlaam, and the commemoration of both Barlaam and Josephat on the Russian calendar.
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    Barlaam is said to have died from torture for not renouncing Christ and for refusal to worship idols. When he wouldn’t break from the initial scourging, a burning coal with incense was placed in his right hand. The point of this particularly insidious torment was that once he dropped the coal it would be officially counted as an offering of incense to the false gods. Barlaam instead held the hot rock faithfully without moving until his hand was thoroughly burned. He cried out the psalm, “Thou hast holden me by my right hand. Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.”
    And then Barlaam gave up his spirit in martyrdom, was established in the glory of just repose, to forever be celebrated for steadfastly bringing Christ to Buddhists, or vice versa depending on your perspective.

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Why thank you!
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    Wiki on the topic of Barlaam and Josaphat tells us:

    The tale derives from a second to fourth century Sanskrit Mahayana Buddhist text, via a Manichaean version, then the Arabic Kitab Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf (Book of Bilawhar and Yudasaf), current in Baghdad in the eighth century, from where it entered into Middle Eastern Christian circles before appearing in European versions. The two were entered in the Eastern Orthodox calendar with a feast-day on 26 August, and in the Roman Martyrology in the Western Church as “Barlaam and Josaphat” on the date of 27 November.

    Well now, November 27 happens to be the date on I was born, so I am happy to call Barlaam and Josaphat, or Bodhisattva and his Teacher, favorite saints of mine under Catholic tradition — my affection for Buddha thus seated cordially within my devotion to Christ.
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    Oh that all the world’s traditions were so easily accommodated each to other.

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