PERCEPTION AND THE CONCEPTUAL “SELF”

A summer hokku by Shōhaku:

The quiet;
A chestnut leaf sinks
Through the clear water.

That is a good example of the simplicity and purity of hokku.

When we read it, we feel the silence.  And in that silence, we observe a chestnut leaf sinking down through the clear water.

Now to many people, I suppose, this must seem quite a pointless verse.  “What does it mean?” they ask.  The answer is that it does not mean anything.  It is just the perception of the quietness, and in that quietness, of the leaf sinking in the water.

We could analyze it according to Yin and Yang:  quiet is yin, sinking is yin, and water is yin.  So it is a very “yin” verse.  But we need not do that, because we already intuitively feel these relationships without the need of labeling or speaking them.

But beyond all this, the hokku is a “word recording” of an experience that takes place in the mind when we read it.  In that experience there is an observer, but no thought.  There is no analysis or judging of the experience — there is only being and experiencing it.

I often emphasize the importance of selflessness in hokku — the absence of any emphasis on “I,” “me,” and “my.”  This is in great contrast to much modern poetry, even brief poetry, which often places the “I” at center stage.

In hokku, however, the more the “I” disappears, the more we get to the essence of  what to me is the deeper significance of hokku.  In Shōhaku’s verse, there is no “I” at all — nothing that has a form and a name.  There is only perception.

In so much of modern life, the “I” with its whims and wants is all important.  In hokku, however, it is just the opposite.  But how to go behind this superficial “I” to something deeper?   One has to realize the difference between perception and thinking.  Our consciousness is like the clear sky.  Thoughts are like clouds passing through the sky.  Sensory experience — such as seeing and hearing — does not require thought.  It just happens.  Then thought intervenes and begins to try to interpret or comment or judge and compare.  But if we get that far, we have gone beyond the stage of the hokku experience, which is perception without the added thinking.

 

David

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AMAZING BACH

I just found this performance of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by the young Gert van Hoef this morning.  It still amazes me that any human can do this.  And apparently the organist was only 19 at the time this was recorded.  It is fascinating to watch his fingers, and his feet on the pedalboard — and the helpers pulling the stops.  I wonder if Bach had any idea his music would still be played some two and a half centuries after his death.

 

David

BLACK MATES

(Summer)

Down the bright road,
A crow and his shadow
Flying together.

I saw that a couple of days ago.  A crow swooped down not far from me, and as it flew very low over the sunny road, I was struck by the black shadow just below the crow and the black crow just above the shadow, both flying close in unison.

This is, I think, a good example of what I always say hokku should be:  ordinary things, but seen in a new way or from a different perspective.

 

David

“LOST” MELODIES

I just came across a very useful site, and thought some of you mind like to know about it as well.

It began when I listened to an unidentified waltz melody played yesterday.  I had heard it before somewhere.  It sounded vaguely Italian, or possibly like something one might hear in the score of a Provencal movie based on a work by Marcel Pagnol.  I had no idea  — not knowing the title — how to find what the melody might be.

So here was what turned out to be the easy solution.  I discovered this site:

http://bestclassicaltunes.com/DictionaryPiano.aspx

It has an on screen piano keyboard, and all I had to do was to use it to play the first few notes of the melody I had heard.  And the first thing that came up was this:

When I clicked on the title in green just above the musical notes, it brought up this:

I clicked on the “Play MP# using player below” link on the right, and it began playing exactly the melody I had heard — and I was very surprised to find it was a waltz by Dmitri Shostakovich.  Here it is on youtube.com:

Encouraged by that initial success, I then used the keyboard to see if I could find a musical phrase that was used as the beginning theme of a radio classical music program I often listened to as a boy — but I never knew what those opening notes were from, though I later suspected Tchaikovsky.   I even once searched through all of his symphonies and could not find it.  But using this site’s virtual keyboard, here’s what came up:

I again clicked on the “Play MP3,” and heard the very beginning theme I had wondered about for years, but could never quite locate.  Here it is on youtube.com:

It is always a feeling of relief to have such little puzzles quickly solved, so I found http://bestclassicaltunes.com/DictionaryPiano.aspx
a very helpful site.

 

David

ALMOST NOTHING HERE

Years ago, I posted on objectivity in hokku.  To me it is the very essence of what makes hokku a significant verse form.  That is why — after so many years — I have taken to calling the kind of hokku I advocate Objective Hokku — “OH” for short.

This morning I came across a quote from the painter Andrew Wyeth that immediately spoke to me:

There’s almost nothing here — which I like. I think I’m more attracted as I get older by nothing. Vacancy. Light on the side of a wall — or the light on these snowdrifts and the shadows across them. Makes me go back more into my soul, I guess.

These are simple things most people tend to pass by without even noticing.  But it is precisely that simplicity that is at the heart of the best hokku.  It is one of the most difficult marks of hokku to convey, because people are so wrapped up in their thoughts about themselves and about the things surrounding them that they view the world through a kind of perpetual haze.  But when one lets the mind calm down, and the haze of our constant thinking begins to disperse, then we can begin to really see what is around us.

When I was very young, and too immature to appreciate it, I spent several days in the practice of a form of meditation that involved paying attention to bodily sensations.  Such a practice gradually takes us out of the torrent of thoughts that constantly flows through us, and it can have interesting results.  I remember that after about three days of this, I suddenly noticed that I was seeing the world with an unexpected and very deep sense of three-dimensionality — with a kind of space and clarity that seemed new and unique to me.  Just the simple intervals between trees on a street appeared something quite remarkable, because the “flatness” of the world seemed to have somehow opened up into crystal-clear depths.

I think perhaps a similar thing may have happened to Wyeth, who focused so much on visual perception that he began to see the world — from time to time — without the obscuring overlay of thoughts that weaken our perception of and appreciation for such simple things as light and shadow and form.

For me, one of the most difficult things to convey about Objective Hokku is its profound simplicity and its preference for ordinary things — but with this important difference:  hokku looks for ordinary things seen in a new way, or from a different perspective.  Because it is only by seeing things in such a fresh manner that — generally — we are able to convey that deeper perception our day-to-day inattention blurs.

Writing hokku is largely a matter of paying real attention to things and events happening in Nature, but doing so without covering them over with our thoughts and opinions and internal comments.   We just let them be, like the sight of the slow passage of a beam of sunlight across the white wall of a room.

Hokku is not about our emotions — which is why we do not write about romance or sex, or other things that stir up the mind.  That does not mean, however, that hokku is cold and without feeling.  It is just a matter of direction.  The wrong thing to do is to put our emotions onto nature, which results in subjective verses — verses colored with our thoughts about things.  Instead, we just present a thing-event as it is, and that creates feelings within us.  We do not act on the object; the object acts on us.

Even Masaoka Shiki — who continued to write hokku — though under a different term — had some verses that achieve this, for example:

A summer shower;
The rain beats
On the heads of the carp.

He is looking at the big carp in a pond.  The fish rise to the surface, as they do when expecting to be fed by passers-by — and as they do so, the summer raindrops beat on the exposed tops of their heads.  To explain the significance in this is impossible.  It has to do partly with the wetness of the pond from below and the wetness of the rain from above and the meeting here of the two realms of sky and water in the fish.  But when we talk of it that way, when we try to explain it, the significance disappears, because it cannot be explained; it can only be felt.  Read the hokku and you feel it.

Here — with minimal changes — is what I posted some nine years ago:

I often mention the four approaches to verse:

1.  The subject (the writer)  treated subjectively (with the writer’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

2.  The subject (the writer) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

3.  The object (that which is written about) treated subjectively (with one’s personal thoughts and opinions added);

4.  The object (that which is written about) treated objectively (without one’s personal thoughts and opinions added).

Here is a hokku which — while dealing with emotion — treats it objectively, through its actual manifestation in action — Shōha’s

Kite bought,
The boy frets;
Ceaseless rain.

That is the object (the boy and his emotion and the rain) treated objectively.  The writer simply notes what is happening as he would note someone rowing a boat up a river.  We feel the boy’s nervous fretting in the jerkiness of the words of the first two lines, with their single-syllabic abruptness:

Kite bought, / The boy frets
!  !  –  !  !
And then comes the smoothness of the third line,
Ceaseless rain
which provides the steady background drone to the staccato fretting of the boy.  It is a bit like the tamboura in Indian music, with its  steady, ceaseless hum against which the changing melody of the sitar rises and falls.  It is somewhat similar to Bashō’s “Old Pond” spring hokku:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

The pond is the “drone” element, the background against which the sudden splash of the frog takes place.  But in Bashō’s verse, the “temporal” element — the splash — happens only once, while in Shōha’s verse the jerky fretting is ongoing and staccato against the steady drone of the falling rain.

The important thing to note in this case, however, is that the subject is treated objectively, without the writer adding his thoughts and opinions.  Shōha simply states what is happening:  the boy has bought a kite;  he frets as the rain keeps falling.

In hokku we keep to such objectivity, which means we generally write according to numbers 2 and 4:

2.  The subject treated objectively.
4.  The object treated objectively.

That is because hokku — Objective Hokku — is interested in things and actions, and not in all of the thoughts and opinions that the writer may put on them or associate with them.  A hokku is not a springboard for thoughts and intellectual conclusions.  Instead it is an experience of the senses — of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling.

That is why in hokku we generally exclude the other two approaches to verse, 1 and 3:

1.  The subject treated subjectively.
3.  The object treated subjectively.

If you do not like to think of it in these terms, just remember that in hokku, whether we are writing about our “selves” or about something else, we keep our own thoughts and intellectualization and opinionating out of it.  In doing so, we get the writer out of the way and let Nature speak.

David

MY GARDENING METHOD

(My garden this morning)

I grew up on 92 acres of partly-forested, partly-open land in the country.  I now live on a very small lot at the outer edge of — but still within — a city.

The first thing I did when I moved here was to dig up the entire front yard, which at that time consisted of summer-dried grass and weeds.  It is not a large piece of ground, in fact I think of it as rather postage stamp sized.

I quickly discovered that the “soil” was incredibly thin, and that it was completely filled with what appeared to be river rock in all gradations.  That is the aftermath of a flood at the end of the last Ice Age that left this part of the city filled with rocks washed down from places all the way between here and Montana.  So gardening on those flood remains is like gardening on a pile of rocks with a tiny bit of poor soil between them.  I could not put a shovel into the ground anywhere without hitting rocks.  In addition, what there was of soil was apparently strewn with construction rubble from the construction of the building in which I live.

My choice was either to dig the yard out to a depth of two or three feet, have the removed soil and rocks hauled away, and fill it all in with fine and expensive new soil — or to just work with what was there.  I was not prepared to do the former, so I decided to adapt my garden to the circumstances.

Having such rock and grit filled soil made it very porous, and in the hot days of summer, putting water on it was like pouring water through a sieve.  To me that meant I should definitely include drought-resistant plants.

I did not want to give up some of my favorite flowers, however, so I was willing to give them a bit more of occasional watering — but I did not want to fill my proposed new garden with delicate plants.  They had to be able to survive both heat and cold and a fluctuating level of moisture.

I also did not want the kind of garden that had only one or two or three varieties of flowers, with long waits between one and another blooming.  I wanted lots of variety, and I wanted at least something to be in bloom from early spring to late autumn.  That meant I had to choose flowers with different bloom times.

I also had to balance the reality of my very small space with my desire for a wide variety of plants.  On the positive side, doing so would give me many different kinds of flowers.  On the negative side, it meant that I would not have enough space to give each plant luxurious growing room.

My solution to all this was to use a gardening method I wryly call “Survival of the Fittest,” and because it had worked for me before in poor soil in a previous city residence, I was hopeful that it would work for me on my postage stamp rock pile.

The result of my method is a garden that looks like a cross between a traditional English Cottage Garden and a wildflower meadow.  There are no wide spaces between plants, so one gets the impression of something that is both wild and natural, and very floriferous.  The close planting also helps to keep the weeds down.

My garden is now always interesting because it is always changing — from day to day, month to month, and season to season, from spring to fall.  When some flowers have ended their blooming time, others are beginning theirs.

To do this — to have things always in bloom — I visited plant nurseries many times during the growing season, because what they have in stock tends to change depending on the time of year.  If one is careful to obtain plants that have different blooming times and to mix them together, the end result is just what I wanted — a garden with something always in bloom.

I soon discovered that my little garden had another result.  People passing by would stop to tell me how much they enjoyed my garden.  And not only people.  A space that was formerly bleak and bare of life became filled with bumblebees and honeybees, ladybugs and other kinds of insects.  And hummingbirds became daily visitors as well.  I just watched one making his rounds of my plants this morning — and a lady passing by in a car stopped and shouted, “Your garden is amazing!”

Well, I am sure to some people who like strict order and things in rigid rows it is not amazing, because it has a “wild” look to it — and that I quite enjoy.  It is the “wildflower meadow” side of it.  I like to mix in simple and wild flowers like California poppies and Bachelor’s Buttons with more elaborate plants such as bearded iris and lilies.  Each adds its own color and form and texture.

At the very end of the season, when the frost has come and plants have withered, I cut the dead stalks in pieces that I let fall in the garden, to decay and provide much-needed organic matter to gradually improve the terrible soil.  And I try not to to overwater, so that plants will send their roots deep and make use of what moisture they can find.  Water in this city is expensive, not free for the taking as it was when I was a boy living on country land with a spring bubbling out of the ground.

So that is my simple gardening method.  I enjoy the comments of people passing by, and the opportunity to meet and chat with them, and it is gratifying to watch the bees and butterflies and hummingbirds.  Sitting on my little porch with a book in my hands, I can look up at my little garden from time to time and feel a part of Nature again, even living in a city.

Having such a garden and observing its continual changes is like having a natural clock that tells the time of season by the comings and goings of different kinds of blossoms.  It reminds me by its transformations that all things are transient, so we humans must appreciate and enjoy them while they are here — whether flowers or people.

 

VESAKHA

Tomorrow — Saturday, May 18th — is the full moon in May this year.  There is a traditional annual Buddhist commemoration of the full moon in May called Vesākha in Pali, the language of the oldest Buddhist scriptures — or often simply Vesak today.  It is often a two-day celebration — the day of the full moon and the following day.

Vesakha commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and entry into Nirvana at death of the Buddha Gautama.

In Buddhist writings and art, the full moon — or simply a circle like it — is often a symbol of enlightenment.

Traditionally, the full moon of May is called the “Flower Moon,” because of all the flowers blooming in May.  But tomorrow’s moon is unusual.  It will be a “blue” Flower Moon — in this case the third of four full moons in spring.  That is even more rare than an ordinary blue moon, which is the second of two full moons in a month.  So please enjoy this “Blue Flower Moon.”

David