Wednesday, August 30, 2017


 Thich Nhat Hanh, Noble Truths

     Today, August 13, 2017,  I saw an online photo of Thich Nhat Hanh arriving at an airport in Vietnam.  Thich Nhat Hanh is a poet, scholar, gardener, a great soul and a wise and generous  Zen Master from Vietnam who came to the US during the Vietnamese War; his purpose was to persuade Americans to withdraw from the hideous carnage among his people.  He seemed, to many Vietnamese, to join the "Imperialists" who had  oppressed Southeast Asia for centuries.  Remember, before the U.S. jumped in, the war was meant to drive the French colonizers out and achieve national independence and reunion with North Vietnam, to reunite the country after European/U.S. forces had divided it.  
    Then the U.S. made it a "war against Communism" and all that political confusion cast Thich Nhat Hanh as the pro-Imperialist enemy to Vietnamese freedom fighters.  When the U.S. at last withdrew, the whole region--Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia--had been turned into a vast Killing Field, and US propaganda still blames "Communism"  and refuses to acknowledge all its own genocidal guilt.  

    Because of this complex history, so poorly understood by Americans in the 21st century, Vietnam, the new reunited Vietnam, refused to allow Thich Nhat Hanh to return until 2005, forty years after he left.  In 2008 he visited once more, and yesterday, August 30, 2017 (in the U.S. time zone) he arrived for what seems almost inevitably a final visit.  For in the late fall of 2014, "Thay" (a term of endearment used for a teacher, and the brief name for him among thousands of Buddhist students worldwide) suffered a massive brain hemorrhage.  In the nearly three years since then his health stabilized but he had suffered some paralysis and a limiting aphasia.  He could express his wishes and he could inspire with his deep and radiant happiness, but the long walks together with his students, lay and monastic, and his beautiful haunting long dharma talks in the softest truest voice would never return.  He would never again tell the story of accidentally hitting his left hand with a hammer in his right hand--and how quickly, instantly, both hands gave each other love.  "My left hand," he always smiled at this point, holding back the punchline, "never said: 'I want justice!  Give me that hammer!'"

    Seeing the photo of him this morning, sitting in a wheelchair at an airport after a long, long trip,   broke my heart, again, and yet inspired me.  Thay's face so still, so quiet, so inward.  His body so obviously letting go, retiring, becoming an inadequate container for his great heart and spirit. Like an inflated balloon slowly leaking its air through and old soft skin.  And because he taught so well and so much about the interbeing of all creatures, ad the illimitless "recycling"  of all the separate elements that we mistakenly see as apermanently unique and separate "things"--whether person, plant, star, idea, or emotion--I can also see this process as a grief to those of us who love as a human must, on the 'historical' level. While I also consent to That Which Is on the 'ultimate level, as a perfect illustration of No-Self and Impermanence, of Nirvana perhaps.  

   He has talked so much and so wisely of how the raincloud cannot disappear into nothing.  We see the raincloud in every manifestation that contains water.  The raincloud has not died; it has changed.  It is in the sunflower and the infant child; it is in the mud and swamp where orchids and lotus grow.  It is in you, in me.  And Thay is not disappearing; as he empties his physical body, he continues. His mark may be perpetual.  His thoughts and words and actions were magnificent and may they find continuation in each person, each flower,each calligraphy, each book, that has been touched by him.

 My Poem's sources

   The most recent Zen Scholarship Thay was working on was a new translation of the Sutra (a dharma talk by the Buddha some 2600 years ago) called "The Heart Sutra" or "The Heart of Perfect Understanding" or "The Prajnaparamita Sutra."  The poem I transcribe here is based on my understanding of the Prajnaparamita linked with my experience sitting alone beside my father during his last three days of life. In the Sutra, a Boddhisattva voice says repeatedly, "Listen, Shariputra: Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.  Form is not other than Emptiness; Emptiness is not other than Form."  My understanding of the apparent contradiction underlies my Buddhist practice of the last thirteen years: meditation leading to concentration, concentration revealing the concrete reality of the existence of things and beings on one level while on the other there are only transient assemblages of that which is neither particle nor wave, neither matter nor energy. 
   As a Shakespeare scholar and theatre artist, I found semantic memories of  Prospero's words arising in conjunction with the Sutra.  A particular passage from The Tempest helped me "sing" about the mystery of life and death:  in the play, Prospero, an exiled king and a great wizard, has caused an assembly of his loved ones and his former enemies to witness a heavenly pageant, literally a performance by gods and goddesses in the clouds.  When it ends and one, at least, of the onlookers expresses confusion and concern, Prospero chides--or reassures--them:

          Our revels now are ended.  These our actors,
          As I foretold you, were all spirits and
          Are melted into air, into thin air,
          And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
          The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
          The solemn temples, --the great globe itself,
          Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve.
          And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
          Leave not a rack behind.  We are such stuff
          As dreams are made on, and our little life
          Is rounded with a sleep. 
                                 Act IV, Sc. 1, lines 148-158

So I am adding my own ponderings to that stunned witnessing.  Here, as a tribute to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, is my own poem.  You may want to print this out and let yourself take it slowly; it is meant to be a song, maybe a contemporary chant.

       Sutra on the Baseless Fabric

                 "Ga-te, Ga-te, Paraga-te, Parasamga-te"
          (Going, Going, Almost going, Almost competely gone)

                ("An actor is a sculptor carving in snow.")

          Ice statues, carving ourselves in a substance
          of endless deliquescence, struggling for permanence,
          the illusion of perpetuity, delusions
          of existence:     Vivo, ergo sum.

          Ice melts as it warms. We melt
          As we cool.  Ice blooms as heat recedes:
         Thick atoms slow and crystallize.
         But we form when heat quickens:
         Our solidity not solid, but crystal motion.
    We are not ice but flame.  All melts. All trembles.

   Dancing and flickering, wavering over ashes,
   Moulten in soft dust, and blown away, blown out:
   Sandcastles labored, compulsive structuring,
   Shoring up ever-evanescing towers,
          Anguished at imperfections, the annual
          Losses, anxious labors to make fixed,
         To firm up artifacts among these windblown drifts,

   These our actors, were all Spirits, men and women
   Of snow:           Les neiges d'antan.

Watching, then, permanently, my permanent father
Disappear, slip away, the very body diminishing
Hour by hour.  The flesh goes first, a layer of stuff
We think is meat, solid-- the person incarnate,
We think--but yet it disappears. Its absence
Alters suddenly the person, enacts a stranger,
Leaves a body but the skin sinks onto bone
And reshapes, redesigns: an alien emerges,
The gaunt death-ikon appears in place of face:
Jaw, skull and shoulder sockets extrude—
As cheek, mouth, and biceps vanish.
Knee-joints and hip-bones, elbows and ribs
Grow monstrous and huge:  no thighs, no calves,
only jagged lines, only bones.  O scarecrow, skeleton.
O staggering weak collection of rods and sockets
Above the swollen talons that were feet. Leave not a racke behinde.
We are such stuffe  (A pageant, apparition)  as dreames.

He shrank before my eyes--
Like the snow outside those dim December days--
Dispersed, becoming pale and then invisible.
The snow was melting in a winter sun, a slow
and ceaseless warming, and his was cooling,
his life that had been flame, had blazed and sparked,
had spit and glowed, became a pale translucent glow,
Still vaporizing till the heat was gone.

       And then go thoughts, attention, all
       But a faint trace of person dissolves—
             a smoke dispersed in air;
           mere indistinct wisps remain.
     O pale, pale: --where goes the blood
     That its tint not lingers beneath the skin,
     The tinge of living in transparency?

   And the face like an infant in winter, in having
   No person, no tension, no history etched, or hope:
   Habitual frown, wry grimace, lifted eyebrow,
   Winked eye, flashed frown-- all erased:
   What you thought they looked like in the flesh
   But that was not flesh, but the imprinted power,
   A present strength of will. . .  all Spirits.

   The chest looms over this rickety scaffolding.
   The thin claws of hands that clasp nothing.
   His feet had lost the ground; he tipped in some
   Gravityless ether.  His hair, bleached and
            Blushing straw, on end.

   Like candleglow, he flickered at the last,
   Like wisps of spark, he sank, dispersed, and sighed.

           So easy this extinction, eternity's bland mask of death.
           Even in sleep, expression remains.
           Not here:  this country from whose Bourne
     At last, not human, further gone in time
     To fish or lizard, a mouth that opens slowly
     To no air, once and once and once again
     And then the tiny skeletal foetal curl.

     So silent, gradual. Where was the line crossed,
     when did the bolt slip into the slot,
     when was the door so closed it sealed into wall,
     why can't it come back, why can't we reach through,
     why can't we return, why can't we see further?

The bottom of all runs out. The hole disappears.
There isn't. Not. None.  Gone.  Done.

J. Rice

Thursday, June 1, 2017


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

Written 4/27/2012

"Wow!" "Wao!"

 "Wao" is a phonetic spelling for "Wilde," along the lines that Mexican comic books talk about the Yunaitesteits (for United States).  Here's the way the book opens:

            They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved;
            that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished
            and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the
            nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.  Fuku americanus,
            or more colloquially, fukú—generally a curse or a doom of some kind;
            specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World. Also called the
            fuku of the Admiral because he was both its midwife and one of its great
            European victims; despite "discovering" the New World the Admiral
            died miserable and syphilitic, hearing (dique) divine voices.
I liked this book very, very much.  And not the least of its pleasures is its historicizing footnotes, the first of which, on the second page of text, begins:

            For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican
            history: Trujillo, one of the twentieth century's most infamous dictators,
            ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with an implacable
            ruthless brutality. . . .one of the longest, most damaging U.S.-backed dictatorships
            in the Western Hemisphere.

Diaz sets up the novel to illustrate a fukú, the New World Curse, through the story of a New Jersey Dominican, Oscar De Leon, who had all the right moves with the muchachas until he was seven years old and then—was it a curse for dropping one little girlfriend at the behest of another?—becomes an undate-able awkward obese nerd.  Committed to "the Genres," which I take it means Sci-Fi and Fantasy literature, Comic books and Cartoons, and role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons.  The narrator is another Dominican man, a "player," who has a crush on Oscar's sister Lola and thus volunteers to be Oscar's roommate and keep an eye on him.  He intends to play pal just long enough to win Lola over, but the connection turns out to be more than "for fun for awhile." 

Oscar's story pulls in his whole family history.  His sister Lola's story starts when her mother, Beli, calls her into the bathroom to evaluate a knot in her breast "just beneath her skin, tight and secret as a plot," another fukú, but to go back to the beginning of Oscar's family curse. the story goes back in time to 1944 or so when Oscar's long-lost aunt in the Dominican Republic was preparing to go to college.  She was a beautiful, socially accomplished girl, but dictator  Rafael Trujillo had a taste for girls—the droit de seigneur being one of his favorite indulgences. The girl's father, a physician, tries tragically to conceal her from Trujillo, and is consequently emprisoned brutally while his wife was expecting a third child.  In 1946, after more than a year of torture had utterly undone and unmanned him, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison.  The two teen-aged daughters and wife Soccoro all died "accidentally" in the next few years.  The newly born infant, a third daughter, was a social jinx and was sold into "criada" service.  (Remember Cosette at the Thenardiers' in Les Miz?)  This daughter is Beli, the mother of Oscar and Lola. She is rescued by a family cousin, "La Inca," whom Oscar and Lola come to know as their Abuela (grandmother).  And this history—of life under Trujillo—is ultimately the heart of the book, but the story also portrays Dominican emigrants of the Diaspora as non-tragic, powerful, vital human beings.

The events are terrifying but told with linguistic liveliness, which creates a kind of angry ironic distance often enough to make the story more believable or at least 'tolerable'; the narrator's bitter jokes about the cursed history of families destroyed and demoralized in twentieth-century Latin America and the Diaspora rings with slangy Spanglish and Dominican idioms spiced up with a rich sprinkling of Tolkien, Stan Lee and Watchmen.  Its real literary base, however, is Derek Walcott: an epigraph from his "The Schooner: Flight," Stanza 1, "Caragena, adios," captures the mood and the linguistic turn. (I will have an excerpt for the meeting.)  And Walcott's verse follows another introductory quotation from the Fantastic Four (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, 1966): "Of what importance brief, nameless lives . . . to Galactus??"

The narrator, "Yunior" (Spanish rendering of 'Junior') revels in sexuality, especially of women's bodies, and there are many racy scenes in juicy language.   But women in this story are powerful persons  as well as sexual subjects, subjects who choose and enjoy as well as suffer.  There is no celebration here of cruelty, use, exploitation.  "Yunior" is a womanizer, but finally that is his tragedy and he knows it.  Like most of the characters, he is abused and neglected by parents who inherit the trauma of dictatorship and terrorism.  We want sometimes to believe that surviving victimization creates wisdom and virtue.  It's not true: abuse more often makes monsters of us.  In Yunior's defense he knows he's damaged, and at least he loyally loves Oscar –and sadly, Lola.

I admit this is a book I probably won't loan to teens I work with in juvenile detention, but not because it would shock or harm these girls who have seen more sexual dirt and violence than this bit of prose-fiction.  Maybe they'd feel less schizophrenic and alienated if they could read more things like this, Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, David Foster Wallace, instead of the Post-Rapture fantasy-literature they are fed locally: "good Christian books."

And I won't suggest the book to my local book club, which is essentially mostly made up of women (all Methodists!) in rural Nebraska, most of whom (or many) are retired teachers.  (So I thought and wrote in 2012; after 5 years with them, I have suggested it.--jrice) The language alone is clearly off-limits there, where several expressed a reluctance to "read about sex" when our group began, although they did enjoy Erdrich's The Master Butchers Singing Club, even with Delphine's surprised glimpse of the man she lives with having sex with another man.  It would be interesting to think through problems of acceptable and unacceptable language but not here, not now.  I will just say that stories of Oscar and his family, class, and culture would be artificial and false without the language of sex, drugs and alcohol, for this is the language of tough gutsy people even as these are phenomena in the life of so-called "nice" people too, and language tastes have more to do with class and culture and "niceness" than with value.