The Dark Seed

October 12, 2009 by  
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Where is the dark seed

that grows the forget-you plant?

Searching, now I see

it grows in the frozen heart

of one who has murdered love.

– The Monk Sosei

(D. CA. 909)

What is this thing the Zen monk-poet Sosei calls love, invoking it to anchor his poetic statement? What is the place of love in a tradition as unsentimental and austere as Japanese Zen? In what way does such love serve as the ground of remembrance? And what has been forgotten by the one in whose frozen heart the dark seed has spread its roots? Sosei implies that it is by the loss of connection to living pathways of feeling that we lose our own humanity. The poisonous plant of forgetting in this poem obscures any sense of personal authenticity, leaving its victim unable to recognize his soul within his own skin.

The poet points to the heart, to the body of living, human emotion, as the causeway whose flow must be kept open, in order to attain the wisdom and understanding toward which Zen aspires. The recollection of the true self, he suggests, comes by way of an open, compassionate and tender heart. This, from the most unsentimental of spiritual traditions.

Sosei also confronts us with a thoroughly unsentimental conclusion. No one can “murder love”, or destroy the capacity to feel fully and deeply, from without, but each one of us can allow it to perish from within. While the world may be filled with accomplices to the crime, the ultimate responsibility lies within each human heart.

NPR recently broadcast the news that one of the most wanted war criminals of the Rwandan genocide had just been apprehended. He was number 6 on the most-wanted list; apparently 1-5 are still roaming the African countryside. The coverage of this event included an interview with a man whose family members had been brutally killed by one of the criminals still at large. There has been a “Truth and Reconciliation” movement underway in Rwanda for some time, an endeavor to bring stability and a modicum of justice and closure to the victims and to the society as a whole. The movement unites perpetrators and the survivors of their crimes through a process of acknowledging culpability, and the absolution that such acknowledgement confers. In the report, this man called out to the ones who had committed the killings, asking them to come forth, in order that he might forgive them.

Through his poem Sosei offers his conviction that no one, or thing can extinguish love from without. The Rwandan man’s readiness to forgive strikes me as a living testament to the truth of this idea. Nelson Mandela once said that there was no force in the world that could separate him from his own dignity. It seems that in the case of this man, there was no trauma brutal enough to separate him from his own humanity.

If there is any evidence for God’s existence, it is in the graceful hearts of such people, who have not forgotten their own humanity in the face of such violence and suffering.


Airports; Good Sanctuaries For The Soul

October 2, 2009 by  
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It’s funny how certain things trigger the memory, and send the imagination off on pleasant tangents. A private jet flew over the moon tonight, its red and green lights flashing through the clouds. The red and green of those lights took me back in an instant to my childhood room, which happened to be in the flight-path of Laguardia airport, and was like a front-row seat before the spectacle of giant airliners swerving in on their approach. I’m quite sure I’m not exaggerating when I remember them flying right by my 7th story window. But memory is like that, magnifying and minimizing and filtering experience as suits its narrative game.

That memory in turn, transports me to another in which I am at an airport, transfixed by the roar of turbines and large machines, watching wide-eyed as jumbo jets taxi on the runways under glaring lights.  I am 5 or 6, a visitor is departing, I can’t remember who. I am in a state of delighted awe at the loudness of this landscape, noisy with light and sound and motion that pushes the night backwards into the surrounding darkness. A sphere of humming activity in the hours I associate only with sleep. It is the place where people go to depart this world, where they are launched toward the faraway shapes of color that appear on maps.

Airports still strike me as good metaphors for the journeys and the points of transit that the human soul must eventually embark upon. Flat open spaces with good visibility, allowing for infinite views. Large sanctuaries for the souls that have gathered there to wait for unseen forces that will carry them off.

The landing sites for alien ships that people transpose onto desert buttes are also metaphors for the sacred places where their souls will wait for their god to come at the appointed time and pick them up and shuttle them into the next world. Points of transit between this world and the landscape of their dreams. Which is also a good description for the transporting powers of those memories that take us almost all the way back to places near the beginning.