Thursday, March 12, 2009

This is a self-portrait

For me, the most joyful part of writing is the intellectual quest. I respect the value of intuitive understanding, but I find there is a particular satisfaction in knowledge that can be expressed with clarity, in simple words. I love trying to hack a verbal trail toward an idea or insight that's distant and indistinct. The process is an act of faith, because there's never any guarantee that the conceptual grail is going to be worth the work it takes to reach it. As often as not, it turns out to be a dud or a phony once you get a good look.

I don't really mind that, though, since I can at least feel that I've satisfied my curiosity, if not my ego. The tough times come when I find myself, like my monkey friend here, engaged with an intellectual task that exceeds my abilities. For several days now, ever since Dave and I saw Silent Light, I've been working on a post about beauty and religion, about how spiritual feeling and aesthetic feeling are intertwined--even, arguably, identical. This issue is a perennial favorite of philosophers, so I've been having fun trying to make sense of the various schools of thought on the matter. Unfortunately, I can't seem to write a coherent sentence of my own without immediately wanting to take it back.

I am lost in the woods. So I figured I'd just write a post about that, and post a poem about it.

Whether this is time or snow, passing
Through the night, earthward,
Who can tell—
Each particle only an illusion; yet massing,
Mounting over all,
Hushing the footfall,
Silencing the bell.

“I am confused,”
Said the traveler, “hearing no sound
Though my feet touch the ground
As they are used.”

From "White Darkness" by Virginia Hamilton Adair. Complete poem at Poetry Foundation

The Monkey Painter, Alexandre Gabriel Decamps, 1833. Image from Web Gallery of Art.


jmcleod76 said...

"... spiritual feeling and aesthetic feeling are intertwined ..."

Yes! In Zen, we express this idea with a koan, "Why can't the clear-eyed Bodhisattva sever the red thread?"

A "clear-eyed Bodhisattva" is one who has awakened. Presumably, such a person sees the truths of impermanence and that all beings are not separate - has seen that mind is, ultimately, "the mountains, the rivers, the sun and moon, and the great Earth."

The "red thread" is a classical symbol for passsion.

In Therevada Buddhism (a very orthodox form that is closest to what the historical Buddha practiced), it is said that an awakened being is no longer stirred by passions.

But in Mahayana schools - of which Zen is one - it is believed that passion and awakening are inseparable. Passion - love for the world and worldly things, beautiful things, that give us pleasure - is no different from the impulse that drives our vow to "free all beings."

Of course, that's not the whole of it. Nothing ever is. There is also loving that which is not beautiful and does not give us pleasure. But you have to start somewhere ... Appreciating the beauty in the world is an important aspect of my spirituality.

Anonymous said...

Ad Beauty and religion, hint: the pythagorean tread through the history of thought.
ps: I love the picture of the ape painting!
(association Nietzsche: the human as balancing on the line between the ape and the ├╝bermensch)
wish you a nice weekend! :)

Perfumeshrine said...

Ah, you're setting a too high goal. Centuries have been puzzled, so it's not that bad...
Love the painting!!

BitterGrace said...

You write so beautifully about your Zen practice, J. I feel as if I am getting an education from you, in tiny, delectable portions. One of the things "Silent Light" made me think of was another film--"Why has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?" The 2 films have nothing in common as narrative, but they are infused with the same passionate beauty.

StellaP--I think I need a bigger hint! Is there a kernel of what you mean in the Einsteinian notion that the laws of physics=God? Or am I being dense? ;-)

You're right E--but I guess the agony is part of the puzzle's allure. I think you know what I mean. The "How to make heads or tails out of scent?" gadget at your blog always pops into my mind when I grapple with blogging.

Mary said...

Do you ever write poetry of your own?

BitterGrace said...

I do, Mary, or I did. At one time I wrote a lot. I never thought about posting any, though. Maybe I will make that my challenge as spring arrives: Get up the nerve to post some poems.

Mary said...

Please do think about it, I'd love it.

jmcleod76 said...

I love "Why Has Bodhi-Dharma ..." Gorgeous film. What's funny is that, when I read your description of "Silent Light," it made me think of "Why Has Bodhi-Dharma ...", and I considred recommending it to you. I'm glad you've seen it. And, if the two films share a similar vision, then you obviously did a wonderful job of describing "Silent Light," for me to make the connection just from your review. Have you seen "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring"? That's another beautiful Korean Zen film.

David Maddox said...

BG's poems are very good. I have one posted over my desk.

chayaruchama said...

I'm with Mary re: the poetry.
But I'm awed at your singular ability to pluck such pearls at will.

Pretty stunning.

J- it's a gift , just to read your thoughts.
Simply wonderful- thank you, thank you...

Great painting [ it goes with the grotesque, the other day !]

May I add, out of sheer wilfulness-
That you're smelling quite lovely, this week-
Yvresse, J'ai Ose- things I never see too many besides myself- wear and enjoy.

You ARE tough on yourself.....

BitterGrace said...

J--"Silent Light" also made Dave think of "Why has Bodhi-Dharma..." It's remarkable that the 2 films seem to have some cosmic twinship going on. I haven't read many reviews of SL, but I'd be curious to see how often critics have made the connection. I've never seen the other film--thanks for the rec.

What poem is over your desk, Dave? The dead pioneers thing?

I am coming very late to J'ai Ose, Chaya. I just discovered it about a week ago. It's fantastic. And looks to be going the way of the dinosaur, naturally...

Anonymous said...

forgot to say: the poem is so beautiful and profound! Thank you for posting it. I had never even heard about BG, but after reading about her (via your link) I "see" the link to Eliot. This particular poem, with its reflections on time, flux, paradoxes, reminds me of Eliot's Four Quartets, which I love :)
(more about the pythagorean thread another time. today my time is, alas, limited)