My Wobbly Bicycle, 138

Posted by on Jun 13, 2017 | 0 comments

I wanted to send you this in the form that just came out in a British magazine called  Urthona: Buddhism and the Arts,  But it’s  a print journal, not online. It was beautifully laid out.  I couldn’t make the pdf file show up here. So here is my copy. Sokuzan and I will continue this conversation at some point. It’s a bit longer than my usual posts, but I thought you might be interested.


Zen and the Poet’s Mind 

Fleda Brown and Sokuzan

A poet and a Zen priest sit down together in March 2015 in Traverse City, Michigan.

Fleda: Socrates said that poems don’t come from wisdom but from “a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.”

What is sublimity, then? Don’t ask. It’s sublime. Well, we do ask.  “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” says Robert Frost. And of course there’s Emily Dickinson, who knows it’s a poem if “I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.”

images-1There’s a long tradition of describing the visionary in terms of the visionary. After all, who can argue? Or, we could turn 180 degrees and get out our electron microscopes. At the subatomic level, everything is comprised of waves of possibility.  Consciousness is the agent that collapses these waves into a material world.

Still, all this tells us nothing, really, about the creative process. Like most poets, most of the time I just stay with the work, stand out in the field and hope lightning strikes.  On the other hand, I’m a long-time meditator. I spend a lot of time watching what my mind does. What does the mind “do” when it “creates?”  There is a vast Buddhist literature, over 2500 years of studying the nature of consciousness. I’ve barely touched the surface of it, only enough to be awed. I turn to my teacher, Sokuzan, a Zen priest who’s read and studied widely in Buddhist texts.

Sokuzan:   How can we know the source of anything? The causes and conditions that arise in any given moment are so vast that it is beyond bringing anything into a conceptual framework.  We might, instead, look at the actual open, feeling dimension, where the walls of the mind have become transparent or have even vanished.  The creative power of this world in which we appear as apparently separated beings is constantly throwing forth expanding energy.  If we grasp at our self-centeredness or other-centeredness, if we emphasize this polarity, then creative power coming through us as a flower springs from the ground or a leaf from a tree may be possible, but unlikely.

Amazingly enough, awareness-consciousness that has been fixated on a self and an other can become free from that through the constant, steady, and insistent attention to what arises.  This does not mean that we attach ideas, concepts, interpretations to what arises.  It means that we just observe.  Just see the equality, differentiation, texture, and apparent “thing-ness” of what arises, and do nothing with it at all.  This is called “meditation.”

Of course, I’m fairly biased, having practiced meditation for over forty years.   Doing the sitting practice of meditation involves simplifying one’s situation to the extent that one holds very still and just observes what continues to arise unsummoned.

F:  “If we try to emphasize that polarity,” you say, then it would be “unlikely” that the creative source can flow through us. What does that look like, emphasizing the polarity?

S: Emphasizing the polarity is when we insist on or push for a particular result. Effort is necessary, of course, in order to move a brush or type a line. Just the same, the pulse of energy cannot be summoned as you call a waiter. There needs to be a spaciousness for the dancing to appear. As you said, “waiting in an open field” waiting for lightning, for true words. Getting into the field is hard work, an effort we can’t fake. To the artist, the subjective feeling of this space may be fearful. Just so, a flashing in the sky of the mind can be a sign that the muse is near.

F:  Yes, I’m afraid of the spaciousness, and the moment when I have to act, put something down on the page. I stay anxious. Essentially, I don’t know what I’m doing. Additionally, I have what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence.” I find myself moving into new territory. I want to go there, and the only way I can is to shed influences, yet if I don’t carry my predecessors with me in some way, my work is going to be bereft of their richness. Damned if I do and damned if I don’t.

Jane Hirshfield, whose essays in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry are the clearest and most comprehensive of any I know on Buddhism and poetry, says that a work is “original not because it is new in subject matter or technique but because it has the uniqueness that moistens and flares in all embodied being.”

Maybe we’re talking about “voice” when we say “uniqueness.” Coming through me, my unique body-mind.  But then earlier you said there’s no way to locate a particular source, to bring creativity into a conceptual framework.  So then, what can Buddhist thought add to illuminate what makes the top of our heads feel as if they’re coming off when we’re in the presence of a good poem?

S:  There’s a saying in Zen that everything you see is a flower; everything you think is the moment.  It is possible to actually see the way we bring things together out of this dense fabric of particles to make something.  We make a wagon.  We make a building.  When we’re writing poetry, or painting, or drawing, we’re sorting through odds and ends to find something.  And eventually we begin to feel a value coming out of the combination of particles and the way they resonate.

images-4The way Bach put things together was just so astonishing.   This is genius; this is so rarely come across.  Like modernism, like postmodernism, it’s taking what’s been made and breaking it down into something even further.  Perhaps you’ve heard of the ruined piano when people deliberately use things that are discordant and try to understand , rather than doing the classical or modern way of putting things together.  We may try to write bad poetry or make bad art deliberately to find out what it is that really fuels or feeds or supports the kind of harmony or beauty that is so rich and so undiscoverable.

F: You sometimes go to New York to teach classes called “Opening The Eye Mind.”  You have a very specific way of using art to help students go deeper into creative seeing. Would you explain how this works?

download-2S: I’ve been teaching this class for probably 20 years. It came out of my experience as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early ‘60s, trying to understand what art was about. I sat down in front of a portrait of Sylvette David by Picasso. I sat in front of this one because it had a bench in front of it.  Picasso was very disturbing to me. I I would look and say to myself, why? Why? Why is this in this museum? Why is this worth millions of dollars? My sitting down and doing that started me, you could say, on a journey of looking very closely at things.

I developed some exercises to help students separate the thinking process from the visual consciousness so that we could actually see with the raw and rough edges of visual perception itself.  For instance, I would say “Put your eye right on the central portion. It might be an object in the center of a painting, whether it’s representational or not—that is, say, a book on a table.  I’d say look right at that book on the table, but at the same time, in your awareness, just register everything that’s blue.  Or just register everything that is triangular.  Or just register everything that is circular.  The amazing thing is that the thinking mind tends to step aside to allow the visual awareness to find those concepts in their visual form.

You begin to see the entirety or the overall balance of the situation.  Or the lack of balance.  You can actually see that this painting doesn’t really work .  On the other hand, if it’s really extremely well orchestrated, we get this amazing feeling of seeing solid-earth-feet-on-the-ground reality and head-in-the-clouds.  My teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, talked about connecting heaven and earth.

F: Okay, that’s visual art, and it’s easier for me to see that.  How would such an exercise might work with, say, a poem.

S: I’ve practiced reading something aloud and listening to the shape of the words. I read it so much that I don’t know what it means any more.  And then, when you don’t know what it means, you’re starting to feel the underlying shape of the language.  You find the sound. How many words have double “o’s” in them?  The word look. Or book.  They rhyme, but there’s also something else there, something about the visual quality of two little circles, when we read it.  It’s all important.

F: Gerard Manly Hopkins calls this “instress” and “inscape,” the dynamic pushing and pulling of sound and form. Everything “enacts” itself, pulling inward to make a self and recognizing the thrust of energy coming in at it from the outside “selves.”   The actual “product” is a dance.

S:  To understand how language works, I tried writing things backward, forward, taking some words out and putting other words in arbitrarily, doing automatic writing.  And then I would read a translation of Rimbaud, or Pablo Neruda — it’s actually more enjoyable for me to read someone who could do this well rather than (laughs) continue to write my own stuff that’s somewhat lame.

F: Every poet that I know and admire begins work by reading somebody else’s poems, somebody who’s good.  Striking out to get the pitch — you want to get the pitch.

There are exercises to help writers get loose from the critic-mind, and the editor-mind, to help them to at least temporarily ignore those so they can work from something fresh.  We often use the word spontaneous. Of course even that word is defined by its opposite, rationality.

S:  Finding spontaneity, or the “beginner’s mind” is more about a willingness to let go of reference points.  One of the main ones that needs to be let go of is me, me, me, me.  At the same time there’s a desire to create, there’s also the desire to be a creator.  And that seems to get in the way. Because there’s an identity—”I’m the person who’s able to make this”—we tend to get a merchandising mentality around our art.

download-3Philip Guston, the New York School painter, would go into his studio and paint and paint. He would come in the next day and see what damage he had done (laughs). From the point of view of his own personal ego, you could say, it was like a train wreck. But from the point of view of his creation, it was like someone else had done it. He could see that he had to put in all of this work in order for something to really flower or blossom.

We can’t leave out the rough edges of our own personal style.  We can’t set aside even the narcissism.  It has to be somehow acknowledged.  We have to get our noses rubbed in it. We have to be, as Trungpa would say, genuine.  This can be really difficult because there are areas of our ego, our mind, our narcissism, that we just don’t want in there.  We want to keep that out.  Amazingly enough, that’s the very area that seems necessary to acknowledge.  Otherwise there’s a part missing.

F: So, how does a person be genuine?

S: As you know, I’m very biased in this area. I feel it’s necessary to sit down and see the disingenuous qualities arising.  See how we want to avoid distasteful stuff: memories, things, conditioning, arising out of beginningless time, showing up at the moment as this particular matrix of body, speech, mind, mentation, emotions.

To be able to watch that which continues to move gives us something like a cinemascope.  That seeing can be somewhat confusing, but if we do it enough, we eventually begin to see that which is seeing.  We begin to acknowledge the self-centeredness, or, you could say, the mistaken identity, the feeling that we are somebody.

F: Aren’t we? Aren’t we somebody? All my work, I’m pretty sure, is through a somebody and about somebodies.

S: We are, and we aren’t.  And that’s why it’s so difficult because self-centeredness wants to know.  Is there a somebody or not?  This is the duality that we get hooked on.  Life and death, up and down, success and failure.

From a no-reference point, the only self-centeredness is just an incredible appreciation of everything that is arising.  And a feeling of not being separate. Everywhere you look, you see your face. Of course you don’t see your face, but what you look at looks like it’s looking at you, like it’s not separate from you. I think this happens in people who are dedicated to a particular form of art.  There’s a feeling of — as is sometimes said, “participation mystique” —a coming together that makes total sense and is completely mysterious at the same time.  It gives us a sense of exuberance and upliftedness and a sense of sanity about everything.  In the midst of the craziness.

F: Would you say because you’ve spent so many years studying, practicing, and teaching, that what you’re doing now is a very rapid recombination and creative pouring out?  When I write a number of mediocre or bad poems, then suddenly a good one almost magically appears, it seems there has been a recombination below the level of awareness, and that the elements knew how to come together, once I quit pulling so hard on them.

S: That’s a way of saying it.  Allowing things to flourish and come forth.  Self-centeredness doesn’t like space because that means we don’t know.  It’s a feeling of no longer needing, out of hope or fear, to separate oneself from anything that occurs.  If there’s defensiveness or aggression that comes out every now and then, we just watch that—we don’t necessarily negate it. So you could apply that to creativity. Having been a poet for a long time, you would probably recognize that there are times when you find that things are coming to you that are completely unacceptable, but yet you know that you need to ride that boat. . .

F: I tell my students, go on and write those bad poems. The accumulation is the most likely path to something that works because you’ve spent all that time slogging and feeling hopeless and miserable. . .

S: You’ve exercised it. I’ve told the young monks at our temple that if you don’t find a way to generously and sympathetically work with your own negativity and stop fighting with yourself and just have a willingness to be genuine and be a mess if that’s what’s happening, then you’re not going to have very good luck working with other people’s craziness or confusion.

F:  There are so many poems about death and misery and divorce and suffering of all kinds because that’s often where the intensity is.  Most of us who’ve been reading poems for a while recognize when a poem is basically a diary by an ego that just has to deal with this material right now.  It seems—I think this is what you’re saying—that the diary-stuff has to be acknowledged so that the genuine work can come through. There’s been a space created by seeing it without hanging on to it and without pushing it away.

S: You begin working with the raw feeling, and you see how incredibly alive you are and how vibrant everything  is. You might be in a really desperate situation, and you look over and see the leaves on a plant, and they’re so beautiful—the curve around the edge of the leaf, and the serrations in the leaf, and maybe the way one leaf is broken—and this can be in the middle of being lost in a woods where you have no more food — I mean, I’m kind of painting a romantic picture here …
F: What you’re painting is a poem. That’s the way it works.

S: That’s the way it works.  Seeing that it is all a dance in which the dancers are completely separate matrices of passion, aggression, ignorance, seeing, hearing, tasting, telling, touching, smelling, movement and so on. And they come together, and the coming together is an expression of a hidden mutuality.  I don’t like the word “one-ness” — I like to say not-separate. It’s like fingers on a hand: they’re completely separate, but the first finger doesn’t have to make sure the second finger or the thumb knows what’s going on.  They just work in concert, and they orchestrate.

Whatever your discipline, whatever your field is, one of the most important things you can remember is repetition.  Because fundamentally, you cannot repeat anything.  If you try to repeat a poem, a painting, a drawing, it’s always going to be slightly different.  If you do it enough, you start to see the contrast.  In any intensely fabricated piece, the light starts to shine through the interstices.  But you have to do a lot of repetition to see it.

F: But some people have genuine talent, and other people don’t.

S: If you’re living in a really genuine way, you can usually find out what you’re to do.  I spent a lot of time writing and found out that I couldn’t write.  I probably could’ve—I spent a couple of years writing every day—but it would have been such a difficult uphill climb. And the same thing with painting.  I got so good at seeing, I could see how really great, say, Picasso was.  How really great Robert Motherwell or Philip Guston were. How astonishing they were.  And also reading poets—Ginsberg, Creeley, Rimbaud, Neruda, Jim Harrison. . . .

Repetition may not produce good poetry.  It may not produce good painting, but it will help you see more clearly what it is you really need to do.  And it may not be writing.

images-3If I walk out of here and walk down the road, I don’t think of myself as a meditation teacher.  I think of myself as just an old man walking down the road.  There’s not much happening there as far as any identity.  It doesn’t mean that I’ve gotten rid of anything, I just see that it’s unreal.  It’s just not real.  So, therefore, we can actually celebrate our life and our being-ness and our mutuality together, doing something like this—talking together—it’s very dance-like.



Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, NY: HarperPerenniel, 1997, 34.


 Sokuzan, who was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the 1970s, completed the Vajradhatu Seminary in Boulder, Colorado, in 1980. In 1990, he became a student of Kobun Chino Roshi, a Zen meditation master from Japan, and received lay ordination from Kobun’s brother, the late Hojosama Keibun Otagawa. Sokuzan received full ordination as a priest in the Soto Zen lineage in 2007 and Dharma transmission in March, 2013, from Kuzan Shoho Michael Newhall, Abbot of Jikoji in Los Gatos, California.


Fleda Brown’s [no relation to Sokuzan] Selected and New Poems is just out from the University of Nebraska Press in 2017.  She has published nine collections of poems, a collection of essays, and a memoir, Driving With Dvorak, (University of Nebraska Press, 2010). She is professor emerita at the University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. She now lives in Traverse City, Michigan, and is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program in Tacoma, Washington. She is Sokuzan’s student. 








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