To Find the Self . . .

By I. M. Oderberg

Many years ago Harold Stewart, an Australian poet, in two beautiful volumes of haiku, A Net of Fireflies and A Chime of Windbells, marked the steps on his journey to find his essential self. (Haiku are unrhymed, 17-syllabled poems arranged in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables.) These books revealed the poet's love of Zen and other forms of Buddhism, of the ancestral Shinto religion, and Japanese culture generally. A new distillation of this heritage, By the Old Walls of Kyoto, comes to us in the form of twelve pieces that really compose one book-length poem; this together with prose commentaries conveys the tone of the Japanese spiritual tradition. The book imbodies also a sensitive tribute to Kyoto, a city founded in 794 by the Emperor Kwammu to be his capital and a center of Buddhism, and which became the cultural heart of the country, where literature and the arts reached their peak. It was known as the "City of Crystalline Streams" and the "City of Purple Hills." Many temples and monasteries were built among the forest trees on the Hiei or "Mount of Wisdom," while the "Mount of the Cave of Love" abounds with Shinto shrines.

Famous for its natural setting, temples, Zen-designed gardens, and pavilions, Kyoto has the Eastern kind of beauty that conceals rather than states its quality openly. Harold Stewart's recent book, subtitled "A Year's Cycle of Landscape Poems," resembles a fugue in music, recording his search for the self hidden within his innermost essence. He states in the introduction that the "theme chose the author because he is convinced of the spiritual quest over all else as the true meaning and purpose of this life."

There is poignancy in his use of Kyoto as counterpoint to his spiritual search, for there is the fading away of the old splendor — the city is being eroded by the advance of the worst features of modern industrialization. Pollution of the air is accompanied by or arises from pollution of thought and aim growing out of a philosophy of materialism and hedonism. The country's treasure as represented by Kyoto is being destroyed by technological man who is achieving in a generation or two what time has failed to do — the passage of centuries has added a patina of beauty rather than the pockmarks of decay.

This poetic record of an individual's "spiritual awakening" rather than an exposition of Buddhism, as well as the paean to the past glory of a city's "self," will carry forward an ideal into the future. Having shed his Western prejudices and limitations to follow the Middle Way, Stewart gives a "trustworthy account of the defeats and triumphs through which he has passed." By the Old Walls of Kyoto may spark alight other lives perhaps yet unborn. So nothing will be wholly dead: and this is, perhaps, the poet's hope if not intention.

The twelve poems that mark the passage of the months through the orbit of a single year show the changes in the city and in the man. The sequence begins with late spring and ends with early spring of the following year. It is the "holy year" of a man's inner experience of spiritual growing pains, as well as a record of an old city's seasonal beauties and historic associations. Kyoto's variations of mood and appearance during the year match the changes in the heart and mind of the poet.

Harold Stewart has studied for years in the traditions of some of the many sects of Buddhism. The sudden leaps of Rinzai Zen over the slower approaches of the speculative Soto Zen and other philosophical schools such as Tendai, the rigidly mentalist methods of various Buddhist heritages and teachers, ultimately yield (for Stewart) to the yearning aspiration toward the heart of compassion as represented by Amida Buddha. The poet's previous immersion in the various traditions before embracing Shin is the warp supporting the woof of his later experience, making the tapestry of his new outlook. His efforts in Japan culminated in his acceptance as a student by Bando Shojun, an eminent Jodo Shin scholar and priest, professor of Buddhism at Otani Daigaku, the Shin university in Kyoto.

The aim of devotees of Jodo Shin is to be born in the "Pure Land" of Amida. Western scholars mistake the idea of the Pure Land for a "place" or something similar to the Christian concept of heaven, but its meaning is quite different. It is not an ethereal paradise somewhere in space but, as Stewart's poem suggests, the Pure Land is a condition of being, dwelling in the core of ourselves; it permeates the universe because the cosmic Buddha Amida renounced further advance that he might help suffering beings less than himself. (Amida as a term is derived from the Sanskrit Amitabha, boundless light and compassion.) The renowned Japanese Buddhist scholar, D. T. Suzuki, found within the traditions of Shin the means to satisfy the heart-craving of the simple and unlettered individual as well as a philosophy profound enough to engage the attention and commitment of scholars. All Shin devotees aspire towards experiencing Amida within and outside themselves.

The monk Shinran, a follower of Honen, founder of the Pure Land doctrine, started the Jodo Shin sect in the 13th century. Born of his spiritual and personal renewal, Shinran felt impelled to open the way to all people to realize that the paths of Amida are full of joy — the joy that is inherent in each individual. The active role that Amida could play in daily life was stressed. Of course, a transcendental experience cannot be conveyed by ordinary speech or writing, but poetry may succeed in stimulating understanding. Stewart's effort is a noble one.

It is a severe test for a reviewer to restrict the choice of passages to illustrate points when the whole book is so closely knit together, and abounds in richness of feeling, ideas, and sheer poetry. Therefore, if I choose the verse of Poem Eleven in which the poet meets death face to face during a severe attack of angina, it is because it forms a fitting symbol for much more than a devastating heart attack. He had been climbing the mountain in icy weather when the seizure took hold:

Oh fierce white agony of cold that sears / My treacherous breath, whenever I respire! / Oh ache that stabs with freezing spikes of fire / My mortal heart, / I call on Amida, again, again. . . .
My body tortures me to death, who still / Struggle to cling to life, however ill, / And hug my suffering with tenacious will. / And yet the closer that my nature nears / Through agonizing throes its final breath, / The richer grows this ecstasy of tears, / This joy too noble for my heart to bear! / Divine Compassion takes me in its care / And brings with quiet surprise, as I surrender, / The charismatic gentleness of death, / Whose uncreating touch is wise and tender. / At last my calm acceptance looks to where / A dove, its head and shoulders heaped with white, / Froze in its sleep upon the bough last night. / But since I called the Name that can defeat / And drive assaulting demons in retreat, / Their gruesome ministrations die away, / Remission granted till my judgement day. / Heavily, step by step, I drag my feet / Back to the Hondo, where I find a seat. / Grateful for this relief and rest, I wait, / Gazing to where the dormant root-stocks freeze, / Buried in shrouds of snow within their tomb, / That bed with granite curb, whose peonies / Will be reborn next spring and bud and bloom.

The poem is titled "Waiting for Sunrise at the Silver Pavilion Under Snow" and opens with a motto from a sermon by Kobo Daishi: "If you do evil, the ox-headed and horse-headed lictors of Hell at once appear and punish you; if you do good, golden and silver pavilions immediately appear and you are offered immortal nectar. What is difficult is to change your heart. There are no fixed heavens or hells."

The impact of the revelation of Amida on Stewart can only be suggested, and quotations taken out of context cannot do justice to his large themes and descriptive writing. The poem that climaxed with stabbing pain ends with an evocative picture of the sun rising behind Mount Daimonji, a stirring simile for his transfigurative experience of Amida.

After the ecstasy comes the return to daily life, the next poem being titled "Returning through the Old Graveyards of Shinnyodo and Kurodani," which has been compared to the Bodhisattva's renunciation of his liberation that he may turn back and help those still bound to the enticements of this world. The poem has a moving contrast between the poet's unwillingness to return and the divinely compassionate act of Amida.

Many feel there is a disparity between Zen and Jodo Shin Buddhism. In conversation with Bernard Leach, the great English potter, Suzuki was asked why he had abandoned his earlier advocacy of Zen in favor of his later sympathy with Shin. He replied that it is a mistake to assume there is a wide difference between the two; they are intertwined. He further stated that in the Japanese tradition, there is no opposition between them: if Amida fills the cosmos with his boundless love and compassion, he also dwells within the heart of every human being.

The various historical and other allusions in the poems are explained in Stewart's essays, and these are themselves of worth. But anyone who can respond to the music of words in poetry, to imagery, idea, and deeply felt experience, cannot help but be moved by this sharing of a poet's supreme inspiration.

(From Sunrise magazine, December 1983/January 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Theosophical University Press)


Sunrise Back Issues Menu