Is this life or is this death?

A koan is a teaching tool to challenge you to solve the insoluble. It is a most ingenious Chinese invention in the history of Zen education. It is not entirely silly. You can solve the insoluble, but you do not get a ‘solution’ that is transferable to other people as a gobbet of knowledge. And you do not get an ‘answer’ that is in the form predicted by the question. What you get instead is a series of insights about the assumptions built into your thinking, your language and your perceptions. And you somehow mysteriously come to a sense of satisfaction with the meaning even though you have no ‘answer.’

As an example, take koan number 55 from the Blue Cliff Record:  

One day Dogo, accompanied by his disciple Zengen, went to visit a family in which a funeral was to take place, in order to express sympathy. Zengen touched the coffin and said, “Tell me please, is this life or is this death?”

Dogo said, “I would not tell you whether it is life or it is death.”

Zengen said, “Why don’t you tell me?”

Dogo said, “No, I would not tell you.”

On their way home Zengen said, “Please be kind enough to tell me. If not I’ll hit you.”

Dogo said, “Strike me if you like, but I would not tell you.”

Zengen struck Dogo.

Blue Cliff Record Case #55

Your task, on a koan retreat, or in your practice at home, is to meditate upon the koan. At the heart of it is the burning question, “Is this life or is this death?” Can you resolve the disciple Zengen’s anxiety?

In your meditation the question becomes an examination of your own sense of life, which includes your own sense of your dying.

You carry the koan around with you in your mind in daily life and apply it like a measuring instrument to all that you encounter: chicken tikka – Is this life or is this death?” Dead leaves, fading flowers, flourishing mosquitos – Is this life or is this death?”   In the end you have to make your own peace with the conundrum, in your own way.

I start my notes like this: The question is about life and death; all life and death, not a specific corpse; and it challenges me to investigate the life and death in me. I start by feeling the life in my belly, as I breathe, in my meditation. It is consciousness, whatever that is. I feel it, or, at least, I am conscious of it. Is it inside me or outside? Is it generated by my biology, or by the environment that makes the food, the air, water and sunlight? Impossible to tell. Is there a “life force,” and is it inner, or universal? Impossible to tell.

It is life; or it is some inspiration in the universe that keeps life going and is beginningless and endless. My life is short, I know, so why does “life” feel beginningless and endless? I have a striking insight: it is not personal. It is not “my” life. It is greater than me, and indifferent to me, in a benignly neglectful way. In that sense “my life” is empty. The “myness” of it is an illusion; my sense of being in charge of it is empty flimflam, a fantasy of self reassurance. There is life, and I am hitching a ride on it for a short while.

‘What is my “Original Face” from the time before my father and mother were born?’ (that is another koan) – and, I add, as I think about it, ‘What is my Original Face after my grandson will be dead?’ It is a universal life, the possession of no one. To name it would suggest that it is a great thing, and that it could be worshipped, but that would be inappropriate.  It is not an it. It does not give a damn for me, and it is wonderful. What is it?

 

No doer of the deeds is found;

No one who ever reaps their fruits.

Empty phenomena roll on,

This only is the correct view.

No god or Brahma can be called

The maker of this wheel of life.

Empty phenomena roll on

Dependent on conditions all.

Buddhagosa, 5th century.

 

My death would not be a personal thing either, I reflected. There is a great impersonal living process going on, irrespective of anyone’s opinions or desires, and we are all grist to the mill. The universe churns out life, all of which ages, decays, transforms, dies and is recycled. Like my life, my death is also “empty” of myness. It is quite unconcerned with notions of deserving, justice or care. “Death is just the end of the assumption that there is someone who owns Life” (Unmani Liza Hyde). “Empty phenomena roll on.”

On retreat in Normandy I had another insight, feeling for the first time the full force of the phrase, “The life and death of each moment.” It began when I tried to recreate in my mind the pleasure of being hailed by Mathilde, daughter of my friends. She appeared in a garden, to my surprise, and called out, running towards me. I was delighted to see her again. Can one keep hold of a special moment like that? Can we recreate it? Can we sustain its life in nostalgia’s aspic? No. It lives gloriously, and then it is gone.

 

Greeting Mathilde!

Can I keep the moment

like dew in the fridge?

 

A second insight came quickly: if one is living vividly in the present moment the potential for experiences of great joy and fullness is all over the place, all the time. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “M’installant dans le moment présent, je sais que c’est un moment merveilleux.”

Mathilde may be specially wonderful, but, in fact, watching any old bee nosing in any old flower is beautiful, as generous a gift as the universe has to offer, and available at this time of year all over the place. When one is completely clear in Ordinary Mind and focused on the present marvellous moment, all moments are vivid bliss. But time moves on. You can’t hold any of them. They die, all of them. You have to move on to the birth of the next.

What an incredible waste of life it is that we miss so many of these gorgeous, vivid experiences all around us all the time! They are born in their fullness and then fade as our attention shifts to the next.

What do I mean by “born”?  The same flowers are here in the garden today as were here yesterday, a little older, but to a quick glance, the same. The trees are the same. Some things have relatively stable continuity over time, relatively much longer than flowers or even trees, – so how is glancing at them the “birth” of them? Do I give birth to Rouen cathedral by looking at it?

Yes. It is the noticing. Instants are born in one’s consciousness. There is no continuity in the mind’s vivid perceptions, in full attentiveness. It is in constant motion. It flows without stopping. It is time. The noticing is not a copy of yesterday’s noticing of the same flower, the same tree, the same cathedral, and cannot be so. The perceptions flare and die, flare and die, flare and die, moment by moment, each one the distillation of the whole universe, and all its life, in this second. This second is the only bit of time that is alive, and it is already dying.

The great mystic William Blake saw it:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

The continuities are reassuring constructs in the background. They are a notional framework, but they are not where we live. We live and die each moment, in our beady looking, riveted on a close-up; or listening, note by delicious note. Tasting. Touching. That is how we are alive in the present. We live where our attention is fully focused. “Eternity” and “Infinity” are concentrated there. The relationship is best expressed by Blake again: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”

In the following morning’s service we chanted The Heart Sutra. I was struck by how lines of text are like our journey through time. They remain the same through a thousand years as ink printed on paper, but when your eye travels along the lines, and you voice them, your mind flares with the imagined fullness of a word or phrase. It leaps into an idea and its implications and then attention smoothly moves on, echoing or resonating with the idea and adding to it the next one. The silent symbols spring into life and speak their meanings.

You lose attention for a bit, distracted, or recalling an earlier phrase, and miss half a sentence, which lies there dead, as you pass by without bringing it to life. According to how focused you are in the moments of your reading, the words leap into life briefly and then fade and die as you move through the space-time continuum of the text.

 

Phrase by phrase

The Heart Sutra

bursts into life

 

There is a physical landscape of short-lived or long-lived stable things, a mix of continuities, through which one moves, carried by time: flowers, trees, cathedrals, and the culture of historic texts. But one lives in the mind’s awareness. Living moments flare in one’s perceptions, fade and die, flaring and dying. Is this life or is this death?”  

I would not tell you.

I would not tell you, but my answer to myself is this. It is. Life and death. Each of them separately. Both of them together. Neither of them. It’s impossible to tell them apart. The words are nonsense. But I am content.

 

 

 

 

 

George Marsh 1652 words May 2017

Photographs: Tom Moulson

 

 

Who Will You Call? & April in Dublin

Krystyna

Krystyna Jankowska

Krystyna sings another of our songs, Who Will You Call? What a voice!

I like songs with characters in a specific dramatic situation. In this song we have a highly intelligent man who sees through hypocrisy and mediocrity but is cynical and unforgiving. He is loved by a woman who can see his qualities but also sees that he is destroying himself with sour despair.

And here Krystyna sings April in Dublin. It is a song which breaks into kletzmer music in the last section, for a change of mood.

April in Dublin has a bit of the mood of Cotton-Eyed Joe about it: the sense of regret; the sense that lives were forever changed by something that happened – or failed to happen – long ago. And there is deep respect for someone very special, who was not fully appreciated as they should have been.

We hope you like these songs! Let us know your feedback.

Psweet and Psour Psychology

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For the purposes of this argument we’ll identify five elements to our psychology: The Self, The Personality, The Brain, The Child Mind, and The Unborn.

The Self

is a piece of software running in babies from birth which looks out for its needs and wants: primarily food, warmth, attention, interaction, and whatever takes its fancy. It looks out for our interests, and as we grow up it wants more sophisticated things, like reputation, success, appreciation, status, love. It compares itself with others and veers moodily between feeling superior and feeling inferior, feeling powerful and feeling powerless. It is self-obsessed and churns out excuses, denials and rationalisations necessary for its self-regard. It reacts instantaneously with its likes and dislikes, constantly alternating, as the Buddha taught, between attraction and aversion, going towards (the movement of greed), and running from (the movement of hatred), fight and flight. The funny thing is that we fondly imagine that this really is our self! “Me.” No. It is the same self-concerned stuff as everybody else’s. But all that attraction and aversion, picking and choosing, dignified with the name of “good taste” (judged as appropriate to your cultural group), leads directly to….

The Personality

A mixture of

  • Taste in music, design, books, clothing, cars, entertainment, lifestyle, friends and so on, based on the Self’s likes and dislikes, picking and choosing as appropriate to one’s class and ambitions in a self-defining, self-projecting way
  • Identity attachments (culturally a Celt, a Manchester United fan, a Labour voter, a feminist, a Buddhist), the grander expressions of attraction and aversion choices
  • Education, special skills, specialist knowledge, profession, management experience, manner of wielding authority
  • Habits and conditioning, much of it from parents and childhood experiences, shaping one’s emotional disposition (I, for example, am terrified of anger, from a family that suppressed all expression of anger ; I have a friend who is very much at ease with anger, a familiar friend to it, from a family happy with flare-ups)
  • Inherited dispositions (tall, strong, athletic, intelligent, clumsy, prone to heart trouble) and learned behaviours which may have developed often admirable qualities of character: courage, determination, confidence, patience, kindness, for example.

The Brain

Which comes into its own at work, discriminating, reasoning, assessing, arguing on the evidence, drawing upon experience and knowledge, reporting accurately, taking objective decisions. Not used as much as we like to think.

The Child Mind

Which persists into adulthood and old age. It likes fantasies, magical explanations, blaming, sulking, and extremes (things are either perfect or dreadful). It clings to what it wants to think, even in the face of conclusive evidence to the contrary.

The Unborn

The Original Face, the Deep Self, the Ground of Being, the One Mind, the Essence of Mind, the Buddhanature, or whatever you call it: the sense of life that you find within you, and find mysterious, not sure whether its energy comes from inside or outside, and not sure what it is, except that you find it nourishing and strengthening. It is the peace at the heart of you that you find in meditation and at times when you forget the Self and merge with nature, giving yourself up to something greater. But is it something special with its own qualities? Or is it simply the sense of life of the default state of an ordinary mind when undistracted, cleared of conditioning and self-concern? The Unborn is perhaps a default state that is both luminous, and “nothing special”! One can experience it, but not know it.

Our task in this life is to stop the Self, Personality, and Child Mind from obliterating the Unborn.

Chattering mind, fantasies, busy busy-work, entertainments, anxieties about self, fears for the future and endless trains of circular, repetitive thought blot out the sense of life in the present, the sense of being vividly alive now. To set the Unborn free we must get control of the Self.

 

With grateful acknowledgements to A Life of One’s Own by Joanna Field (Marion Milner) Chatto and Windus 1934, Virago 1986.

Self at Ease

 

 

satyr-ref-only

il-satiro-danzante-di-mazara-del-vallo-dettaglio_672-458_resize

 

An ecstatic man dances, looking serene. Perhaps he is part of a group of dancers, now lost in the sea off Sicily. Perhaps he is involved in a sacred ritual of transcendence. Perhaps he is a satyr or nature spirit. Whatever the circumstances, he is beautiful, unafraid, at one with nature and at ease in the world. In the two thousand years since this man was sculpted in bronze there are astonishingly few images of human figures with those same qualities, perfectly at home in the world and feeling good.

 

But look at modern man!

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Or Rodin’s image of man, a thinker but confused and uncertain:

Digital StillCamera

In the Renaissance, the age known as the age of flowering confidence in ‘Man,’ heroes were those who had cut the heads off their enemies: David with the head of Goliath, Perseus with the head of Medusa and Judith with the head of Holofernes.

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The most fascinating image of woman from the period may be many things but not perfectly at ease and serene, at home in a simple world of joy. In fact, the reason she fascinates us is because she makes us uneasy.

monalisa1-large_transeo_i_u9apj8ruoebjoaht0k9u7hhrjvuo-zlengrumaIn subsequent centuries portraits of aristocrats will furnish us with images of complacency, but not serenity and wholesome true confidence.

gainsborough-andrews

And images of the poor will be sentimental and patronising accounts of victimhood.

the-strawberry-girl-by-sir-joshua-reynolds-1772-3

Where has that wonderful Greek confidence gone? Go through the centuries in a great gallery collection and ask, “How confident and at ease in the world is this person?”

As women become more liberated in the twentieth century do they glow with inner confidence?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Or is that body language too thrustingly assertive, over-confident?

Do the iconic images of modern men show us enlightened beings dancing with ecstasy? No, they are holding guns or leading an army. Elvis. Lenin.

eight-elvises-eight-1963-andy-warhollenin-by-garasimov

This might be more sublime, but it is an oddly inflexible and static form of flying:

angel_of_the_north_2-10-14

This, from Matisse, might be the nearest thing to an ecstatic dance, but you cannot see the faces.

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The only place where I can find images of human faces which can compare with the Greek dancing satyr’s for confidence is in East Asia:

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These are the faces of people who know that they are in the right world, and accept it as it is, with gratitude. They are perfectly adjusted to their reality and have no fear.

dscn0459 sakyamuni-shanghai-mus

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The Angel’s Wound

ajuba

I’m in Kew Gardens where there seems to be a temporary sculpture exhibition amongst the barberry shrubs, under full-leaved summer trees. I pick up a leaflet: Emily Young, sculptress, descended from the singing pirate, Admiral Sir George Young, and the widow of Captain Scott of the Antarctic, has made this Spangle Stone Fool Boy who looks at me with an idiot’s lack of reserve. I can make a relationship with this head. I know him, and he is easy with me.

My older son was difficult to read at breakfast, with a give-nothing shrug and so-so eyebrow. He’s no idiot. He learned refusal – it toughened him – during the Rejection, twenty five years ago. His mother left him, and rejection came down to her through her mother, who talked to blot out listening, and her father, a non-singing pirate who ransacked Borneo’s rainforest. And it came to them from who knows how much further back, way back…

sculpture park –

fossilised snail shells

polished to a warrior’s head

 

I’m a product of the long English tradition of stony childhood.

 

tourists pass –

gold flecked onyx streams

from the angel’s wound

goldenonyxangel

I once read a Venetian traveller’s account of England he wrote in 1500. “The want of affection in the English is strongly manifested towards their children; for having kept them at home till they arrive at the age of seven or nine years at the utmost, they put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of other people…” The astonished Venetian relates that the children, “never return, for the girls are settled by their patrons, and the boys make the best marriages they can, and, assisted by their patrons, not by their fathers, they strive diligently to make some fortune for themselves.” As my favourite cockney mystic put it, three centuries later:

The Angel that presided o’er my birth

Said, “Little creature, form’d of Joy and Mirth,

Go love without the help of any Thing on Earth.”

I took on history and reversed the culture. I loved my babies, changed nappies, sang them to sleep, and hugged them.

But you don’t buck the dread English family that easily. To love your children won’t be enough. No no no no. You also need to create a sweet understanding with the mother. Out of nothing, make joy, like a vaudeville conjurer pulling a spreading rosebush from his dusty sleeve. So the boys got rejected anyway. She abandoned her infants.

four thousand million years

of yellow quartzite deposits

roughly shape a woman

My younger son and I now understand one another, nevertheless, more or less. We swap guarded exchanges over the crossword, and coded commentary on football and cricket.

peering from thick foliage

a Pleistocene rock

with a gleaming eye

The shrewd Italian writes that, “Although their dispositions are somewhat licentious, I never have noticed anyone, either at court or amongst the lower orders, to be in love; whence one must necessarily conclude either that the English are the most  discreet lovers in the world or that they are incapable of love.”

moonlight caresses

the black surface

of the marble girl

I don’t regret that I was never indiscreet. If you’re English, you should know, without all that. I feel admiration for ex-lovers and I delight in other women friends too, I do, really, and I will, unless, and until

marble man, still shrub –

in the heart of one of them

a squeaking wren

 

emilyyoung

Note: Passages in quotation are from A Relation of the Island of England c.1500, published in The Portable Renaissance Reader ed. Ross and McLaughlin, Penguin.

Facing the criminal Self

Murderers are the extreme example of people who are carried away to catastrophe by the rigidity of their false world-view. They are in ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ long before they are put behind prison bars. As the very first verse of the Dhammapada puts it, “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it” (in the translation of Eknath Easwaran).

The many years of a Life sentence can be very constructive ones for those who suffered a hectic, tormented, frightened childhood and youth and have never had the time and sobriety to get a perspective on their behaviour.

I met Karl in Kingston Prison, ten years into his Life sentence. He was short, with a battle-scarred face and tattoos. He had a poor level of literacy and very little education, but was throwing himself into learning. I quote below from a little book he wrote with me in my capacity as writer-in-residence at the prison (Hand on the Glass by Karl, Waning Moon Press, 1999, available from me).

“Fear seizes the body with shivering. You read about the techniques in reports of torture.” Karl is the child of a sadistic mother. “I was stripped naked, thrown in the corner, slapped and shouted at, slapped again and again, the slaps accompanied by continuous screaming, anger and spitefulness pouring down on me. She was ill. She was devious to the point of insanity. You could see the hatred in her smile, her posture, her eyes. She’d steal my sweets and smile at me. I got sneaky and told lies like her. It turned me into an arsehole like her. The hatred is vivid for ever.”

Karl went to Borstal, and what he had learned from his mother set the pattern for how to cope. “I knew that the weak are vulnerable. I wasn’t going to let anyone take advantage. I was frightened, and the only way I knew to be safe and gain respect was by aggression. I weigh a man up: if he’s going to stand up I’ll have to dive straight in, very hard, and use extreme violence. If threats will do, I’ll manipulate him through threats. When Officers want to hear “Yes,” I’ll say, “Yes.””

As a young adult he was a hot-wired volatile mix of hatred, fear, heroin, alcohol, pills, greed and violence. He was extremely dangerous, I have no doubt, and as criminal as can be. He would be your worst nightmare, standing at the bar at lunchtime in a Brighton pub, smiling. He describes his companions: “The people I was knocking about with were not decent rational people. We’d pull stokes on others all the time. A criminal isn’t just someone who steals or breaks the law. He started at the age of 5 or 6. He’s been through approved school, Borstal, DCs and all the time he’s picking up new ways of intimidating and manipulating people. The criminal will always tell you what you want to hear. I’m lying – I don’t know why yet, but I’m doing an oil painting of myself, and I’m hoping to take you with it. Knowing I’m a failure, to keep people at bay, the easiest thing is to be aggressive.”

Heroin was the best solace. “I was depressed, tense, angry when I had my first mainline given by a friend and the effect was immediate. My inner feeling was serene, for the first time in my life, and it became my favourite drug instantly. It cut me off from my feelings, all those bad feelings, a lifetime of humiliation, bitterness and aggression. Then I was sick. Whoosh. That was a problem, but then I got another lift, even higher.”

The second of my four daily Buddhist vows is, “The afflicting passions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them all.” Karl and his like struggle to overcome the suffering of being endlessly assailed by the afflicting passions, using the onefold path of intoxication. I am told that Jung wrote a letter to the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous saying that he had always thought that the craving for alcohol and drugs was a desire for God or a religious “spirit.” I worked with criminal teenagers at one time and got them writing poems about LSD. Darrell wrote, “The normal world is shit. / When you’re tripping / the sea is a living thing, / the sea-breeze is a voice… You’re aware, / every little thing seems more alive. / Nature is more beautiful when you’re tripping.”

Tastes of serenity, awareness and beauty in the bleakest of “shit” lives: drugs are the poor man’s transcendence (many of the rich like them too).

Karl was arrested for murder. “If you’ve always received smacks, dished out smacks, never thought, got away with it, surviving day to day, not caring, no outlook, no character, you’re a disaster waiting to happen. It’s a terrible shame for his [the victim’s] family that it has taken his death for me to see what an arsehole I’ve been,” he reflects.

He describes his attitude when he got to prison: “Create an incident and run. I’m scared of myself. I might get violent and do something again. I don’t want to be alive. I’m running. I don’t talk to anyone except for necessary drug deals. Stay away, keep clear of me – I’m angry.”

Again he analyses it: “Somebody comes up and strikes up a conversation and I cut them off, give a short answer. I have no trust, wary, suspicious. I’m the one who is going to take advantage of you, I’m projecting my thoughts into you: you can’t be trusted. My mother took advantage, so I expect everybody to. Friends are a no-no. It’s lonely, very lonely, a loneliness you come to like. I’d go in arrogant and demanding, to create a bit of fear, or, with a dangerous man, go in subtle, drop my body-language, keep eye-contact to create a bit of trust, then I’m off with whatever I can get. You can’t build friendship with people you’ve took advantage of.”

Four years into his sentence Karl applied for group therapy. “It’s hard to let go. It’s tense in my chest and arms. When I begin to open up it’s scary. I have to let the barriers down. I feel weaker, I feel I’ve got nothing. Instead of being domineering I just back off and don’t try to control. I have to listen to your opinions though it doesn’t feel right. Sitting there through my discomfort I learned to listen and understand. I used to just walk off ranting and raving with my own opinion in my head, but now I walk off with a sense of achievement – what’s achieved is you’re listening to me! It feels good. Puts a bounce in my stride.”

He heard that others had suffered like he had. “I’m not the only one!” He heard people tell how they had changed. And he felt the change: “When I first went I was hostile. I didn’t care. People told me I was an arsehole. But I let slip my birthday, and they surprised me, gave me presents, and I cried. You’ve got to give. Give to others. It’s what opens everything else for you. Put yourself out. It’s done so much for me.”

Hugh Collins, notorious Glasgow gangster and murderer, wrote an account of his transformation in the therapeutic community which was the Special Unit at Barlinnie Prison (Hard Man, in Granta 46, 1994). He was severely disoriented when he first arrived because nothing fitted his world-view. The toughest criminals were being friendly with the screws, the enemy, “joking and laughing and talking as if they were normal people.” Jimmy Boyle, the most famous of Scotland’s dangerous men, was the “undeniable leader” in the Unit. He came to Hugh Collins on his second day and said, “You’re fucked up. You don’t think you are, but you’re completely fucked up. So was I when I arrived here. It took me six months to recover.”

Collins took a cocktail of drugs and his rage exploded. He demanded a transfer back to a normal prison and threatened staff. He was ‘hotseated’ in a community meeting. “The meeting’s resolution was not to mete out punishment, but to develop ways of supporting me through my difficulties. What the fuck was going on?”

The man who had never in his life received sympathetic treatment, hated it. He drank a bottle of whisky and attacked Jimmy Boyle. “I was put in a cell so I could sober up in peace. I didn’t understand.” He was bewildered by the lack of a violent response. He always expected to be hit back, especially by the prison system, and he wanted it to be that way, fitting in with his image of how things operate. Next morning Jimmy Boyle came to see him and said, “You have to understand how really fucked up you are,” and suggested he write out all his emotions. “Try to find out who you are and what has made you this way.”

That question, ‘Who am I?’ familiar to all of us in the Buddhist community, is what proved to be the key for Hugh Collins. He realised, examining it, that he had dedicated his whole life to a fantasy image of his father as the hard-man master criminal. He had hardly known his father, of course, during childhood, because the old man had always been in prison, but he had absorbed the legends of derring-do and the sense of awe felt by weaker people in the presence of the brute.

Collins in his twenties: “I knew what it was like to take someone’s life. I was a very powerful man, and I was powerful because I was dangerous, and I was dangerous because I was prepared to be, and everyone knew I was fully capable of being so very, very violent. I had become my father… Or perhaps I had become nothing more than what I thought my father was.” Collins recalled that he got to see more of his father at that time and had to keep rescuing him from scrapes. “For the first time, I saw him for what he was. My father was not a hard man. The hard man was a lie. Robin Hood? He was a drunk, poncing money from a burnt-out prostitute half his age. He was not someone I wanted to be. What I wanted to be had been a lie. It didn’t exist.

“But just look at what the lie had created.”

I have been trying to avoid the word “awakening” for the turnaround in understanding that eventually dawned on Karl and on Hugh Collins. Of course, it is not enlightenment. But it has the structural characteristics we find in enlightenment literature. It involves destroying and discarding an entire world-view and set of false values, values which are deeply rooted as the main prop of the sense of identity. It involves a recognition of ‘Who am I?’ and a sloughing off of the false identity. It involves a breakthrough to seeing things more nearly as they really are, and accepting them without needing to hammer them into another shape to make them fit the world-view. It involves feeling a renewed rewarding reciprocity with other human beings. It brings joy.

The Dhammapada continues, in verse three, “ ‘He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me’ – those who dwell on such thoughts will never be free from hatred.” And verse five explains how to break the cycle. “For hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law.”

I am sure many gangsters and violent brutes never receive a surprise birthday present, or loving attention in the form of, “You’re fucked up.” It is an unalterable law that they must receive some love to change. They must be in a state of readiness too. Karl writes, “I was not seeing people. I was blind. It happened a few times that someone was genuinely concerned about me, but I mistrusted it. I didn’t let anybody in.”

Many gangsters and brutes may not have the intelligence and strength of character to face up to themselves, accept how wrong they have been, and determine to change. I see them in prison and amongst young offenders: men and boys who have intimations of the right Way, but will backslide weakly, put off the necessary work by running to alcohol and drugs, and cave in to peer group braggadocio. They are not going to loosen up, admit cracks in their rigid systems of thought, or climb out of the carapace of identity they have forged for themselves and their kin.

Those who do change, as Hugh Collins and Karl have done, show remarkable and impressive human qualities, the finest of all human qualities, shadowing the path to enlightenment. The great adventure of being human fetches up here. Unfortunately, it also seems to be an unalterable law that such understanding costs a fortune in suffering. “It’s a terrible shame for his family that it’s taken his death for me to see what an arsehole I’ve been,” writes Karl. Yes. The martyrs to thugs like Hugh Collins, and the unreformed political criminals on the left and right to whom ideologies were more real than people, who became what they thought, are legion.

Beheading the Tigers

In five months the Sri Lankan government crushed the secessionist rebellion of the Tamil Tigers after years of civil war and terrorism. The Tigers had invented suicide bombing, had taken control of the North of the country, set up their own military, police, laws, government, and taxes. It had been a running sore for twenty five years marked by extreme violence.

LTTE_leaders_at_Sirumalai_camp

The Tamil Leadership

The crushing involved heavy bombing and a military sweep kettling all the Tiger-controlled population of the North into smaller and smaller areas until the last tens of thousands were all crowded on one beach at the mercy of the victorious army. United Nations personnel had been expelled and media kept away. Areas the government designated No Fire Zones and Safe Zones at the prompting of the UN and Red Cross were heavily bombed. Hospitals seem to have been targeted (the Red Cross gives the GPS co-ordinates of hospitals to attackers so that they can be avoided).

At the final victory the leaders of the Tamil Tigers were assassinated, although they surrendered. The leader’s twelve year old son was shot. Women were raped and murdered. Prisoners were summarily executed. There were many war crimes (targeting civilians, shelling Safe Zones, rape, the execution of prisoners).

This raises difficult questions for me because the crimes are terrible but I can see the ruthless and necessary logic of some of them. You do not want, after a long civil war characterised by horrible violence and endless terrorist attacks from the Tigers, a messy inconclusive outcome. If they are not going to negotiate an agreement on a federation with degrees of autonomy, one that ends the conflict, and you have decided that you must crush them, then, if you are the responsible power, you must make a clean sweep. You do not want the end to be left in the hands of civil rights lawyers, with violent leaders grandstanding in courtrooms. It would be dangerous to leave martyrs incarcerated, organising mayhem from their cells, and waiting for rescue so that they can rise again. Kill the leadership. End it. If it is a dynastic leadership, kill the heir. The hopes of revival have to be crushed. Biafra has not come back again. The Albigensians and Cathars are finished. The Confederates are not going to secede any more.

Nobody thinks it was a great injustice to get rid of Ceaucescu, Milosovic, Gaddafi or Osama Bin Laden when surrendering. Saddam Hussein was quickly tried and hanged. Violent, rabble-rousing mischief-making political leaders live by the sword, perish by it, and good riddance. We cannot write this into international law, but the vast amount of harm they can do makes these leaders an exception to the usual rights of defendants. It may be necessary to ruthlessly eliminate them, all trace of them, and leave no shrine, no relics, no successor. But how far should our ruthless exceptions extend?

The exceptions should be exceptional and should not ever be stretched to executing common soldier-prisoners, or shelling civilians in designated Safe Zones and hospitals. The rape-murder of captured women is monstrous criminality. The exceptions are limited to the leader and the leader alone, in my view, and will have to be covered up, as far as possible, with lies about accidents and regret. A sacrificial scapegoat will be required. An old general or Prime Minister will have to be sacked, or even prosecuted. Otherwise you completely undermine all the legal principles of the Geneva convention; the moral high ground has gone; your right to castigate violent dictators has gone.

I understand the Sri Lankans beheading the Tamil leadership. But they should indeed be condemned for taking the same brutal path with civilians and common soldiers.

Justifying the exceptions will take hypocrisy, moral fudge and weasel words. It is nasty work. It is a crime, a necessary crime, and will have to be redeemed by magnanimity to the defeated, compensation, lots of investment, and careful, generous nation-building.

“Like a fish hidden in a spring:” How Daoist is Zen?

Laozi at the Western gate with Yin Xi 001

 

zen had two parents, buddhism and daoism. buddhism gave it the theoretical foundation. daoism gave it a paradoxical chinese character, the subtle attitude of Laozi.

“Like a fish hidden in a spring:” The Dao De Jing*of Laozi and its influence on Chan

*(We should all be using the pinyin system of transliteration now, so, though the Dao De Jing is better known in English speaking countries as the Tao Te Ching and Laozi is better known as Lao Tsu, I shall spell in pinyin, though translations will be quoted accurately as originally spelled).

Daoist ideas permeated all aspects of Chinese life before Buddhism arrived in China: philosophy, science, medicine, arts, physical fitness, cooking, agriculture and governance were all seen in terms of Daoist principles of constant change, the balance of yin and yang, and flow. When Buddhism arrived in China in the first century BCE, it was interpreted in the light of Laozi’s Dao De Jing.

The sutras of the Buddha’s teachings are much studied and much admired in Chan, but let me also make a case for marvelling at the teachings of Laozi, which give Chan its distinctively playful style, quite different from the language of the Pali canon which can be dry and repetitive, as Hugh Carroll says. Laozi lived in China at more or less the same period as the Buddha lived in India, and each of them had vivid experience of the mystical vision. The Buddha was a brilliant intellectual and theorised his insight. Laozi was anti-intellectual and only reluctantly put his wisdom into words; words which were enigmatic and allusive. There is a much-illustrated story that he was leaving China through one of the Western gates and the gate-keeper, Yin Xi, refused to let him go until he had written down his wisdom for the Chinese to keep. The two of them are shown above. Laozi wrote the eighty one short chapters of the Dao De Jing, now the most translated book in the world.

The Dao 

Laozi describes the Dao in Chapter 34:

The great Tao flows everywhere, both to the left and to the right.

The ten thousand things depend upon it; it holds nothing back.

It fulfils its purpose silently and makes no claim.

[Quotation from the Feng and English translation]

The Dao is nature’s flow. The word means ‘way,’ or ‘path,’ or ‘guidance,’ and seems to be used for the way of nature, the way nature is, and also the source of nature’s creativity. More prosaically it is just the way things are and the way they function. There is a way to fry a small fish, for example, and you’ll make a mess of it if you don’t have some care. Laozi scales this up.

Govern big countries

Like you cook little fish [Chapter 60, Addiss and Lombardo] 

It is ultimately a mystery. The universe is there, life teems, everything changes – what is the mysterious way it works?

It is like the mother of all under heaven,

                        But I don’t know its name –

                                    Better call it Tao.

                                    Better call it great. [Chapter 25] 

Laozi is careful not to define it as a philosopher would. He says that it cannot be known, and that the word Dao does not capture it. The closest he can get is a tautology:

Tao follows what is natural. 

‘What is natural’ is the Chinese word for nature, ziran, which David Hinton tells us is made of symbols meaning ‘self-generating’ or, more vividly, since the ideogram for fire is part of it, ‘self-ablaze.’ 

The Dao is the underlying self-generating order of the universe and the original creative source of all things. This Chinese view is an energetic, unified, harmonious, temperate, continuously changing vision of nature (unlike the angry thunder and lightning gods of the Greeks or the merciless sun gods of the Middle East); and Laozi goes on to say that our attitude should be to follow its lead, to accept it as it is, to harmonise with it, and not to try and control or dominate nature.

The universe is sacred.

You cannot improve it.

If you try to change it, you will ruin it.

If you try to hold it, you will lose it. [Chapter 29]. 

And his images for the way to harmonise with nature start with water:

                        Best to be like water,

Which benefits the ten thousand things

And does not contend.

It pools where humans disdain to dwell,

Close to the Dao…

Only do not contend,

And you will not go wrong.

[Chapter 8 in the Addiss and Lombardo translation] 

In Chapter 28 Laozi commends feminine and childlike qualities:

…keep a woman’s care!

                        Be the stream of the universe!

Being the stream of the universe,

Ever true and unswerving,

Become as a little child once more. [Feng and English translation] 

The Dao will nourish one and have a good curative effect if one respects its subtle workings.

Tao is empty ­­–

                                    Its use never exhausted .

Bottomless

The origin of all things.

                        It blunts sharp edges,

                                    Unties knots,

                                    Softens glare,

                                    Becomes one with the dusty world. [Chapter 4, Addiss and Lombardo] 

Adam, a member of the Portsmouth Chan group, explained this perfectly: “The practice of meditation has blunted my sharp edges, untied my knots and softened my glare,” he said.

Everything changes. Language tries to subdivide the flow and freeze the movement. Laozi is sceptical, wary of naming the parts. He contrasts the Dao with things that can be defined by naming, in the very first words of Chapter 1:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named is not the eternal name. [Feng and English]

And he goes on to elaborate an argument that associates the naming of things with a separation from the source, a distancing from reality’s mobile suchness. Naming, and all the labelling and discriminating that language use implies, is a kind of possessiveness, a control mechanism, leading to the human desire to own, to cling (a theme that exactly matches the Buddha’s insights, and the Buddha’s emphasis on how things are perceived or misperceived):

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.

The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.

Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.

But he avoids making this contrast into a great universal dualism:

These two spring from the same source but differ in name…

                        The gate to all mystery. 

There is a health warning with the Dao. Laozi seems to write of it as an ultimately unknowable ineffable mystery. Or does he? Perhaps he is making the more limited point, not that it is ineffable, but that language cannot capture it. He is laconic, and sometimes obscure in writing about it. But he implicitly gives it some attributes: integrity, wisdom and healing power. Is it an active agent in the world?

Tao hides, no name.

            Yet Tao alone gets things done. [Chapter 41 Addiss and Lombardo] 

Is it nearly a god? At one point he tells us,

The Tao begot one.

One begot two.

Two begot three.

And three begot the ten thousand things.[Chapter 42] 

but never says any more about this, and changes the subject immediately:

                        What others teach, I also teach; that is:

“A violent man will die a violent death!”

This will be the essence of my teaching.[Chapter 42] 

so it is difficult to see what he means by one, two, three and the ten thousand things. It is wide open to wild interpretations. Some have founded a religion on this and worshipped the Dao. There are superstitious Daoist cults in China today. Some have seen it as a philosophical origin myth like Plato’s Timaeus, with a Creator, a Demiurge, and junior gods. But judging by all the rest of the Dao De Jing, most interpreters see it as another way of saying that the Dao is a word pointing to the phenomenon of self-generating growth and change in all things: the ten thousand things are manifestations of nature’s way, arising mysteriously out of what a mystic perceives as a unity. Laozi specifically cautions against worshipping it.

The Chan teachers of the Golden Age of Zen, a thousand years after Laozi, often use the word Dao for the spiritual path or the way of practicing. They use other terms for the indefinable mystery at the core of things and absolutely refuse to turn it into an idea by defining it. Bodhidharma uses ‘mind’ (“This mind has no form or characteristics, no cause or effect, no tendons or bones. It’s like space”). Huineng uses ‘Essence of Mind’ (“Our Essence of Mind is intrinsically pure; all things are only its manifestations”). Huang Po, Linji’s teacher, uses ‘One Mind’ (“All the buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but One Mind, beside which nothing exists. This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible.”)  Linji warns against naming, “…the mind ground. If you can get it, use it, without putting any more labels on it”. He also, like Laozi, warns against treating it as sacred. Many of the protagonists of the koans collected by Hongzhi and Mumon use the term ‘Buddha nature,’ as in the famous first koan in The Gateless Gate, “Does a dog have  Buddha nature or not?”  The answer “No,” is the health warning: do not interpret the Dao or the Buddha nature as an idea, as something sacred, or as anything distinguishable from all that is in nature.

The greatest Chan teachers sound very like followers of Laozi when attempting to articulate a response to the mystery of ziran: “If you try to grasp Zen in movement, it goes into stillness. If you try to grasp Zen in stillness, it goes into movement. It is like a fish hidden in a spring, drumming up waves and dancing independently.” (Linji)  It is impossible to say anything at all more than the tautology of Laozi: it is a mystery; nature is nature. “There is something in the world that is neither in the sphere of the ordinary nor in the sphere of the holy. It is neither in the realm of the false nor in the realm of the true.” (Wuzu)

Chan literature, following in the wake of the Prajna Paramita sutras, is philosophically sceptical about what can be known, or proved, in logic: there is nothing that can be asserted about the mysterious reality of nature. You cannot characterise it or list its attributes. The Chan adepts are more muted and cautious than Laozi when writing about what he called the Dao, and they call Mind or Buddha nature, but they have not jettisoned the Dao. 

The Ethics of the Dao de Jing

Laozi is sceptical about those who trust words for fixing the ten thousand things in their place. Equally, he is sceptical about theory; he distrusts scholars and intellectuals. And he is very sceptical about public preachers and political moralisers:

                        When the great Tao is forgotten,

Kindness and morality arise.

When wisdom and intelligence are born,

The great pretence begins. [Chapter 18]

Laozi’s jaundiced view of most moralising reveals a much more nuanced sensitivity to the complexities of moral behaviour than, “Do not steal.” He tells us not to collect treasure and stealing will cease. Not to glorify heroes and people won’t be so quick to fight.  It is a morality grounded in a feeling for what is natural, and not too clever (he does not trust cleverness), and a deep distrust of claims to virtue, of spiritual pride. Things have gone wrong if you need to point out the virtues, thinks Laozi. More than that, he sees that rule-bound morality and categorising actions into good and bad may do more to exacerbate problems than to solve them. In Chapter 38 he writes that benevolence is the next best thing if Dao is lost, but that after that there is a decline into righteousness and once that is lost there is only propriety.

Chan master Dahui later wrote in similar style, “Good and bad come from your own mind… When your mind is clean and clear, all entanglements cease… Both substance and function are in their natural state… your own mind’s marvellous function of change and creation… enters into both purity and defilement without being affected by or attached to either.” This is a morality that tiptoes through the world, accepting nature’s way, not trying to control anything and suspicious of category labels such as bad and good. It sees the system, with multiple causes and conditions, all interrelated. It is very different from the rule-bound ethics, proscribing a wide range of human behaviours, that came out of Indian monasticism, or, for that matter, the rule-bound commandments of Christianity, marinated in punitive notions of sin and evil. In ethics, the Chinese Chan teachers like Dahui follow Laozi more naturally than they follow Indian Buddhist monastic rules.

Wu wei and the De of the Sage 

            For people to harmonise with the flow of nature and act with authentic good feeling they must not strive too hard, or try to wrest control with energetic power. The ideal is wu wei, effortless action that goes with the flow, “nothing acting,” and it is another of the great themes of the Dao De Jing.

Non-doing – and nothing not done…

Make the least effort

And the world escapes you. [Chapter 48, Addiss and Lombardo] 

Act and you ruin it.

Grasp and you lose it. [Chapter 64]

Simon Child teaches that, “Enlightenment is being out of the way.” Wu Wei is being out of the way, in the sense of not making the least effort to force the result, not acting with an ulterior purpose, an agenda, not grasping.

For Laozi, ‘the Sage’ is a major literary theme, as it is centuries later in the writings of the Chan masters of the Golden Age of Zen. The characteristic way of being of the enlightened person is described: Laozi tells us in the beginning, in Chapter 2, that,

…the Sage is devoted to non-action…

Lives but does not own,

Acts but does not presume,

Accomplishes without taking credit. [Addiss and Lombardo] 

The Buddha made the same point: ‘My practice,’ the Buddha said, ‘is the nonpractice, the attainment of nonattainment.’

            In the far East, Laozi himself has always been recognised as the archetypal Sage, the model of the enlightened man.

I take no action and people are reformed.

I enjoy peace and people become honest. [Chapter 57, Feng and English] 

…the Sage is sharp but not cutting,

Pointed but not piercing,

Straightforward but not unrestrained,

Brilliant but not blinding.[Chapter 58] 

‘The Sage’ is a Daoist subject which the early Chan literature dwells on at length. All the writers give accounts of how enlightenment transforms a person, and use fulsome imagery for the great skills of the sage. “Zen adepts just remain free, and are imperceptible to anyone… They walk on the bottom of the deepest ocean, uncontaminated, with free minds…” writes Yuanwu. In a beautiful passage, Hongzhi writes, “The worldly life of people who have mastered Zen is buoyant and unbridled, like clouds making rain, like the moon in a stream, like an orchid in a recondite spot, like spring in living beings. Their action is not self-conscious, yet their responses have order.” ‘Action that is not self-conscious’ would be a perfect definition of wu wei. Hongzhi is heir to Laozi and Dogen is heir to Hongzhi. Dogen studied with Hongzhi’s  successors at Hongzhi’s Tiantong monastery.

Dao De Jing means the classic of Dao and of De (Te, in the Wade-Giles transliteration). “De” is the Dao as a guide to action; how to respect the subtlety of the way things are and harness the integrity, the wholeness, of Dao. De is “virtue” in the sense of a quality, and also somewhat in the Greek sense of power or inner energy. It is acting like a sage, guided by Dao, wu wei style, without presuming, without desire, without a personal stake in the game. The model is a good parent:

Tao bears them and Te nurses them…

Bears them without owning them

Helps them without coddling them,

Rears them without ruling them.

This is called original Te. [Chapter 51, Addiss and Lombardo]           

In Chapter 49 Laozi says,

People who are not good

                                    I also treat well:

                                                Te as goodness. 

            Untrustworthy people             

                                    I also trust:

                                                Te as trust. [Addiss and Lombardo] 

In Chapter 68 he outlines the “Te of not contending:”

The accomplished person is not aggressive.

The good soldier is not hot-tempered.

The best conqueror does not engage the enemy.

The most effective leader takes the lowest place.

This is all of a piece with Laozi’s way of appreciating the power of water to wear down stone, the strong grip of a baby, the usefulness of the empty space in a bowl, the effectiveness of feminine qualities. Go with the grain. Respect the nature of things. There is a way to clean and fry a small fish without charging like a bull at a gate. And don’t be clever:

Ruling through cleverness

                        Leads to rebellion.[Chapter 65].

The Daoist inheritance in Chan Buddhism

The teachers who founded Chan, from Bodhidharma in the fifth century to Hongzhi in the twelfth century, took from the traditions of both sages, Laozi and Sakyamuni Buddha, and from Mahayana philosophers of the first and second century, to blend a Daoist Buddhism. The theorising and moralising of early Indian Buddhism were dropped. Meditation, as an individual’s inner path, or Dao, to discover truth for him or herself, became the central and only practice. ‘Mind’, or ‘Essence of Mind’, or ‘Buddhanature’ was the focus of their writings, as ‘Dao’ had been the focus of the Dao De Jing. Chan masters express hardly any interest in mainstream Buddhist ideas like suffering, rebirth, karma, meritorious deeds, ritual, scriptural knowledge and fussy ethical rules. Impermanence, on the other hand, which had always been at the heart of the Daoist account of nature, a continuous flow of changes seen in terms of yin and yang qualities in a dance of sixty four hexagrams symbolising decay and regeneration, was a strong theme in Chan. “The murderous demon of impermanence is instantaneous,” wrote Linji. “It does not choose between the upper and lower classes, or between the old and the young.”

The Buddha’s teaching of anatta, no permanent self, now deepened and extended by the Mahayana debates on sunyatta, the emptying of self, and the absence of self-essence, was at the very centre of the Chan vision. Bodhidharma’s, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy!” set the  tone for China.

Chan is a distillation of Buddhist theory into practice and paradox. Philosophical Indian Buddhism gave Daoism a much firmer foundation in a theory of perception and a theory of conditioned causation. From that solid base, Chan could afford to indulge the subtle watery spirit of the Dao. Laozi’s Daoism had several features which were retained in Chan. And as we have seen, there are Chan themes that were present in different proportions in both the Buddha’s and Laozi’s teachings.

The stripping out of inherited conditioning in order to clear the mind is a great theme of the Buddha’s teaching. “Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements,” he said. How to drop the defilements clouding the mind remained absolutely central to Chan teachings of the Tang dynasty. But Laozi also touched on this aspect of mind.  The Dao De Jing tells us in Chapter 33 that:

Knowing others is intelligent.

Knowing yourself is enlightened.

and in Chapter 48 that wu wei is the process:

Pursue knowledge, gain daily.

Pursue Tao, lose daily.

Lose and again lose,

Arrive at non-doing.

Non-doing – and nothing not done 

Letting go. Unlearning. Losing. These were Daoist themes but the Dao De Jing did not spell out what one must unlearn. In the Buddha’s teaching it was explicit: conditioned responses of attraction and aversion; all judgements and conditioned ideas. Clearing the mind is the topic that dominates the writings of the Tang and Song dynasty Chan masters. They develop what are only hints in the Dao De Jing, but much more substantial analysis in the Pali Buddhist sutras, into the core of their teaching. One or two quotations from any number will be sufficient to make the point, starting with Seng Tsan’s, “Simply avoid picking and choosing,” through Huang Po’s, “If you students of the Way desire knowledge of this great mystery, only avoid attachment to any single thing beyond Mind,” and coming to Yuanwu’s, “Shed views and interpretations that are based on concepts such as victory and defeat, self and others, right and wrong. Thus you pass through all that and reach a realm of great rest and tranquillity.”

Hui Neng was the founding father who preached it: “The mind should be framed in such a way that it will be independent of external or internal objects, at liberty to come or go, free from attachment and thoroughly enlightened without the least beclouding.” He summed up: “…so far as we get rid of all delusive ‘idea’ there will be nothing but purity in our nature.”

Conclusion

Chinese Daoist anti-philosophy was the mother of Chan; Indian Buddhist philosophy was its father. The child of these two inevitably has a sense of subtlety, a sense of humour and a sense of paradox. Chan is a Daoist form of Buddhism with Chinese characteristics. The Dao De Jing is more mystical, mysterious, poetic and enigmatic than the Pali sutras. It is a foundation text for my Zen.

 

Translations:

Tao Te Ching trans. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, London, Wildwood House, first published 1973.

Tao Te Ching trans. Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo, Boston, Shambhala, first published 1993.

The Lyricist

Stephen Sondheim tells us in Finishing the Hat that there are three rules and three sins in writing lyrics.

The Rules:

  1. Content dictates form.
  2. Less is more.
  3. God is in the details.

Sondheim

The Sins:

  1. Verbosity.
  2. Redundant adjectival padding.
  3. Strained jokes.

Poetry is an art of concision, lyric an art of of expansion, he tells us. I think he must mean that poetry has to say it all, but the lyric can allow the music to expand a simple theme and give it colour and tone. And even profundity.

Sondheim writes

His lyrics are written for the theatre, of course, and often in comedy, so he lays a lot of emphasis upon the voice of the character. The lyric must be written in character, and in the dialect of the character. It can use the three sins above, but only if the character is verbose, or the character makes pathetically strained jokes, and then only sparingly, just enough to establish the character. He is proud of his Brooklyn rhymes: ‘stickler’ with ‘partic’ler’, and likes to take advantage of the idiosyncracies of his character’s language. This is what is meant by Rule Three, ‘God is in the detail.’ My own Mrs Bride lyric uses prisoners’ rhyming slang (bird-lime for time) for the refrain, and common prison slang for the last line:

“I breathe out….  I breathe in…. That’s how I do my bird.”

“Banged up in my cell I know I’m free.”

The Mrs Bride refrain is also an example of Rule One, ‘Content dictates form.’ The subject is meditation in prison. The musical setting can enact the meditative focus on the breath, the breathing in and breathing out, in real inhalation and exhalation time. So the line is simple, but the musical performance expands it into an experience, and the addition of, “That’s how I do my bird,” expands it again into a whole life strategy. Breath dictates the form of the song. “The lyric can be plain,” says Sondheim, “but soars when infused with music.” You breathe; it fills all time; it soars. ‘Less is more.’ Rule Two.

A poet speaks in her own voice, but song lyrics are best when dramatic, set in the middle of a relationship, and written in the voice of a character. In writing these lyrics for Nick I discovered that I liked dramatic situations with two or three characters. The best example of three characters is a song we wrote for Krystyna to sing, Mummy’s Bright Red Skirt:

Don’t you fret now little fellow

Mummy’s clubbing, having fun

She might be back tomorrow

And she’ll need her brave young son

You’ll be kind and let her sleep

Bring her tea when she swears

Give her cuddles, give her comfort

Do her broken-heart repairs

 

Take no notice when she rages

When she throws your toys about

You can take more than your daddy

When she blew your daddy out

You’ll help her next adventure

Help her zip her bright red skirt

You’ll fetch her silver snorting tube

She’ll giggle that you flirt

…and so on. There is a story here with three main characters (and a minor fourth, the absent father): the mother, the child, and the speaker, who must be a well-meaning friend, aunty or neighbour. The three-way relationship softens the painful subject of neglect, and contains it, because the characters are coping, and there is love between them. I’ll ask Nick to post the song for you.

Sondheim compares a lyric to a short story condensed down so that each line of the lyric has the weight of a paragraph. Less is more, make the most out of the least, otherwise the song diffuses.

He also says that lyrics demand perfect rhymes, and he is absolutely right about that. The sort of half-rhymes that look clever in a modern poem are no use at all in a song. The rhyme must be clear and must chime. Near-rhymes are never as good and weaken the effect. A poet can write for re-reading, for a reader who muses on each line, but a lyricist has to get the line to work on first hearing. Sondheim quotes Craig Carnelia: “True rhyming is a necessity in the theater, as a guide for the ear to know what it has just heard.”

I also like to keep to a strict rhythm, that perfectly matches the song line, but I know that many songs have more flexibility than that. A singer can stretch a single syllable into a line, or crowd excess words into a bar of music. Songs can have fluid line-lengths. But that is something a pop star can get away with that would not work in a song for a musical, which must hit its points crisply and match the dance. The effect is weakened if the structure is not perfectly made.

And, of course, songs must be singable. Nick has taught me that the final vowel of a line must be an open sound, and that rhymes are much better as masculine (single) open syllables than feminine (double) ones, especially ones ending in consonant clusters. Art is much better to sing than artists or artisanFeel is much better to sing than feelings.

George & co 063