Poet, editor and translator Sarabjeet Garcha, pens a beautiful essay that takes us to the depths of philosophy and poetry, colours and words mesh here in a vibrant symphony.
This is a photograph by Jane McArthur, a dear friend I’ve never met. Although she took it in August 2016, I saw it on her Facebook wall a few weeks ago. Her caption says, ‘Front gate at Suurbraak’. Wiki tells me it’s a village in the Overberg region in the Western Cape province of South Africa.
A couple of months ago, a poet friend returned my copy of Zorba the Greek, a novel that I first read twenty-one years ago and that got me hooked on Nikos Kazantzakis for good. I opened the book at random and started reading: ‘It is a great pleasure to enter a Cretan peasant’s home. Everything about you is patriarchal: the hearth, the oil-lamp, the earthenware jars lining the wall, a few chairs, a table and, on the left as you enter, in a hole in the wall, a pitcher of fresh water. From the beams hang strings of quinces, pomegranates and aromatic plants: sage, mint, red-peppers, rosemary and savory.’ Being the word wizard he was, Kazantzakis gives the adjective patriarchal a quaint beauty. The word becomes almost magical in the small, cosy world he paints.
The lines teleport me to the village house in Jane’s photograph. It doesn’t matter whether it belongs to a South African homesteader or a Cretan peasant. I stand barefoot on the three-quarters-underground drainage pipe in front of the barbed-wire fence gate, arch of foot nestling curve of pipe. Minutes ago, I wouldn’t have thought about the joys that shoelessness brings. The moss pattern on the wall opposite is testimony to the occupant’s desire to let plastered brickwork assimilate as much of green as the elements make possible. Perhaps that’s also the inhabitant’s ruse to allow time for the friendship between the tree and the house to flower. The space between the wall corner on the right and the tree bole near the gatepost reveals a forested hillslope. What’s beyond can only be imagined or dreamed.
Is the house empty? Maybe:
All winter I have come to this empty house
in mid-afternoon, to this quiet,
begging to be silenced by you.
I cook dinner at three,
blinding the windows with steam,
or bury myself in books
fighting the impulse to curl into a seed
dormant until your return.
This is Emily Warn in her ‘Dwelling’. The seed’s dormancy is not just that; it is also samādhi, knowers of which aver that no state of consciousness is more ecstatic than it. Legend has it that Bodhidharma, the South Indian monk who took Buddha’s Dharma to China, sat gazing at the rock wall of a cave near Shaolin Temple for nine years. He waited until he could return to his true nature: emptiness. Poets, too, wait like the most committed of monks. Sometimes, stray fragments that flash in the mind may take years to become a poem. But the years are not important. The flashes are. Emily Warn could be waiting as much for the return of a friend or a lover as for the appearance of the most pellucid lines for her poems. Poets, too, beg ‘to be silenced’. Chatter, even if their own, harms their art, which may begin within the confines of walls but yearns for the sky’s expanse.
While the thirst intensifies, dailyness is given its due glory (‘I cook dinner at three’). No action in a routine is smaller or greater than another. Awareness is the catalyst that transforms actions into miracles. Miracles do not happen; they simply exist. When sight is cleansed of all contamination, miracles become visible. When moments rinsed clean of the adverbs now and then (the latter pertaining to both the past and the future) scatter, zen appears. Like DNA, everybody’s zen is unique. In Bodhidharma’s words, ‘Seeing your nature is zen . . . Not thinking about anything is zen. Once you know this, walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, everything you do is zen.’
Even looking at a photograph and making everything in it your own is zen. Owning like this does not result in ownership, but in freedom, which is the distance from things and happenings that brings you closer to them in such a way that the fear of losing them dissolves. After all, loss is a fiction, because nothing is owned in the first place.
In my early twenties, I used to take long walks with a woman my age for whom my fondness knew no limits. That she was a second cousin didn’t make things easy. A friend who watched from a distance saw my predicament. He didn’t take long to offer some well-meant advice: ‘Suppose you see her a decade from now and say, “Do you remember those lovely walks?” What do you think she might say in response? Most likely, something along the lines of “Well, we can talk about it later. I have to cook dinner and help the kids with their homework.” Even if you think we don’t change, the world we live in does. People can’t remain unaffected, but there’s nothing to feel bad about.’ He made me foresee loss so that I could plaster the cracks that would have inevitably led to a damburst.
About two decades later, her parents invited me to see her. I was told she was coming home from abroad after five years. I didn’t, however, have the slightest doubt that she wouldn’t want to meet me. It was neither a hunch nor the consequence of what my friend had predicted. Just pure intuition. Relationships in the physical world end much later. Years earlier, they end in the mind, although we may—in fact, usually do—remain blissfully unaware of the dissolution. Keeping us oblivious to mishaps that lead to the truth is the mind’s trick to survive. The magician mind keeps expanding its kingdom of illusions, but it’s we who pay for every inch that is acquired—rather, thought to be acquired. Just as a virus is enclosed in a protein coat, the mind is encased in a rind of delusions. But whereas the virus sheds the shell to expose its genes and fool the host cell into replicating more of its kind, the mind multiplies its building blocks by thickening and fortifying its walls. Once the walls crumble, awakening begins. We have two choices: either smash them ourselves or let circumstances have their right of way. The first alternative is less painful.
In a conversation with Shariputra, the Buddha compares the world—rather, the three realms—to a burning house, which must be seen for what it really is in order to attain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi (unsurpassed, complete and perfect enlightenment). Anuttara (unsurpassed) is an interesting adjective. What’s the benchmark that must be surpassed? Rather, whose is the benchmark? It is unique for everybody. When you enter a territory you’ve never seen before, you know. This private knowledge is so sublime that it becomes false as soon as one attempts to articulate it. That is why the knowers only point towards it. They carry news of the place visited, but the place itself cannot be carried. You must be there yourself to know what it is. And to be there, you must first start the journey. Ultimately, every journey begins within, even if only to return to your own self. The house must be abandoned even if it’s not on fire.
Two women in linen shirts,
reedy and full of birds,
pick shore weeds and gossip.
A recluse stalks their laughter.
His hungers leave him.
This is why he came
down from the mountains
That’s Emily Warn again, thinking about abandon and attachment, and the little acts that can open the doorway to clarity. When renunciation becomes monotonous, the renunciate can return to the world, not to be deluded again but to impart a new strength to past resolutions. Whether from a mountain or a high-rise, descent can bring about as much delight as ascent. Gossip, too, can become an unfailing catalyst for profound silence. Although the poem from which the above lines are extracted is titled ‘In Chang Tao-Lin’s Time’, it looks like the last thing to become dated. What was true in those times is equally true today. It will remain true even tomorrow. When our hungers leave us, we see without bias.
The world does everything to make us believe that what is ours will transform us, but it’s the ultimate discovery that nothing is ours which leaves us transformed. In the Buddhist novice Manzei’s words,
shall I compare this life?
to the white wake
of a boat rowing away
at the break of dawn.
 The Leaf Path, poems by Emily Warn (Copper Canyon Press, 1982), p. 54.
 The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, translated and with an introduction by Red Pine (North Point Press, 1987), p. 29 & p. 49.
 The Leaf Path, p. 54.
 Translated by Robert E. Morrell, ‘Buddhist Influences on Vernacular Literature in Japanese’, Encyclopedia of Buddhism, ed. Robert E. Buswell, Jr. (Macmillan Reference USA, 2004), p. 397. Interestingly, each line of the verse began with an initial capital letter in Morrell’s Sand and Pebbles (Shasekishū): The Tales of Mujū Ichien, a Voice for Pluralism in Kamakura Buddhism (State University of New York Press, 1985), p. 162. Time does influence one’s choices in capitalisation, and much else.