Over the last while
the puddled ruts have filled
We gathered in Jane’s farmhouse at the top of a potholed track on the West Coast of Wales for a weekend of haiku and meditation:
Ken Jones, walker
Melissa Meeks, shepherd
Noragh Jones, spellbinder
George Marsh, cook
Stuart Quine, nurse
Jim Norton, poet
Kim Richardson, bookmaker
Martin Pitt, keeper
Jonathan Buckley, note-taker
What was left of Friday was given over to a simple dinner washed down with a glass of wine, cider or Perry that Kim had brought from the wilds of Hereford. Afterwards there was planning for the weekend and then preparation of porridge, left to cook overnight on the Aga. And so to bed!
Saturday morning dawned in drizzle. After a cold night under the covers, how does one eat one’s porridge and what does the choice of condiment tell you? At breakfast, after a 30-minute sit, some went for honey, others for sugar, and a strong case was made for marmalade. The slow-cooked porridge was ambrosia and required nothing more. Porridge … and then toast!
Noragh started the weekend’s study with a talk about haiku and its flowering in different national cultures. She quoted Eve Lockering’s belief that haiku arise out of a historical and cultural context; the haiku poet balances on the large boulder of Japanese cultural tradition while holding their own, smaller, cultural boulder above the head.
When did this all start? A first translation of haiku by Wayne Aston appeared in 1877 and another by Paddy O’Hearne in 1904. But it was the meeting of Blythe and Robert Aitken (Zen Roshi and author of Zen Wave) that provided a template for Western poets; a template ‘soaked in Japanese aesthetics’.
Out of a review of haiku in different countries came a discussion about translations and a greater awareness of cadence, rhythm and sometimes, rhyme. How important this is, and how often it is lost in translation, even ‘transcreation’. One haiku deemed an awkward abstraction in English, came alive when recited it in its native Breton.
George underpinned this impression with some academic hard core, noting that the Americans used Chinese poetry as the foundation of their own but diluted it by discarding the rhyme and rhythm structure.
There was general agreement that haiku is about expressing the ‘suchness’ of life in all its forms. Ken talked of ‘the uncluttered presentation of experience’. Wang Wei was cited for ’19 ways of looking at one way’, and there was also mention of ‘the repose of named things’ (Nagarjuna) and a Tibetan saying that, ‘to ride the horse of knowledge you need a good saddle’.
After Noragh, Kim was interested in explaining the relationship between haiku and mindfulness. He illustrated the challenge with the story of the ant and centipede who sit down for a smoke while out walking. The ant asks the centipede how he can walk so easily with so many legs. The centipede replies: ‘Easy, you just … you just … oh dear!’
Stuart suggested that attention and awareness were different to mindfulness which was ‘more slow motion’ and referential’. Jim cited Abi Dharma and holding attention to the object, inside or out, and made the distinction between mindfulness and awareness with a bit of personal experience: ‘So coming home after a few drinks I am very mindful about taking out the keys and putting them into the lock … but I am not aware that I am trying to get into the neighbour’s house!’
Kim shared a Sufi tradition where mindfulness means remembering that which we knew and unlearning that which we thought we knew. And there was mention of the importance of transparency and the need to be clear of the ‘background speediness’; of creative vacancy and listening … but not too hard. Was it after all about the stillness of the birdwatcher (and poet, RS Thomas) and the ‘emptiness that is able to hold and contain all’?
Please forgive the half-remembered quotes which are due to a poor memory and the quality of the scrawl. I rationalise this with the hope that some people remember lots and digest little, while others remember little but digest lots. Then again, the sangha also talked about reconstruction being the act of remembering and memory being a terrible entrapment; or as someone described it ‘memories with new legs’.
Speaking of legs, we pulled on our boots and windcheaters and went out into the world for a bit of fresh air and communion with nature.
The venerable ‘Captain Watkins’ co-ordinated a three car drop-off and pick-up plan that took the group from a small housing estate to a large private estate with an ex-mansion! Taken over during the war, the main building was burnt down by mistake and all that remains is a palatial, but abandoned, dovecote and the allés of trees and irrigation channels that confine the grazing sheep and cattle.
Our walk took us into a field with pedigree black cattle and an enormous bull, knee-deep in mud and snuffling green grass, right next to the path we were walking. Was this a Zen intimation of enlightenment? Two steps forward, a couple back, and then a debate. Where had all the morning’s testosterone gone? Eventually we passed and further on, Jim discovered a pink wild rose, flowering in the long grass.
Sturm, Drang and Karumi
On the table in our sitting room, a flat rock with a round one balanced on top: a haiku cultural reference? Not so. Ken was introducing a measured approach to our discussions and the round stone, the size of a cricket ball, was the conch that would bring order to our discussions. Weighing this carefully in our hands gave our pronouncements a softer more reflective character.
Ken shared two haibun that he had written; the one was a blood thirsty and didactic piece about man’s inhumanity to man, the other, seamed with a thread of black humour, dealt with the author’s experience of, and capacity to learn from, a terminal illness. The second had a sense of playfulness and concentrated on ‘show don’t tell’ that leaves space to experience without feeling pressurised by the writer. The haiku, drawn from another time and place but perfectly aligned to the main theme, provided a Greek chorus, or was it a Welsh choir. Karumi!
The haiku poet
takes his steaming cup
out into the mist
Was Shiki providing photographic snapshots of reality while Coleridge looked to fancy and imagination to reveal the divine source of things? How does language shape and create our world? Is there a difference between seeing and seeing as something? Jim posed the questions, riffed on the answers, and the whole sangha riffed with him.
Melissa talked of love versus desire in the context of imagination: ‘being faithful to the beloved object’. Stuart talked of ideas as a love affair with reality: ‘love does not make demands … not about getting it, but being got by it … no intention to write haiku … allow yourself to be caught and put your life on the line’.
Kim spoke of ‘opening little windows in this dream; let the dreams behind the dreams be awakened in our consciousness. And Ken cited Blake’s London and freedom from ‘the mind-forged manacles of the mind’. Do we sit in completeness … incompleteness?
They know effect and cause are one,
Not two, not three, the path runs straight,
With form that is no form,
Coming and going, never astray,
With thought that is no thought
Their song and dance are the voice of the law.
(Hakuin Zenji’s Song of Zazen)
The Cook and Chan Poetry
At some point in all of this Saturday came to an end with dinner around the table, cooked by George with love and finesse; qualities he also brought to reviewing haiku on the blu-tacked sheets to the dining room wall. Time and again, an overloaded haiku was rescued from capsize through the jettisoning of a superfluous word. And the meals were similarly light, simple and surprising.
In the midst of a hot stock
On Sunday, George gave a talk about Chan poetry. In the original language, verbs have no tenses or conjugation; verbs, nouns and adjectives can be interchanged; and there is no plural, singular or gender. In translation, the result is a very vivid and pictorial form; some might say random! Stuart described the translations as ‘poetic spells’.
Sunday’s excursion was to the seafront where the book shop was closed and the sea and sky wide open. Far down the beach a kite surfer tore along the breakers, leaping and then floating on the wind as he turned to tack back up the beach. The seagulls hung suspended on the edge of the gale while three large jelly fishes, each the size of a brain, and with a crucifix in the middle of their translucent domes, were settled on the wet sand.
We walked, we pottered, and we leant into the wind and then back out again. And then we returned to the house, armed with the telephone number for the local Balti takeaway, and ready for a final session before the last supper, bed and then departure in the morning. Yes my notes have now come to an end and with them this unreliable memoir. Gassho and Diolch yn fawr iawn to all!
Kim and I were up early on Monday morning and after a cup of coffee we set off in the dark, back to London.
From the rutted track
The bouncing headlights