Bob Schwartz

Dragon Poems (About a Plant)

Madagascar Dragon

The Dragon at the Wall

The dragon guards the wall
I sit before.
A fine pair we are.
I breathe in the oxygen
He breathes out.
He asks for water and light
I ask to learn to sit
As naturally as he does.

The Dragon Awakes

The dragon wakes up
When I open the blinds
Long green scales
Gracefully still
In the morning light.

These poems are about a plant. A dracaena marginata, which means “Madagascar dragon.” Whether or not it is a real dragon is a question.

In his Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Shobo Genzo), Dogen Zenji also writes about a dragon and a plant. Actually, a tree. Fascicle 65, Dragon Song, includes the question “Is there a dragon singing in a withered tree?” Is there?

Touzi, Great Master Ciji of Shu Region, was once asked by a monk, “Is there a dragon singing in a withered tree?”

Touzi replied, “I say there is a lion roaring in a skull.”

Discussions about a withered tree and dead ash [composure in stillness] are originally teachings outside the way. But the withered tree spoken of by those outside the way and that spoken of by buddha ancestors are far apart. Those outside the way talk about a withered tree, but they don’t authentically know it; how can they hear the dragon singing? They think that a withered tree is a dead tree which does not grow leaves in spring.

The withered tree spoken of by buddha ancestors is the understanding of the ocean drying up. The ocean drying up is the tree withering. The tree withering encounters spring. The immovability of the tree is its witheredness. The mountain trees, ocean trees, and sky trees right now are all withered trees. That which sprouts buds is a dragon singing in a withered tree. Those who embrace it one hundredfold, one thousand-fold, and one myriadfold are descendants of the withered tree.

Zen and Intellectualism: Sit Down and Dance

By inclination and training, I can do some pretty fancy intellectual dancing. There’s a lot of stuff I can understand and learn to understand, a lot of stuff I can talk about and write about in complex and sometimes coherent ways.

Yet I’ve cultivated a view that doesn’t exactly see all that as real, a view that puts every bit of that in perspective.

I was just reading a summary of the development of literary theory, from ancient times to modern. Structuralism. Formalism. Deconstruction. Poststructuralism. On and on. Like all of the sophisticated intellectual arts, this requires real work to understand what analysts and proponents are up to, and even more to get into the conversation and make a contribution. In the end, the aim of practitioners is not only to fill journals and books with these thoughts, but to affect and improve the way we live. Sometimes, they succeed.

Yet there is a part of me that is certain that no matter how cogent and valuable this is, by its nature it misses the target. I am so certain because I am certain of what the nature of that target is, and it doesn’t look, sound or feel like that.

If you think I am suggesting an end to all that as futile and pointless, I am not. There is no point in dancing, but many people love it, and engage in it spontaneously, as soon as they hear the beat. The only suggestion is to consider gaining the perspective that poststrucuralism is poststructuralism, dancing is dancing, and not those are not those.

My intellect loves to dance. Especially when I’m sitting down.

Music of Other Tables

Breakfast

Music of Other Tables

Half listen so
Duets from other tables
Are sounds minus meaning
Words to notes
Scales of breakfast
And lives.

How to Prepare Spiritually for the Debate

The Clinton-Trump debate is taking place tonight, if you hadn’t heard. People will watch for a whole lot of different reasons. Some to see the candidate they like succeed, some to see the candidate they don’t like that much succeed, some to see the candidate they really don’t like be destroyed, some because they just like to watch twisted spectacles and disaster movies. Sharknado, maybe?

The term soul-sucking may be colloquial, but there’s real truth in it. Some things just seem to draw the life force right out of you, creating a spiritual vacuum. Depending on your perspective, this debate could be one of those.

Here are three optional steps for dealing with this.

  1. Don’t watch. Estimates are that over 100 million people may watch this. This might include friends and loved ones, and it might include you. Which makes it unlikely that you won’t watch a little of it, or the whole thing. Friends don’t let friends watch alone.
  1. Prior to watching, read something or do something that will settle you firmly on the ground and in reality. This may already be part of your regular practice. If not, this may be a good time to start.
  1. After watching, you will notice seemingly millions of talking heads trying to spin what you’ve already seen and heard, or trying to prove how smart they are by repeating what you’ve already seen and heard, and then telling you about it, attempting to impart meaning to what you may regard as meaningless. At that point, if you insist on listening to them, repeat Step 2.

Music: Calling All Angels

Calling All Angels

The last post discussed asking angels to intercede on behalf our attempts to turn as a new year (Rosh Hashanah) begins. Whether or not you believe in angels, whether or not you believe they have any influence, it never hurts to ask.

Here is a favorite angels song, Calling All Angels, written by the great Jane Siberry, performed by Siberry and the equally great KD Lang.

Calling All Angels

Santa Maria, Santa Teresa, Santa Anna, Santa Susannah
Santa Cecilia, Santa Copelia, Santa Domenica, Mary Angelica
Frater Achad, Frater Pietro, Julianus, Petronilla
Santa, Santos, Miroslaw, Vladimir and all the rest

A man is placed upon the steps and a baby cries
High above you can hear the church bells start to ring
And as the heaviness, oh, the heaviness, the body settles in
Somewhere you can hear a mother sing

Then it’s one foot, then the other as you step out on the road
Step out on the road, how much weight, how much?
Then it’s how long and how far and how many times
Oh, before it’s too late?

Oh, and every day you gaze upon the sunset with such love and intensity
Why?
It’s ah, it’s almost as if you could only crack the code then you’d finally understand
What this all means

Oh, but if you could, do you think you would trade in all
All the pain and suffering?
Oh, but then you’d miss the beauty of the light upon this earth
And the sweetness of the leaving

Calling all angels, calling all angels
Walk me through this one, don’t leave me alone
Calling all angels, calling all angels
We’re tryin’, we’re hopin’, we’re hurtin’, we’re lovin’
We’re cryin’, we’re callin’ ’cause we’re not sure how this goes

Selichot and Angels

 

Selichot

Do Jews pray to angels? Do all of us need all the help we can get?

The Jewish Days of Awe begin soon, starting with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of October 2, ending with Yom Kippur on the evening of October 11.

It is a time of teshuvah, often translated as “repentance”, but more precisely “turning”—that is, turning away from ourselves and our ways and to God and godly ways. To start the process of reflection, on a Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah a special set of preparatory prayers begin to be recited, known as Selichot. This year, Selichot begins tonight, on the night of Saturday, September 24.

The conventional cast of characters in the soulful dialogue of teshuvah and the Days of Awe are yourself, the people and world around you, and God. But Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis, in the fascinating Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism, adds an unexpected player:

Machnisei Rachamim (Conveyors of Compassion)

This is a prayer petitioning the angels to intervene with God:

Conveyers of compassions, obtain our mercy before the Master of compassion,
Makers of prayer, make our prayer heard before the Hearer of prayer.
Makers of wailing, make our wail heard, before the Hearer of wailing.
Conveyers of tears, convey our tears before the King who yields to tears.
Strive to raise up supplication, raise up supplication and plea,
Before the King, high and exalted. The King, high and exalted.

This prayer is only recited at Selichot, a penitential service recited prior to the coming of Rosh Hashanah.

This prayer is anomalous in that the rule that Jews should pray only to God, and not to intermediaries, extends back to Talmudic times: “If troubles come upon a person, do not entreat the angel Michael or the angel Gabriel. Rather, entreat Me alone and I will help you immediately” (J. Ber. 9:1). Maimonides makes this normative, “It is only fitting to pray to God and it is not fitting to pray to any other.”

The Maharal of Prague was sufficiently troubled by the appearance of this prayer that he amended the wording (Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha’Avodah no.12), an innovation that did not catch on. In modern times, no less an ultra-Orthodox authority than the Hatam Sofer wrote that at Selichot he personally skips over this prayer (Orach Chaim no. 166), a shocking confession from the leader of a community that insists ALL of the tradition is sanctified and obligatory. The prayer has been entirely edited out of Selichot liturgy in the modernist Reform movement.

And yet at least one Midrash exists that endorses the idea of angels as intermediaries of our prayers (S of S R. 2:7). And many Jews worldwide recite the words barchuni l’shalom … (“bless me with peace”), when they sing the popular Shabbat hymn, Shalom Aleichem. This prayer is found only in the Ashkenazi (northern European) tradition, suggesting it was written when Jews were surrounded by a Christian culture that emphasized the use of divine intermediaries (saints) and even had services in honor of specific angels (Michaelmas).

First Geese

First Geese

Easy to see
Against the light gray
A flying line of ten.
Before the look
A single honk.
Scan the sky.
Morning is the clock
Geese the calendar
Read standing
Neck bent up
As they disappear
Dragging the north wind
Behind them.

Music: Calling on John Coltrane

A Love Supreme

The last post was about Gil Scott-Heron’s Lady Day and John Coltrane. Realizing now that some (most?) readers were not familiar with Coltrane, here’s some background and suggestions.

Music fans love to debate “the best”. There is no debate here. Coltrane was the best saxophonist, and some would argue, jazz player. Along with his gifts as an artist, part of that is how spiritual his music is.

He came by that spirituality when, in the midst of his too short career, he kicked a heroin habit by finding a Higher Power. The truth is that he had always been channeling that Higher Power. He just hadn’t been aware of it.

His most overtly spiritual work is A Love Supreme. For those who are not jazz listeners, this may be a bit challenging for a first stop. But at some point, please give this a listen. Bach and centuries of holy music have nothing on Coltrane.

A good place to start gently is the album My Favorite Things, which opens with the title track. All due respect to Julie Andrews (who I do like), this is the famous Sound of Music song in a whole other cosmos. While you’re there, stick around for the next track, a slowly lyrical Every Time You Say Goodbye, a perfect piece of love’s longing, Coltrane style.

Music: Lady Day and John Coltrane

Gil Scott-Heron 2

They’ll wash your troubles,
Your troubles, your troubles
Your troubles away!

Musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron was unlike any artist of the modern era. He is a jazz artist identified as a “godfather of rap” (he rejected that), his song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is quoted somewhere every day, and his vision of the black experience is as current and insightful as any.

But this isn’t about him. It’s about one of his songs, Lady Day and John Coltrane, that celebrates the power of music to heal and change our lives, especially when we are giving up. If you don’t regularly take that prescription, please consider it.

Lady Day and John Coltrane

Ever feel kinda down and out, you don’t know just what to do
Livin’ all of your days in darkness let the sun shine through
Ever feel that somehow, somewhere, you’ve lost your way
And if you don’t get help quick you won’t make it through the day
Could you call on Lady Day,
Could you call on John Coltrane
Now ‘cause they’ll
They’ll wash your troubles
Your troubles your troubles
Your troubles away!

Plastic people with plastic minds are on their way to plastic homes
No beginning there ain’t no ending just on and on and on and on and on, it’s
All because they’re so afraid to say that they’re alone
Until our hero rides in, rides in on his saxophone.
Could you call on Lady Day,
Could you call on John Coltrane
Now ‘cause they’ll,
They’ll wash your troubles,
Your troubles, your troubles
Your troubles away!

 

Books: It’s Ramadan, Curious George

It's Ramadan, Curious George

Something can be significant and cute. It’s Ramadan, Curious George is that.

Published this past May, the book is a way to introduce little ones to the possibility that others believe differently, that there are other religious and cultural traditions than their own. In this case, a Muslim holiday is introduced through the antics of that famous playful monkey. (George distracts his hungry friend by playing checkers with him.)

Day of Fasting

H.A. and Margret Rey, the creators of Curious George, were German Jews living in Paris when the Nazis invaded in 1940:

Knowing that they must escape before the Nazis took power, Hans cobbled together two bicycles out of spare parts. Early in the morning of June 14, 1940, the Reys set off on their bicycles. They brought very little with them on their predawn flight — only warm coats, a bit of food, and five manuscripts, one of which was Curious George.

The Reys made it to New York with the manuscript. The first Curious George book was published in 1941 (this is the 75th anniversary). The rest is history, and a part of the lives of millions of kids (and their parents).

It is possible to help make the world better one book, and one monkey, at a time.