Draft 2 of Lion's Roar article
I once got into a fight with my beloved lay dharma teacher in the Plum Village tradition. She insisted that the insight of interbeing was not theoretical but entirely practical, and encouraged me to practice seeing with this lens. At first it felt forced: me looking deeply into my cup of tea to touch the rain, the earthy wet soil of tea plantations in China, the sun warming the tea plants, the farmer cultivating the earth, the many other hands bringing the tea to my breakfast table. I resisted. And yet each time I paused to consider the many conditions manifesting my present moment, the theory of interbeing became deep knowing in my body. Gratitude, joy, and wonder would arise all at once for the infinity of ways we are inextricably connected. My actions would flow from this understanding.
In Buddhism I practice slowing down to embody this insight of interbeing. Poetry is like this. As a first condition, I slow down to touch the reality of the present moment in my body, letting go of the story I have about my experience. Breathing in, I notice the fresh cool air settling on my skin. I trace my breath as it enters my nose and expands in my belly, noticing an easeful smile play on my face. Breathing out, I know there is intimacy with this present moment. When I am able to listen and touch the reality of the present moment, without expectation or fear, poetry can arise.
Poetry starts in this unwritten form, as direct experience of the present moment. Words may come later, conveying on paper what the body knows. Poetry thus becomes an act of listening and speaking, of relating direct experience without embellishment or theory.
When I write, I practice with the fourth mindfulness training in the Plum Village tradition, Deep Listening and Loving Speech. I consider the words I write (and the silences in between) as sounds that will one day land in a body. As a Buddhist, I take great care to choose sounds that do not extend harm, that allow for healing and release. When I speak of suffering, I do so from my own positionality and voice, allowing space for others to have different experiences. When I write poems in anger or grief, I consider the purpose of publishing them for others to view. Sometimes, the process of writing itself is catharsis, and there is no need for me to transmit that energy to the bodies of others.
Other times, poems written in anger can express solidarity and inspire further engagement. After the shootings of six Asian women at three Atlanta spas by a white man carrying his anger as ammunition, I wrote a poem of grief and sorrow, naming my own experiences as a person of Chinese and Japanese descent, learning the anger and violence of white men. This poem was dormant in me until that day and emerged unbidden. At a public protest in San Francisco, this poem spoken aloud became a direct transmission of grief and rage, recording my individual experience in the collective memory.
Poetry is thus a means of remembering. This past weekend, I visited my grandmother and extended family in Los Angeles after a long trip down the California coast. My family met me with crates of Chinese takeout, the rich broth of oxtail soup, handmade chashu so tender it dissolved in my mouth. When I note this experience on paper, a smile of contentment arises. My body is warm and bubbly. I reconnect anew with the joy in my body, and parse out the details of my family’s love. In writing I create artifacts that I can come back to — the collective experience of grief after violence, the deep belonging felt in my family’s love. I remember who I am and trace the lineage from which I come.
In poetry I remember that I am changing in each moment. The grief and belonging of days past may not be present in this new body of mine. Each time I sit down to write is thus an opportunity to connect with a new version of self, to touch into the truth of impermanence with curiosity and a beginner’s mind. Who are you in this present moment, dear one? What truths in your heart are asking to be seen and known in words?
I see that there is no version of self to cling to, just this body to meet in the present moment. The intimacy of the here and now gives way to new possibilities for poetry, and to life.