I Am Back to Open the Old Pages
Suddenly I welcome myself back.
The reference point is no longer seen,
and last night’s dream is full of illusory images.
The walls that help stop the winds and the rain
have formed a corner of warm space.
The flickering candles
evoke the incense perfume of a New Year’s Eve.
Inside the house, dinner is served.
A few leaves of coriander
bring back the forms of the homeland.
Suddenly all frontiers are removed
just because of the midday storm,
and everything is revealed.
Isn’t today’s sun the same as yesterday’s?
Birds seen against the color of the purple evening.
The two ends of time join
and tenderly push me
into a new opening.
The curtains of the evening,
destined to catch space,
suddenly become weeping willows.
Clouds are calling each other
to meet at the mountain’s summit.
I am back. I find myself opening the old pages.
The blazing sunset has burned up all certificates.
Wordy mantras have proven to be powerless.
The wind is blowing hard.
Out there at the end of the sky,
the flapping wings of some strange bird.
Where am I?
The point of concentration is remembrance.
The real home is childhood with its grassy hills.
The violet tia to leaves
contain an Autumn that is fully ripe.
Your small feet treading the path
are like drops of dew on young leaves.
My letters sent to you
are like the church bells.
A golden sky of flowers is contained in a mustard seed.
I join my palms
a flower bloom
wonderfully in my heart.
By Thich Nhat Hanh
from Call Me by My True Names: The Collected Poems.
This poet would be a well-known name to many of you, I think – though best known as a Buddhist priest and teacher.
(I have it on good authority that his name is pronounced as in the English spelling Tick Nah Tarn, with the first and third syllables stressed.)
Plum Village, the website of his ‘mindfulness practice centre’ of the same name in the south of France, says of him:
Zen Master Thich Nat Hanh is a global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist, revered around the world for his pioneering teachings on mindfulness, global ethics and peace.
The section on his life story quotes him as saying, ‘Our own life has to be our message’ and adds:
Ordained as monk aged 16 in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh soon envisioned a kind of engaged Buddhism that could respond directly to the needs of society.
He was a prominent teacher and social activist in his home country before finding himself exiled for calling for peace.
In the West he played a key role in introducing mindfulness and created mindful communities (sanghas) around the world. His teachings have impacted politicians, business leaders, activists, teachers and countless others.
Wikipedia tells us that in the sixties he taught courses, at different times, at Princeton, Columbia and Cornell Universities.
In 1967 Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize (but some of the conditions for nomination were breached and the prize was not awarded that year).
We are told that Thich Nat Hanh has published over 100 books, including The Miracle of Mindfulness and Peace is Every Step, which are described as classics.
And it seems to me that, although Thich Nat Hanh is Buddhist – a Buddhist monk, in fact – the reflections and reminiscences in this poem would resemble what many of us have experienced recently with family gatherings for Christmas or Hannukah. I expect that, whatever our spiritual traditions, we are all conscious of New Year’s Eve, which he mentions. I’m sure many will also relate to his nostalgia for the childhood home.
He suggests that things in the present are perhaps not so great:
‘Wordy mantras have proven to be powerless.
The wind is blowing hard.’
We can relate to that too! There are the personal losses and traumas which many of us have suffered. Grief is a very individual journey. At least we have poetry and stories to help us through – the catharsis of our own and the comfort of others’. Good friendships help too, not least the online bonds we forge through groups such as this. Then there are the ongoing global crises of various kinds, the apparent inadequacies of governments to address them well, and the deep anxieties they cause. I admit that I personally have been writing some unusually (for me) despairing poems lately.
Yet also there are scientists and activists working constantly for solutions to our unprecedented problems; activists, educators and journalists working hard to make people aware of the desperate needs and how to address them; and already some particular solutions to particular parts of the mess are being implemented. It’s hard to avoid despair, but I believe we must resist feeling helpless. I think it’s important to find what oases of joy and peace we can, not only as urgent respite, but to give us the strength to go on.
Hopefully the pleasures of family, home, tradition and nostalgia – or at least our fond memories thereof – can fortify us against whatever trials we face in the coming year.
Let’s read the poem one more time, and return a moment longer to that ‘corner of warm space’.
After preparing this post well ahead of time, I visited Sherry’s last prompt for 'imaginary garden with real toads' and found her making similar points very strongly, with a particular focus on the planetary crisis we face, and pointing us to some powerful possibilities for continuing to address it. If you haven’t read that yet, please do.
Material shared in this post is presented for study and review. Poems, photos, and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, usually the authors. The picture of the book cover is used according to Fair Use. The photo of Thich Nhat Hanh is shared under Creative Commons Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0