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#45: THREE GEMS FROM SHAMBHALA: Shambhala was, I believe, one of the first American publishing houses established to specialize in books on Buddhism and Eastern thought. They’re still going, varying large, scholarly projects with individual works and lighter, new-agey titles. They’ve also published a string of small literary gems, translations of Oriental works; here are three of them, all refutations of the idea that major equals big.

Songs of the Sons and Daughters of the Buddha, translated by Andrew Schelling and Anne Waldman (1996). These are beautiful, readable translations from the Theragatha and Therigatha, the short poems of the earliest Buddhist monks and nuns. Though part of the Pali Canon, the earliest collection of Buddhist scriptures, they do not have the tone of canonical religious texts, nor do they sound at all like poetry written in the West. They are short testaments of hard meditative effort, the utter turning away from physical pleasures, sex and food particularly, and a startling, unbridled joy at the chance they are taking to leap free of the flesh. The poems have no reticence or apology; they are pungent, emphatic statements, with the bundled energy of a runner making that last, burning lunge for the goal line. The nuns’ poems—vivid records of escape from domestic horrors and prostitution into the unmistakable accents of freedom—must surely be pretty early in the recorded body of poetry by women, and present graphically the improvement of women’s situation Buddhism offered over Hinduism. Schelling’s and Waldman’s translations are personal, intimate, with the breath of the living voice: an entire success. This is tough, challenging stuff: be prepared.

The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters, translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping (1996). From staring intensity to the urbane and thoughtful. These are two short texts and two collections of quotes, stories and aphorisms on writing, from the third to the twentieth century, subjects anyone who picks up a pen will recognize, from writer’s block and burning the old stuff to Taoist effusions on riding the spirit of inspiration. The earliest piece, the Wen Fu or Art of Writing, is one of the great texts, its influence ranging from the time of its composition to twentieth century poets like Snyder and Nemerov; it’s a true poem about writing poems and a good deal more rewarding to read than, say, Boileau. Here too the translations are readable and fluid. Afterwards you might want to pick up Sam Hamill’s book of essays A Poet's Work, which includes some great, moving stuff on the influence of Eastern poetics on contemporary poetry.

Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life, translated by Burton Watson (1994). Don’t let that last phrase fool you. There’s nothing of Marie Antoinette dressing-peasant here. These are short records—essences caught—of lives of real retirement from the world and often of a poverty we would call stark rather than simple. There are pieces by Po Chu-I, Yoshishige no Yasutane, Kamo no Chomei and Matsuo Basho, ranging from the ninth to the seventeenth century. The title of the last piece, “Record of the Hut of the Phantom Dwelling”—“And yet we all in the end live, do we not, in a phantom dwelling?”—captures the insistent Buddhist theme of impermanence. Kamo no Chomei’s Hojoki, “Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut” is one of the touchstone pieces of Japanese literature, a survivor’s record of the fires and famines that attacked Kyoto in the twelfth century, and his reclusion to a mountain hermitage. It’s also one of those indelible, unforgettable pieces that marks anyone who reads it attentively. Watson captures the range of mood and styles—read them over a couple of quiet evenings and see if you ever forget them. One of the best essays in Sam Hamill’s collection of essays mentioned above is the beautiful “Basho’s Ghost,” a short record of a long life dedicated to the perfecting of a poetic gift.


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