Thursday, May 17, 2012

On Beauty in the Everyday (a talk given at Ursinus College, Spring 2012)


“I am waiting for a rebirth of wonder”—that's from one of the most famous American poets of the last sixty years, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in A Coney Island of the Mind, one of the most popular great books in all of American poetry. A friend of Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth as well as Jack Kerouac and others who started the most influential poetry movement of the last sixty years, The Beatniks, Ferlinghetti also wrote at the end of “I am waiting”:

and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder

Why did he say that? Ferlinghetti knew that it was and is possible to always have a rebirth of wonder, a renaissance of wonder, because it happens naturally and spontaneously in all of us, whether we are artists or not. We have this gift, this ability to appreciate beauty for its own sake. All little kids have this innate ability.

Like others of his generation, Ferlinghetti pointed us toward one of the important truths of existence—we can feel this clear and beautiful mindful awareness that makes us more enlightened and more connected to each other.

Irony: this kind of awareness takes much more work after childhood ends.

More irony: one need not strive beyond oneself to find this; one needs rather to slow down and calmly allow our true natural state to arise.

This works as if it were our true nature to feel really good about being alive....—as if it were pleasurable to just be.... —as if ordinary things like sunlight on a pine branch could be unbearably beautiful and pleasurable. But first we need to be able to believe that this is even possible, that a renaissance of wonder is possible.

And we need to know what gets in the way.

But you already know:

TV addictions have killed people. Cell phone addictions kill people in their cars. Gaming addictions literally kill people in gaming dens. Computers/web addictions, FaceBook and porn addictions and so on are damaging people all around us.

We all probably know at least one person with an unhealthy relationship with a device. (And then there’s plain old selfishness, pride, anger, gluttony, sloth, envy, lust and greed.)

Interestingly, the man who brought Buddhism into Tibet, Padmasambhava, had a vision a thousand years ago. He saw that in about a thousand years people would become incredibly clever at making devices, devices so clever that we could carry them around, and these would be endlessly entertaining. People would feel that their little devices were more important than anything else. Padmasambhava said that this would be the dark age because people would stop believing in compassion.

When Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote, “I am waiting for a rebirth of wonder,” the worst inventions in everyday life were TV and the superhighway, and he thought that the superhighway was a catastrophe!

Now for us to wait for a rebirth of wonder, we need to even more consciously decide to turn our attention toward worthwhile things, the things that are the spontaneous and natural gifts that connect us all. Then we need to be patient and give ourselves a chance to actually feel. This is the simplest of truths in art—a renaissance of wonder doesn’t require a great journey or leaving or transcending oneself. It’s about seeing your immediate experience and feeling your own feelings about this moment, this place. It’s about knowing where you are and how you are and speaking with your whole being. It’s about allowing ordinary reality to fully penetrate your mind and heart, fully taking in what is always real and its history. For the mind is like tofu, a great teacher said. It absorbs whatever you put it in. And when you start turning on all of the potentials in a human being, the true nature of our life can begin to arise. Everyone has at least some intrinsic compassion, wisdom, generosity, patience, and discipline. As another great teacher said, ‘Everyone loves something, even if it’s only tacos.’

As one gets deeper into being human, vision in a larger sense becomes possible. The vision of the totality doesn’t mean ignoring pain, darkness, death, despair and so on. An artistic vision needs to include suffering because old age, sickness and death are essential and eternal truths too. Otherwise, instead of art, you have kitsch.

Another great American poet, Wallace Stevens, said: “Death is the mother of beauty,” meaning that without the loss of absolutely everything, beauty has no meaning or poignancy. So in this way, some of the greatest poets, including William Wordsworth, and the great Buddhist teachers have said the truest joy has some sadness in it. The taint of our own mortality makes life beautiful. Then the total vision encompasses both euphoria and dysphoria, so we should, if possible, embrace it. And if we can leave behind our dualistic consciousness even for one moment, it can seem that euphoria and dysphoria are truly one thing, not two.

I know that probably sounds impossible, but it is possible with a way of stepping back and away from our own judging mind, away from what we think we know, and instead feeling what our real life is. As the Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche said, “When the mind is brilliant there is no conceptuality.”

The experience of ordinary things becomes extraordinary and wonder is reborn when we make our minds like soft soil where the experience of wonder can grow again. The renaissance of wonder is more than possible perpetually and forever. It is waiting for us to make ourselves ready to experience at last the real, the true, and the beautiful.

That ends the talk part of this presentation.


I wanted to also read some poems. This first one is about when my best friend and I were in eighth grade, so the experience described here happened without us knowing anything about the San Francisco renaissance of poetry that was later called the Beatnik movement, without us knowing anything about meditation, without us knowing anything about Buddhism or spirituality, without us knowing much about Christianity, or anything else. Nonetheless, in 8th grade my best friend Tim and I used to have these very profound experiences of the simplest things. This was also before cell phones, before Facebook, PCs, i-Pads, Walkmen, and so on. This was during a time when we still lived in a book-centric culture, and people who liked film adaptations better were frowned upon. Our favorite writer was Kurt Vonnegut. This was also the age of an awful lot of people smoking an awful lot of marijuana, but this had nothing to do with our experiences. I don't know how he knew that this would work, but he had rediscovered one of the important truths of existence, which is that there is this very clear and beautiful feeling that is possible inside of everyone, and it is possible to access it not by reaching beyond oneself or striving but by calmly allowing it to happen.

a far and pure wilderness

We used to call them headtrips
when April’s sunlight on the grass
in all its pure intensity
struck us into resonance;
breathing in its vibration
I was on a high
self opening with you
learning the first flush of
beauty in the grass
before our wonderful families
drove us to weed or hash,
before the first psychedelics,
before even the first comings
of puberty stung and strung us up
into the Teendom of Cool that was still
as interesting as dysentery.
This was letting the ocean
of the atmosphere pour through our eyes
and through our brains and lungs
till our tongues could translate sky—
till the day I felt your spirit reach out
like an actual body to another
like one wave tapping its brother
—I was shocked seeing you still over there
but in a sky place in your mind
smiling like “I’m not coming down...”
and you waited so patiently
till I followed you there.

Looking back now, I think that we had unwittingly stumbled upon a very high state of awareness without knowing that meditators spend years and years trying to get there. The Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, one of the greatest living meditation teachers, talks about it this way in Turning the Mind into an Ally:

What the Buddha discovered is that we all have
bodhichitta, ripe for nourishment. Within the
bewildering maelstrom of thoughts and emotions
that keep our sense of self solid, each of us already
has the seeds of love and compassion.
Bodhichitta is the radiant heart that is constantly
and naturally, without self-consciousness,
generating love and compassion for the benefit
of others. It’s a stream of love and compassion
that connects us all, without fixation or attachment.
It has a tender sadness to it, like a wound
that remains eternally exposed. It’s our true nature.

This passage reminded me of something I felt that quite profoundly last summer at a meditation retreat in NYC where I was meditating all day every day and a lot of the nights, working mostly on developing this compassionate heart, and without any warning, I stumbled out of my ego onto a subway train and saw every single person on the train as a complete whole human being each with his own trip, her own dread, each with a great history or a story spinning, a burden of family traumas, an ego trip of whatever it was etc. and I didn't feel any different from anyone. But I could actually feel what everyone was, which anyone can do, if you just really pay attention with your whole being. It's just that I could not turn it off.

It reminded me of early days of infancy when I was very small. Whenever a grownup would pick me up, I had a very keen sense about what that big person was like, good or bad. I could not turn off this sense, then. It was valuable information for infant survival because a bad person would be a cause to scream and cry. I think all small kids retain this sensitivity for a while because they have not yet built up the belief in the ego and the outer self and its walls.