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April 21, 2003

During his poem about his youthful experiences with chewing tobacco, Jim Ciletti reached the inevitable part where he inadvertently swallowed the juice.

It was hilarious, of course, including his sickly vision of all the ants he’ d ever killed with spittle (they were thought to die instantly from the juice.) Young Jim apologized to them.

The apology was mixed with his prayers for salvation, for relief from his suffering, for the Deal with God — “just let me live and I’ll never …”

However, I think there was more in Young Jim’s realization — recognition of the kinship of suffering among all creatures.

The ants mattered.

Details such as this — the fine structure of our relationship with the world — filled the “Poetry on a Platter” festival this year. In a time when we are pummeled by the broad strokes of such ideas as Patriotism and Evil, the carefully expressed thoughts in this year’s poetry came as a gift.

I recently read the short “biography” of Buddha by Karen Armstrong, and Jim Ciletti’s ants reminded me of the stories of Buddha’s first “awakenings.”

Despite his wealthy father’s best efforts to shield him from the suffering in the world, Buddha glimpsed it nonetheless. While sitting in the shade watching farmers plow their fields, he felt sorrow at the suffering of the plants and insects that were being disturbed by the action of the plows.

This is a remarkable feeling but not so remarkable that it was inaccessible to the people of that age. I think they must have known that empathy themselves, or else a story about it would not have held such weight.

We’ve all had similar insights, I believe, even though they immediately present practical problems: Do we not plow?

One summery day, I worked in the library basement and had the outside door propped open. A wasp drifted in, in that lazy but maddeningly evasive way, and I could not convince it to leave. I left the door open hoping it would prefer to leave.

That might have been its preference, but later I spotted it on the ceiling above the stairs. It’s a given that we don’t want stinging insects in the library, so I retrieved a Kleenex with which to catch it and crush it.

From midway up the stairs, I could just reach the wasp where it hung upside down from the slanted ceiling. The wasp was completely out of its element, through no real fault of its own, and in that instant I realized its alienation as if it were my own.

As the Kleenex approached, the wasp bent itself to face the tissue and reached out with its forelegs while still clinging upside down to the ceiling.

The movement was graceful, full of awareness, and ultimately uninterpretable by me, but no matter how much I resist personification in the memory of it, I retain a strong feeling of kinship with that creature.

But it did not stay my hand.

The realization was simultaneous with the execution. I was instantly suffused with regret, and not a shrugging kind, either. I mean a powerful, almost painful feeling in my chest — of a clenching around my heart — and I felt the tenderness of it for much of the rest of the day.

I did not need salvation from the moment; salvation was in the moment. Discussion would take many columns. Talk amongst yourselves.


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One Comment
  1. Vicky permalink

    Dear Jeff:

    While still being a student in Taiwan, I was rather interested in Zen and used to be in Buddhist temple, however, I always felt very perplexed with the head of Buddha’s statue; how come it is sculped in this way? It is still a riddle for me.

    one day, my professor introducing this vegetable of bitter gourd, although I sat in the classroom, my thought had already strayed to somewhere; suddently a wave of inspiration hitting me, then an improvised poem of bitter gourd came out of my mind before the class finished.

    I would like to share it with everybody; here it is —

    Bitter Gourd

    Combining distress
    With anxiety and symbol together
    Red column reaching near boiling 212 Fahrenheit
    Decocting the birth of form
    I, only long for —
    Activation energy overpassing
    The normal distribution curve
    Falls ————————– to the ground
    Still perspiring with
    The crystal of life experience
    Ah! Please do not ridicule
    My appearence ugly and ludicrous
    You know?
    Sakyamuni’s mind
    Is the same
    as Mine


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