Monday, May 2, 2011

Transfiguring the everyday: Part II

on Thich Nhat Hanh’s You are Here and Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne

The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master and poet Thich Nhat Hanh’s latest book is You Are Here (Shambhala, 2010). It is full of simple-sounding profundities like “concentration is the practice of happiness.”

He uses an example called “orange meditation” with characteristic lightness of touch. “An orange is nothing less than a miracle.” He goes on to describe, with the imagination of an artist, how the orange, revealing its orange-ness by simply being present, offers “deep insight” into the nature of presence.

Rilke found such presence, such “suchness” (another TNH term) in the still lifes of Cézanne. His Letters on Cézanne (Fromm, 1985) is essential as Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings. Both defy the limitations of labels imposed by our systems of categorization. Rilke touches on our reductive tendencies when he writes

how deeply we are placed on the ground of transformation, we most changeable ones who walk about with the urge to comprehend everything (because we’re unable to grasp it)

I think Rilke must be smiling (through whatever incarnation his current manifestation may be), knowing his Letters could be filed under “biography” or “criticism” or “art” or “poetry.” He concludes his observations on our all-too-human tendencies “to grasp” with words his Zen master great-nephew echoes today.

We reduce immensity to the action of our heart, for fear that it might destroy us.

(Thich Nhat Hanh was born in 1926, 10 weeks before Rilke died).

Returning to the Zen slogan “concentration is the practice of happiness,” we can touch both the artist’s single-minded devotion to her work and the challenges inherent in such focus. Rilke called the painter’s concentration a “conflagration of clarity.” The white-hot intensity of artistic passion is both source of the creative impulse and “burn factor” risk to anyone in that smoldering orbit.

The Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation (akin to listening for the “still small voice” in the Judeo-Christian traditions) “invites us to look deeply at reality.” It is an invitation “to discover,” and to “embark on a journey” towards “joy and happiness” through mindfulness of the present moment. Concentration. Attention. Presence.

Rilke speaks for all humanity with refreshing candor when he says

one lives so badly, because one always comes into the present unfinished, unable, distracted…

Such a one might miss the miracle the orange is, might not see “the cloud floating in [a] piece of paper.” Thich offers more insight: the “true nature of this piece of paper is inter-being. Before taking the form of paper, it already existed in the form of sun, cloud, rain and trees.”

“You do not have to be a poet to see it,” he gently reminds the literal-minded.

Rilke communes with Mother Nature by praising the animals, “more real than anything.” He is again candid about our species’ tragic / comic habit of “missing the point.”

How blindly they misuse what has never been looked at, never experienced, distract themselves by displacing all that has been immeasurably gathered together…

“To see the world in a grain of sand,” as the visionary poet William Blake saw it, is another way to perceive all of nature’s elements in a single sheet of paper. Rilke relates the ecstatic energy that comes from such newness, when an object “revisited with increased excitement” is seen as if for the first time.

Rilke goes on to describe the essential qualities of Cézanne’s oranges, and his insight is as relevant to the artist as it is to any amateur, student or pilgrim.

This labor which no longer knew any preferences or biases or fastidious predilections, whose minutest component had been tested on the scales of an infinitely responsive conscience, and which so incorruptibly reduced a reality to its color content that it resumed a new existence in a beyond of color…It is this limitless objectivity…purely by means of color…

Rilke’s description echoes Michelangelo’s evocation of sculpture’s origin. It is parallel to the process of listening, testing and discerning mentioned by composers. Chipping away at the stone to reveal the form hidden beneath the surface parallels sifting through the internal voices to hear the music. Practicing mindfulness meditation or listening for the “still, small voice” connects the spiritual path to the artist’s work.

Once this process of listening and discernment has been given time to ripen, to season and blossom, essence is revealed. Presence. Suchness. “Muchness,” as the Mad Hatter puts it in one of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Another one of TNH’s recurring themes is naming: calling things “by their true names.” This applies to emotions, beliefs, concepts and people. Naming plays a central role in Alice’s adventures. The nursery rhymes and “tall tales” are but one side of the looking- glass. Before Humpty Dumpty recites poetry (“The Little Fishes”) to Alice, he asks what her name means. “Must a name mean something?” Humpty’s reply, “of course it must!” is another clue to help Alice realize her own muchness.

“Everything is simplified…nothing is insignificant and superfluous,” Rilke says of Cézanne’s still lifes. The “simple” apples and oranges are recognized by their suchness and called by name.

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