Wednesday, December 11, 2013
The Monk on the Mountain
“Picking up what comes to hand, he uses it knowingly”
Who is that wild-haired monk,
That recluse, hermit,
Living all these years in his cave on the mountainside?
Does he light incense? No.
But he breathes in the dawn mist, heavy with pine scent.
Does he bow to Buddha? No.
But the broken branch of a tree reminds him of suffering and the brevity of life.
Does he chant a sutra? No.
But, every day, at first light and at twilight,
His thick fingers caress his prayer beads.
Does this fellow dangle dainty pearls or stroke glossy little globes adorned with silken tassels?
No. His beads are crude, chunky nuts,
Eighteen of them,
Foraged from among fallen leaves and
Strung onto hairs from the tail of an itinerant ox.
And as he fingers the bumpy surface of each nut,
His fingers trace hard edges, soft hollows,
Shapes that rise, fall, disappear
As his breath rises, falls, disappears
So who is this wild-haired monk?
A man like any other, he walks and sleeps,
Eats and shits and goes about his business,
Balancing on the edge of life and death.
Who is this man?
Who is that pine tree?
That drifting cloud?
- Nina Mermey Klippel
(Notes: This poem was inspired by a bracelet of Chinese prayer beads of unknown date, made of lithocarpus, the nut of the stone oak tree, which was exhibited at the Rubin Museum in New York City. The crudeness of the beads brought to mind the character of the wild-haired monk, from a parable in a text by the 13th century Zen master Dogen called Dotuku (Expressions).