Wrenzai’s Philosophical Spiritual Journey (in short)

I had my first “realization” when I was eight, as I was lying on my back out in a wheat field near our rented farmhouse in Aloha, Oregon. I sensed, I decided, that there was no god in the sky and no god perched over in the walnut tree and that the people, my parents and all the other people in the world, had made up all the stories about God, Soul, Heaven and Hell, etc., and that to believe as others do would be to become a blind follower of arbitrary human constructs. I didn’t have this realization in exactly these words, but the sense or sensation was there, sharp and clear.

Crows Walking on Water

This was a life-altering, perspective-founding experience for me, because in that moment I consciously penetrated the nature of human civilization and psychology. I knew I was alone in the Universe, and I knew I would always rely on my own view of “the nature of things.” I would never take anything at face value and always remain skeptical of the claims of humans. Seeing is believing. I would have made a great scientist. I settled for poetry.

Living in a Tree

From there I drifted along as a social agnostic till I was 27. It never seemed important or useful to me to argue about beliefs with others. And in those days, the mid to late 70s, people weren’t discussing such matters much anyway. One evening I was soaking in the tub when I had my second realization. I called my girlfriend to come into the bathroom and told her I just realized I had no real, conscious philosophy and that it was time for me to “get one.” As I was attending classes part-time at Portland State University, I began taking philosophy classes. When I took the class entitled “Existential Literature,” I knew I’d found my major affirmation. Perhaps my interest in Existentialism derived from a kind of nihilistic tendency to undermine all the structures, rules, and delusions of religion and even of some Western philosophies, but the real reason is my love of the potential in my fellow humans. I read Camus, Sartre, Gide, and de Beauvoir, mainly, which helped clear the psychic air for me. But I was irritated by the fact that humankind—thinking, reading, critical-minded humankind—found the conclusions of godlessness, soullessness, and afterlifelessness to be so unbearably negative. They couldn’t live with it; it was too bleak.

Nature

That’s when I began to meditate, reflect, think logically, and write in order to find the positive in Existentialism. Thus I coined the expression “Positive Existentialism.” In other words, I realized that only when the whole of humankind can come to realize that we’re “grounded in Earth” can we work together to create a better world. Sartre’s final words really helped here, that “with freedom comes responsibility.” Since we can’t depend on supernatural beliefs, beings, or practices to help us, then it’s up to us to take action to create a better world, here and now. My idea of Positive Existentialism has come in handy with students and others who come to me saying, “Why do anything? I’m just going to die anyway.” I’d reply, “Why not set out to do everything you dream of doing? Why not fulfill your potential, be the best you can be? You’re alive here and now, and this, for all you know, is your one and only opportunity. Besides, would living forever be reason for you to do everything you otherwise can’t bother to do because you’re going to die anyway? Sounds like a cop-out to me.”

Nurturing

A couple problems came up. One was morality and the other was free will. Larry Bowlden, who was the PSU Philosophy Department head and who was teaching the Existential Literature class in 1977, said that maybe morality is based on intuition, that we know intrinsically that’s it’s bad to kill one another. Ah, survival of the species, of course! Later, I found a page, which I used as a handout in some of my college intercultural communications classes to build unity, that translated and quoted fourteen versions of the Golden Rule, each from a different religion. The Golden Rule, religiously and secularly, is a universal. It was then that I realized that universals, principles, and ideals that no one can argue with and that can be found in all religions and practical philosophies is the answer that the Existentialists did not deliver.

Search for Universals

As for free will, I came to realize that even the humanist, secularist, iconoclast, and/or atheist must accept certain unknowns. Do we have free will? Or is it just an illusion? I choose to believe we do have free will and are not simply driven by fate or providence or mechanical chains of events in nature. Otherwise, the world wouldn’t be changing so quickly. Many strong free wills are in conflict. So I came to accept, as bottom-line in my thinking, that morality is inherent, that free will exists in humans, and that humans must inevitably make choices. And if we must choose between dying (or killing others) and living a productive life (and not killing others), we must choose the latter. Many years later I found affirmation for this idea in Plato’s concept that the Form (or Idea) of the Good is the ultimate object of knowledge. The human mind cannot compare seeking good and seeking bad without ultimately choosing to seek good. Good is shinier. Not that we don’t backslide now and then.

Most of these thoughts began to emerge in my 40s, as I was building a cabin in the woods.

Beauty Not to Be Accounted For

Zen Buddhism came to me first from my Grandma Glenda, who was into the esoteric (Rosicrucians, for one). There was an atmosphere of peace amidst exotica in her home. There were Buddhas and books on the Far East, incense and Chinese checkers. But it was reading and writing poetry, years later, that led me to ancient Chinese and Japanese Zen (Buddhist) literature. That was in the 90s. I was 45 or so. And it was Zen poetry that led me haiku. (Note: I should mention that I “killed the Buddha,” which is an expression referring to a famous Zen koan, some years ago, so now I simply refer to Zen.) Positive Existentialism was the perfect secularization to set me up for Zen. Once I had the philosophical reality in place (nature only), how could I find peace and purpose in that reality?

Play

Zen is psychology, all about the mind. Thus the emphasis on meditation. Some would call it self-psychology. And it is. It’s just not overly analytical. A good way to think about it is to focus on the idea of “universal mind.” This is why I like Buddha, because it wasn’t supernatural beings (who in his dream were merely tests of his enlightenment) by which he became enlightened; it was by transcending them and achieving a sense of universality in the face of the particulars of earthly existence, including the fact that we must die but just don’t know when. He realized that our fears and desires were our burden and that we need only to rid our fears and desires to be free. In Universal Mind, one can imagine one’s death, one’s not existing, and feel equanimous at the thought, even breathe a sigh of relief. This goes for all fears, desires, and other forms of monkeymindedness. One can let go of all these vanities.

Lifeguard on Duty

So there are different kinds of meditation, each of which may be related to different brain wave states. One says, Clear the mind; seek emptiness. Another says, Attune your five senses to your body or to the outside world. The last says, Observe your thoughts; notice them, but don’t argue with, chastise, or dwell on them. Simply let the mind observe the thoughts as they pass (the mind is not the thinker but the observer of thoughts). Without being analytical, the mind will note the trouble spots. Adjusting the mind will come naturally this way.

If only haters could observe and note their hateful thoughts they’d slowly fade away (the thoughts, I mean)!

Universal (meditate on this)

Two other problems came up: One is existence itself and the other is the human need to believe (in something or someone). I know Zen talks about nothingness, but I’ve come to think that this nothingness does not imply that matter, energy, space, and, by extension, life don’t exist. Nothingness can be conceived of, only by something, someone, a mind, and in relation to somethingness (think yin and yang here). So I choose to believe that, bottom line, we exist, we have free will and must choose good, ultimately, we are inherently moral, and we need to believe in something. These are my points of faith (but I eschew the word “faith” because the Evangelicals have monopolized and narrowed it). I was helped with the latter problem by Jung and Campbell. Jung said humans need to have a mythology to believe in. Campbell showed us that different tribes, cultures, religions, and stories contain many of the same elements, or archetypes. He posited the idea that these myths, symbols, patterns, and archetypes reflect the presence of psychic organs. While this idea may be helpful to account for common beliefs among diverse cultures, I’m not sure that this knowledge makes overcoming our worst inner selves any easier. If we have an incorrigible psychic organ called Trickster that regularly gets others into trouble, should we, or can we, overcome him?

Just because one doesn’t believe in the supernatural doesn’t mean one can’t have beliefs, healthy beliefs.

The Knave, the Foolish King, the Human Imagination?

As for the inherent need to believe in something or someone, I believe that beliefs themselves are completely negotiable. Thus my final thesis: I believe that the highest faith we can have is in our selves and one another, to become better human beings and create a better world. This is my belief that supersedes all others in my world. It’s a lot to believe in, and, considering the mess that is this dangerous world, a long ways off. Believing in a supernatural being about whom we actually know nothing is infinitely easier and may be a way of shirking our responsibilities on Earth.

Etna (volcano)

Did I mention “absurdity,” the “absurd hero”? Thurber’s moth, Voltaire’s Candide, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Chance the Gardener in Kosinski’s Being There? There’s a lot of cowardice in believing in the given paradigm; it’s much bolder and deeper to believe in the nearly impossible.

One With

Copyright 2017, by Rick Clark

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Wrenzai Attends the Great Haiku Getaway

When my old friend the barred owl hooted her message to me from the crabapple tree, I was surprised and pleased to discover that I’d been invited to attend the Great Haiku Getaway in the woods beside the Great Water. I hadn’t ventured out to such an event for years and in fact had begun to grow moss between my toes. I tossed and turned that night over the decision, but as morning grew blue, as the sun rolled up into the sky and the robin chirruped pure as cherries, I donned my bamboo hat, coat, and sandals and set out East.

Bard (Barred) Owl Messenger

Bard (Barred) Owl Messenger

The journey was long. I wandered cross-country around the south end of the Great Mountains and then beyond, up the east side of the Great Water to a tiny hamlet in the woods known as Seabeck, in ancient times an elven timber station. The Main Hall stood wide and welcoming on the side of a hill beyond a silvery lagoon. The journey had taken me days and left me both exhausted and invigorated. I remembered how good it is to get out of my myrtle hut now and then. My fall crop of mushrooms could wait this time. As I crossed the lagoon these words came to me:

the old car bridge

Seabeck Conference Center

Seabeck Conference Center

What magic I sensed in the air as I arrived! I found many other hermits, mountain poets, and hut-dwellers in the Great Wooden Dining Hall at the midday meal, chattering about the tantalizing words and incantations known as haiku that the Great Party was to celebrate. Ah to mingle with others like me again! For so long it was just me and the chickadees, me and the old antlered bucks who stared up at me through the windows, me and the crows consoling each other as the world heats up near to burning—only the rare human visitor—for years.

Old Buddy Buck

My old buddy Buck

My counterparts wore rice-planting or wizards’ hats, had companions of ravens or crows, even a starling, perching upon their shoulders. Some wore coats of moss or woven cedar bark. Others smoked long thin pipes of incense or gesticulated in meaningful runes, reciting ancient haiku—or fresh ones, composed on the tongue, winging their way out of their mouths like hummingbirds or dragonflies. They’d arrived from all over the world. I was overwhelmed!

introductions

Soon we were off to what for me was my first haiku gathering, held in a Hall whose walls resounded with the profound but simple verses of the great and ancient haiku poets, of masters and disciples both. The chatter and gesticulations were hard to follow, so much was happening at once. Then four Masters gathered before us to discuss “haiku as poetry.” What delight I took in how seriously these great minds considered such tiny poems in the context of poetry and culture at large. I was mesmerized!

After a short break, I joined a large and enthusiastic group in the lower quarters to construct a book—to actually make a book in an hour! What fun it was to create a quality piece of workmanship in a matter of minutes wherein we were encouraged to inscribe our haiku. What fun measuring, cutting, and gluing as if we were Gutenberg’s apprentices—or the Beowulf monk himself! What pretty, useful, tiny tomes we conjured for later inspiration!

Then there were haiku quilts, thinking like an editor, a history of our venerable venue, each presentation more interesting, informative, and mind-dazzling than the last—which is to say a lot, because the first presentation was so intriguing and inspiring!

What energy and thoughts we took to dinner. Our haiku diners were a veritable galaxy of stars glinting with glee and reminiscences. And the food was delectable, not to mention endless, for those of us who’d worked up bottomless pits of haiku hunger.

Back in the hall, we celebrated a wonderful poet who’d recently left our world of haiku-ing (unless there’s a world where everything is haiku). Sad but all the more beautiful were her haiku in the aftermath of her existence. To be touched like that is to be touched deeply. Everyone sat up straight, with respect, interest riveted.

Soon we were deeply immersed in Chiyo-ni—of ancient times in a strange and wonderful country—and given a lesson in greeting with haiku in the ancient way. My lovely partner wrote this in greeting me (thank you, Ruth):

rainy night haiku

I was moved—to say the least. Then up we stood to receive Japanese candle lanterns so as to set out on a night ginko. We walked silently through the night and rain, listening to sounds we might ordinarily miss. With what strange, beautiful, and solemn attention we stepped through the pristine water, grass, and forest, bearing our long line of blue glowing lanterns, like fireflies in search of deeper experience. We were stilled to silence by the plash of rain and clothing rustling. I wrote

forest patter

Mushroom umbrella

Mushroom umbrella

I was so at home in the dark dripping forest, standing at length in silence, it was as if I’d brought a little of this from home, from the Myrtle Forest at the Edge of the Universe—though the singing of rain there differs.

Soon a few of us returned to workshop haiku. What gentle souls we were, making suggestions anonymously with a sincere desire to improve the magic of each others’ verse, then revealing ourselves as the conjurer of the workshopped haiku out of immediately-felt trust. The Haiku Poet is a sensitive creature, indeed.

Then off to bed this tired old hermit wandered through the cozy dark, to sleep without stirring through the night, till the next morning when we would re-enter the transcendent world of haiku—haiku-ists haiku-ing haiku (achoo)!

late night rain walk

And though some stayed up to the wee hours the night before, no one looked the worse for wear the following morning as we gathered in the Great Haiku Hall. There we played a Haiku Game, getting to know each other—or better. The Grand Haiku Poobah led us though his Haiku on Steroids, sharing his thousand years of albeit humble haiku experience—a generous soul that man! Then for one of the Featured Events of the Getaway: Ancient Masters (though they look so young) guided us on an extensive journey through the Cyber World of the Haiku Chronicles—its history, distribution, technology, and the teamwork involved in this enormous venue for the Ever Evolving World of Haiku. I was dazzled—speechless—swept away by the great symphony of this enthusiastic and dedicated duet. I saw what is possible. Paths broke open before me. Ideas bounced around like hacky sacks in my usually meditative mind. Great thanks to these Giants of Haiku for wandering much further, much farther, than I, to bring us this explosion of information and inspiration!

Al Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver presenting Haiku Chronicles

Al Pizzarelli and Donna Beaver presenting Haiku Chronicles

Then contest winners announced, a group photograph, a nature walk, sound in haiku—an endless stream of haiku delicacies to enrich and mull over. The day was ceaseless—seemed to stretch to eternity to accommodate an impossible lineup of ten-course haiku meals. I experienced my first kukai, a contest (or ranking) of haiku. That was nerve-racking, but fun. So good to see how it all works, in spirit so unlike the poetry slam. I began to feel dizzy for all the wonder I felt at what so many poets had to offer in readings before and after dinner. And if all the haiku were too much to appreciate, there was a talent show that evening, mostly for comic relief (or so I hoped). Afterward, I could take no more (had groomed a meaningful headache) and excused myself to bed as the party raged into the night.

Ruth Yarrow leading the Nature Walk

Ruth Yarrow leading the Nature Walk

distantly creaking

Terry Ann Carter leading off the Talent Show

Terry Ann Carter leading off the Talent Show

Michelle Schaefer and Jim Rodriguez (on Native American flute) with weightier subject matter

Michelle Schaefer and Jim Rodriguez (on Native American flute) present a weightier subject

And still, the following day, there was another full morning of festivities, entertainment, and haiku evolution. First, Haiku Comics: Master Frog and Disciple Frog, like Basho and Sora. Then, believe it or not, Monkeys Invaded My Sacred Palace and Chased Out My Tiger! If ever I was confused by the difference between haiku and senryu, or ignorantly conflated them, the difference was untwisted and unscrewed by our Grand Wizard of Haiku.

Al Pizzarelli with Monkeys Invading the Sacred Palace and Chasing Out the Tiger

Al Pizzarelli with Monkeys Invading the Sacred Palace Chasing Out the Tiger

John Stevenson chasing out a tiger or two

John Stevenson chasing out a tiger or two

Michael Dylan Welch presenting the book haiku from all of us at the Getaway

Michael Dylan Welch presenting a book of haiku from all of us to Al

By this time, I knew I’d had enough inspiration, information, insight, and ever-increasing interest to hold me till the next Great Haiku Party in the Woods by the Great Water, scheduled for next fall. I set out for my hut so nourished by the Getaway that I hardly noticed the week-long trek back to my little Myrtle Woods by the Edge of the Universe. Haiku fluttered about my head like butterflies around honeysuckle as I skirted the toes of the mountains on my return. I came away with enough gifts to hold me for many months till I grow antsy for the next Great Round of Haiku. I was relieved to find that my secret chanterelles, under the nurturing arms of their spruces, were just popping open their ocher umbrellas.

Golden chanterelles!

Golden chanterelles!

Note: Please visit these links and sources:

https://sites.google.com/site/haikunorthwest/seabeck-haiku-getaway-2014

http://www.seabeck.org/

http://www.haikuchronicles.com/

Tiny American Bird Wins Japanese Haiku Contest

Wrenzai is proud to announce that he’s won Grand Prize in the Non-Japanese (International) Division of the 6th Annual Yamadera Basho Memorial Museum Haiku Contest in Japan. He is stunned and elated by the news. When a package arrived from Japan, he and Ms. Wrenzai were delighted to find in it not only several copies of the book published with the winning poems and an over-sized framed award certificate but also a “small prize.”

Wrenzai with the goods

Wrenzai with the goods

Here is the winning haiku:

the one-legged sparrow—
still embraced by the clan
on the power line

The prize brought tears to the recipient’s eyes. It’s a miniature folding standing screen of the original much larger 18th century screen of Buson’s (second of the great male haiku poets in Japan) calligraphic version of Basho’s 17th century “haibun” (prose with haiku) entitled Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North) including “haiga” (ink paintings accompanying haiku). The book traces Basho’s journey around northern Japan, visiting significant historical and natural sites and guiding writing circles in towns and villages along the way. Wrenzai has read five different translations of this most famous work in Japan, several more than once, and has written a haibun with haiga (photos converted to drawings in this case) entitled Rowing Smitty: Travel Sketches and Haibun, emulating and learning from this great work. The book is to be published in the near future.

First three panels of screen

First three panels of screen

The coincidence is beyond meaningful for Wrenzai. It’s as if a distinct path has opened up before Wrenzai down which he must wander for the rest of his time on the planet. Life sometimes rings with truth!

Wrenzai wrote the winning haiku while (with his ever-vigilant eyes) watching sparrows through his sister Karen’s upstairs apartment window. He selected the haiku for the contest because, when he lived in Japan between 1988 and 1991, the country only then was beginning to provide infrastructure for handicapped people in public places. One rarely saw handicapped people in public. He’s not sure that the reason the poem was selected for the award has anything to do with why he wrote or chose it for the contest, but these are the thoughts he’s had on the matter. One way or the other, the sparrow event occurred and the poem came into existence before any thoughts about it took place.

Here is the other poem Wrenzai submitted to the contest:

the two grasshoppers
parted by my leg—
will they ever meet again?

This haiku is more blatantly traditional in form in that it makes more direct reference to the season, resides more in the natural world, and appeals to a simpler sentiment. But it happened and the words occurred to me….

May your observations and creations burst with passion!

Why Wrenzai Loves Haiku

Those seeking enlightenment should not need or want to write. This was a conflict for the great Japanese haiku master Basho, as he was a serious Zen aspirant. Writing, let alone writing poetry, is viewed as a kind of “attachment.” But to borrow from a well known Zen koan, one can stay on top of a 100-foot pole for only so long and, as enlightened, must shinny back down to teach and provide guidance. And if writing and sharing haiku and related forms involves teaching the Way and providing guidance, then why not? Certainly, the following haiku, by another famous Japanese haiku poet, Kobayashi Issa, teaches and guides (my version):

dewdrop world

Wrenzai loves haiku (there’s no grammatical distinction between plural and singular in Japanese). He loves reading, writing, and reliving haiku. But how can one love a few words, such a small form, a sub-sub-genre so far removed from the mainstream of American culture that it seems beside the point—so tiny and immaterial it comes and goes as fleetingly as a chickadee and costs nothing in cash? I’m reminded of a tiny image I wrote a few years back:

just one seed

We pay so much lip service to “being in the moment” and getting back to nature,” yet we get caught up so easily in the work-a-day world, in getting ahead, in ruing and glorying in the past, in the “blocks and binds” of the city that these two universal values fall by the wayside. Writing haiku is all about being in the moment and getting back to nature, as I may have succeeded in expressing in this “fishing” haiku:

trout strikes

Writing haiku aligns us with the present, brings us deep into the now. We begin to notice what daily we overlook, the small things, the tiny creatures—instances and events as meaningful in their context as our actions are in ours. I experienced this haiku moment a few months back:

pill bug

Writing haiku sharpens our eyes, ears, and attention, much as taking pictures does. We begin to see the interfaces and cruxes of creatures and rock-hard earth, how we survive and even live with gravity, birth, work, love, and death—all packed into a few words or syllables. In other words, the universe is found in a cup of tea. But sometimes we look too hard and see our own minds looking back, instead:

see shell

There are many myths and misconceptions about haiku. While counting syllables is a good way to get started, in the end the syllables matter less than capturing the vast in the minute in a moment’s seeing or connecting, the juxtaposition of the infinite and the finite (and it generally takes fewer syllables to say in English what it takes in Japanese). Writing haiku often involves a realization, as in Zen or other meditative practice. And the most successful haiku manage to evoke that realization in the reader (the irony in the following haiku is that the word “haiku” consists of three syllables in Japanese).

irony is

Traditionally speaking, a successful haiku is likely to manifest certain aesthetic traits: 1) contraction, brevity, reduction to essential, understatement; 2) caesura, interjection, interruption, juxtaposition; 3) novelty, freshness, the new, invention; 4) mysteriousness, the ineffable; and 5) deep appreciation of beauty and deep melancholy because beauty is fleeting (“The Aesthetic Coordinates of Haiku,” Dietmar Tauchnar, Frogpond, Vol. 36:3). The most famous haiku ever, inscribed by Matsuo Basho, is successful for all of these reasons (also my version):

old pond

Thus we are taken so deep into a moment we’re left to flail helplessly and happily even in the mere reading of a haiku. For Wrenzai, the love is in the magic and the discovery. Being attuned to the possibility of writing haiku is a kind of yoga of the moment’s literary spirit, as the mind’s eye stretches to see and relate.

Wrenzai in the Woods

The light is dying, the woods growing shadows, a few last birds feeding at the feeder or on the ground below, a few last scrappers willing to risk the terrifying beak of the low-flying, twilight merlin.

The house looms tall, with its chalet front and barn back, up on its four-foot foundation, dwarfing the willows and myrtles while paying homage to the alder and spruce. Many stars have swept over the house’s head, many seasons of birds fluttered by.

Night House

Night House

Wrenzai got it in his head he wanted to build a house. It was the next big adventure. His father joined him to frame it out and dry it in during the summer of 1997. Wrenzai feels grateful. By September 1999, Wrenzai had finished the house and called it done.

Wrenzai and his wife, with hand tools and determination, gradually snipped and clipped the woods back, making the distance greater for the mosquitoes and the moles.

A house is a demanding spouse, requiring new clothes and accessories. Or new jeans—so be it! Rough-hewn and weather-beaten, scrubbed by wind, rain, light, and brine and pierced by bugs, birds, bats, and raccoons, the upkeep is constant, but meaningful.

Raccoon: Inside or Outside?

Raccoon: Inside or Outside?

Pill Bug’s MissionWrenzai, for the first time, put down his own deep roots. It was in the cutting of the woods, the pouring of the concrete, the piecing together, board by board and nail by nail, of a sanctum sanctorum.

Wrenzai sits at the west end of the dining table with the kitchen behind him and the bird feeder out the window to the left, where over the years he’s observed dozens of species of birds feeding, seen others drawn happily to the commotion (though interested only in bugs and grubs), or turned to follow with his eyes those who merely sail by above.

Storms buffet walls and windows, thrash the willows and myrtles as they flail about like confused green waves, the woods a green sea of chaos.

Head of WindWhen the sun breaks through and lights and warms every recess of the woods and the flowers gleam with the storm’s last rain, there is no doubt this is Paradise, the kind of paradise that can only be experienced stepping out of a dark and raging storm into a halcyon bubble of bliss.

Red-shafted Flicker and Sunny Day

Red-shafted Flicker and Sunny Day

Wrenzai sits at the head of his table, overseeing the birds, clicking away at his keys, writing through sunshine and storm. Millions of words fly through his fingers into reams of digital pages, each word a tiny bird, carrying a tiny message. Some words fly off in tremendous flocks, carrying with them, he likes to think, messages of greater import.

Art of Breathing