January 22, 2014

Dharma and Poetry

Walt Whitman 1854

A Dialogue of Spirit

This is a dialogue I've created between the Bhagavad Gita and Walt Whitman.  To begin, the speakers must introduce themselves. The poet wrote these words in Leaves of Grass:  
I am the poet of the Body, and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue. 
Whitman's voice is unmistakable.  He employs anaphoric lines, parallel structures, and expands himself across all borders of body and soul.  He does, as he says, graft and increase the pleasures, and the pains he does translate into a new tongue. He is without complaint and without woe. He embraces multitudes. Krishna says: One who knows Me as birth less, beginningless, and the supreme controller of all the worlds….

We hear Whitman's music as his voice rolls like thunder over the populated cities and over the prairies and mountains, from ocean to ocean. He addresses the multitudes, all people and presidents and God.  He also says much about methods and materials.
I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are
to be the most spiritual poems,
And I will make the poems of my body and of mortality,
For I think I shall then supply myself with the poems
of my soul and of immortality.

I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that
were threatening to consume me,
I will lift what has too long kept down those smoulder-
ing fires,
I will give them complete abandonment,
I will write the evangel-poem of comrades and of love,
For who but I should understand love with all its
sorrow and joy?
And who but I should be the poet of comrades? 
The writer's voice encompasses the music and cadences of the individual writer's speech, and it also encompasses the body, the mortality, and the burning fires of the poet.  He gives himself completely to the task.

Lord Krishna says:
Spiritual intelligence, knowledge, freedom from false perception, compassion, truthfulness, control of the senses, control of the mind, happiness, unhappiness, birth, death, fear and fearlessness, nonviolence, equanimity, contentment, austerity, charity, fame, infamy; all these variegated diverse qualities of all living entities originate from Me alone.
I am the original generating cause of all causes, everything emanates from Me….

Among mountains, says Krishna, He is the Himalayans.  Although Whitman doesn't claim as much power and strength as Krishna, the voice of Whitman is strong.  When he walks, he walks through the prairies and mountains.  His poetry speaks to one's spirit.  It is the flame from the fires consuming us. In both of the texts,  the connection between writer and reader is intense, intimate, and meaningful.

If writing is a form of spiritual autobiography that sometimes leads and sometimes follows the soul's path, then writing can be informed by the wisdom of spiritual practices. It can be its own spiritual practice.  And this is why that I have decided to juxtapose Whitman with The Bhagavad Gita. As a writer, I know my own writing is invoked by things that stir me or affect my spirit. As a teaching artist, I know that nurturing the spirit encourages creative writing.  In both writing, reading, and teaching I search for correspondences.
Dharma and Poetry

In Buddhist practice, "dharma" refers to the body of teachings set forth by the Buddha and the duty to conduct oneself according to the teachings in order to achieve enlightenment.  In Hinduism, the meaning is slightly different. Dharma, according to Kripalu Center's Stephen Cope, means "path," "teaching," "law," "vocation," "sacred duty," and "truth."  Using the story of the Bhagavad Gita, Stephen Cope wrote The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling. The book explores, from a Hindu perspective, stories from several well known figures in American culture: Walt Whitman, John Keats, and others in various fields. Cope says that the gift that one receives at birth, that passion or thing that one does well naturally or instinctively, points toward a direction in life, it is a "doorway to God" or dharma.

Cope's book focuses his book on vocation. According to the Bhagavad-Gita, each person must do the activities prescribed for them in life. Action is emphasized, the action that is consistent with dharma. Inaction has negative effects and does not lead to enlightenment. A warrior must perform his duty as a warrior, and each person must perform their particular prescribed action for the "welfare of the world."

Walt Whitman likely had become "self-realized."  His creative work provides a clear record of his path as he travelled and embraced the people he met. His writings reflect his broad vision of love and inclusiveness.  Of the music in Whitman's work, CK Williams writes:
It's essential to keep in mind that in poetry the music comes first, before everything else, everything else: until the poem has found its music, it's merely verbal matter, information. Thought, meaning, vision, the very words, come after the music has been established, and in the most mysterious way they're already contained in it. Without the music, there's nothing: thought, merely, ideation; in Coleridge's terms, not imagination, just fancy; intention, hope, longing, but not poetry: Wait, Muse! Let me sing it to you, wait!

The Bhagavad-Gita is a guide to nirvana. In the sacred Hindu text, the story begins as two armies are preparing for battle.  To view this from a storytelling perspective, it begins at the place of highest tension and it immediately commands the listener's attention.  From his chariot, the warrior Arjuna confronts the faces of the enemy and its supporters, so much like the faces of his own family and friends. He becomes seized by doubt, and he questions the course of his action. Should he quit? Why should he slay these men who are like the men in his own community?  Wouldn't it be better to simply die without taking other lives?

The sacred text is the conversation between the leader of the battle, Krisna and Arjuna.  Of course, Lord Krisna is not simply a commander of the army, but he is Lord Krishna, who has made himself into a human form. He proceeds to instruct Arjuna about how to achieve spiritual intelligence and align his individual consciousness with Ultimate Consciousness.

"Become self-realized," Lord Krishna says to the warrior Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.  This is one of the important lessons aside from freeing oneself from duality and attachments to sensual things or outcomes. The story is powerful and the meanings far deeper than I summarize. The central question, spoken by Arjuna is complex and poses dilemmas related to morality and social expectation besides those of individual vocation. It presents a vision of the universe that is vast; circling with perpetual births and deaths, and with souls ascending and descending, and all of it contained inside of God.

Metaphorically, I find truth in the story. Cope, in speaking of vocation, recommends that readers 1. look to the individual dharma, 2. take action to the fullest extent, 3. let go of the outcome or fruits of action, and  4. trust everything to God. But in the Bhagavad Gita, I'm wince at the actual situation. Nowhere are the stakes higher than they are for a warrior. To become self-realized and act will have dire consequences. In the context, all of Arjuna's concerns are reasonable.

When Krishna advises him to function as prescribed in his role as warrior, I find myself mute. He is asking him to embrace death. Of course, there are situations and times when a warrior must do what warriors do. Of course, it is true that death is a fact for all who are born; it is inevitable and inescapable. Embracing death means accepting the truth of our ephemeral lives and gives us clarity and in the words of Krishna, "spiritual intelligence."

Here are some excerpts:

Chapter 2, verse 20:
The soul never takes birth and never dies at any time nor does it come into being again when the body is created. The soul is birth less, eternal, imperishable, and timeless and is never destroyed when the body is destroyed
Chapter 2, verse 47-48:
You certainly have the right for prescribed activities but never at anytime in their results. You should never be motivated by the results of the actions, nor should there be any attachment to not doing your prescribed activities.…perform your activities giving up attachment and become equipoised in both success and failure. This equanimity is known as the science of uniting the individual consciousness with the Ultimate Consciousness. 
Krishna says, Ch 7: Verse 8 :
O Arjuna, I am the sweetness of flavor in the water, the radiant luster of the sun and the moon; the primordial root syllable Om within all the Vedas' the subsonic element of sound in ether and the ability in man.  
Chap 8: Attainment of Salvation Verse 9:
One meditates on the omniscient, primordial, the controller, smaller than the atom, yet the maintainer of everything; who's form is inconceivable, resplendent like the sun and totally transcendental to the material nature. 
Chap 9: Confidential Knowledge of the Ultimate Truth, Verse 6:
Understand just as the mighty wind blowing everywhere is always situation within space; similarly all created beings thus are situated in Me.
 Ch 10: The Infinite Glories of the Ultimate Truth, Verse 32:
O Arjuna, I alone am the creator, maintainer, and destroyer of all creation, of knowledge I am spiritual knowledge and of arguments I am the logical conclusion.
The voice and vision of this text is breathtaking--it is a great piece of literature--and I reach for Whitman's Leaves of Grass in response. This poet also put aside duality and reached transcendence.  He was close to the other Transcendentalists in American literature (like Emerson).  At the time these writers were writing, the Bhagavad Gita was also circulating among them.   Whitman says:
And I will show that there is no imperfection in the
present, and can be none in the future,
And I will show that whatever happens to anybody it
may be turn'd to beautiful results,
And I will show that nothing can happen more beautiful
than death,
And I will thread a thread through my poems that time
and events are compact,
And that all the things of the universe are miracles,
each as profound as any.

I will not make poems with reference to parts,
But I will make poems, songs, thoughts, with reference
to ensemble,
And I will not sing with reference to a day, but with
reference to all days,
And I will not make a poem nor the least part of a poem
but has reference to the soul,
Because having look'd at the objects of the universe, I
find there is no one nor any particle of one but has
reference to the soul.
The "self" of Whitman is broad and expansive. His consciousness is inclusive; he addresses and acknowledges people of all colors and embraces both genders. He is democratic and optimistic, and celebrates all.  His attention to the mundane becomes an exploration of beauty and "suchness" in life.  The title poem of Leaves of Grass provides a meditation of the lowly leaves of grass, the "unshorn hair of graves," with root and leaf rising in an ever-renewing vision of life.

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than
before known, 
Arouse! for you must justify me.
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the
I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a
casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you. 
The poem addresses all future voices with its imperative.  It provides a fleeting image of a man who glances up into the eyes and then disappears in a crowd, or into the past, I feel moved by the encounter.  Perhaps the divine had manifested in him for awhile, like Krishna who takes human form from time to time.  A poem like this could have easily come from the creator of the universe.  "Leaving you to prove and define it,/ Expecting the main things from you."  

Work Cited

Cope, Stephen.  The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling.  Random House, NY 2012. 

Bhagavad Gita. copyright Bhagavad Gita Trust 1998-2009.  Web. Retrieved 21 January 2014. http://www.bhagavad-gita.org.  Note: for a continuous text version (although not as eloquent see

Whitman, Walt.  The Walt Whitman Archive, editors Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln under a Creative Commons License.  Web.  21 January 2014 http://www.whitmanarchive.org/published/books/other/rhys.html

Williams, CK.  "On Whitman: The Music."  Copyright 2010.  Academy of American Poets.  Web. Retrieved 22 January 2014.  http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/21919

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