Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis
by Philip Whalen
I praise those ancient Chinamen
Who left me a few words,
Usually a pointless joke or silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the margin of a quick splashed picture -
bug, leaf, caricature of Teacher
on paper held together now by little more than ink
& their own strength brushed momentarily over it
Their world and several since
Gone to hell in a handbasket, they knew it -
Cheered as it whizzed by -
& conked out among the busted spring rain
Happy to have saved us all.
Philip Whalen is a contemporary of Gary Snyder, and was a member with Allen Ginsberg & Jack Kerouac of the Beat movement back in the 1950's, when this was written. Like Snyder, he has being practicing Zen since those days and for the last few years he has been Abbot of the Hartford Street Zendo in San Francisco. But this poem was written almost forty years ago, and now seems like a rather romantic little Zen fairy tale. For years I was very attached to the pretty picture it paints of detachment. It's nice to imagine ourselves reaching a state where we could watch our whole world fall apart and not feel anything except this sort of delightful freedom, but our real life experience of change or loss is rarely like that. Even moving, taking apart our household, packing everything up - even when we know we're going to be able to put it all back together in a few days in a new location, even that much change and disruption can feel very threatening and stressful. And I'm sure many of you have had to deal, as I have, with going through all the possessions in the estate of a deceased parent or loved one, trying to sort it all out trying to decide what should be saved, and what must be let go of. When my wife's grandmother died, her mother tried to save as much as possible, to the point of recreating in her suburban home some of the rooms in her mother's old apartment, and filling the basement with years and years worth of memorabilia. But when my mother died, my father sold their home and gave away practically everything, moving into a retirement home with not much more than a toothbrush and a suitcase of clothes. We all have different styles of coping and trying to defend ourselves against loss, and our practice is to try to stay with those feelings directly and watch the ways we deal or don't deal with them.
Even though this poem represents a very idealized picture, it might be worth looking at the last line, "Happy to have saved us all." A very different use of the word "saved" from my mother-in-laws attempt to save everything that belonged to her mother, isn't it? In a traditional version of the Four Vows, the first vow is translated "Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all," and the ancient Chinamen in Whalen's poem, somehow have fulfilled that vow. In what sense? When we chant each week, "Being just this moment, Compassion's Way, I wonderÂ if you've given any thought to just what "being just this moment " hasÂ to do with compassion? It's not at all our usual idea of compassion, anymore than we would normally think of a couple of drunken Chinese poets as "saving" anybody. Come into daisan and tell me what you think. Perhaps I will just say that one thing that can tie these two ideas together is that being just this moment includes an awareness and acceptence of the transitory nature of each moment. A willingness to both experience it fully and to let it go. As an old Teacher once said, the acceptence of impermanence doesn't mean that we reach a state where we don't care about people or things, rather we know that sooner or later they all go away. So maybe a more mature, if less "poetic" picture of those ancient Chinamen would include their being able to cry as well as cheer as their world went whizzing by.