Tag Archives: koan

Practicing with uncertainty: ‘Joshu’s dog spreads wings’

More than twenty years ago, I was a member of an amateur choral group that performed a Mozart Litany (K. 125). While it may have lacked the grandeur of the Verdi Requiem or the Beethoven Choral, it was the most challenging piece I ever attempted in my limited career as a utility bass. I have a very good sense of pitch, but rhythm and I are not always in sync, so the snappier passages were problematic in rehearsals, often leaving me in a cone of personal silence as I tried to figure it out. Then I had an insight: This was Mozart, after all, so rather than fret, I could put my trust in him, follow the notes on the page in only the most general way, and just sing what seemed right in the surrounding sound field and the flow of the moment. Astonishingly, it worked. I can remember feeling surprise, humility, gratitude, even a touch of ecstasy, both in rehearsal and in our sole performance one springtime Sunday afternoon.

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Ko|ans|wers for the 21st century

Late in the 20th century I put this comparison at the beginning of a Web essay:

Old joke:
Q: What did the Zen monk say to the hot dog vendor?
A: Make me one with everything.

New joke:
Q: What did Bill Gates say to the HotDog Pro vendor?
A: Make me the one with everything.

For this to have been more than faintly amusing back then, you needed to know who Bill Gates was, of course, but more importantly that HotDog Pro was a wonderful HTML editor, generally way ahead of its time. Today, with the Australian developer, the original Sausage Software, off the radar, the new joke is probably faintly puzzling at best.

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Mon cher Degas

On the side of our refrigerator, I have a quotation from the 19th century poet Stéphane Mallarmé, speaking to his friend, the painter Edgar Degas, who was complaining about the difficulty of converting his ideas for poems into actual poems:

“Ce n’est point avec des idées, mon cher Degas, que l’on fait des vers. C’est avec des mots.” (It’s not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one makes verse. It’s with words.)

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Basho’s frog

In A Zen Wave, Robert Aitken calls it “probably the most famous poem in Japan.”

The old pond;
a frog jumps in —
the sound of the water.

It must surely be the most-translated of Basho’s haiku, or anyone else’s for that matter. In addition to Aitken’s rendering (above), there are another 30 translations available on this eclectic Website, plus Aitken’s commentary. And, for those with an insatiable thirst to drink from the pond, here is a sampling from my favorites:

  • Hiroaki Sato’s compilation of (more than) 100 Frogs;
  • Japan Navigator’s visit to a possible site of the pond;
  • Haiku Chronicles’ podcast on the history and impact of the poem;
  • GeoPedia’s entry on its historical and literary background; and
  • two 21st-century poems with the same title as this post, one from the poetry magazine Rattle and the other from the iron mountain poets blog. As you will see, both are curiously and coincidentally “stellar” (pun intended, of course).

    Take your pick between the traditional or scholarly understanding. Donna Beaver and Alan Pizzarelli, starting at about 02:45 in the Haiku Chronicles podcast linked above, discuss the poem as “a direct observation of a moment in nature,” what Basho himself apparently intended to be “without ideas.” Or you may prefer Robert Aitken’s symbolic view — the pond as a “serene and potent” mind, waiting in zazen for the aural stimulus of the frog’s “plop” to trigger awakening.

    I gravitate to the former perspective, often expressed as “just as it is” (from the Japanese sono-mama), or simply, “just so,” based on the discussion by James H. Austin in his monumental Zen and the Brain (Ch. 132). But put all that aside. Honestly, in this post I was just looking for an excuse to get this wonderful animated GIF back into circulation after its original host site got terminal link rot. And an excuse to use the title as a pun on “Joshu’s dog,” a famous koan (see third bullet on About).

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