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.)

— From Paul Valéry, [mis]quoted in Harper’s Magazine.

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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:

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