Happiness, a mere bit of sentimentality

Finding it necessary, at least temporarily, to get back to literature, I picked up Shinkichi Takahasi’s Triumph of the Sparrow translated by Lucien Stryk. It’s one of the more recent additions to my library, but it was one of the shorter works I’ve purchased lately, and it made good reading while I waited for my latest checkup at the doctor’s office.

The introduction points out that Takahasi started his career as a Dadaist in the 20’s and 30’s, but later studied under a zen master and soon was “widely recognized as he foremost living zen poet.” Ironically, since the poems are undated it’s impossible to tell which periods the poems come from. Perhaps the distinction is irrelevant, though, as the translator cites Takashi Ikemoto as saying, “To a Zen poet, a thing of beauty or anything in nature is the Absolute. Hence his freedom from rationality and his recourse to uncommon symbols.” That may well explain my attraction to both surrealists, an apparent offshoot of the Dadaists, and to Zen poets.

I found myself attracted to a considerable number of poems in this volume, but “Burning Oneself to Death” was one of the first ones I was attracted to. For me, at least, it stands as the most dramatic symbol of the anti-War movement during the Vietnam era. It is a strangely compelling image, one that one wants to turn away from but is unable to.

To my western mind, it’s difficult to comprehend lighting oneself on fire in protest of injustice, no matter how severe the injustice. Yes, I can see the wisdom in King’s non-violent protest, and, yes, I can see allowing yourself to be beaten by policemen to show the brutality of an unjust government, but it’s impossible to imagine lighting myself on fire as a means of protest. Still, it’s hard to ignore the power of religious beliefs that allow a person to make this ultimate sacrifice.

Burning Oneself to Death

That was the best moment of the monk’s life.
Firm on a pile of firewood
With nothing more to say, hear, see,
Smoke wrapped him, his folded hands blazed.

There was nothing more to do, the end
Of everything. He remembered, as a cool breeze
Streamed through him, that one is always
In the same place, and that there is no time.

Suddenly a whirling mushroom cloud rose
Before his singed eyes, and he was a mass
Of flame. Globes, one after another, rolled out,
The delighted sparrows flew round like fire balls.

The first line, “That was the best moment of the monk’s life” grabs you from the very start. Why is it the best moment? Is it the happiest moment? Is it because he finds the courage to sacrifice his life to a cause greater than himself? In this act does he make an important discovery about the meaning of life? Has he realized that “one is always in the same place, and that there is no time”? How can a “cool breeze” stream through him as he is engulfed in flames. Has he freed himself from the lies that tie the rest of us to our ground of reality?

Although it may merely be my failing memory, I can almost recall “delighted sparrows” flying around the monks, though perhaps it was merely pieces of clothing and debris caught in the updraft. Whether or not they were there, it is a particularly powerful symbol in this collection where, as the translator notes, “what the poet says to us is that man, unlike the sparrow, has created forms which confine and frustrate, and until he sees that they have no reality … he will continue to tremble before them, their prisoner. He must live freely as the sparrow who can, should he wish, crush the universe and its creator.” The sparrow, as in Western tradition where it stands for the human soul, stands for the ultimate spiritual freedom.

Though perhaps first caught by the line “Happiness – a mere bit of sentimentality,” the next poem also reveals truths that, though too obvious to ignore, are often forgotten:

One Hundred Billionth of a Second

How long will this happiness last
Why, not one hundred billionth of a second-
Appalling! If I permit myself to think,
The farther I’ll be from the truth.

To think, muse, is to substitute time,
That beggar’s dirty bag, for truth,
Which lasts one hundred billionth of a second.
Time isn’t, nor space. "Thinking over,"

Sheer impossibility. Isn’t happiness
To reside there in peace?
No, "to reside there in peace" is misleading,
Since there nothing of time exits.

There’s no continuous subjective being,
No place for correlation.
Happiness-a mere bit of sentimentality,
Which neither lasts nor fades.

Happiness, at its best, does seem fleeting and to try to examine why one is happy, to think about happiness per se, does, indeed, seem to make if vanish instantly. Thinking, by itself, has probably never made anyone happy, which may well explain why writers, in general, are such a melancholy lot. At times, one does suspect that the more you think about an event the further you’ll be from truth, and from happiness.

Looking back, happiness seems at best fleeting, though “one hundred billionth of a second,” may be a poetic exaggeration. Is happiness a “mere bit of sentimentality,” a deliberate distortion of reality? If so, no wonder some of us are so unwilling to give up “sentimentality.”

On the other hand, it often seems that it is this very rejection of the possiblility of happiness and the constant emphasis on the sorrowful nature of life that makes it most difficult for me to accept most Eastern religions. The unfortunate reality is that happiness, or at least contentment, is a primary goal in my life. I was originally drawn to concepts such as enlightenment because they brought “rapture” and a feeling of “true joy.” Oftentimes, western artists used sexual metaphors to describe the feeling of enlightenment. For instance, in “And It Stoned Me,” Van Morrison says, “ And it stoned me to my soul/ Stoned me just like Jelly Roll,” an obvious comparison of enlightenment with sex.

Eastern mystics, though, describe enlightenment very differently, and it is hard to reconcile those descriptions with the goals and expectations we have set up in the Western world, where it’s hard to accept the idea that happiness last less than “one hundred billionth of a second.”