Monday, March 16, 2015


I once visited a Buddhist temple in Thailand that had a carp pond on its grounds.  The temple's monks sold small paper bags containing pellets of fish food.  I dutifully purchased a bag and walked on to a footbridge that crossed the pond, which was circular, and about 80 feet in diameter.  At the midpoint of the bridge, I leaned on its ledge and looked down into the dark water ten feet or so below, where I could see shadowy movements beneath the surface.  I threw a handful of pellets into the water.

What happened next viscerally shocked me.  Hundreds of black and silver carp instantaneously emerged out of the water in a proverbial feeding frenzy, climbing over each other in competition for the pellets.  The pond surged and roiled and bubbled.

Call me overly sensitive, but I was physically and emotionally stunned by the spectacle.  My immediate thought (I have no idea where it came from) was:  This is us.

I sometimes wonder whether this fish-feeding exercise was planned by the monks to teach us spiritual amateurs the Buddhist concept of trishna (literally, "thirst," but also desire, craving, grasping, clinging), which is thought to be the primary cause of dukkha, the suffering which is our lot as human beings.  In any event, the exercise was successful in my case:  it is the closest I have ever come to an experience of "enlightenment."

Roger Fry, "Market in a Disused Church in France" (1928)

Let me be clear:  I make no claim to possessing any extraordinary powers of awareness or perception.  Until that day at the carp pond I was a sleepwalker.  It was a well-deserved (and much-needed) slap in the face. (Of course, I am still mostly a sleepwalker.)

As I noted in a recent post, I believe that, in our heart of hearts, each of us knows these Eternal Verities.  Poets throughout the world and throughout the ages have known them.  We ought to listen.

                         A Gentle Wind

A gentle wind fans the calm night;
A bright moon shines on the high tower.
A voice whispers, but no one answers when I call;
A shadow stirs, but no one comes when I beckon.
The kitchen-man brings in a dish of bean-leaves;
Wine is there, but I do not fill my cup.
Contentment with poverty is Fortune's best gift;
Riches and Honour are the handmaids of Disaster.
Though gold and gems by the world are sought and prized,
To me they seem no more than weeds or chaff.

Fu Hsuan (217-278) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918).

At this point, a pause is required.  In fact, I have considered abandoning this post altogether.  I am an American, and this blog has an international readership (for which I am profoundly grateful).  Coming from the country that I do (by accident of birth), I fear that it is perhaps extremely insensitive and obtuse of me to venture into the subject of the role that material wealth plays in our lives.  Isn't this what the younger generation mockingly calls "a First World problem"?  I have never known want (a circumstance of fate which I try to be mindful of, and thankful for, on a daily basis), so who am I to engage in mental contortions about the role of wealth in our life, or to post a poem which contains the line "contentment with poverty is Fortune's best gift"?  It's a problem.

I shall leave it at this:  I am aware of my position, and it troubles me.  That being said, I do believe that this is an issue that is a fundamental human issue, not solely a matter of economics or of politics.  To wit (at the risk of sounding glib):  trishna and dukkha.  The fact that poets wrote about the subject in China in the 3rd century, in the remnants of the Roman Empire in the 6th century (see below), and in England in the 17th century (see below) tells us that this is a matter of how the soul makes its way through life.

Roger Fry, "The Cloister" (1924)

The following three poems appear in sequence in Robert Herrick's Hesperides.

                 Poverty and Riches

Give Want her welcome if she comes; we find
Riches to be but burthens to the mind.


Who with a little cannot be content,
Endures an everlasting punishment.

               The Covetous Still Captives

Let's live with that small pittance that we have;
Who covets more, is evermore a slave.

Robert Herrick, Poems 605, 606, and 607, Hesperides (1648).

Herrick italicizes the second line of "The Covetous Still Captives" in order to signal that it has a classical source (this is his usual practice in Hesperides).  The source is Book I, Epistle 10, lines 39-41, of Horace's Epistles:  "the base man who forgoes his freedom . . . through fear of poverty, bears a master and is a slave forever, because he does not know how to make much of little."  Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2013), pages 685-686.

Roger Fry, "Lilies" (1917)

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 480-524) wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while imprisoned for alleged treason against Theodoric, the Ostrogoth king who ruled over what was left of the Roman Empire.  As a practical matter, he was then living under a sentence of death (which would eventually be carried out).  The work consists of a dialogue between Boethius and Lady Philosophy.  The following poem appears in Book II, in which Philosophy counsels Boethius on the fickleness of Fortune, and on the ingratitude of humans for the blessings, however transitory, that are bestowed upon them by Fortune's ever-turning wheel.

Should Plenty ever pour out riches
     abundant as sands on a beach
that the waves pile up, or the stars in the clear
     night sky, without stinting,
men would not cease their endless complaining
     and pleading always for more.
If God were prodigal, showering gold
     in answer to every prayer,
and heaping honors on every head,
     they would not be content,
never mind grateful.  They'd take it for granted.
     Greed opens new maws.
There are no limits, no satiation,
     even in those who choke
on their wealth and good fortune.  Their thirsts yet
     burn with poverty's need.

Boethius (translated by David Slavitt), The Consolation of Philosophy (Harvard University Press 2008), pages 33-34.

In addition to being lovable and always good for a laugh, Arthur Schopenhauer is an astute judge of human nature.  In the following aphorism he provides us with a clue as to why "poverty's need" is never quenched in some of us, and why "greed opens new maws," no matter how much some of us acquire:

"Money is human happiness in abstracto; and so the man who is no longer capable of enjoying such happiness in concreto, sets his whole heart on money."

Arthur Schopenhauer (translated by E. F. J. Payne), "Psychological Remarks," Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume II (1851).

Roger Fry, "La Salle des Caryatides in the Louvre"


Fred said...


"Freedom from desire leads to inner peace." Lao-Tse

This seems to be a common thread regardless of the culture or era.

Bovey Belle said...

What a fascinatating post. I cannot comment on the poetry with any knowledge but thank you for the pleasure gained from it. Your choices have brought to mind a saying,"The best things in life are free." Let us cherish them.

Bruce Floyd said...

but de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin." --Queequeg


Your experience with the carp, the roiling frenzy erupting in still and serene waters, the carp en masse a cacodemon of unconscious will, chaos seemingly gone mad, and your stark psychological response to the harrowing scene: that sudden and despairing truth rearing up before you: "This is us."

Yes, the truth knocked at the door to your mind, too potent to be kept from entering, the thing itself purging your sensibility of all save that churning water and what it meant. We know it had nothing to do with fish merely feeding.

I'd suggest, even though it might seem foolish, that you experienced a Melvillean moment, an understanding of what the world is like beneath our calming illusions.

Because of his years on a whaling vessel Melvile saw a world Emerson and Thoreau could not conceive of. Nature, to Melville, gave man no favors, rather ignored him, ran its blind gluttonous way. Some say that Melville understood that Evil does exist, nay, not only exists but it might be the hard kernel at the heart of the universe.

In Chapter 66 of Moby-Dick Melville describes a monstrous scene of a school of sharks savagely and voraciously tearing at the carcass of a dead whale tethered to the Pequod. The men with long spear-like devices try to drive the sharks away. Below is the conclusion of Chapter 66:

"[The sharks] voracity can be at times considerably diminished, by vigorously stirring them up with sharp whaling-spades, a procedure notwithstanding, which, in some instances, only seems to tickle them into still greater activity. But it was not thus in the present case with the [the crew of the Pequod]. [When they]looked over her side that night, [they] thought the whole round sea was one huge cheese, and those sharks the maggots in it.

"[The men lower] the cutting stages over the side, and lowering three lanterns, so that they cast long gleams of light over the turbid sea,darting their long whaling-spades,* kept up an incessant murdering of the sharks, by striking the keen steel deep into their skulls, seemingly their only vital part. But in the foamy confusion of their mixed and struggling hosts, the marksmen could not always hit their mark; and this brought about new revelations of the incredible ferocity of the foe. They viciously snapped, not only at each other's disembowelments, but like flexible bows, bent round, and bit their own; till those entrails seemed swallowed over and over again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by the gaping wound. Nor was this all. It was unsafe to meddle with the corpses and ghosts of these creatures. A sort of generic or Pantheistic vitality seemed to lurk in their very joints and bones, after what might be called the individual life had departed. Killed and hoisted on deck for the sake of his skin, one of these sharks almost took poor Queequeg's hand off, when he tried to shut down the dead lid of his murderous jaw.. . . 'Queequeg no care what god made him shark," said but de god wat made shark must be one dam Ingin.'"

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you for the quote from Lao-Tse, which fits perfectly here. As you know, the common, but separately-developed, insights of Taoism and Buddhism are striking. And the way that the two philosophies influenced each other in Chinese culture and, later, in Japanese culture is a wonderful thing. But I agree with you as well that these same insights are found everywhere and in all ages.

As always, it's good to hear from you. Thank you very much for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bovey Belle: Thank you very much for your kind words, and for your thoughts. I'm pleased you liked the post. I came across these poems and they seemed to fit well together. I concur with your sentiment about "the best things in life . . ." Speaking for myself, the older I get, the more I realize the truth of the statement.

It's nice to hear from you. I hope that Spring is emerging where you are.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: Thank you for sharing the passage from Melville. Perhaps it is the common maritime setting, but your comment brought to mind a comment you made earlier this month about Conrad -- specifically Marlow and Heart of Darkness. Another telling instance of that which lies below the surface coming to light. Melville and Conrad have a great deal in common in this regard, I think.

I should note that my moment at the carp pond did not have the underlying darkness of Melville's and Conrad's hidden worlds: it was more a case of shock and queasiness at what I had gotten a glimpse of.

As ever, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Fred said...


I had read that for a long time, scholars had assumed that Taoism was an offshoot of Buddhism, but now some think that Buddhism actually was strongly influenced by Taoism.

Not being a scholar, I'm naive enough to think that maybe both developed independently and then perhaps influenced each other.

One thing does seem clear though, that Buddhism and Taoism influenced each other it came to China and then modified went to Japan as Zen Buddhism.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I'm no scholar either, and I haven't done detailed research on the exact timelines. However, I, like you, have leaned toward the conclusion that they did develop independently of each other. Although, as you know, the exact years of their lives are impossible to pin down, there is a slight possibility that Lao Tzu and Gautama Buddha may even have been contemporaries (although they did not know of each other). As to which came first, I've always leaned toward the view that Taoism preceded Buddhism, and influenced it. Hence, as you note, Ch'an Buddhism in China and Zen Buddhism in Japan. Again, I am a rank amateur, but this is my view. In any event, the insights and principles of both are wonderful, as is the way they influenced each other.

Thank you very much for your follow-up thoughts.

betsy said...

Pleonexia. When enough is never enough.

Stephen Pentz said...

Betsy: Thank you for introducing me to a new word, and concept. It is perfect in this context. I have now done a little research, and have discovered that the concept goes back to Plato. Very interesting. I appreciate your sharing it.

Thank you very much for visiting again.

Esther said...

When I read the two lines of The Covetous Still Captives, I felt a weight drop from me. Thank you.

This is off the subject, but I read last night that when they planned Meiji Jingu, there were relatively few trees there. They brought in 100,000 trees from around Japan so that a hundred years later it would be the natural-looking forest it is today. Since that was the setting for your poem, I thought you would be interested.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: It's good to hear from you again. Many of Herrick's poems have a similar effect on me. I'm pleased that "The Covetous Still Captives" resonated with you. It does with me as well.

As you know, the 1000+ poems in Herrick's Hesperides are a huge hodgepodge. But I keep returning to him for the humanity, good will, and fundamental good sense that awaits us there.

Thank you for the information about the Meiji Jingu trees, which I was not aware of. You have made me long to return there, especially since we are approaching iris season. It is a proverbial oasis of calm in a particularly frenetic part of Tokyo (although, of course, Tokyo as a whole is sort of the definition of frenetic). But there are a number of oases. And this is one that I have fond memories of.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I understand this comment thas little to do with your superb posting about your sudden illumination. I beg your indulgence. I'd like to comment on the comment about Melville.

It is not only belief in God that must be abandoned, not only all hope of life after death, but all trust in an ordained moral order. The absence of moral order unconnected with human manners is certain. We must be prepared to take our bearings without a compass and with the slippery deck of our life-vessel sliding away under our feet. We are put to our resources like shipwrecked seaman. We have no sense of direction, and recognized without dispute that beyond the margin of our scant moment all is lost.
Llewelyn Powys

History has developed by means of absurdity; people have constantly set their hearts on chimeras, and have achieved very real results. In waking dreams they have gone after the rainbow, sought not paradise in heaven, now heaven on earth, and their way have sung everlasting songs, have decorated temples .People will accept anything, believe in anything, submit to anything and are ready to sacrifice much; but they recoil in horror when through the gaping chink which lets in the light of day and the cool wind of reason . . .
--Alexander Herzen

. . . [To] see the world as it really is devastating and terrifying. It makes routine, automatic, secure, self-confident activity impossible. It places a trembling animal at the mercy of the entire cosmos and the problem of the meaning of it. . .Creation is a nightmares spectacle taking place on a planet that has been soaked in for hundreds of millions of years of all its creatures. The soberest conclusion is the planet has been turned into a vast pit of fertilizer. But the sun distracts our attention, always baking the blood dry, making things grow over it[We] try to make the world other than it is, legislate the grotesque out of it.
--Ernest Becker
Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of to-morrow....There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves in a world that... is always but a vain and fleeting appearance....
A moment and nothing is left` but a clod of mud, of cold mud, of dead mud cast into black space, rolling around an extinguished sun. Nothing. Neither thought, nor sound, nor soul. Nothing.
-- Letter to Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, quoted in Jeffrey Meyers, Joseph Conrad: A Biography

In his book “The Silence of Animals,”

John Gray says of Freud: “A type of resignation was the core of Freud’s ethic. But the resignation he advised was the opposite of submission to the world. He never dreamed merging the self with any cosmic order. Resignation meant accepting the fact of ultimate chaos. Like the stoics Freud knew that much had to be renounced if the mind was not to be always wavering. Yet his goal was not the tranquility pursued—and never found, one suspects—by Marcus Aurelius. Instead Freud suggested a way of life based on accepting perpetual unrest. Resignation did not mean shrinking the self to the point where it could live without being thwarted by fate. It meant fortifying the self so that human beings could assert themselves against fate.” To Freud the end of true knowledge of oneself and the world is the acceptance of a personal fate. It is sickly to think that a human can live a life without conflict. It the hope of a life without disorder that ails us. No doubt we humans are messed up. Where Freud differs from most purveyors of bromides to salve the soul is Freud’s conclusion that his peculiar human sickness “has no cure.”

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Well, that is quite a bit to digest! But I thank you very much for sharing these passages, all of which are new to me. They all are apt to the subject at hand.

One thought strikes me immediately: reading the passages, I realize why the Asian way of looking at these things is much more appealing to me (i.e., the Buddhist/Taoist/Chinese/Japanese philosophical and poetic traditions). They see all of the same underlying things as these Western writers you quote, but they have a tranquility, serenity, and detachment that the Western writers lack. There is no despair. Thus, Chinese lyric poetry and Japanese haiku and kanshi recognize what lies beneath, but, reading them, I always come away with a sense of peace.

I see that Conrad appears: as I suggested in my response to Mr. Floyd's comment, I know that he has a lot to say on this matter. As for Freud . . . well, don't get me started on him: I have nothing good to say.

One final thought: to return to my experience in Thailand (briefly): it had none of the horrific elements displayed in the passages you quote. Apart from the shock of recognition, I'd say my predominant feeling was one of sadness for the human condition we all share.

Again, thank you very much for taking the time to share these passages, which are all thought-provoking.