Keeping the Faith:
The Narrative Metaphysical Poems of Harold Stewart
by Barry Leckenby
Australian born poet and Buddhist scholar Harold Stewart loved Kyoto; it was his spiritual home. He lived in Japan's ancient capital for the last twenty-nine years of his life. During this time he collected Buddhist art, including the mandalas representing the Larger, the Smaller and the Contemplation Sutras. These mandalas are rare visual examples of the Mahayana Sutras chosen by Honen, the visionary priest who initiated Pure Land Buddhism, as the most important for that religion. To increase awareness of them outside Japan, Hisao Inagaki, in collaboration with Harold, wrote The Three Pure Land Sutras: a definitive source for those wishing to better understand their iconographical and symbolical significance. It is for this and other important scholarly contributions, which will be my major focus, that Harold has earned a special place in Pure Land Buddhism.
[ [i] ] Galen Amstutz, Interpreting Amida: History and Orientalism in the study of Pure Land Buddhism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), p.86.
His writings are seminally important because at a time when few people outside Japan had taken any interest in Pure Land Buddhism, he was looking to spread the recitation of the Name in the West. Galen Amstutz in Interpreting Amida writes: 'While Zen exercised considerable influence on modern Western creative writers ranging from Jack Kerouac to Peter Mathiessen, the independent uptake of the Shin religious perspective has remained almost nil; an exception is Harold Stewart's little known By the Old Walls of Kyoto.'[[ i ]] American Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were influenced by Zen from the 1950s. Harold was writing poetry influenced by Taoism and Zen some twenty years before Zen had beach headed on to the North American continent. Mahayana Buddhism influenced his poetry from the beginning of his poetic career in the 1930's and lasted a lifetime. His 'independent uptake' of Pure Land Buddhism began in earnest during the 1960s after he was drawn to Kyoto. The depth of his Buddhist knowledge gave him acute metaphysical insight, making him one of the most outstanding Eastern-influenced spiritual writers of the twentieth century.
By the Old Walls of Kyoto
The practical simplicity and democratic applicability of the Name was like a magnet for Harold. He had been searching for a less prescriptive spirituality that exiled nobody from the paradisiacal afterlife. His spiritual journey is poignantly recorded in By the Old Walls of Kyoto (hereafter referred to as Old Walls). He wrote Old Walls in celebration of Kyoto and Amida. It is the poetic soul's 'lonely planet' guide to Kyoto, providing a testament to how he overcomes his spiritual doubt. The thirteen narrative poems, each accompanied by an expositional essay, capture the essence of the Pure Land teachings, following the poet amongst the temples, through the quiet lanes at sunrise, up the mountains and across the fields of Kyoto in search of Amida's Pure Land - the land of ultimate happiness beyond this cycle of birth and death. In a fleeting moment of transcendence he briefly envisions such a paradise in the fields of Ohara: a farming district north of Kyoto, noted for its traditional Japanese thatched roofs and waterwheels. When witnessing the glory of the Pure Land here on earth he asks somewhat incredulously:
My dusty journey ends in joy today:
As only two thousand copies of the book were ever published, it is not surprising that just a small number of people are familiar with the literary riches of Old Walls. It is difficult, but not impossible, to find a copy (try the Internet), and worthwhile tracking one down as it is an immaculate source of Buddhist wisdom filled with the sort of compassionate observation that goes straight to the heart of spiritual reckoning.
[ [ii] ] James Legge, Confucius: Confucian Analects, The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean, Chinese Test; translation with exegetical notes and Dictionary of all Characters (New York: Dover Publications, 1971), p.145.
Harold, like Old Walls, is not well known outside a small circle of friends. This lack of recognition is indicative of his private nature and not an adverse judgement of his work. He never overtly sought public attention but worked to cultivate the inner light and life of Amida as he maintained a global network of friends. The words of Confucius rightfully apply to him: 'I will not be afflicted at men's not knowing me; I will be afflicted that I do not know men.'[ [ii] ]
In Poem Six of Old Walls he looks back upon his life, grateful for anonymity, recognising that it gave him time to transmute youthful desires, burning as they did like a hostile sun, and acquire the saving tranquillity of the Name:
High summer's tyranny has loosed its hold;
Harold is now 'safely dead,' passing during Obon in 1995 - the celebratory time in Japan when the spirits of the dead return to their living descendants. During his 'evening years of gold' in Kyoto he dedicated his life and poetry to the Name as he practiced the Dharma. Though as he alludes to with his declaration: 'This irreligious world renounces me,' the possibility of following a religious faith without ever transgressing its principles becomes increasingly difficult in a world that neglects spiritual possibilities for the more tangible and instant rewards of material pursuits.
[ [iii] ] Harold Stewart, By the Old Walls of Kyoto: A years cycle of landscape poems with prose commentaries (Tokyo, New York: Weatherhill, 1981), p.210.
'One of the most cherished prejudices of the twentieth century,' he writes, 'has been that the benighted ages of faith are now happily outgrown with the childhood of the race and that, fully adult at last, we can take pride in living in a rationally enlightened period of disbelief.'[ [iii] ] It is commonly accepted today that Science has exposed religion as a superstitious folly. Sceptics argue that visions such as the Pure Land are mere castles in the air, nothing more than the deluded fabrications of the desperate: a persuasive argument enticing many to pray at the altar of Mammon. This 'clever ignorance' does not demonstrate the loss of faith, but rather it indicates that faith has been 'merely displaced' into the material pursuits of science, politics, and economics. He thinks that these pursuits are the 'false prophets of Progress,' treated like pseudo-religions and worshipped as quotidian gods.
[ [iv] ] The capitalisation of the word 'Faith' follows Harold Stewart's usage and indicates a Faith that comes directly from Amida and one that is beyond the trials of secular doubting.
He argues that this displacement does not give us cause to believe that Faith has been weakened, but rather it demonstrates how our capacity for faith manifests in many different forms. Our capacity for faith enamours us in the fight against radical or nihilistic doubt. In the final judgement, having battled to focus his spiritual energies, he jubilantly sacrifices his own doubting secular self because he finds Faith is blessingly freighted with the altruistic Other Power of Amida.[ [iv] ]
[ [v] ] Stewart, By the Old Walls of Kyoto, pp.210-211.
Those who think religion lacks credibility have trouble placing faith in it and, more often than not, decide to place it in the false prophets of Progress. After being 'miseducated' into believing that the real Metaphysical principles and powers are now 'exploded fallacies,' modern man finds himself in an absurd existential position: 'if they [the Metaphysical principles and powers] had been, he and his entire world would at once have disappeared.'[ [v] ] This observation shows how one-eyed scepticism can be just as myopic as one-eyed faith, leaving nobody better off. It also demonstrates that radical doubt does not in any way disprove the central hypothesis of Metaphysics: the existence of a gracious spiritual influence. Having abandoned Metaphysical principles for the pseudo-religions, many people still find themselves troubled by radical doubt. This has resulted in, not Enlightenment or Liberation as was once hoped, but the wages of dismay, boredom and despair.
[ [vi] ] Marco Pallis, A Buddhist Spectrum (London, George Allen and Unwin, 1980), p.33.
In this despiritualized modern world Harold argues that even though contemporary views and standardized answers might not give credence to Metaphysics, there may be a more subtle mode of reality prevailing involving spiritual influence. 'Metaphysics,' as Harold applies it, means the sacred science of the transcendent unity of all the world Traditions. One of the fundamental realisations of his poetry is that the spiritual reality of Metaphysics is not separate from the world at large, not something outside the self or displaced from the material world, but is indeed the very essence of existence. We have to try to appreciate spiritual influence even in a world seemingly bent on dissipating its influence. Yet to keep spiritual influence as sentinel is easier said than done: it is constantly undermined by radical doubt. Marco Pallis believes: 'We are living through an age of doubt, if not of counter-faith.'[ [vi] ] Radical or counter-faith doubt is accepted as common currency and a suitable disposition to adopt in the face of a despiritualized modern world. The strength of Old Walls as spiritual testimony comes from the poet's steady approach as he overcomes doubt and keeps Faith. Amida's Eighteenth Vow promises the devotee that Faith will result in rebirth in the Pure Land. It is by keeping Faith, while honestly tackling doubt, that Harold feels the vivifying strength of Amida's Other Power.
In Poem Four Harold outlines how the workings of the spirit can subtly prevade our thoughts and clarify our spiritual equivocation. After suffering a long hot sleepless night in the stifling humidity of Kyoto's summer, tortured by his own existential doubts and trapped in the reductive dead-ends of subjectivity, he hears the solemn boom of the bell at the Honen-in:
Hours later: in the huge and sultry gloom
I wake at once out of a lifelong sleep:
The lingering overtones of the temple bell 'steep the distant stillness' and their humming pervades 'the hush that holds the earth and sky.' At this profound meeting point the still damp air breathes: nature itself is resuscitated after a choking night of ignorance. A sudden breath of air rattles the poet's windbell, replying to the sonorous boom emanating from the Honen-in. This meeting of sounds at once delivers the blessing of Enlightenment. He awakens from 'a lifelong sleep' of doubting. His Heart rises as the sombre spell experienced by his 'inmost solitude' dissolves into joy and the Name is exclaimed. The poet's night of meditation is brought to perfect pitch by the beautiful chorus of bells. He gives thanks for Amida's blessing as he is filled with spontaneous joy.
A person lacking a Metaphysical framework is denied the chance to respond in this manner and would have to face the continued trials of counter-faith doubt. The hardened sceptic would call the meeting of sounds a coincidence, but the poet keeps Faith, now more spiritually articulate and at ease with himself. It is timely to remember that Science cannot explain everything away: mystery abounds where spiritual influence pervades. The appreciative and joyous, if not sleep-weary poet, exclaims the sacred Name and notes:
During this call our voices sound the same,
The calling of the Name becomes a spontaneous act and the individual awakens to a call that flows from within him, as beautiful as Amida's own voice, but not unlike his own. On a doctrinal level the poet is informed by Shinran's celebrated distinction of Once-Calling by the Other Power. The boundary of distinction evaporates and all becomes one as the sombre spell of doubt gives way to the joy of the Name as Amida transfers Faith to the devotee. Harold writes:
My weakness feels the strange resistless strength
The noisy mind of the secular self comes to rest in the profound silence of the Other Power and the flow of Faith strengthens him against doubt. The long hot summer night comes to an end and the poet looks out to the Eastern hills as the 'dark by gradual shades' is withdrawn, to leave a 'delicate-tinted transience of clouds above Japan':
Looking farther down
He looks toward the vaulting conifers and 'abruptly blue' hills, left in rapturous wonder at the subtlety of the Other Power, his sight trailing off into the distance.
Harold's experience of Enlightenment is like the dawning light. Spiritual insight comes gradually as the shades of doubt recede, bringing the light of Amida's Pure Land. Patient meditation softens doubt; its waning allows for the keeping of Faith.
As the narrative of Old Walls progresses the poet gets closer to his goal of Enlightenment. After visiting the Sanzen-in in Ohara, he steps along the path which is covered in autumn-leaves, and poetically captures the mood of the valley when dusk is falling; at the time of year when the temperature begins to get colder:
Earlier now the quiet nightfall chills
The traditional patterns of rising before dawn, working in the fields during the day, and going home at sunset as the farm-house windows begin to light up like stars - 'spark by spark,' show nature and man coalescing. In this union the farmers gather significance by connecting to the seasonal patterns, which are subtly, if not intuitively, followed in daily practice; and life itself as they age toward 'autumnal ripeness.' The passing shadow of the crow, like the passing shadow of the day, cannot be seized: just as the cycle of nature cannot be stilled. Having reaped the harvest the farmers go home to enjoy an evening meal and a hot bath. The darkness ushers in the night and the creeping damp signals that autumn is giving way to winter, leaving the valley dormant with mist.
As the valley comes to nightfall the silence is left vast and deep by the sound of a carking crow. This shows how the dialectical elements of experience, in this case sound and silence, depend on each other for their very existence. Without sound there cannot be silence and vice versa. The idea of interdependence, as has been noted in the calling of the Name in Poem Four, is a characteristic of the foundational principle of dependent arising. Its importance for Buddhism cannot be overstated. The term dependent arising constitutes a middle way that avoids the theological assumption of a mysterious first cause and the ontological assertion of a permanent identity or soul. It argues for the conditionality of all physical and psychical phenomena.
Harold wishes to make this crucial point clearer for his Western readers, and after spending twenty-nine years in Kyoto he avoids what Edward W. Said makes apparent in Orientalism. Briefly summarized, Said's thesis argues that modern Orientalism, that is the image of the East in the West, is not derived from some sudden upsurge of objective knowledge about the Orient, but is knowledge surmised when an inherited prism of Western intellectual structures is applied to the East. This prism of intellectual structures is derived from what has been defined as Christian supernaturalism (or natural supernaturalism as M.H. Abrams originally termed it). In other words, the West has repackaged the East with values that were originally Christian in nature, such as the notions of Heaven and Hell; exile and reunion. These Christians values were secularized during the Romantic period of the eighteenth century when theology was reconstituted. Romantic writers tried to make these existential paradigms and cardinal values more intellectually acceptable in a world of eroding ancient Christian values. Harold does not try to repackage the East with the values of Christian supernaturalism, but instead presents Eastern religion in accordance with his long experience of it: that is as its own entity.
His understanding of the principle of karma is one example of him amending the ways of a miseducated West. In the West karma is often treated synonymously with the characteristic of interdependence; summed up with the common saying: 'What goes around comes around.' Unfortunately karma is largely misunderstood and its wider implications not fully appreciated because its meaning has been affected by the Christian idea of sin. As most would be familiar, the idea of sin sees merit placed on individual actions so that at the termination of life one either goes to Heaven or Hell. When the principle of karma is borrowed in the West its understanding becomes one where it is moralized so that someone who says or does something bad is judged as creating 'bad karma.' If it is deemed that you are the first cause in a chain of unfortunate events (what goes around), then eventually this will come back to haunt you (comes around). Westerners who think like this believe that all things are connected in a way that sees negative events attracting negative outcomes and positive events attracting positive outcomes. Even though this type of thinking displays the characteristic of interdependence, its application is faulted because of the moral value placed on individual events and outcomes. Each person attracts what they have caused, with the outcome given a positive or negative value, and so is judged, not by the idea of karma as it is known in the East, but more by the principle of retributive justice inherent in sin. The idea of karma is Westernised when a moral value is asserted.
[ [vii] ] Stewart, By the Old Walls of Kyoto, p.155.
Harold does not fall into the trap of Westernising karma. He points out that karma is never individual but always collective, so that any suffering will ultimately be a burden we all bear - if not in this lifetime, then in lifetimes to come. The collective nature of karma means that it is neither good nor bad in an absolute sense. In a relative sense it is a combination of both. Harold points out: 'The law of karma, of equal and opposite action and reaction, is ineluctable and cannot be abrogated, even by a Buddha who, though omniscient and omnipresent, is not the Omnipotent Creator.'[ [vii] ] Karma is not omnipotent as the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, discovered. He devised a method of using karma to overcome karma, with his foundational belief in contemplative non-action, and was delivered to Nirvana. The world of experience presents karma 'inextricably mixed in a paradoxical dilemma,' making moral judgements impotent. The Buddha, going above good and bad as absolute moral positions, perceived karma as inevitable and something that can be overcome. Whereas the idea of sin bears an arbitrary and concatenate judgement based on moral worth, the principle of karma accepts the moral categorical imperatives as provisional positions which must be lived through and transcended. The poet's burgeoning acceptance of this concludes Poem One.
My heart accepts its karma. In the end
Individual thoughts, no matter what contour they might follow or what colour they may take, cannot jostle for precedence forever and in time we will understand 'all things as they are.' It is then that the meditative stillness of the Pure Land will be apparent. By adopting a provisional position to conceptual opposites, Buddhism sees no need for an absolute position. Nagarjuna, the pre-eminent Buddhist philosopher, said that Nirvana (Pure Land) is Samsara (everyday world) and Samsara is Nirvana. His assertion collapses this polar distinction as does the overcoming of karma. The Buddha understands all events, 'Before the mind can judge them good or bad.' This sort of forbearance makes possible the transcendence of apparent polar opposites. The idea of karma should promote
[ [viii] ] Stewart, By the Old Walls of Kyoto, p.155.
the most masculine fortitude, generosity, and endurance; the most feminine patience, sympathy, and gentleness; the most childlike innocence, purity and spontaneity; in other words the supreme virtues of the Bodhisattva. Acceptance is all.[ [viii] ]
When the darkness of ignorance is banished, we are freed from the torment of karma and from spiritual darkness. The fundamental Buddhist position Harold's poetry holds is that for this emancipation to take place, the material and spiritual must been seen in their essential oneness.
After having a brief vision of the Pure Land in Poem Nine, where the poet glimpses the everlasting Western Paradise of Amida, he finds it possible to forge an outlook that transcends the polar opposites of life and death. In so doing he accepts that this world is fused with everlasting spirit. Walking in the late afternoon light of Ohara he observes:
These last warm days of autumn in decline
Should we complain against the harsh cold, knowing that it nourishes the latent seed that brings the promise of new life? Are we to argue against the natural cycle of events? We would be foolish to do so, and regardless such complaint is futile in the face of the dynamic cosmic cycle unfolding endlessly. We must pass without regret as our wintry dusk closes in and experience 'the purifying death of snow.' The poet faces what might seem like a harsh reality with the strength of Amida's Other Power. He is emboldened in his quest by the fact that after having pierced the illusionary veil of duality he imagines the Pure Land here on earth.
All who are to go beyond mere birth and death on this cycle of existence and enter into the Pure Land must heed the realization that suffering exists - the Buddha's First Noble Truth. They cannot separate their suffering from anybody else's and must accept all suffering as their own. This is the Buddha's very own declaration. He will not rest in Nirvana until each and every person (not en masse but each of us alone) has overcome suffering. With wisdom tempered by compassion, which brings the blessing of Enlightenment, one can imagine other pure worlds beyond this imperfect one and understand the difficult lesson that the nature of suffering is the 'ever-faithful poignancy of spring.' Trying to stop time as one helplessly bemoans old age will not change the fact that after having enjoyed the spring of our childhood, we must now face the winter of our old age.
The poet understands that the road to wintry dusk is the unfolding of karmic elements where all things will penetrate each other, and apparent opposites will be seen in their essential and true oneness. As he writes in the essay accompanying Poem Eleven:
[ [ix] ] Stewart, By the Old Walls of Kyoto, p.403.
Death is no longer what all men believe and so hate and fear but is gentle, compassionate, and kind. Pure Faith and the calling of the Divine Name are powerful enough to bring one safely through this trial. Thereafter one is ready to leave this world at any time or to stay on for any time, as the Other Power wills, for to live and to die are equally good.[ [ix] ]
[ [x] ] Stewart, By the Old Walls of Kyoto, p.156.
A revelatory conviction, purged of doubt but not of humility, reverberates in the claim: 'Death . . . is gentle, compassionate, and kind.' His equanimity is based on the belief that 'to live and to die are equally good,' and has been accomplished by holding possible opposites in coincidence: that is by understanding the dependent arising of phenomena and therefore its nondual nature. Nonduality can only be realised after reaching perfect Enlightenment, which means reuniting the false subjective-objective dichotomy of Samsara and Nirvana. He writes: 'If only our setbacks could have been contemplated all along from the universally comprehensive viewpoint of the Buddha, it would have been possible to foresee and understand their necessary part in the whole developing pattern of our lives.'[ [x] ] In the rush to satisfy the circus of ever-multiplying desires, lurching from one extreme to another, it is all too easy to isolate oneself and create a schism between the spirit and self, between self and others, and ignore 'the whole developing pattern of our lives.'
[ [xi] ] Stewart, By the Old Walls of Kyoto, p.199.
Although it should be granted it is difficult contemplating the Middle Way in a despiritualized and skeptical modern world where death is feared because it ends the only existence that has been given any credence: the existence of 'mindless hedonism and hardened materialism.'[ [xi] ] Harold's own journey as represented in Old Walls provides a great example of how to approach a spiritual quest, but it is not the only example he provides.
Just days before his death in 1995, he told close friends that he had finally finished his second great epic poem Autumn Landscape-Roll: A Divine Panorama. It is little known even in the small circle of the people who read his poetry because it has never before been published, that is until now with its inaugural publication in The Pure Land. The narrative structure is similar to Old Walls, exploring how an individual can authentically place his faith in powers other than his own.
[ [xii] ] Harold Stewart, Autumn Landscape-Roll, from the Notes for the Prologue(unpublished manuscript,1995).
The main character of the poem is Wu Tao-tzu, the 'Divinely Inspired' painter of China's artistically rich T'ang Dynasty (618-906).[ [xii] ] This dynasty is considered to be the most glorious and golden of China's long dynastic history so we may well consider Wu as the best of the best, even though today no original examples of his work remain. Harold follows his journey after he miraculously steps out of this world into his landscape-roll to seek the ancient wisdom of the Way of Taoism.
[ [xiii] ] Stewart, By the Old Walls of Kyoto, p.259.
[ [xiv] ] Stewart, By the Old Walls of Kyoto, p.185.
In Autumn Landscape-Roll Harold broadens his religio-philosophical scope to include Taoism, as well as other forms of the Buddha's doctrine. His thematic scope remains consistent with that of Old Walls: the individual's struggle to overcome doubt and keep Faith. As Harold notes, there are strong links between the Madhyamaka of Nagarjuna, the First Patriarch of Pure Land Buddhism, the Yogacara school of Asanga and Vasubandhu, and Taoist Metaphysics.[ [xiii] ] They all practice a belief in Anatman or nonself, the very foundation of the original Buddha's teaching, 'which is the only doctrine among the many branches of Tradition that proceeds directly from Becoming to Non-Being, without the mediation of any changeless ontological principle or deity.'[ [xiv] ] Wu searches for nonself by emptying the secular self, discovering the nondual Universal perspective of the Buddha.
[ [xv] ] Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching in A Source Book In Chinese Philosophy, translated and complied by Wing-Tsit Chan (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1963) p.156 and p.139.
It can be argued that words are not always helpful in promoting an understanding of the Way of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching stating: 'As soon as there are names, know that it is time to stop.' This central text describes the Way as 'The door of all subtleties' that leads to an understanding of the relationship between Heaven, Earth and Man.[ [xv] ] The work of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu traditionally represent the teachings of Taoism. Their doctrines are built upon the principle of eternal nonself and hold the idea of the Great One as fundamental. The understanding of the Tao in Lao Tzu's philosophy is still worldly, whereas with Chuang Tzu it becomes more transcendental. The idea of self-transformation takes on a central focus in Chuang Tzu, who presents life and reality as dynamic and ever-changing. Taoism concentrates on providing tranquillity by understanding the nature of this dynamic change and was formalised into a doctrine around 1 B.C., yet was in practice long before this date. Both men understand the Way as a natural cycle demonstrated when the Yang, or positive forces, interplay with the Yin, or negative forces, two apparently opposed but ultimately cooperative tendencies, creating the T'ai Chi, or Great Ultimate, most commonly known in the West by the black and white Yin-Yang symbol. Harold metaphorically describes this process when Wu sketches a pair of dragons in flight:
Their light and darkness would cooperate
With great poetic economy he describes how the apparently conflicting dual forces cooperate to achieve the nondual Way of Taoism. The process of counterchange demonstrates how absolute positions are unnecessary in the matrix of change; the 'cyclic chase' demoting any notion of independence. In the course of this counterchange the Taoist is to follow Nature and in so doing fulfil his or her own nature. To achieve this the Taoist must search for the essence of all things. This essence contains the evidences of what is most real, only disclosed beyond the illusory veil of duality.
In the 'Prologue' Harold outlines the circumstances that led to Wu being titled the Prince of Painting. The Emperor Ming Huang, who is kindly disposed to the arts, proclaims that Wu and Li Ssu-hsun, his able opponent, will clash in artistic competition to decide who is the more accomplished artist. The differing personalities and backgrounds of the painters are reflected in their attitudes to art and life (yet there hardly seems a difference between art and life for the two men). Wu was born into humble circumstances
but orphaned while a boy and left forlorn
Li was born into privilege but is not a complete stranger to adversity. He had to flee to the north of China when the bloody usurper Empress Wu ordered his execution. She was the last ruler of the T'ang Dynasty who only obtained the throne by poisoning the rightful heir and imprisoning or exterminating rival claimants. He escaped her clutches to establish his Northern School of Art.
The different position each painter holds on what constitutes art is more than just an idle theoretical argument. The ability to create art is seen as an indication that the artist understands the natural forces of the Way. Li comments on Wu's style:
Your brushwork, brilliant but erratic too,
Since you established, Li, the Northern School
Their argument becomes one between spontaneity and set design; between intuition or following the established rules. Wu, the iconoclast, thinks 'that measured drawing leaves the picture dead.' In Autumn Landscape-Roll no small detail should be discarded as what may seem like an incidental is in fact a hint of the Way. Harold hints that the Way is not to be pursued by set rule or measure but requires an spontaneity that goes with the flow of natural forces. A spontaneity beyond the manipulation of self, like that of the Way of Nature, is a necessary condition to understand the Way.
Ming Huang commands both artists should travel to the western province to capture its natural wonders in a sketch. On their return a separate hall is set aside so that the two artists can finish their masterpieces, 'nurtured by silence, stillness, solitude.' The industrious Li works hard; while the casual Wu entertains four old friends. Harold hints at the method behind Wu's apparent laziness when describing the importance that the colour white has for Wu:
To Wu ivory silk, pristinely bare
Li represents the world with plentiful, colourful and intricate details. Wu, on the other hand, believes that white, symbolising absence, underwrites all representation. The emptiness of space and the absence of detail defines the placement of the stars and thereby the structure of the universe; and thus the Way. Wu must understand the nature of this emptiness. This is also a necessary condition for understanding the Way.
The three months allowed to complete the landscapes elapses and the two men are brought before Ming Huang. Li's landscape is grand in design and scope and he tells the audience:
As we unroll each scene from left to right,
The Emperor is well pleased but marvels in silence at Wu's work, saying:
Wu's art is vitally inspired by Ch'i,
Wu's picture is judged to be the better, but to be fair to Li both men are given the royal title of Prince of Painting. As the court retires Wu is asked to stay behind by the Emperor. He questions the newly titled artist:
Your painting, Wu, has caught forever here
Wu fails to answer the Emperor, wandering off into his landscape roll. Why does Wu do this at the height of his artistic success? Does he receive the Emperor's words:
with sense of irony? Has he realised that to 'catch forever' is just the beginning of never catching at all, as to still nature is to stop man?
The ebullient mood Wu displayed during the competition is now eclipsed by a sense that his life, like nature itself, is governed by an inexorable impermanence.
The year and I are dying out together:
As he confronts the damp winter descending 'on all our weather,' he searches for a guide. He recalls that T'ao-ch'ien, a reclusive poet who follows the Way of Tao, lives in a farm-house near by. The old poet is not home so Wu is asked to wait in the study. To occupy himself he reads a book that has been left open on the desk. The Book of Chuang-tzu is opened at the page describing the time Chuang-tzu had dreamt he was a butterfly. Upon waking he could not distinguish if he was in fact a man or a butterfly. Chuang-tzu argues strongly that the pure man needs to become aware that the universal process of transformation equalizes all into oneness and this should be his eternal abode. His dream of metamorphosis rejects the distinction between subject and object by blurring the commonly accepted duality of a true waking reality and a false dreaming other world.
In the blank margin of the page T'ao-ch'ien has added in contemplative reply:
Our lives are dreams, but not our own; for we
This further complicates what is increasingly becoming a problematic reality. This is an important moment in Wu's spiritual journey as it is the first vital conceptual crossing-point. He is presented with an opportunity to expand his conception of consciousness. To conceptualise consciousness in its essential oneness means that it cannot be reduce or negated, but rather it must be enlarged to included all, every iota of experience, both good and bad. As Harold learned: 'Acceptance is all.'
The restriction that applies when we argue for a conceptualisation of consciousness based solely on the experience of the waking self is tested by the claim that 'our lives are dreams.' The further claim: 'but not our own,' unsettles any hardened resistance to expanding our concept of consciousness to include the baroque world of dreams. And finally the claim: 'but not our own' argues that we become someone else's dream. This means that the consciousness of self becomes twice removed from its point of conceptual origin in the waking self. Firstly, any declaration of origin arguing that consciousness is constituted by the waking self is voided by the claim that our lives are only dreams. And in the second place by the claim that these dreams have an origin beyond the waking self. T'ao ch'ien then writes:
[ [xvi] ] Stewart, By the Old Walls of Kyoto, p.273.
[ [xvii] ] Stewart, By the Old Walls of Kyoto, p.299.
Having destabilized the confidence of the waking self to claim the origin of consciousness in the conceptual framework of self, the old poet goes on to say that the dreaming self is not an illusion but part of a larger dream involving the Cosmic Memory. The self, both waking and dreaming, belongs to this first and foremost, before any tendentious claims are made that characterise the origin of consciousness as something that is restricted to the narrow experience of the waking self. Harold thinks that our human consciousness is a 'basic and incontrovertible fact.'[ [xvi] ] Aligning human consciousness with the greater Universal Consciousness he notes: 'Buddhism is the Doctrine of Awakening, and its goal has always been recognized as Enlightenment, which is synonymous with the All-Knowing and Universal Consciousness of the Buddha.'[ [xvii] ]
Wu realises that his previously held view of human consciousness has restricted his understanding of the Way of Taoism. His view needs to be augmented by unconditionally accepting the Universal Consciousness of the Buddha. To do this he must see that his journey goes in two directions at once. It is simultaneously an expansion outward to appreciate the Universal Consciousness and a path inward to discover nonself. The trick is to realise that even though the directions of inner and outer might seem contrary, they are actually only the one way and the Way. Wu must invoke the Buddha's spiritual legacy by meditating upon the emptiness of nonself. This will unravel the accreted layers of self that have been wrought from experience and give him access to the spontaneous essence of everlasting life. In Pure Land Buddhism this requires the grace of Amida's Other Power; in Taoism the figure of influence is located in the natural forces of the Way.
[ [xviii] ] Stewart, By the Old Walls of Kyoto, p.184.
His faith in emptiness gives him a governing principle. His assumption that emptiness is the principle governing stellar placing can rightly be called a foundationless foundation in the sense that it does not provide a first cause like the concept of God does in the Judeo-Christian religions. These religions conceptualise emptiness by equating it with nihilism and diametrically opposing it to the plenitude of the paradisal garden of Eden. In the Eastern traditions, as Harold writes: 'Emptiness, the Void, Non-Being are negative only in verbal form, and since they negate all negations actually affirm the most positive though ineffable Reality.'[ [xviii] ] Buddhism does not argue for a first cause, but the conditionality of all causes, and sees emptiness as affirming the most positive Reality. Harold's most enduring literary accomplishment is the development of a poetics of emptiness relating to the conceptualisation of consciousness.
[ [xix] ] Stewart, By the Old Walls of Kyoto, p. 246.
Wu, still alone in the study, is riding a crescendo of doubt before he experiences the final break through when one 'arrives at the Great Doubt, the Doubt of doubts, when we must give up even doubting.'[ [xix] ] If all doubt is to be exhausted, then an emptiness free from the contrivances of self must be contemplated. With his solemn mood set in like the weather, he looks out of the study window onto the rain-soaked garden:
Out on the garden, which a rainy haze,
The use of imagery compliments the theme of the Way invoked. The garden's 'liquid spheres,' 'Reflecting all in each and each in all,' is analogous to the Way. Its universal mesh of influence, an 'evanescent silver net,' momentarily grants the appearance of 'glistening instants everywhere' as the raindrops swell and hang on the branches. When the raindrops run together the liquid spheres spill like a broken necklace, scattering as though 'sprinkled through the air.' The same can be said of the Way when it is contained in a conceptual frame of reference: it too spills beyond the borders of conceptuality; beyond the measured ratio of words and into ineffable silence. Leaving the study to resume his journey he is more aware of the paradoxical direction of this journey; the enigmatic governing principle of emptiness that grounds the conceptualisation of consciousness; and the need to resist the ossification of thought by promoting the spontaneity of it. He notes:
Briskly the wind drives clouds away that dare
The ever-changing face of nature, so exactingly caught in the image of the clouds in the sky glimpsed as 'scraps of blue and white' scudding by in the 'pool of rain,' confirms the need for spontaneity if he is to harness the natural forces of the Way. This image demonstrates Chuang-tzu's philosophy of the universal process of transformation where the high white clouds in the sky and the low pool, poles apart it would seem, are caught together in a reflection. The reflection is a harbinger of all things being equalized into an essential oneness. The fallen leaf, a symbol of both death and rebirth, is a reminder that death touches all in the universal process of change. Yet it is not a reductive death as the essence of the leaf flows back into life's everlasting store of nature. Someday Wu will be compost for the earth and like the leaf return to the everlasting life of nature's Way. His death presages a rebirth. If he is able to overcome his karma by understanding the nature of suffering he will be reborn beyond suffering; and so beyond this imperfect world. The stark fact of death, harsh only if one moralizes about life and death, can deliver the most profound and intimate knowledge that increases the circle of influence assumed by human consciousness.
When Wu meets an old fisherman his understanding of emptiness begins to crystallise. He asks the old man why he has retired from the world:
Here cares and creditors no more infest
And he adds:
I fled not from the world, but into it.
His answer is concise and delivered without evasiveness; its premise refuses to accept a division between the material and spiritual world realms: 'not from' 'but into' the world. In his state of poverty he declares to know the true nature and worth of material possessions: 'Possessing nothing, I am not possessed.' With this realization a freedom is granted, a freedom to spontaneously experience the natural forces of the Way, without being limited by perspective or constrained by theory. Wu must undergo the same type of kenosis to still the 'house of mind.' He will then know the true freedom and wonder of the Way.
Harold's poetic ability to describe natural phenomena, tuned as it is with fifty years of craftsmanship, reaches its apotheosis in Autumn Landscape-Roll. At the end of the day when the elegiac light is mournfully harmonised with the season's bereavement, the autumn leaves all but a memory on the earth's floor, the poet's words unfold as colourful images, painting a grand scene that integrates the sublimity of the spiritual dimension with nature's melancholic finitude.
Into infinite distance, sad and clear,
The image of
Each tall gauntly calligraphic tree,
haunts both the season and the draining 'westering tide of light' as a reminder of their own inevitable and ghostly desolation.
Night falls and Wu needs to find a place to rest.
The mountain's secret presence at this hour
and with this invigorating power, having found a temple to rest in, Wu concentrates his spiritual energies. The peace and silence of the temple favours meditation:
His breathing is hushed and held, his posture still,
Wu begins his meditation upon Kuan Yin, the Buddha of Compassion. Unrivalled in the Western poetic Canon, Harold delivers a poetic tour de force, distilling the essence of compassion: the essential nature of this impressive Buddha. Wu's prayer breaks off because of an external disturbance. The uproar signals the entrance of Hui-Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of the Southern Line of Ch'an. The old monk provides the main humour of the poem with his seemingly sacrilegious ways. He says:
Such scribblings are absurd:
Burning old Buddhas and using sutras-scrolls as kindling he sends the indignant audience into a frenzy of shock. As one Buddha burns, his lips appear to murmur in the melting heat and Shakyamuni, transfigured in flame, preaches a new Fire Sermon:
O monks, all sentient beings are on fire
This holy crucible, which only moments before had been considered a heathen's madness, fuses the collective experience of those gathered, leaving them in silent awe and readied for a journey to Hell.
Shakyamuni opens the ground beneath him and Ti Tsang, the Guide of the Dead, appears. Descending into the underworld, Ti Tsang tours the grief of this forlorn realm, wandering amongst the lost, tormented, and unrepentant souls who are trying to recover from their fallen state as their minds are led 'from darkness up to light.' Here are the people who cannot conquer their desire:
Grandly imagined riches fade and fray
The Hell Cantos graphically depict those who have an impoverished consciousness, 'Dragged down by habit's gravity,' suffering a fate far worse than a simple final extinguishment of consciousness. Their death signals the beginning of a state of infernal suffering until they repent and overcome their desire, which is the root cause of their suffering.
As this sad journey ends Shan Tao appears, the Third of the Pure Land Patriarchs, and the glory of the Pure Land is described. The poem continues with appearances from Vajrabodhi, the famed Tantric Buddhist and Fa Tsang the Hua-Yen master. They expound the virtues of the Buddha's Doctrine to wake the seeds of Buddhahood present in all sentient beings. This is the spiritual climax of the poem. When the Buddhist masters are finished Wu remains alone and 'Once more the hall is silent, empty and still.' A solitary spiritual journeyman who stands before the spent fire, having sought the ancient Way of Tao, Wu has overcome his earthly desire and now understands the true nature of suffering. He has emptied self and is filled with the serene silence of Enlightenment. By invoking the Buddha's Doctrine of nonself he has reached Enlightenment.
To conclude the poem the Ming Huang, still standing before the landscape-roll, watches as it is 'all at once erased.' Wu leaves nothing behind, not a trace, not one burning desire, as everything he will ever need is right before him in Buddha's Pure Land.
Listening to the music: In summary
Harold spiritual journey is truly original in scope and provides an understanding of the Buddha's Middle Way rarely, if ever, matched in the Western poetic Canon. The thematic development of doubt and emptiness are articulated to show the flawed symmetry of dualistic thinking and thereby demonstrate how the realisation of nonduality is Enlightenment. The metaphysical challenge of accepting the nondual relationship of the material and the spiritual is given cohesion by assuming human consciousness is beyond negation and connected to the Cosmic Consciousness of the Buddha.
His poetry is valuable for its immense Buddhist erudition and the way in which his learning is applied in an accessible and straightforward fashion. The grand themes of Metaphysics can often isolate the humble individual, but his poetry always remains on a human scale by overcoming doubt and keeping Faith. At no time does the task overwhelm him nor do his personal emotions foreshorten, or overextend, his perspective. By keeping Faith he brings Eastern Metaphysics closer to the Western sphere of understanding. His meditation upon emptiness, especially as it relates to the conceptualisation of consciousness, remains to be fully appreciated. His work prefigures, or runs parallel with, the attempts many Western writers and philosophers have made in the twentieth century (Martin Heidegger and the American Beat writers to mention just a few) to use the Eastern philosophical approach to better understand the interfacing between the ontological and existential realms.
His poetry is notable for its precise word usage that does not forfeit its steady metre or force common speech into unusual and unfamiliar patterns; the integration of its dense pictorial imagery and thematic content; and above all else, its calm and consummated humility, matured by wisdom and graced with compassion. The metrical craftsmanship creates a peaceful and poetic music, with suffering as its undersong and emptiness as its melodic touchstone. Autumn Landscape-Roll continues the spiritual tenor established in Old Walls and delivers the same messages of peace and hope for those keeping Faith.
Leckenby, Barry: A Ph.D. student at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. His dissertation traces the metaphysical journey of Harold Stewart. Barry spent one year in Kyoto during 1998/9 photographing the major scenes in By the Old Walls of Kyoto, as well as talking to many people who knew Harold. This is Barry's first published article.