Saturday, August 1, 2009

Reflections: Pickup or Shut Up

By enjoying a few most every day, I finally finished reading, several days ago, The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, translated by Red Pine. In his Translator’s Preface, Red Pine provides us with some background information on the life of this semi-hermit poet, Han Shan (Cold Mountain), and his two intermittent companions, Big Stick (Feng-kan) and Pickup (Shih-te).

Feng-kan comes first. As Red Pine informs us,

Big Stick suddenly appeared one day riding through the [Kuoching] temple’s front front gate on the back of a tiger.

An auspicious entrance, without a doubt.

The Kuoching temple was a place that Han Shan frequently visited:

Although Cold Mountain’s name was linked with [a] remote and rocky place, he often availed himself of the hospitality of Kuoching Temple at the foot of Mount Tientai, a long day’s hike to the northeast.

At some point, Pickup (Shih-te) entered the picture thusly:

One day Big Stick was walking along the trail that led between Kuoching and the nearby county seat of Tientai. Upon reaching the cinnabar-colored outcrop of rock known as Redwall, he heard someone crying. Searching in the bushes, he found a ten-year-old boy. The boy said he had been left there by his parents, but no one came forward to claim him. So Pickup, as Big Stick called him, stayed at the temple and was placed under the care of Ling-yi, the chief custodian, who put the boy to work in the main shrine hall.

Big Stick and Pickup were each poets in his own right, and Red Pine has provided us with a selection of their poems, with his commentary on most, in sections following the songs of Cold Mountain in the text.

I shall say a few words here about the song of Pickup numbered 36. This one is translated by Red Pine without commentary, allowing for a small, still voice to encourage me to believe that he has done so in order to allow me to try my own hand at it. First the poem:

Those who leave home to be free
and pity the suffering masses
they proselytize for the Buddha
telling others to choose a path
but who can they possibly save
doing whatever they please
descending with everyone else
into the same abyss

I suggest that this song can be translated from a Chinese Buddhist perspective, predating our own world by 1200 years, to deliver a comment on our contemporary Christian circumstances. It seems to me that what Pickup is criticizing here is analogous to what has been characterized as “Cheap Grace” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

In the poem’s first line the phrase “those who leave home” refers to individuals who become monks, ostensibly to “free” themselves from a life of Delusion within the “Three Worlds,” i.e., Desire, Form, and Formlessness. But Pickup sees such persons taking on a condescending attitude toward the “suffering masses,” who presumably continue to follow their delusions in the direction of spiritual disaster. These monks piously admonish the deluded masses, having donned an air of spiritual superiority, along with the saffron robe.

Where the poem says “leave home to be free” we can substitute “claim discipleship.” In place of “Buddha” we can understand “Jesus.”

And we see these types in the Gospels; they have given us the adjective “pharisaic.” We have seen them, too, on (for instance) the Fox News Channel. But, Pickup implies, by their fruits we shall know them. As for those with whom we walk today; do they tithe, and work the bake sales, and put in their shifts at the soup kitchen, feeling very good about themselves? And do they receive Holy Communion dozens of times every month, each one convinced that he therefore has the Living God in his pocket?

As we drive through our neighborhoods on our way to work do we compare our rides to our neighbors’ cars, feeling either smug, or envious? Is our workplace an arena in which we daily struggle to gain status and power, in competition and conflict, rather than in a spirit of cooperation and collegiality? Do we masturbate in the shower, fantasizing about running our soapy hands over the forbidden bodies of our neighbor’s wives, or daughters? Are our hearts’ interiors furnished with the artifacts of greed, acquisitiveness, lust , gluttony, pride, and anger? Do we hate those we see as standing in the way of our obtaining all the riches that our hearts desire? And do we rationalize this cupidity as “responsibility?” Do we therefore hate the cross of Christ—or drive it from our conscious minds altogether, in order to avoid acknowledging that hate?

Is our discipleship no more essential to our actual selves than the fashionable jacket we slip into and proudly wear to church? Does Pickup’s poem have us pinned and dried and on display?