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Lions Roar : September 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2007 33 NINE MONTHS AGO, after thirty-seven years of teaching literature, writing, and classical guitar to college undergradu- ates, I called it a day. “What are you going to do?” I was often asked during the months before my departure. Somehow that question, though well inten- tioned, was deeply unsettling. At the public event that marked my retirement, I heard a lengthy recitation of my attainments: six books, numerous awards, roughly three hundred contributions to literary journals, and nearly four decades of service to higher edu- cation. It was gratifying to hear that recitation. And since then, it has been even more gratifying to receive letters, cards, and e-mails from former students, who have told me in various ways that my teaching made a positive differ- ence in their lives. At the same time, retirement has afforded me a vantage point from which to view the nature of attainment. “Ask me,” William Stafford says in a poem by that name, “whether what I have done is my life.” And as I reflect on what I have done, I recognize that both a competitive spirit and an undercurrent of dissatisfaction informed my daily labors. Whatever I was doing, and however well, it was never enough. Yet if I was driven, as much as anyone, by notions of success, I also enjoyed my work and only rarely did I view it as a means to an end. On the contrary, I immersed myself in the task at hand, whether it was a lecture on Yeats, a discussion of irony, or a stu- dent’s essay to grade and correct. Whatever merit accumulated, year by year, did so of its own accord. Moreover, from the vantage point of retirement I can see that my achievements, such as they were, were utterly transitory. It is reassuring to know that my books, poems, essays, and reviews reside in libraries, homes, and bookstores here and abroad. It is heartening to learn that of the thousands of students who passed through my classes, at least some remember and value that experience. At the same time, those accomplishments are anything but solid. With every passing day, they recede further into history. And at some point, the bulk of them, if not all of them, will be forgotten alto- gether. In Buddhist terms, they are empty and impermanent, as in truth they always were. These recognitions, at once sobering and liberating, have a bearing on my continuing life as writer, lecturer, and musi- cian, and they also illuminate my experience as Buddhist practitioner. For what I have been realizing about my aca- demic career points to a per- sistent tension in the Buddhist tradition; namely, the apparent conflict between the pursuit of spiritual attainment on the one hand and, on the other, an absolute rejection of goals as inimical to spiritual practice. In the Rinzai Zen tradition, it is common to hear the phrase “not yet” as a measure of spiritual progress. The phrase is said to have originated with the Zen master Hakuun Shutan (1025– 1072), who once offered a stern opinion of his advanced dis- ciples. All were enlightened. All possessed a deep knowledge of Buddhist teachings. All had composed poems to confirm their insight. In the eyes of their teacher, however, all were mi zai— “not yet.” They had yet to attain full realization. However severe, Hakuun’s implied demand is not unique in Zen practice. On the contrary, it is almost the rule. In a well- known Zen koan, we are asked to consider how to “proceed from the top of a 100-foot pole.” The “pole” is usually interpreted as enlightenment. More directly but in the same spirit, the fourth of the Great Vows, chanted daily in Zen monasteries, depicts Not Yet As an academic, BEN HOWARD measured himself by his achievements, but as a Zen practitioner, he steered clear of “gaining ideas.” Now retired, he finds himself straddling the no-man’s-land between “not yet” and “this is it.” BEN HOWARD is professor emeritus of English at Alfred University in western New York State. His latest collection of poems is Dark Pool. He con- ducts the Falling Leaf Zazenkai, a Zen sitting group in Alfred, New York. SEPT 18-35.indd 33 SEPT 18-35.indd 33 6/25/07 4:47:48 PM 6/25/07 4:47:48 PM