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Lions Roar : November 2009
IN THE ZEN TrADITION the phrase ichigo ichie, often translated as “one time, one meeting,” is associated with Ii Naosuke (1815-1860), tea master and chief administrator of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Every morning before leaving for the castle, Naosuke made a bowl of tea. Knowing that he had many enemies and might be assassinated at any time, he said of each morning’s tea, “ichigo ichie”: one time, one meeting, unprecedented and unrepeatable. In March, 1860, Naosuke was murdered by assassins, but his saying survived him, becoming a central motto for students of chado, or the Way of Tea. More broadly, ichigo ichie embodies the core doctrine of the Heart Sutra and Mahayana teachings generally: the emptiness, or impermanence, of all conditioned things. for the poet Michael Longley (b.1939), a native and lifelong resident of Belfast, Northern Ireland, impermanence has been, until recently, a prominent fact of daily life. During the twenty- five years of sectarian conflict known as The Troubles, landmarks were destroyed and thousands of lives were lost, leaving the social fabric torn and the body politic radically unstable. To that brutal situation and the suffering it engendered, Longley has brought a civil tongue and a humane poetic vision. His delicate, formal poems, informed by a classical education and an acute sensitivity to nature, exemplify what Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought the central purpose of the poetic imagination: the “balance or reconcilement of opposite or discordant qualities.” In “Birds & flowers,” Longley’s relaxed hexameters and formal quatrains reconcile multiple tensions: public and private life; seasonal change and timeless art; hidden passion and domestic order; family ties and the treacherous world of letters. Most centrally, however, “Birds & flowers” balances the poet‘s awareness of impermanence against his longing for enduring human bonds. If the image of the demolished Chelsea pub represents an acknowledgement of inexorable change, the image of inky smiles on joined handkerchiefs suggests a friendship that transcends both national boundaries and external demolitions. And if the phrase “let us float naked again” expresses a natural human desire to repeat a memorable experience, the motto ichigo ichie reminds us that all such encounters are unprecedented and unrepeatable. Together these images urge us, as Buddhist teachings do, to be fully present for our children, friends, and loved ones, with whom we are sharing “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences, however ordinary or familiar they may seem. ♦ “Birds & Flowers” may be found in The Weather in Japan, by Michael Longley (Wake Forest University Press, 2000). For my understanding of ichigo ichie I am indebted to Zen Word, Zen Calligraphy, by Eido Tai Shimano and Kogetsu Tani (Shambhala, 1995). About a Poem: Ben Howard on Michael Longley’s “Birds & flowers” BIrDS & fLOWErS for Fuyuji Tanigawa My local The Chelsea where I took you for a pint Has been demolished, which leaves us drinking in the rain, Two inky smiles on handkerchiefs tied for luck like dolls Flapping where the window should be, in Ireland or Japan. A wagtail pauses among maple leaves turning from red To pink in the picture you enclose with your good news: ‘I have been a man of home these years,’ you write, ‘often Surprised to know so much passion hidden in myself.’ You who translated for me ‘ichigo-ichie’ as ‘one life, One meeting’ as though each encounter were once-in-a - Lifetime, have been spending time with your little children: ‘But I will go back to the world of letters soon.’ Fuyuji, The world of letters is a treacherous place. We are weak And unstable. Let us float naked again in volcanic Pools under the constellations and talk about babies. The picture you sent to Belfast is called ‘Birds & Flowers’.