Every teacher needs a teacher. I don't know much, but that much
I know. Mine, for now, is Lao-Tse, the original Taoist monk, whose
name, in fact, means ''Old Master," and whose book, the TAO
TE CHING, which translates as ''the Way of virtue's," is
one of the greatest books China has ever given the world.
In the TAO TE CHING, Lao-Tee says: "Those who know keep
nothing. / Those who know keep silence." And I've said, in
a poem of my own, "I much prefer silence to speech."
History has it I'm supposed to say something unforgettable, wise,
on an occasion such as this one. But I know myself well enough
to know that I don't have the ''usual'' commencement address in
me. Is there anything I can say, or not say, that you'll remember,
and take with you, as you move on to the next part of your life?
The neglected American poet Robert Sward said something in a
poem of his that I've not forgotten. He was teaching an English
class, not unlike my own, at Cornell University--in Ithaca, New
York--one fall, not too long ago, when he ran out of things to
say. No words came. His students trusted him, though, and carried
on as if nothing were wrong. Sward showed up for class each day,
that fall, and stood in silence before his students, who showed
up, too, and who trusted him.
''It's all right," Sward says in his poem. ''They have faith
in me. They know that one day will speak again."
Suppose I were to stand in silence before you this morning. Not
the artful silence of John Cage sitting at his unprepared piano
in Carnegie Hall, but the moral silence of silence itself...in
which you hear your own heart, with the great heart, beating.
Would you trust me then? Would you remember what I hadn't said?
Among others, my colleague Gerson Yessin has been on this platform
before me. He didn't keep silence. Rather, he played Chopin, and
his hands knew everything. These summer commencements, when one
of us, your teachers, ''addresses'' you, are more khan special
occasions...at least from our point of view. Gerson was sitting
in then, as I am standing in now, for all the truly distinguished
teachers you've had at UNF.
Let me play for or you the piano without hands . The tongue,
language itself...parabolic and ironic--is my instrument. You
can hear what I'm doing with it, or not doing with it, if you
listen to me with your inner ears.
(The echo of the said is the unsaid.) We do what we can, don't
we? And what I do is poetry.
In an essay called "literature as Equipment for Living,''
Kenneth Burke says that poems have always had ''the force of proverbs."
They help us live our lives, he says, and I believe him. Because
they've helped me live mine. What wisdom, if any, there is in
me...is in me because of poetry.
As you know, from the program and from President Herbert's introduction,
I lived and worked in China for a year...before the Tiananmen
Square Massacre. The poems I'm giving voice to, this morning,
are poems written out of my China experience. China has made me
see the world, and myself in it, differently. China has become
How I Became A Taoist Monk
I made my way
to Laoshan Mountain
where, I had heard,
but they didn't.
So there I was,
all by myself,
with no one
to talk to,
nothing to do.
I still am,
on the mountain.
It's all right.
I have patience
enough to wait
the Taoist monks.
any day now,
I don't have,
So far as I know
I'm the only one.
A Taoist Monk-like Lao-Tse-has much to teach us about that which
is good and true, beautiful and useful. We need to know that climbing
the mountain and finding ourselves "with no one / to talk
to, nothing to do'' is an exercise--a discipline--that will richly
pay us. We need to know that taking time out from the work that,
by "virtue" of our ethic, both justifies and defines
us will add an otherwise missing dimension to our lives. The first
and last principle of Taoism is, in Chinese, wu wei; in English,
''do nothing." As Lao-Tse says: ''If nothing is done, / then
all Will be well." We need to know how to waste time. We
need to know that hanging up on the dangling, all too often pointless,
conversation we are party to Will make the silence that Lao-Tse
so highly recommends available to us. We need to know that ''having
patience enough,'' being ''comfortable'' with what we ''don't
have, '' and '' believing i everything '' are sustainable life
positions. Because they are. Trust me...unless I give you reason
In China there is, every spring, a festival called Ching Ming,
during which the Chinese practice their own latter-day version
of ancestor worship. ''The Chinese have always pictured the afterlife
as rather like this life, and have therefore generally expected
it to be staffed by bureaucrats''...by civil servants in the sky
(THE HEART OF THE DRAGON). During Ching Ming, the Chinese feed
their dead; they carry to their ancestral burial places favorite
foods. Gravestone turned banquet table. What more could a ghost
want? A meal that makes being dead worthwhile.
All the men I've ever been
I still am. Hungry ghosts
are in me, each one
with his own name,
fault, apology, dream.
Every night, their mouths
open wide, and I feed them.
I always feed them
Which I is I? They all are. That's what "hungry Ghosts''
is about: owning up to the fact that we're all divided within
and against ourselves and recognizing that division as both necessary
and virtuous. How far we are from who we are and how we want to
live, if we starve our hungry ghosts when we really should be
feeding them. Their mouths, open wide, remind us of all the possible
lives we have in us...other than the one we're living. "All
the men I've ever been I still am."
One of my ghosts, at lease, is Chinese. I call him, respectfully,
Professor Xu, but he still haunts me. To make sense of him--his
story, which I'm about to tell you--perhaps you need to know some
things about him. Like: He teaches at Beida, Beijing University.
French language and literature. Flaubert's MADAME BOVARY is his
favorite book; Emma Bovary, his favorite character. He refused
to participate in Chairman Mao's infamous "sparrow war."
And his wife, persecuted by the Red Guard during the Great Proletarian
Cultural Revolution, drowned herself in Weiming Hu (No Name Lake)
on the Beida campus.
Professor Xu / Madame Bovary / Sparrow War
Without his wife,
Who drowned her name
In No Name Lake,
Is still himself.
In a small courtyard
--his memory garden,
he calls it-
taller than he is,
the only private property
history has left him,
Professor Xu is doing
What he has always done
There. He is
His student days
Before the Great War.
(There have been
so many lesser wars
he learned the language
A crackled kettle
On which we beat out
Tunes for bears
To dance tom
While all the time
we long to move
the stars to pity.
As Professor Xu
Chairman Mao declared
one of those lesser wars
on China's sparrows, 1956...
with his inner ears,
he hears his countrymen
making political noises
on cracked kettles
the sparrows, guilty
of eating China's grain,
fall to earth, exhausted.
Home. Where is home?
Professor Xu, longing
in his memory garden,
An innocent sky
full of sparrows
and stars by night...
unmoved by language,
without pity. Is home.
Professor Xu, loving
Emma Bovary like a wife.
Professor Xu isn't real; I imagined him. I made his story up.
The reason I'm telling it to you is because I love him. I love
him because he loved--he really loved--his wife, and because,
mourning her still after all these years, he loves Emma Bovary
''like a wife." (Professor Xu, I like to think, is as real
as she is, although he'll never be as well known as she is.) There's
a lesson here, is there not? Like The Taoist Monks and the Hungry
Ghosts, Professor Xu has something to teach us, doesn't he? And
it has nothing to do with power; it has to do with love. With
otherness. How to get beyond ourselves, how to project ourselves--
sympathetically--into other bodies, other lives, how ''to see
and suffer'' ourselves in other beings at last (Theodore Roethke).
Professor Xu teaches us that there is virtue in loving others
The politics of a man who writes poems are always the politics
of his heart. Or, in William Carlos Williams' saying of it: "Poetry
is a rival government, always in opposition to its cruder replicas."
We live in the World, not out of it, and the world in our time
has a very particular moral climate. We must concern ourselves
as much with inner as with outer weather. My instrument--the tongue,
language itself--is parabolic and ironic. Sometimes the irony
is the irony of history. ''China: A Parable'' has a story in it...not
unlike Professor Xu's. But it has a story, with considerable irony,
given the Tiananmen Square Massacre, behind it too.
Statues of Chairman Mao are everywhere to be found in China.
He had them built to scale, in his own lifetime, which is to say:
They are magnified, as his sense of himself (as the Last Emperor)
was, out of all proportion. I was in Chengdu the capital of Sichuan
province. Walking about, found myself in the center of the city,
surrounded by municipal buildings, done in the Russian style of
the 195Os, and in the presence of yet another statue of Chairman
Mao. But this one was different: this one was scaffolded as if
something were about to happen to it. I Wondered What...
and wrote ''China: A Parable."
On the same day, all over China, scaffolds go up
and tarpaulins come down around the remaining statues
of Chairman Mao--erected by Chairman Mao, in honor
of Chairman Mao--the Great Helmsman.
We know that something is going on in there,
but we don't know what...looking on in wonder.
My guess is as good as any.
Deng Xiaoping has retired, but Deng Xiaoping has not retired.
He is still China's puppet-master; he still pulls China's
strings. When Deng dies--he's in his 80s--a11 over China,
on the same day, the tarpaulins will be lifted, the scaffolds
And lot Chairman Mao will have become...Deng Xiaoping
Even as I write this, the Workers are chipping away at Mao
with their hammers and chisels. Deng is a smaller man
than Mao was. ''He's in there somewhere, we know he is."
We hear the workers sag, chipping away.
What I conclude from this is: China's next ''real'' leader
will have to be a smaller man than Deng Xiaoping, and Deng
Xiaoping is a small man, so the workers can still chip away
stone and get at him.
As the people in China get bigger, the leaders get smaller
until no stone is left, until they're not there. At all.
If China is more than China, if China is a metaphor, then my
parable is not just about the Chinese; it's about the rest of
us as well. What will we stand, and what fall, for? Where will
we draw the moral boundary lines in the institutional and relational
aspects of our lives? Will we ever, ever, take our politics to
heart and act out our lives only and always in good faith? After
all, we are THE PEOPLE and whether we know it or not, whether
they--the Chairman Maos of the world, and they are everywhere
to be found, you know them as well as I do, write both large and
small, but most of them not yet ''chipped'' in stone--whether
they know it or not, the only real power there is...is in US.
What will we do with that knowledge and trust?
The T'ang Dynasty poet, Tu Fu, has a poem--"By the Winding
River"--in which he says:
All creatures pursue happiness.
Why have I let an official
Career swerve me from my goal?
I suspect Tu Fu always knew what I'm still trying, hard, to find
out: There's more to life than work. Who you are and how you get
your living is not the same thing. There's plenty of time to be
had, but no money to be made, that really matters. ''The true
cost of a thing is how much life you have to spend in the getting
of it'' (Thoreau). Risk is all there is. ''Try to be one on whom
nothing is lost'' (Henry James). Do not spend yourself carelessly.
Live your life so that--at the end of looking back on it--you'll
not hear yourself say: "What have done with my life? What
have I done with my life?" Don't take yourself quite so seriously
Comic relief from the tragic sense of life is yours for the not
asking. Beyond the primal scream is the primal laugh. Laughter
and prayer are twin sisters. That's some of what I've learned
since I made my way to China, climbed Laoshan fountain, and became
a Taoist monk.
I've spent my life unpreparing myself; I think almost ready.
Silence...is unforgettable, wise.
University of North Florida