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In the Woods & On the Stage
A few words on monastery nights and open mic versifying | april11.2023
By DOUGLAS JOHN IMBROGNO | April 11, 2023 | My dear friend and fellow long-haul monastery traveler, Patrick Hamilton, long ago added a lovely ‘kuti’ (coo-tee), a residence and retreat cabin, to the grounds of the Bhavana Society Theravada Buddhist forest monastery and retreat center, in the eastern West Virginia hills. When not visiting and staying there himself, the kuti—like the many other ones dotting the property—is open to visitors and retreatants.
Patrick keeps a guestbook for notations from those who have passed the night in ‘Sivali Kuti.’ (Or nights, if you have come for Bhavana’s usual three-day or ten-day retreats). Some years ago, he sent me images of some of my own scribbled notes left in the guestbook through the years. Here is an illustrated one left behind after one chilly-outside, yet warm-inside retreat. The kuti’s wood-burning stove was very welcome during that February stay! Plus, the message remains true as ever. (You can see messages left by others in this part of the guestbook from ink bleeding through from the other side.).
The time that I drew on the tick-tock clock is not insignificant. Morning meditation for most retreats begins in the meditation hall at 5 a.m. So, heavy sleepers—best set that alarm! And if it is a wintertime retreat, bundle up for the cold trundle through the woods and down the winding path to the main building. And maybe get there in time for a warming cup of tea or coffee in the Sangha Hall, before the hour-long meditation which begins your monastery day.
PS: ‘Metta‘ is a Pali Buddhist word, signifying loving-kindness—or in Bhavana abbot Bhante Gunaratana’s favored translation, ‘loving-friendliness.’
And ‘Sivali‘ is Patrick’s Dhamma name—’Dhamma’ is the Pali version of ‘Dharma,’ the more familiar-to-Western-ears Sanskrit word. The word signifies the Buddha’s teachings (although it also has other connotations) and comes from Pali, the language in which the teachings of the Buddha, orally transmitted for a long, long while, were first set down in written form. Lay folk who have decided to become more serious about Buddhist practice may be given a ‘Dhamma name,’ after a certain amount of retreating. It is a goad and an encouragement to deepen one’s practice of meditation and mindfulness, and to pursue a deeper dive into the Buddha’s teachings.
Patrick notes that Bhavana founding abbot, Bhante Gunaratana (known around the globe as ‘Bhante G’), chose his Dhamma name “in honor of my wife and I cooking for a retreat sometime in the late 1980s.” Bhante G went on to note that Buddha’s cousin of the same name “always made sure the people were fed and cared for, adding ‘So very like you’ …”
PSS: After one retreat, Bhante G gave me my own Dhamma name of ‘Dhammika,’ or one who seeks to follow the Dhamma.
When the mic opens and the poetry flows
That’s me in the shadow(s), losing my religion, in the photograph above. But gaining a new poetry-friendly safe zone in my life at Third Mind Books in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was visiting friends this past weekend. On Saturday, I was walking past the fine, chock-a-block shops and through the lively streets of the college-town city, after dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant and stopping by a full-on French pâtisserie. (Living the good life, yes.) That’s when I noticed a flyer on a shop door:
‘Poetry Open Mic, 8 p.m., Saturday April 8.’
Wait. (Checks phone …). ‘Hey! That’s today! ‘
So, I signed up. This being a sign-up supervised by a young human being named Joe—a Third Mind Books staffer and the open-mic host—he texted to my phone a link to a Google form and that’s where I had to sign up, providing a short poetic bio. (When The Great Sunspot Storms of 2024 take down the Internet and burp-destroy all electrical communication some us are going to be so screwed in how we get anything done …)
Speak It Forward
I had a fine time reading some of my short poetry and epigrams, along with a potpourri of other poets and acts, in front of a pretty decent showing for an open mic poetry reading on a Saturday eve. Then again, this was a bookshop—and partial shrine to the legacy of BEAT poets—in downtown Ann Arbor, a multi-culti hot spot of welcome diversity, ethnicity, and things happening. (The website for Third Mind Books describes the place as “specializing in first editions and rare books of the Beat Generation and other notable movements.”)
Third Mind owner and founder, Arthur S. Nusbaum, seen below on stage introducing the evening, is something of a William Burroughs scholar, plus a rounder-upper of an impressive collection of BEAT-inalia on the shelves, walls and in display cases. He launched the place online and then it opened in this Ann Arbor storefront in 2022. (I think I have these details right from quickie conversations). The open mic was one in a series the establishment has offered up, passing forward the BEAT movement’s versifying mojo.
That is William B. himself on the wall to stage-left of the shop owner. Nusbaum once met the BEAT luminary and they had a fine discussion, spurred by his knowledge of the writer’s life and work. A monograph about their meet-up is available in the shop for sale. Above is a 2000 issue of the publication ‘Free Thought,’ which published his piece about their encounter, promoting it on the cover as part of a Burroughs retrospective.
As someone who now and then casts his little origami cranes of poems upon the tumultuous winds of the world—only to see them too often come crash-landing back in my lap from the submissions desks of poetry enclaves—I must concede it was daunting to see the bookstore’s shelves jammed with so many legendary and lesser-known poetry journals.
The journals—one after another after another—gather up poems from past years, decades, and centuries—and past poets, folding their own origami poems in hope someone will see and appreciate them. I am a little daunted, seeing them all. It is a heavy lift finding even a handful of readers for one’s poems. And, here are thousands of other poems, vying to be seen. Yet, still we weekend poets poetify. Sometimes, poetry is the only thing that makes sense.
Also, each issue of every one of these publications was an occasion. And, in their own way, an investment in a finer world. Or, maybe a downpayment on a clearer understanding of the confounding one we find ourselves incarnated into—whichever the year, the decade or the century.
And, so, my encouragement to self and others who fold their own origami poems—write on! While also being savvy to the coming and going, the ebb and flow of all our minor glories and small fames. Or to quote one of the epigrams I read at Third Mind Books that night:
Fame Fame comes, fame goes. Still you sit and pick your nose.
UNIVERSAL FRIEND You know, I am your friend. I wasn’t always. But it is good to have a friend, or the possibility of one. The sun shines, the moon evolves through its stages, the Earth pivots as the galaxy swirls. And the next universe won’t destroy us with its birth for several billion years. So, in the meantime, it is good to have a friend. It is good to have the possibility of having one. It is good another universe is coming, too. Since we all need time to get it right. So, I am here when you need me. Now, that we are together, in this, our universe. I await your call.