Thomas Merton, in one of his many books, said something to the effect that, “Monks are like tall trees in the forest, silently purifying the air.” The life of the contemplative centers on quiet purification through prayer.
Among the many Zen practitioners of China and Japan, the ones we know about wrote poems and some also practiced calligraphy. Some taught. Centuries passed away, and still their contributions shine with intensity and truth.
One of the most famous is the poet Basho from seventeenth-century Japan. He wrote Haiku, a structured form of three phrases. Here are a few:
a fascinating body
in summer rain
would you be happy with
the moon’s face
has spring come
or the year gone away?
second last day
Haiku poetry is deeply rooted in the awareness and appreciation of nature. Many of the Zen practitioners lived far from villages in small huts up on the sides of mountains. There, they faced two common enemies: poverty and loneliness.
In contemplation there is no hiding place; we make what we can from our choices. Work overcomes the difficulties and the result can be a gift of beauty to the world.
The image of a solitary monk living alone in nature is compelling but nature is everywhere, even in the city. And solitude is also everywhere, even in the city. Solitude is a condition of humility and peace. Ironically, contemplation might be more easily attained in the city where one is reminded frequently of what one needs to avoid.
Surabaya, Indonesia 2020