Transmission Outside Words Moon
—for Elijah McClain & the windbell of compassion
New Moon September 7, 2021
the other side of transmission
is anything but harmonious
it is a stormflood at the basement door
a bomb in a crowded exodus
it is being injected with ketamine
for listening to violin while black
the heart explodes & stops singing
the confused parabola of our vantage
means that it rains while the sun shines
it shudders & pours blood upon green grass
this world of capsize & vagabond need
with a mask of steely reason intoning law
while wreaking & burning & thieving
flowers wither & greed spreads
the other side of transmission
rises sinuous on the bright thread of friendship
going to lengths to give glory away
trusting women to know their own bodies
choose wisely & caretake our fractious species
it is the boundless expression of warmth
radiant in soft eyes, gentle attention & touch
sympathetic soma forgiving & welcoming
how strangers look upon another
tracing grace lines in young mens’ faces
the heart from horror looks up
when the moment is actualized
we are held & are able to hold
in continual outgiving
transmission sews us anew
returns us again to vow
redoubles precious thusness
love alone the bell atoning
Poem by Qayyum Johnson
Painting by Suiko McCall. We Have Deep Relational Responsibility to Complete Strangers, 2020. Ink on Yupo, 9.5×9″. suiko.art
A reader wrote to ask for some help unfolding this poem.
Here’s how Qayyum responded:
This poem is a bit ‘inward-facing’, or opaque. The language of ‘Transmission Outside Words’ comes from the Zen tradition. There’s a story about how enlightenment is recognized in a student by a teacher—they both have an intimate understanding of this ineffable Something. A view or insight that the elder practitioner affirms that the younger one has attained. A “dharma eye”…
It apparently arose in China from a related notion of family succession: the transmission of the family name & property holdings from father to eldest son. Subsequently, it’s become a way for teaching lineages in Zen buddhism to chart themselves (eg. like a family tree: my teacher, then her teacher & his teacher & so on…, back until a hypothetical direct link to the historical Buddha). For a long time now in Zen, it’s become institutionalized as a way of recognizing students so that they can become official teachers themselves and be sanctioned to offer precepts & ordination to others.
This is from the origin story of Zen where the Buddha “recognizes” Mahakasyapa as having understood his teaching, thereby receiving his “transmission” of the mind of nirvana:
The World-honored One, before an assembly of millions on Vulture Peak, picks up an uḍumbara flower and winks. The assembly is totally silent. Only the face of Venerable Mahākāśyapa breaks into a smile. The World-honored One says, “I have the right Dharma-eye treasury and the fine mind of nirvana; along with the saṃghāṭī robe, I transmit them to Mahākāśyapa. The World-honored One’s transmission to Mahākāśyapa is “I have the right Dharma-eye treasury and the fine mind of nirvana.”
So, I’ve been studying more buddhism & Zen on my own lately & been thinking about this idea of “transmission”. Like, what does an understanding of reality mean?
How does “awakening to the mind of nirvana” relate to the real sufferings that surround us in the world at any given time… but especially, always, right now?
So, rhetorically, thinking about being argumentative, to make sides out of something that doesn’t have sides, really, I wanted to feel my personal way into what the “other side” of transmission might be. Both sides are the “other side” from the other side, of course! And then interrogate them a little bit. The proposition of the spirit teachings of the world often points to harmony within or behind or surrounding our confused/limited human perspective.
But what happens to all this blood, all these bombs, all this corruption & paternalism?
Recently I hung a new windcatcher on a small bell we have, so with all this movement from the tradewinds this bell has been ringing pretty much constantly now, in its high toney tinkling way. I’ve been holding it as a good reminder to return again & again to compassion: for the victims of violence, for the perpetrators of violence, for all of us affected by greed, hate & confusion.
In the poem, I feel like I’m wanting to square this idea of a mind-to-mind transmission of great spiritual truths with the language and images of the world of suffering. It feels like this tension is central to my spiritual & creative practice. It’s hard for me to grok Elijah McClain’s death within the overarching harmony proposed by spirit… yet, I do have great faith that there is love, harmony & beauty at work throughout the deepest levels of reality. I remain challenged by how to hold both at once: thus taking refuge in the windbell of compassion.
Anyway, thank you for letting me riff. I hope this shares something of my process in making the poem…
What did it bring up for you?
What do you think is happening in the piece?
Sending love on the wind!