Dialogue # 19: Sin, Zen, Ethics, Rules, Animal Nature and Natural Morality

October 23, 2013

[In this dialogue Steven and I explore how writing poetry can be a kind of liturgy, a way to still the mind, a way  for Western society to restore harmony between daily activities and the Self’s center.  We re-visit concept  based ethics, values, and morals as opposed to those that that come from nature.

Take Down a Musical Instrument.

M: The problem, for all of us, is to wake up every day and look around and see what’s going on–the intense realization of what we’re doing, the intense moment—and to do this is every day.  That sort of thing. What do you think?

H: I think what you said sounds just right.  I’m thinking about Yone Noguchi, the Japanese poet and professor who came to California in 1893, and the way in which words and the precision of his language became a kind of devotional meditative practice for him, right up on these heights with Joaquin Miller.  He wanted to teach students and he did, some from UC Berkeley who would come up here.  He wanted to teach the art of haiku and that meant a very different kind of poetry that he was learning from Miller and a very different technique. It meant very short lines with metaphors that really bring light, you could say, the light of the magnificent sunsets he would behold here looking out at the Golden Gate.  You’ll read about it in the book. [Noguchi’s California, by Nina Egert]

…with metaphors that really bring light, you could say, the light of the magnificent sunsets he would behold here looking out at the Golden Gate. 

It’s quite remarkable, and he is credited with having introduced haiku to the United States. So this is a figure that’s going to speak to you, Clark, with regards to your own interest in it, in haiku, and how Ligonier Sightings came into print.  

I decided you can do haiku in English and retain the form.  You really can.  Every poem in Ligonier Sightings adheres to those limits.

M: I think I told you one reason I really got going on haiku was that I was working with a Japanese woman who wanted to translate here dad’s haiku.  He lived in Kyoto and was the president of a haiku club there.  They had haiku clubs all over Japan that worked on perfecting their art, held contests, and so on.  We translated together about 250 haiku.  I really started paying attention to how that could work.  Not that this is important, but a lot of people say you can’t really do haiku in English, not retain the 5, 7, 5 syllable structure.  I decided you can do haiku in English and retain the form.  You really can.  Every poem in Ligonier Sightings adheres to those limits.  

H: Apparently Noguchi had studied at the University in Tokyo, and his master, the poet from the past he revered most, his mentor, was Basho.  So when he came to America he really wasn’t looking for a master in the art of poetry.  But he ended up in San Francisco and met some of the important luminaries in the literary world here.

M: From just what I glanced at here, he has found a way to bring those two cultures together.

The light that shines out from words

H: That’s what he did.  He also found a man who was living what he saw these Buddhist writers were living in Japan.  This attitude of reverence, you could say, for nature, and the challenge of putting nature into poems so that there’s no distinction between the word and the light of the word, as you said, and the metaphor that shines back.  Miller taught him the value of silence.  Miller told him that, although he had him live next door in a little cottage, they would agree they would speak briefly to each other, and then they would go into their own meditative places.  I think his sitting up on the hill and looking out at the Golden Gate–there are a number of beautiful passages in the book where he describes it–you see this mutual influence between the two poets that is quite impressive.

M: You were up at Shasta presenting some talks recently and picked up that book there.

Temporarily blinded by Whitman

H: Yes, they were commemorating Joaquin Miller’s centennial [he died in 1913], and I talked about Miller as a poet shaman.  They were very responsive because he had been influenced by the Wintu people in the Mount Shasta region.  As I mentioned in one of our dialogues, he lived with them and married a Wintu woman.  He learned the chant technique from Native American women.  I spoke about that.  This was during the time he was healing from that arrow-wound, the arrow that went through his face and on through the back of his neck and left him with a shaman’s wound.  So I presented that model.  They loved it, and the next day I presented a view of Miller’s vision of spiritual democracy and how he really learned from the Shasta tribes.  But also when he got to London, where he became famous in 1871, for the book Songs of the Sierras. He learned from Dante Gabriel Rossetti the idea of the equality of all religions.  Rossetti and his brother had just published Whitman’s Leaves of Grass when Miller’s book came out.  So the two brothers were steeped in Whitman.  Whitman was all over the place as a luminary by the time Miller arrived in London.  Miller hadn’t met him yet, but after his London trip, he returned in 1872 to the States and there he met Whitman and Longfellow and others.  But that relationship played a big role in changing Miller’s consciousness.  Speaking of light, you mentioned the light metaphor of Christ, the Word and the Light in a previous dialogue.  After Miller read Whitman in London in 1871, he said he had to put the book down because there was too much light! He was temporarily blinded, like being snow blinded.  He said he didn’t read any books after that. He said he didn’t need to.

M: [Laughs] Very good, very good, very good!  Oh, here’s a nice pattern: You told me of Whitman “simmering” and Emerson bringing him to a boil.  So Whitman got to pass that intensity on to Miller.  And, maybe Miller passed it on to you, Steven.

H: Yes, there’s something about the influence of Whitman on Miller that I have been very interested in.

M: Yes.

H: But also there’s this very interesting connection with this young Japanese student.  It’s heartening to have picked up Noguchi’s California because I had already done the research and there it was; an even further affirmation that this Noguchi really was a very important person.

M: I’ll say!  Absolutely. [We talk about the book for a few minutes.]

M:  If you’d like to see the power of putting pictures with words, that book you loaned me of pictures accompanying Moby Dick is a good example. [Moby-Dick: A Picture Voyage edited Tamia Burt, Joseph D. Thomas, and Marsha L. McCabe] I don’t know how much it’s abridged.

H: A lot. You’re talking about a whale of a book!

M: This one is a pretty big book, actually.    

H: They did a nice job.  I haven’t read this version fully.  I did look at the pictures.

M: What I’m getting to is that even though Melville gives beautiful descriptions of what it’s like to harpoon and catch a whale, boy! you see one picture of these little whale boats and this unbelievable whale!

H: It is amazing. Absolutely amazing and dangerous.

M: Yes.

How to put oneself in harmony with nature

H: So back to the book. When Noguchi came and met Miller, here was a man who had learned from Native Americans in Mount Shasta how to put oneself in harmony with nature.  

M: How to put oneself in harmony with nature.  OK.  How to put oneself in harmony with nature.

H: So.

M: That’s what it’s all about.

In the beginning

H: That’s all I wanted to say.  I was talking with a friend yesterday, Matthew Fox, at lunch, and I was thinking about how Creation stories from other cultures can give us a new perspective, a fresh perspective, on existence, on being alive.  Miller tells the story in Life Amongst the Modocs, the story of the origins of human life.  Just to refresh your mind, it’s the story of the Great Spirit coming down through a cloud and creating, first, Mount Shasta.  So the beginning of creation starts with the mountain.

M: The mountain provides a wonderful metaphor for all the people who hang around it.  It really does give you the idea of firstness, a volcano that surges up out of the Earth. In the last page of the Moby Dick book we were just now looking at–Ishmael almost being sucked into the vortex.  If you read that metaphorically, it almost sounds like the black hole of science.  It all comes back.  It all keeps coming back and coming back.  

An Attitude of At-Oneness

H: Yes. And in Chapter 104 of Moby Dick, Melville says–through Ishmael’s voice–“Give me a condor’s quill.  Give me Vesuvius’s crater for an ink stand.  Friends, hold my arms, for thinking about this leviathan, it worries me for no great volume has ever been written on the flea.”  He’s writing about the great leviathan, the great whale, and that means the whole cosmos.  Because Cetus is the constellation of the Southern Hemisphere, the Great Whale.  So he also mentions that. I think that idea of bringing the light of the cosmos into a great work of art like this–or into a haiku, a seventeen-syllable poem–is something that can only be done by a certain attitude of atoneness with everything that is, and with nature.  

…that idea of bringing the light of the cosmos into a great work of art like this–or into a haiku, a seventeen-syllable poem–is something that can only be done by a certain attitude of atoneness with everything that is, and with nature.  

So in this creation myth, the Great Spirit comes down and the first things he creates are, what? The trees, because trees are the origins of life.  Oxygen, the whole atmosphere.

Probably without it, we wouldn’t be here.  

M: I told you about the book The Tree by Colin Tudge.  It really brings to the fore our relationship with the tree.  Probably without it, we wouldn’t be here.  

H: How could we?  We wouldn’t… Trees are first on the mountain.  

M: As I’ve said before, my friend Karl Staubach sees them as fellow beings.  He really does.

H: Like Walt Whitman, and Miller, too.

M: Yes.  I’m pretty sure Karl’s always been at one with nature.  He must be bemused by those of us who need to work at that!

H: He struck me as a man who was very in touch with the mythological stage of consciousness.

M: Oh, yes, everything.  It’s all mingled together for him.

H: He had that kind of mythological consciousness.  It’s interesting how it’s often literary people who lead me to have that feeling.  

So, the idea that came to me yesterday when I was talking with my friend about this Creation story, which is very different from the Hebrew Creation myth, is that the Great Spirit creates the trees.  Then all the animals and all the birds and the salmon–and then the great grizzly bear. M: [Laughs]

H: The grizzly bear!  The Great Spirit was frightened by the grizzly bear.

The Great Spirit was frightened by a grizzly bear.

M: [Laughs]

H: He had to hide inside his great teepee.  He made a fire inside the great mountain, and he had to hide in there with his family.  Because the grizzly bear was that frightening.  Then he sent his daughter to look out and try to quiet a huge storm that was passing over the mountain.  And as she was doing that, he warned her, “Don’t stick your head out, because you’ll be blown by the wind.” She did exactly what the Great Spirit warned her not to do.

M: Of course.

H: Her hair got caught in the wind, and she was blown down the mountain, down the ice.  She slid past all the trees, and she ended up, where?  She ended up in the den of a grizzly bear family. 

So she’s adopted and is actually breast fed by the grizzly bear mother and raised by the family.  But then, they want her to marry their youngest son.  So she marries the grizzly bear.  And that’s where the Red People come from.  

So the origin myth is not that God is some father god in the sky that created everything that is, including human nature.  But the people come from a union of the Great Spirit, the cosmic divinity, that has no gender, that has no…

M: [Chuckles] That’s a good story.

H: And the animal nature.

M: Can’t you see the Wintu kids lapping that up, that story?  Who wouldn’t be absorbed!

The people were born from a union of animal and spirit.

H: Yes, and in our time, there’s a woman who wrote a children’s book with pictures, as you were discussing earlier.  And the children do lap it up.  This book sells.  It’s all about the Wintu Creation story that’s told by Joaquin Miller in his book.  My point, Clark, is this:  When we have theologies that have become obsessed with abstract intellectual notions of What is the Trinity? for example, there’s this hair-splitting that goes on.  You’ve got volumes and volumes in the Vatican that are never read, about what the Trinity means.  And you have all these elaborate rituals.  But here was a culture that knew that our origins are animal nature.  That we come from animal nature, a union of spirit and instinct!  And so the animal—in dreams the grizzly bear is a symbol for instinct, Carl Jung would say.  Animal symbolism often is an image representation for instinct.  Our theologies have gotten out of touch with the ancestral spirits, with being animal.  The totem animal is the great teacher. We can learn from Native peoples about how we can get ourselves back in touch with nature. And that’s through instinct.  I think that means taking instruction from the animals, the soul, that are still there as presences within us.  So that idea came to me yesterday, that when you have a different creation myth, to complement a beautiful creation myth like the Hebrew myth and the Christian myth, In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was Light, then you are in balance. Then the snake becomes a god with Christ.  And in the beginning for humans was the animal.  The people were born from a union of animal and spirit. Our theologies have lost the animal.  It’s there certainly in some of the parables, but the Church doesn’t even teach this.  Saint Francis had his relationship to animals.

M: Yes, and to return to my point, you need to take away from the St. Francis story the essence of it, because this is an historic figure we can check up on.  It wasn’t quite the way the stories tell it. The stories extracted the essence of the man and his relationship with animals.  That works just fine.  But when you brought that up it caught my interest because you use that name St. Francis, because that’s the new Pope’s new name.  I find him quite delightful.  

The “Sin” of superficiality

H: That’s right.  Because he cuts to the chase about what true spirituality is all about.  It’s not about the economic stage of democracy.  

You must realize what life is, some kind of spiritual thing you’re dealing with.

M: He’s talking the way I took Christianity to be when I was going to Sunday school.  He’s teaching the Catholic doctrine, but he’s humanizing it.  He’s not for abortion, but he’s not running around beating people up about it.  He takes it from the point of view that you and I would, that this is life. You must realize what life is, some kind of spiritual thing you’re dealing with.  You don’t treat it lightly.  And I don’t judge you.  I don’t know what the Catholics mean when they say, “I am a sinner.”  But it seems to mean you don’t take life superficially.  I suppose it’s what you’d call a sin. I guess that’s what sin is, not being with your spiritual nature.  Your animal nature and your spiritual nature being one thing.  When you divorce those two, then you’re, quote, in a state of sin. I hate that word, but that’s probably what they mean by that.  What do you think? H: It’s a very complicated subject.  I think it’s all relative, because what’s sin for one person is bliss for another. 

. I guess that’s what sin is, not being with your spiritual nature. 

M: Well, yes.  It’s when you don’t live in the unity of spirit and flesh.  It’s a disjointed self.  

A Way to Still the Mind-Stuff

H: Yes.  Religion is about linking one thing and the other.  In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the first line is that yoga is the intentional stopping of spontaneous activity of the mind stuff.  The intentional stopping!  Now, that is something our Western civilization is having a hell of a time doing, because of all the technology, and all the media.  And everything is so out of focus.  Probably one of the most common diagnoses in our psychotherapy field are sleep related disorders.  It’s because we can’t still the mind.  And I think this is what native people knew how to do.  Drumming, for example. Drumming is a method for stopping that spontaneous activity of the mind stuff.  

… a method for stopping that spontaneous activity of the mind stuff.  

M: Here’s a problem I see.  You hear what we’re discussing in sitcoms all the time.  They talk about all these things you and I discuss.  But it’s all just talk.  It’s the new small talk.  

H: It has to be embodied.  

M: That’s it.  But they don’t seem to get that.  It doesn’t seem to penetrate.  

H: They need teachers.  

M: They need to catch on.  

H: They need to take our course.  

M: Ha! You know, in our classes, we would actually go out and do that.  We’d go stop the world. I remember music would come into our classes all the time. 

We don’t know what will happen to these voice recordings, but maybe they will find their way into print and provide ideas for someone if they’re looking for an alternative. When it comes down to it, any change in culture has to start with change in consciousness

H: Well, we’re doing that right now as we sit here.  We don’t know what will happen to these voice recordings, but maybe they will find their way into print and provide ideas for someone if they’re looking for an alternative. When it comes down to it, any change in culture has to start with change in consciousness.  And that can only happen in individuals.  So while you and I, just chatting here quietly having a dialogue about different ideas, once in a while we have an idea that breaks through.

M: Yes.

H: It’s cracking the nut to get to kernel, as Meister Eckhart used to say, and getting to where the truth is.

M: Yes.  [Looking out the window] There’s the truth right there.  See that little bird there.  I don’t know what he is. He’s a really pretty little thing.  We don’t have those around my place.  You have lots of different kinds.

H: I take pains to put in plants that produce flowers for the hummingbirds and butterflies and things like that.  I try to draw the birds and insects to our garden, so that we can enjoy them but also so that they can get nourishment.  You know, the cities are destroying their natural habitat.

M: I was sitting eating my lunch on our patio the other day.  I have two hummingbird feeders there. Anyway one came up and hovered less than a foot from my face and stayed there, oh, for what seemed like a long time but maybe only a few seconds.  Then I blinked and he left.   

H: That’s remarkable.  It’s a joy when that happens.  It’s almost as if they’re thanking us.  Where you the one who sent me that YouTube of that boy and the hummingbird?  That was remarkable.

 [A baby hummingbird had fallen out of a nest and this teen-age boy had fed it with an eye-dropper and it had become tamed and would perch on the boy’s finger, even bedded down at night with him.  The boy allowed him to go outside, but the hummingbird liked to come in at night and be with the boy.

The bird was thanking him.

M: There’s no doubt about that.  That’s a wonderful connection.

H: That bird was definitely thanking him.  Like the whales do when someone frees a whale, from these nets and ropes they get tangled in. 

Poetry-Writing as Liturgy

M: As we were talking, I thought about the process of writing a poem and how it actually serves to integrate my body and my spirit.  It’s like a ritual.  It’s like a liturgy for refreshing yourself for what your world’s about.  That’s one reason I like to have these kinds of dialogues because I think it keeps me paying attention.  Everything, the rocks, the trees, the birds, the whole works.  The poem brings all that into focus and more in

That’s one reason I like to have these kinds of dialogues because I think it keeps me paying attention.  Everything, the rocks, the trees, the birds, the whole works.  The poem brings all that into focus with more intensity. 

[A break]

M: Let’s see if we can pull this together before I have to head home.  So this sort of sums it up for me.  It’s really always about bringing everything back into harmony with itself.

It’s really always about bringing everything back into harmony with itself.

H: That’s a good description of our morning’s chat.

M: The very idea of creating the word “sin” is to divorce it from nature.  And then you have people saying, “You’re a sinner.”  And that’s not it at all.  It’s an individual kind of thing.  

H: Since I’m still living in the afterglow of the Shasta experience, the whole problem with water-it’s a sin what we did to the rivers, the Sacramento, the McCloud, the Klamath, all these rivers that the salmon used to spawn up.  We created these dams for electricity, for agriculture, and water for San Francisco, etc., etc., etc. We all appreciate it, of course, those of us who drink it and water our plants with it.  But what did it do to the natural habitat, these ecosystems that we destroyed because of gold mining and because of… 

M: The gold mining was brutal.

The Intention of Doing Good

H: Brutal.  There were so many salmon on the McCloud a horse couldn’t cross the river without stepping over all these salmon!  I think it’s a sin what we did to indigenous peoples.  A lot of those who did it were Christians, good people, thinking they were doing good, when they were doing evil. We have to revisit the idea of sin from the standpoint of nature.  Perhaps a new definition of sin would be anything that is out of harmony with the natural world.  Environmentalists would certainly agree. We’ve gotten so out of touch with the natural world.

Perhaps a new definition of sin would be anything that is out of harmony with the natural world. 

For Economists and Politicians: The test is, Is it in harmony with nature?

M: That would be the test in politics and government: Whether it’s in harmony with nature.  So at the start of any new legislation, they’d have to say, “OK, our test is ‘Is this in harmony with the natural world?’”  Here’s this problem, say, of making a law that you can stop people from having abortions.  Then that’s misinterpreted all over the place.  Howard Dean, a doctor, said nobody wants an abortion.  

So at the start of any new legislation, they’d have to say, “OK, our test is ‘Is this in harmony with the natural world?’

M:  I’m with you totally. But then Sacagawea was sixteen years old when she led Lewis and Clark across the Rockies to Oregon.  She had a baby on the way.  She was the only woman on the expedition, a sixteen-year-old woman–had a baby, kept the baby, did all this.  I mean you could have a baby today, even with today’s circumstances, and still get your degree.  I do know some women who have done that.

H: She was a real heroine of the Lemhi Shoshone people, and she helped bring spiritual democracy to…

M: Of course.  I’m just pointing out that this is possible.  It’s damned hard, though, certainly.

I think the solution for me is to recognize the relativity of values. … That ethics and morality come from the body

I think the solution for me is to recognize the relativity of values. 

H: What I’m describing is a collective opinion that lands on one side or the other.  I think the solution for me is to recognize the relativity of values.  What’s right for one person is wrong for another.  I learned this early on.  I think probably from reading Jung so much.  That ethics and morality come from the body.  

M: Yes, that’s a good way to put it. Ethics and morality come from the body.  Values too must come from the body. I think most “values” are not in harmony with the body. We could finish on that because I’ve been wanting to bring up morality, again, another term that’s been a burden on people trying to have a good time. 

Morality is not a concept; it is an experience.

M: George Bernard Shaw says morality is something we invented to explain, I think, a lot of stuff that goes on.  But as far as he was concerned, he was an enemy of morality, doing things for moral purposes, rather than what I would call instinctive, natural decisions.  Your spirit and your body come up with this.  This is your morality.  It’s not a concept; it’s an experience.

H: We construct our own morality from the ground up, I believe.  From the body up. 

M:  The key is what I’ve been describing as nature’s morality. As they say, it ain’t in no rule book. Every circumstance is unique, not just as in the case of an abortion, but in all events.  I’m generalizing here. You can’t live by rules.  No two moments are alike.  So you can’t have a rule… for how to have abortions.

You can’t live by rules.  No two moments are alike.  So you can’t have a rule… for how to have abortions.

You can’t live by rules.  No two moments are alike.  So you can’t have a rule… for how to have abortions.

H: Exactly.  This is why monotheisms are in trouble.  When you get a morality that grows out of religion and it begins to be dictated to the people, and the women have to wear veils, they can’t drive cars, they don’t have a vote.  They are in trouble.  

M: Yes.  

H: Then we’re in trouble.  Our religion has become a kind of dictatorship. 

M: And just think, Mohamed never wanted his people to behave like that.  Such slaves to a concept… Surely he wanted his people to feel good about living.  

H: Have you heard about what’s happening in Uganda right now?  And Kenya and Ethiopia and Al Queda?  These radical Islamists who are going around butchering people.  Why?  Because they’re Christians.  It’s insane.  

M: Well, it literally is insane. Want a punch line here?

H: I don’t think so. [Both laugh.]

M:   Well, let’s see.  We talked about sin and morality and nature all mixed together.  So that’s pretty good. Zen always figures in.  

H: And we got the Jesus story in there, too.                                                  

Author: Clark McKowen

I taught English at Diablo Valley College in the Bay Area for over thirty years and probably taught over 20,000 students during that time. II'm still interested in how beings of any species learn and why, and I write books and articles about these things. My 2000 book of haiku, Ligonier Sightings, is an appreciation of the Chestnut Ridge area of Southwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up. All of my books can be purchased on the internet. Most teachers say they love teaching, but I don't know what they mean by that. I loved being in a group -- under my guidance, to be sure -- and getting so absorbed in exploring an idea that we didn't care whether school kept or not. That's the kind of teaching I love. I love seeing a bunch of people's eyes light up. I love the feeling of discovery of any sort. I love enlightenment. That's what more or less gets me up in the morning, -- and I suppose is involved, one way or another, in everyhing you will find on this website and in just about everything I do, including building redwood decks or going to the dog park with our Boston terrier Gracie.

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