10 thoughts on “immeasurable

  1. This is a difficult poem to parse or interpret. I’m sitting here now with a copy of The Buddhist Liturgy, which contains the Amita Sutra, which is the Immeasurable Life Sutra. The lengthy sermon is given by Sakyamuni Buddha to those assembled (monks, boddhisattvas (enlightened beings). He describes the Pure Land (this is one of the sects of Buddhism): in it there is a Buddha known as Amitabha (or Amita) and when any Buddhist enters a temple they bow and say “Am i t’u
    fo, which means may you reside in the Pure Land). In this westerly region beyond millions of buddha fields, all beings without suffering and live in bliss. It is described in detail as to its wondrous beauties-all jewels and lacking turbidities, all afflictions of mind.

    Now, to place this sutra besides plastic spoons is to suggest what? It may be that the author is positing the impossibility of language communicating the excellences of pure existence by offering impenetrable meaning. It may suggest that we Westerners associate Chinese (even their sutras) with food and thus it is demoting the purest writing to the equivalent of a take-out order with plastic spoons in the package.

    Plastic is non-degradable, as is the Pure Land, so perhaps the author means to ironically compare two types of permanency. I don’t know.

    I do know from having occasionally prayed at Pure Land temples that vegetarian meals with plastic spoons and plates are served after the service.

    My best hypothesis is that the author means to estabish the greatest possible tension by juxtaposing Namo Amitabha with plastic spoons and if the mind holds this discrepancy long enough in mind the mind should burst, the rational mind should surrender, and there you might find the Pure Land.

  2. Jack, thanks for what you wrote. *very* much enjoyed the different avenues/spokes you’ve explored for Paul’s ku.

    i have also found, like you, that when you get down to it, interpretation kinda fails. it’s hard. and i can see how it might be frustrating or a “huh?” for readers.

    however!, i find that this ku makes me smile every time i read it. sometimes it makes me laugh. i don’t know why. i’m not sure i want to know why. or maybe i do. but it does!

    personally, i have always felt there was something musical to the poem. the implication of playing spoons—playing to, or playing along with the “music”/the sutra, or trying to. of course, then, the fact that they are *plastic* spoons becomes so crucial to the poem—it’s flavor, and it’s humor (for me). and the spoons as a symbol of our modernity. or plastic-ness. the cheapness. the take-out-ness. the disposability. i love the matter of factness of the poem, the as-is-ness, the rawness of life how it is expressed simply, though appearing almost perplexing.

    it just cracks me up and speaks truth and joy and “oh shit, here we go” to me every time. and then it’s done and over with—the ku, the sutra, the music/sounds. i love coming back to it though, and so i wanted to post it. plus i love what Paul did with it visually—the font, the color of the font, and especially the flat, worn wood as a background (spoons hitting the wood, playing the sutra, playing life, the immeasurability of it all), which i think gives it even more depth and elevates it to a wonderful kind of haiku artwork (or haiga).

    again, Jack, many thanks. you’ve given me another way of reading and interacting with this one—a still-life interpretation that can sit nicely next to and with my noisy, energetic one.

  3. Poems like this are at the edge of acceptability for me. I don’t mean that Paul didn’t/doesn’t get something out of it, but by sharing it he is assuming I the reader will get something out of it as well. Thanks, Jack, for the nod to the sutra. I wouldn’t have gotten that on my own. I see some parallels here which create enough tension that I want to engage with the poem. Spoons are used to ladle things out, perhaps enlightenment? I see this as a poke at the notion of enlightenment, that perhaps thinking once you have it you’re good to go for all time. I read the plastic spoons as representing the disposability of belief, enlightenment; or perhaps they represent the repetition of the chant, and mock it a bit by saying it is like eating a meal with a disposable, unworthy, plastic spoon. An hour later you’re hungry again. Don’t take the chant so seriously.

    I wrote once years ago about the distance between the two parts of a haiku (if he considers this a haiku). A danger is stretching those parts too far. Perhaps making the relationship too abstract. In this case there are enough shared reverberations to work with, to try and solve it in a sense (not necessarily logically). But it is close to that breaking point.

  4. enjoyed reading your comment, Paul.

    i certainly agree with you that it is at the edge of things/at a breaking point—of haiku, of acceptability, of sense. as you go on to say though, there is enough shared to engage the reader and ask them to work at it, if they want to.

    the problem is, i think there are too many readers of haiku who won’t take the time to because it is immediately perceived as “difficult” and therefore they don’t see why they should—or they don’t get why they are being asked to, or are annoyed that they are being challenged by the imagery and language. they might think, “well, that’s not what a haiku is supposed to be” or “that’s not what i want (or expect) a haiku to be” and stop right there. part of this might be subjective. but part of it might also be the way readers and writers of EL haiku have been “trained” in expectations.

    for me, your comment brings to light the important topic of how non-Japanese readers and writers have come to approach English-language haiku. the expectations people have when they hear or see the word ‘haiku’.

    no doubt Paul’s ku challenges the perception English readers and writers have of haiku, and their expectations (and in many cases what they want from/in a haiku): not as the possibility of a haiku being a difficult/challenging poem, but as something much more transparent, something relatively easily understandable, or immediately understandable. is this not the general perception of haiku? is this an unfair judgement? based on what is being published, and how haiku are read and understood by the general public, i don’t feel it is in the least.

    more often the not, i think there is a kind of anti-intellectual streak in English-language haiku. that if a haiku appears “difficult” or not immediate enough (not transparent enough), then is it for some reason inferior, or unacceptable, or not considered haiku at all (that it is not or can not be a “true” haiku). it is almost as if many people are saying: “don’t make me think (too hard)”; “don’t challenge me (that much)”.

    this is almost a self-indictment, an admittance of a complete lack of interest in modern/contemporary poetics (and proud *of* it). that haiku must always be of the Quietist school or something. why is there so much wonder as to why haiku in general has not been taken more seriously by the greater poetic world? if the vast majority of EL haiku poets are not interested in modern/contemporary poetic, or interested in exploring it and accepting “difficult” haiku that play on the edges of language and syntax and imagery, then why would a poetry that *is* interested in these things reach out? is the answer really that EL haiku (the vast majority being of the most transparent kind) is too avant-garde or something? really?

    and so one of the other reasons why i relish a poem like this one by Paul is the way it plays with conventions and Western proclivities, preferences, and expectations; how it plays (and shakes hands) with the traditions and history of haiku, yet expands them and brings them into the now. it has many elements that the traditionally expected English haiku might be/contain:

    -shasei/sketch from life: picture from life (especially if the ku is read as a still-life “picture”)
    -based on realism/immediate experience
    -the Buddhist/eastern religious/philosophical element it has that so many people associated with haiku in general, expect and desire to be present (Buddhism, Zen: Basho, Issa, etc.)
    -juxtaposition of images: sutra and spoons

    it plays with those by taking making things fresh, making it new by:

    -utilizing contemporary imagery (plastic spoons), and making them significant, full of life, as living beings (and therefore playing with and refreshing the sketch from life technique)
    -writing it in one line (requiring the poem to be read swiftly, and hence being over quickly/before one knows it)

  5. You make excellent points, Scott.
    But, America has always been anti-intellectual (and actually proud of it); it is our greatest weakness. While French philosphers are the “super stars” of France, we have athletes!

  6. Hi Scott, I agree to a certain extent. However your comments bring up an interesting memory for me, that of seeing a famous painting at San Francisco’s MOMA, a red circle in a white canvas. At the time it was painted it was probably very shocking, new and exciting. But now it just seems silly. An excersie merely to shock. I don’t put Paul’s poem in that category, but we must be working toward more than just new and exciting. And this American is plenty intellectual, as are the rest of you 🙂

  7. The Immeasurable Life Sutra with plastic spoons

    I try to put aside such categories as haiku, ku, monostich, poem . . . and take in what is before me. I try. The first thing I have is something for my mouth and ear, and yes there is pleasure. I look for the “ancient friendships between sounds” as Bly has it. Most friendships keep some things secret, so I like that I cannot hear or overhear everything that is said, but a lot is evident, as it is with “The immeasurable…”.

    I like hanging out with people and talking about what a poem “means”, but only when no one feels they need to insist on their interpretation. I don’t think that‘s going to happen here, even on the level of “this is” or “this isn’t” a haiku. At least at the beginning of looking at things, I don’t now what it is and don’t particularly care. I’m not upholding anything. If up-holding would lead to under-standing, then I would be all for it.

    So it’s like coming together in the morning and talking about our dreams. I lay out what happened as best I can; I make my associations, and someone else says– “well here’s what I notice, and forgive me if it’s more about me than about you” and of course I forgive– now the dream is between us.

    Some dreams seem, as some of our more left-brained neuroscientists would have it, to be discharges of pent-up or clogged sensations which otherwise would leave the brain neurosclerotic. But some have some kind of urgency, some need to happen beyond mere discharge– something wants to be understood. Maybe it’s just that the brain (I have no idea what that is) just wants the dreamer/perceiver/experiencer to get past painful repetitions of behaviors, thoughts, ways of perceiving and to move on for God’s sake, to broader, deeper ways . . .

    So I think some poems are discharges– the artistic brain clearing its throat– in often amusing or interesting ways which may have some merit all to themselves– and others come from some other kind of urgency or impulse to be seen, and heard, and savored. The poems of discharge tend to be pretty explicit– they will lay out a bunch of separate things, maybe bizarre things between which one may– rorschach-wise– discover meanings, or more likely impose meanings. All of which is fun, to be sure. I like to see what happens to museums that have been turned upside down and their contents chaotically mixed– that’s a way of describing certain dreams. The poems of urgency or impulse (in five years I’ll have a better way to say that) will be implicit, because what is seen directly is soon known, and relegated to the past (“I know you because I’ve had this thought about you and I’m sticking with it”) whereas what is implied (folded in) will both allow and elude all meaning and interpretation, as any living being does. A poem must have both meaning and something into which meaning dissolves if it is to re-emerge fresh and alive. Sounds pretty taoist. Maybe it is.
    I’m just thinking out loud.

    So Paul shows up with something he’s written. Is it just discharge? Maybe his psyche has been secretly or not so secretly struggling with ancient things like sutras which have seventeen rivers of sound and association in them and at the same time not so ancient things like plastic spoons which seem to lend themselves to what can be known and merely used. Just juxtaposing these two things is not enough for me, because it would come across as merely willed– making a point (or making a point of making no point at all) that could be equally made by a thousand other juxtapositions. The part that cannot be willed is the sound of the utterance. Craft comes into play, and artifice, I suppose, but these must yield to a feeling of rightness, ultimately, which is the place that others are likely to feel as well if there is to be anything like communion, which to me must underlie communication. If I get my point across, that’s communication, but not necessarily communion.

    And maybe somewhere Paul remembered Eliot’s line from Prufrock: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”,

    but this is long enough and I will say what my hunch is here– that this is an utterance that needs to find its place among others that Paul has made or will make–that the sounds and meanings here will call out to sounds and meanings in other utterances. I think that is the nature of the poetry of impulse or urgency– it will come up variously again and again until some form of satisfaction is reached, until more than what can be measured shines from its hidden place.

  8. Well, hello. Forgive me for not seeing this exchange until now. I’ll ghost on in here with few things…

    First off, the ubiquitous Wiki link to the “Immeasurable Life Sutra” or “Infinite Life Sutra”:


    which is the reference work at hand.

    Regarding the poem, let me not defend, but hopefully lend some clarity to it. It’s hardly earth shattering or enlightening—this maybe moment—and interpretation needn’t be such a tricky thing here if it is approached outside the paradigm of thinking there is any one meaning to it. Or two, hell, three… I get that we all get that! Allowing for play and slippage for both the reader and some version of the author (as subjective participant), this is one of those first thought—put through the grinder of other thoughts—and left with the original thought again poems! I’d prefer readers paid attention to how it means rather what it means and that is how imposing I will let my intentions come across. If any specific intention can be named here it is the establishing of an ironic tone.

    In terms of my role here as the writer goes, there is element at work which is my admittedly somewhat plastic sense of Buddhist sutras
    (one may find cartoon renditions of sutras on tv out here)::


    and I have never practiced the religion. Having lived here in Taiwan for more than ten years, I am able to see sides of it that ELH seldom portray. I should say here that the poem is not at all an attack on this faith that’s never harmed me.
    Let me backtrack. I’m a vegetarian and the best restaurant in town that I regularly frequent is forever playing “The Great Compassion Mantra” (大悲咒/Dàbēi Zhòu”). Sounds pleasant enough—and it often is—yet there is a kitchness about hearing some renditions of it, at times uber-produced, accompanied with pop/dance beats, layers of misty keyboards, whatnot.

    Some days it’s not at all unlike hearing church music in the American mall. The author’s geographic situation may or may not figure into a reader’s way of reading this, but I’ll just put all of that out there.

    I’ve lived for years among many Buddhists, for years lived across the street from temples. ELH has seen its fair share of (tired?) poems about Buddhas and their shadows doing what they do—and they can be found—but how many include monks on their cell phones, behind the wheels of sports cars?–which are not at all uncommon occurrences in these parts. I’d like for some of that tongue-in-cheekyness to show its face in “Immeasurable.” How much of it comes across?

    In reading “Immeasurable” I hope we think of Eliot’s “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”. And yes, Peter, er, Callipash, is spot-on here. I certainly recalled it to the point where it kept me from using “The Infinite Life Sutra” to replace it with another name that it goes by to maintain the allusion to Eliot’s omnipresent metaphor and also get more semantic mileage out it. “Immeasurable” is off a syllable from the line in Prufrock, which may or may not have subconsciously played a part in the decision to leave a one-syllable verb or noun for place out of it, to end up paying homage in way that doesn’t mummer it too much.

    Is it ku, or what? I hesitate more and more using the term with half a mind to call it something else—an issue that has been discussed among some of us as of late—and has the potential to be productive within the context of a post devoted specifically to just that, what say we get that going?!)

    Paul, am I right in thinking you would like more a context to enter the poem? I’ll say too much here and hope it doesn’t soil any interpretations. Oh, don’t let me go and explain himself away! Say I heard this sutra eating near a temple, plastic spoons before me and the temple in the form of offerings and I’m told in Mandarin that what we’re hearing is Wúliángshòu Jīng and I roughly get the gist of its title. I come home, get the line down on paper and have English names for the sutra. Where did this ku (if it is one at all according to certain standards) take place? Scott and I often speak of ways in, doors, windows, as it were for entering ku. Often times, we end up leaning toward thinking that more are better as far as interpretative choices go, but so many dynamics are at work in “Immeasurable” that to single out any one, I believe, would limit it. I can only offer that the immediate context is words on the screen or the page and with a reader with what she brings to it is in the room where she is taking it in and devoting as much thought to as they like. How much would a verb have changed it? Or naming of a setting? Like to hear your thoughts. How many of us know this sutra? It must mean something if the poet made an effort to name it. Let’s just let the word qualities draw attention to themselves and emerge in one mind, roll of one’s tongue, be chanted a few times and have a light black humor about it, because I sure as hell never set out to write a grand ku with a politic in mind. It’s just a smaller version of a space to think a little in.

    I like Jack’s take on this. And yet I find it more productive with “Immeasurable” to contrast the Pure Land and plastic. Plastic=eternal (well, ok, hundreds of years and up to a thousand?) and the Pure Land=temporary. Jack, jump in here.

  9. Well, let me serve up something, then, Paul.
    The Immeasurable Life Sutra is a long one (and very hard to keep up with the Chinese in pin-yin when they’re reciting it in their own language-I usually give up-and concentrate solely on the repetition of Ami tofa (Buddha of the Western Pure Land, like our heaven).
    It is precisely described in the sutra, to no end, almost ad nauseum: what I mean is the Buddha describes repeatedly all the jewels that make up the trees, the entire environment, every precious gem over an over again).
    In once sense, this incremental repetition of all the jewel laden streets, etc. is not unlike the infinite forms that plastic can take; a kind of ubiquitous substance.
    But, of course, Paul, you’re right, the two should not be compared as much as they should be contrasted. Yet, this gets into some difficulty, because in Buddhism, at least Ch’an (Zen-Japanese), the Buddha manifests in the tiniest mote, the plastic spoon;everything is referred to as a Buddha field.
    But, I’m most interested in the question raised of How to read this rather than what it means.
    So, we have the sutra (you’ve all diligently read at least the citations Paul gave above; so you have some idea what it is about) and then we have grammatically a “preposition”: with.
    How we understand would be “with” to mean by “means of,” which would be a difficult proposition, the eternal life sutra by means of a plastic spoon.
    Or, say “with” as “accompanied by,” which is more likely because sutras are often accompanied by banging a beat on a wooden fish, but here it would be comical, with plastic spoons (which in Buddhism would not or could not diminish it).
    Or, “with” as using or showing, as in “of manner,” but I don’t think so.
    So! We have here a Language poem, which is to say, the meaning, meaning resides solely in the words, not in reference to anything; it is “thought” that we are experiencing while at the same time all the countless associations that go with it, including the history of Buddhism, plastic, the Guttenberg revolution, the internet revolution, all language, etc. is here and how do we construct meaning. It is a successful poem to me because it is both fun (and this is something that we in English have not garnered from the Japanese; I have read that some of their more unusual combinations of elements in haiku are called “sarcastic” haiku and meant to be fun: we take them very seriously and don’t understand them: time to call a Japanophile in for help), and it is serious.
    Yes, Paul, there is a Santa Claus, or an Immeasurable Life Sutra and Pure Land, “west” of here, not really a place as much as a state of mind, empty of all impurities of word, body, thought, and no plastic can make that claim, so dispersal of elements goes on, too, here. Both are manufactured by mind only; in the Heart Sutra the Buddha goes on to say there is no path, no enlightenment, no eye, ear, nose, thought, no nirvana, Pure Land, and by abandoning all principles the ancients attained enlightenment, which is nothing to attain, because he also declaims there is no enlightenment, nothing added, nothing to attain.

  10. I should add that just listening to the recitation on you tube goose-bumps raised on my skin and a great feeling of comfort and memory arose! It is a beautiful sutra and a beautiful sentiment to greet someone and wish them birth in the Western Paradise.

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