A Westward Reaping Shall We Go

The idea of the west is fertile in the poetic imagination:

To the ancient Greeks, from, Odysseus onward, the West was the place of the Hesperides, those mystical islands located at the furthest western boundary of knowledge, where the golden apples of the Sun are found. For the English Romantic Poets, the idea of the West is truly an idea in the Coleridgean sense: it is utterly concrete, yet inscrutably complex, self-contradictory, and endlessly generative of new knowledge and activity. Wordsworth’s poem ponders the archetypal significance of traveling westward, “through the world that lay/ Before me in my endless way.” Such contemplative wandering into the boundless realm of the West comprises one of the most characteristic and distinctive themes of English Romantic Poetry…(James C. McKusick)

In Wordsworth’s poem, Stepping Westward, there is no concrete destination in mind, for all places in the end become Absolute. The veritable end-point of the journey itself:

Stepping Westward
While my Fellow-traveler and I were walking by the side of Loch Ketterine, one fine evening after sun-set, in our road to a Hut where in the course of our Tour we had been hospitably entertained some weeks before, we met, in one of the loneliest parts of that solitary region, two well dressed Women, one of whom said to us, by way of greeting, “What you are stepping westward?”

“What, you are stepping westward?” — “Yea.”
— ‘Twould be a wildish destiny,
If we, who thus together roam
In a strange Land, and far from home,
Were in this place the guests of Chance:
Yet who would stop, or fear to advance,
Though home or shelter he had none,
With such a sky to lead him on?

The dewy ground was dark and cold;
Behind, all gloomy to behold;
And stepping westward seemed to be
A kind of heavenly destiny:
I liked the greeting; ’twas a sound
Of something without place or bound;
And seemed to give me spiritual right
To travel through that region bright.

The voice was soft, and she who spake
Was walking by her native lake:
The salutation had to me
The very sound of courtesy:
Its power was felt; and while my eye
Was fixed upon the glowing Sky,
The echo of the voice enwrought
A human sweetness with the thought
Of travelling through the world that lay
Before me in my endless way.

For Wordsworth, the sound of that greeting was an all-encompassing voidness, neither indicating a singular place or some Absolute boundlessness, yet sounding so infinite in scope in the zennist sense of neither here nor there, but somehow everywhere in between. And it was the “quality” of the sound that reached out and grabbed him, echo-like in stature:

Not the greeting itself, but the echo of the greeting, attracts Wordsworth. Coming, as it were, from nothing and everything, the greeting is both hollow and full, both nonexistent and eternally existent, stimulating in the poet the equally paradoxical sensation that he is journeying at once toward an earthly location, the hut, and toward eternity as embodied in the glowing western sky.

The seemingly paradoxical dimensions of this greeting, particularly its hollowness and its fullness, constitute a nearly perfect metaphor of the Zen principle of the interdependence of being and nonbeing. T. P. Kasulis explains this inter-dependence by invoking what he calls “The Allegory of the Bell.” Kasulis imagines a mountain traveler in Japan coming upon “a rudimentary hermitage with a large temple bell suspended from a simple wooden pagoda.” (The Japanese bell has no clapper and is struck from the outside as if it were a gong.) The traveler asks the temple priest about the age of the casting and receives the following answer: “This is about five hundred years old, but the emptiness within that’s eternal.”

The priest then asks the traveler: “Now please answer my question. Where did the sound come from, from the metal casting or from the emptiness inside?” For Kasulis, the emptiness within “truly is eternal. The space within the bell’s enclosure is in itself the same regardless of whether the bell encloses it or not, but for that period of time in which it is enclosed by the bell, its relatedness to the casting makes it functional. (John G. Rudy, Wordsworth and the Zen Mind: The Poetry of Self-emptying, pg. 60-61)

The functioning of the Such is hollow in its tone, but ah, also so full in Its resounding structure that pierces one to the very core of their Beingness. Can you hear It resounding within?  In similar tone, The Solitary Reaper reflects the “ambient wholeness of the eternally here and now.” (John G. Rudy)

The Solitary Reaper
Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.

No Nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands:
A voice so thrilling ne’er was heard
In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.

Will no one tell me what she sings?—
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago:
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of to-day?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?

Whate’er the theme, the Maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o’er the sickle bending;—
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

Here, the poem narrates a chance encounter in the Scottish highlands with a woman working in the fields while harvesting grain. She sings a lovely tune in a heavy local Scottish dialect that while haunting in itself, is incomprehensible to the listener. Yet, her melodious song becomes all the more memorable to him precisely because of its mysteriousness. Its power somehow reminds him of far-away lands and events, though he has no idea why or how:

Wordsworth does not solve the mystery of the song. He absorbs the song and so becomes the mystery itself.

The way to this consciousness is not through conceptual thought, through the application of mind to world as if the two were separate. It is, rather, through the recognition that mind and cosmos are essentially one. “You cannot use Mind to seek Mind,” says Huang Po in a passage that recalls Lao Tzu’s advice to empty the mind of thought. “Let a tacit understanding be all! Any mental process must lead to error. There is just a transmission of Mind with Mind. “Mike K. Sayama, attempting to define this Zen concept of mind in terms of Jungian psychology, argues similarly: “The fundamental tenet of transpersonal psychology is that the universe is one mind evolving to see itself. The task before us is no longer to differentiate from nature and develop the ego, but transcend the ego and realize the true Self that is one with the universe.”

For Wordsworth, as well as for students of Zen, the “transmission” Huang Po indicates and the transcendence Mike Sayama exalts follow a path that leads not upward, toward a commanding intellectual overview of the world, but downward, through the acquired detritus of conventional social expectations and conceptual thought, to the formless ground of intuitive acceptance and understanding. The greeting marks an end point. The cessation of linear movement results from the power of an aural and visual process in which the echoic sound of the human voice, cutting beneath the formal conventions of the very language the voice employs, reveals such an emptiness of specific form and being, such an absence of abiding identity, as to produce the sense of a united heaven and earth fully visible in the instant of present existence. (ibid, pg. 64-65)

In terms of Tathagatagarbha Unborn Mind Zen, all this is about a simple response, peppered with a zennist’s reverse-questioning THAT is always an additive of Source and is instilled with Direct-Realization—like a blinding lightning-flash illuminating the darkened horizon. Self is always the initiating factor, under all circumstances. The Mind Transmission IS SELF-actualizing and thus is the very essence of Mind’s vivifying action to Self-Actualize: the pure (Mind) Zen of the Tathagatas. Ultimately, this is a direct wordless-realization, devoid of all discriminatory reasoning that is dependent upon tools such as the intellect and language; in this sense there is no “attainment” of the Way or What the Way is. Who or what needs to attain? The Way can never be attained but Self-Realized. The Self alone is the agent, sola unicus. There is no singular road outside the singular Way of the Unborn. By reaping the West-wind all one’s troubles are soon forgotten.

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2 Responses to A Westward Reaping Shall We Go

  1. scott says:

    This sentient being has been really enjoying this in-depth exploration of the works of the great Romantic Woodsworth. It is so strange, so mystical and so achingly beautiful how the magnificent shining glory of the infinite Unborn can be tapped by any who are willing to really seek the true nature of all things.

    Shine on!

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