Posted By on September 16, 2022

(Ken was Ivy League and Jesuit trained, and for some years a member of the Society of Jesus. He currently lives in Dharamshala. Kens a long time Zen practitioner and a friend. Hes taken an interest in my current deep dive into the Psalms project, and it inspired a poem cycle. This is the fourth of the cycle, first published at Kens Buddha SJ blog and shared here by permission.)

The McLeod Ganj Psalter RSV, Week 4

Only light rain today. The monsoon is breaking

Songs 15 to 22

The Introduction

Song 15, Psalm 59, And At Evening, Let Them ReturnSong 16, Psalm 130, De profundisSong 17, Psalm 71, Put Me to ConfusionSong 18, Psalm 34; 147, Bablu Called in TearsSong 19, Psalm 103, Prose & Poem at JimmysSong 20, Psalm 122, How I Rejoiced!Song 21, Psalm 109, Saying Yes in The Darkness


Buddhist Koans and Psalms? We Dont Need to Pick a Fight

War crimes by one party to a conflict never justify war crimes by another.

I was shocked in 1996 when I learned that the people who venerate the songs of David and claim to have made a covenant with the only One God showered cluster bombs on Qana in Southern Lebanon where Jesus is said to have performed his first miraclewater into wine. Why did you save the best wine for the end? Perhaps all the singing and dancing coupled with the veneration of the songs themselves as being inspired actually fostered, or at least reinforced this pernicious view that guns, bombs and self-defense killing are just facts of life. If this is the last word, its as bad as the first squibbles.

Im certainly not trying to pick a serious fight, not even a good-natured one, nor am I trying to diminish the importance of getting history right, or at least as close to right as we can manage, but dont tell me how to view the fire power or the chants of Davids armies. Almost 50 years ago a Jesuit friend was actually learning Hittite to reengineer their war songs and distinguish them from what Davids cohorts used to fortify their spirits before battle. A very Jesuit enterprise. I couldnt tell a Hittite from a Canaanite or remember who won, who was more war-like, who killed more people or took more booty. How are we to know that anyway beyond the propaganda of the victor? Anderson Cooper was not around to report the battles on CNN, and David, the religious conqueror, controlled the press release.

Catholic priests are still obliged to say the Holy Office every day. I checked. They read, contemplate, and pray with these ancient songs. What do they do when they come across horrific barbarism? Turn a blind eye? Explain it away as the result of the passage of time and cultural revolutions?

My friend the Zen teacher James Ford asked me to suggest a few psalms that I felt were authentic and still spoke to me. I made several attempts, but following the Zen adage not to pick or choose, I felt obliged to look at the whole body of work, every stinking bit of it.

Read, contemplate and pray. I accept the challenge. But I want to avoid reading from the impregnable fortress of first principles, though thats often where the psalmists language leads me. Thats just an ivory tower. I will try to look at them as poetry. Whats also important for me is trying to ask at least a few good questions. Maybe theres the possibility of starting to think about subjects near and dear to our heartsperhaps too near and too dearin ways that can crack some of lifes puzzles. But it has to start close to our hearts. Thus poems. This is the impetus for writing my very personal responses to these ancient and revered songs.

Like a good foot soldier in the struggle of Light versus Darkness, I checked footnotes for lines that interested me, and even referred to several in what I wrote. But the stories, especially ones with lots of footnotes, arent worth much if people dont or cant relate. I know from my own koan study that I actually dont need to know if Daowu in a case from the Shobogenzo is the same guy whos called Dogo in case 55 of the Blue Cliff Record. Im not immune to speculation, but will try to stay focused on my life and meditation. Ive spent a good deal of time deciding if my reader needs to see any footnotes. When it is important to identify who are Hittite, I have tried to write that information into the text.

As I read, contemplated and wrote, I was distressed that so many people died. It was not planned. It just happened. I told myself to keep writing. Perhaps dawn would break trough the gloom on its own. Two things: my life here in a small village in the Himalayan foothills is very different from my life in the West. Healthcare is primitive. People die young and unexpectedly. I live in a community of refugees and exiles near the Indian and Pakistani border. We are close to the border between Nepal and Tibet. The possibility of war never disappears. The sting of war is still fresh. I would like to think that my circumstance has opened a window into why these ancient songs have endured. Certainly modern Israelis claim that their life circumstances have allowed them to continue to sing the warlike parts of these songs in a way that Davids armies might have recognized.

They say that Thomas Aquinas towards the end of his life gave up the thread of his theological thinking and turned his hand towards poetrypretty bad poetry in my view but chaque un a son gout. I will close my collection with a riff on Aquinas who, at least in my imagination, faces death with a praise song on his lips.

And At Evening, Let Them Return

Psalm 59: 6-7

They return at evening: they make a noise like a dog, and go round about the city.Behold, they belch out with their mouth: swords are in their lips: for who, say they, doth hear?

Is Right Speech always smooth and easy?Next door complains about the howling dog.Haris daughter ties her up during the day.

Other neighbors complain.It is tough to hear.Dogs are pack animals.

Early this morning BabaParaded through the village toA cacophonous drum beat.

He and his friends wereCarrying Durga MataOn their shoulders.

Just begging rounds.We are expected to give.All the dogs barked, not at all in unison.Always difficult for words to match the tune.

De profundis

Psalm 130

This song of ascents is usually sung at funerals.

They say it was instantaneousNo one ever says exactly how he died.It happened just about the same timeAs we were driving home from dinner.

They also say that his cousin who drove the two-wheeler was drunk.That boy lay for days unconscious in the hospital.No one knows for sure. No one ever will.No one will blame him openly. That is just not done.

Rumors in our small communityAs ordinary as death and being late for work.Our driver was also high. We left him in the drivers hut while we ate.It was festival time.

Together with my friend Kumar,I head to the village to attendThe rituals of death.They are not foreign at all,Though the trappings are.He died on FridayIt was Holy Week.

Just to be there is enough.It has to be.Forget religion.It is all we can do.

In a darkened room, the women sit with his mother.They hardly move. No one speaks. No one can.I know trauma. I watch with my heart.I bow towards the shrine in a dark cornerWith his picture, some flowers.He was just a teenager.

I turn and bow to his father,He is the brother and uncle of several of the menWho do work for me.I am connected.Tears came to my eyes.

Of course mercy, of course forgiveness,But you, songster, get closest to the truthWhen you pray the difficult prayer for hope.Hope is difficult.

My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning,More than watchmen wait for the morning.

Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord;O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.

If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.

Put Me to Confusion

Let me never be put to confusion.

In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust: let me never be put to confusion. . . . .Now also when I am old and greyheaded, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to every one that is to come.

Psalm 71

I will sing a contrary song:Put me to confusion,Even my old grayhead,Go ahead, do it.

Or I will sow a seed of doubt myself.Not to rely on the stability ofAn uncertain stance.Is far too comfortableEven given my ageAnd lack of balance,Doubt is just more honest.Even though I might fall.

Lets look at a few of the pointsPushed by your songster.You did not take me out of my mothers bowels.

Pure folly.I prefer Dr. Spock although my mother was not a fan.She was always searching forFor the traces ofSome invisible guiding handWhich always remained beyond her grasp.His name was Doctor Mack.

You didnt teach me from my youth.The Jesuits did that, andThough they like to think of themselvesAs the agents of the Most High,They rely too much on Ovid and CiceroTo claim pure Yahweh lineage.

Of course you abandon the old and frail.If you didnt thered be no complaint.Dont feed me that tired old line aboutSelf-reliance when all resourcesAre depleted.Unless you are really Ayn Rand in drag.

A professor of leave-things-aloneIs rampaging in the living room, leaving a mess.I will look for evidence of courseBut most times it is not evenNecessary, is it?You said it and believeSo it is suspect.

I will only listen to the professor of leave-things-as-they-is.

Who am I to show your power?You can and should do your jobIf you even can.I will not do it for you.I will not apologize.

Bablu Called in Tears

Psalm 34:18. The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Psalm 147:3, He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.

Bablu calledin tears.I could see tears.in his voice.I could feel raw painIf he were as nearas the palm of my hand.I would haveTried to hold himHis mother diedin the night.

Who can bind up his heart?Father killed,Perhaps murdered.Now his mother is also gone.He brought tea in the morningTo her lifeless body.

She had complained of sharp pain.Her left shoulder had gone numb.They took her to theAyurvedic doctor.She would not go to the hospital.Now her boys and her grandchildrenHave a hole in their hearts.

Pain and sufferingAre not democratic.Not everyone gets to vote.

Prose & Poem at Jimmys

Psalm 103: 15-16

The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field;the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.

The time and place for different kinds of speaking and singing.

It was mid-afternoon when Tara & I started uphill towards Jimmys up more steep stairs to the second floor efforts just to be there. More for four poet-activists, exiles and immigrants, reading Tibetan and English side by side. In India English always for subtitles. Could almost be mistaken as native Americans forced onto reservations or indigenous peoples of South corralled into reductiones by my Jesuits. Viewing like a Daguerreotype Dominant culture invades, steals land and resources. The extermination begins. I want to cry.

Tibetans have the upperhand capturing world attention through the charism of their Dalai Lama. Rigorous Buddhism written and practiced for centuries is perhaps more sophisticated than Black Elk Speaks, but the soft sounds of the Tibetan language; one young woman read as moving as Buffy Saint Marie. Just sounds. A man whose poem Just Shut Up lyrical, spiritual, fiery. Our Tibetan Bob Dylan sang a song he wrote, and then sang another with a man whod never performed in public before.

These gentle peoples fate still and always precarious. Spoke with several afterwards but kept my mouth shut about death and dying. They are aware of peril, but there is a time and place for different kinds of speaking.

You are not the firstNor will you be the last proud cultureDevoured by a conquering army.You know it.The wounds smart.No sauve of timeTo gently erode hard memoriesNo fading into mythNot yetThough that process has begun.Humankind survives.At least for now.Sing like theres no tomorrow.

How I rejoiced when I heard we were going to go to the house of the Lord

Psalm 122

Line Up

Determined to hearTrue Teaching.Id come all this way.

Firstly I go to the Security OfficeOn the Road to Bhagsunag.About 60 foreigners at the door.Though orderlyI take a number and wait.They check my passport,Run it through the computerPass.Copied in triplicateI get the badge of salvationOr at least an entrance pass.Theres a service charge.Line One.

I push my way through the crowdDown Temple RoadEveryone rushes.He always starts on time.Jammed up at the Temple GatePeople crush and shove.The entrance to Heaven isNameless and rude.Its India.The turnstile admits one by oneForcing order.Line Two can finally be called a line.

I rent a transistor radioWith earphonesSimultaneous translation,Mother tongue,Hindi and Chinese as wellWill the batteries last?Always questions.Will I even understand the questions?Another queue.More rupeesFor charity this time.Waiting for my change to be countedLine Three.

We slow to single fileFor the metal detectorAnd pat down.Pockets out.Men to one side. Women behind.Monks, nuns, no exceptions.No smiling.So close to intimacyIt becomes impersonal.Line Four takes time.

I search the lawn for a spot to sitAmong Tibetan families

Spread out on blankets.Kids play with cricket cards ofMuslim playersNo line of demarcation hereBut the monks higher up sit inNeat color coded rowsIn strange orange hats.Feathered mohawks in my mind.We wait for their chanting to end.Boredom joinsLine Five.

The steps up the throne are fewBut steep.Other hands lift and guide.Thats universal.It seems treacherousThe wonder of falling down.Behind the constant appeal for prayer,Fear is universal.Its a textual analysisOnly slightly dumbed downTo include spousal bedroom fightsLike an Irish pastorNot missing a chanceTo hit the heart of the matter..Line Six is a convoluted argument.

Salty Butter TeaMust be an acquired taste.Monks fill our cupsI know this is notSomething I can refuseEven though my gut reaction isTo spit it out.It tastes like piss.I sit and wait to hold up my cupFor just enough toSatisfy the bare minimum to be polite.The boy monk doesnt careWhat I want.Its not personal. Hes just sloppy.Line Seven spills over.

Stomachs growl,Its also his lunch timeNo tiffins for convenience.Uniformed guards from theIndian Army come to attention

And present arms.The admonition about arguingIn the bedroom requiresThe presence of automatic weaponsAnd live ammunition.India under threat from the PRC,That is a dangerous route.They guide his way to the lower level.Line Eight is armed and lethal.

Why an SUV to drive20 meters to his door?No crush of crowd.A smile and a waveSatisfy the superstitious ritualTo greet and bless.His stomach must be growling.Line Nine says its over.

We stand up to leave.The work of religion is done.The final Line is a prayerTo be delivered from it all.Today is the end of religions workGo back, all of you, to your homes.I leave before you,Eastward or westward,Wherever the wind might carry me.Tsui Unkei

King James Version

I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together:Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the Lord.For there are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David.Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.

Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.For my brethren and companions sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee.Because of the house of the Lord our God I will seek thy good.

Saying Yes in the Darkness

Psalm 109: 22-27

For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.I fade away like an evening shadow; I am shaken off like a locust.My knees give way from fasting; my body is thin and gaunt.I am an object of scorn to my accusers; when they see me, they shake their heads.Help me, Lord my God; save me according to your unfailing love.Let them know that it is your hand, that you, Lord, have done it.

I searched online for a referencePsalms saying YesI found a course for 17.99 USDThat promised Yes to G_dIn seven weeksUsing a formulaMagic costsI said No.

Saying Yes in the DarknessInvolves sayingYes to the dark godsIn no particular orderYes to murder and assassinationYes to vengeanceYes to bankruptcyYes to making an enemys innocent wife a widowYes to leaving his children homelessYes to condemning them to being denied compassionThe rotten sons of bitchesLeave no stone unturned.

I was worried that my songsHave been too much about all the deathAround us in our small villageBut that is a way of saying YesYes, saying yes in the darkness.

We dont need armies to do the killingLife exacts a toll before we take out our weapons.We dont even need to hear G_ds voiceTo know whether were right or wrong.

Shaken, thin and woundedI know who is poor and needy.It is me.You, O God, dont need to say a word.

I will sayYes to cancerYes to heart attacksYes to dementiaYes to being attackedYes to dying while youngYes to my own dying.

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