In December the Sydney Buddhist Centre held the Season of Creative Conversations. This included local and visiting Order members celebrating mindfulness, ideas, art and more, all in the context of presenting the many facets of the spiritual life.
Maitreyabandhu visited us from London. He has been the Chair of the London Buddhist Centre and a long-time resident of the men’s Buddhist community located above the centre. He is also an artist, a published and award-winning poet and runs Poetry East which showcases the work of well-known contemporary poets, exploring the relationship between poetry and the spiritual life.
He interviewed the Sydney-based Australian poets Robert Gray on the Friday evening and Judith Beveridge and Stephen Edgar on the Saturday of the weekend leading up to Christmas. It was the interview with Robert which particularly interested me - his book published in 1987, Piano, awoke in me the pleasure of contemporary poetry with his strong and sensual evocation of the Australian bush, in particular the north coast of New South Wales and around Sydney. I encountered it while on holiday in Byron Bay in the ‘80s.
Barely contained by the eyesight,
The beach makes one great arc—
Blue ranges, overlapping, behind it;
Each of them is a tidal mark.
To have an event where some of Australia’s greatest living poets are welcomed into and celebrated within the Sydney Buddhist Centre is to really bring alive Sangharakshita’s urging of us to integrate the arts into the spiritual life. With some fine prompting questions, Maitreyabandhu enabled Robert to share his life and inspiration for poetry, confessing his attraction to: “imagery, poetry and evocation and description – these little black ants on the page [that] summon up a world of light and marvellous world of nature.”
Each of these poets has been influenced in different ways by Buddhism. Robert was “first attracted to Buddhism through the aesthetics of the poetry,... the haiku poetry, only after that became interested in the philosophy behind that”. He talked about the appeal of “the Buddhist master Dogen who saw the great mystery of life is that things exist, and how can we grasp this existence,... the reality of how something exists and being moved by the world that impinges upon us.”
In Piano I also encountered his rendition of some of the greats of Zen poetry:
I sit and look back on
days that have gone.
Did I dream them all,
am I dreaming now?
Listening to winter rain.
After a fascinating interview which had many of us caught in a web of delight, the evening concluded with Robert reading from his latest collection, Cumulus. It was a treat to hear him read poems, sometimes finely reworked, that I had encountered in Piano those many years ago.
One in particular brings to mind the bush at Vijayaloka. In Fire Sermon,
Simmering eucalyptus oil vaporously uncoils, accompanying
Angophoras, the dancing
Indras of rosy stone.
Dilated summer. It seems you can see into the Flame, while
Light-cells teem, cicadas thrum —
To its naked sensuous events.
Maitreyabandhu’s interview is available to see and listen to on YouTube here: