I had never heard the entire poem. I had heard only the opening line which Fa Shi (Gisho Senderovich) had recited in the course of conversation. “Ah, yes,” she had said, “it’s just as I first wrote, `I’ve come to see the pigeons ride a crested wave of air, to fish for ocean memories…'”
I forgot the conversation but I did not forget that line. It came to mind frequently, always as an incantation that conjured up images of forgotten summers at the Jersey seashore: sea birds – sunlight glinting off their flapping wings – a handful of confetti tossed into the air: hungry birds, hovering over the surf, then dipping – the beach a smorgasbord of tiny shellfish.
The images were so pleasant that the mere remembrance of the line could improve my disposition. I was sufficiently moved to attempt a city-dweller’s haiku.
Fa Shi’s surfing pigeons
Devour worrisome crabs
On sun-drenched sidewalks.
It wasn’t much – too bad I can’t say that it suffered in translation – but it did have that virtue of mediocrity: it was sincere. Someone gave her a copy of my little salute and she graciously thanked me. I was feeling rather pleased with myself until a month later when I got a copy of the entire poem. “What a great fool she must have thought me,” I announced after I got over the impact of the piece. Her poem was an agonized prayer whispered in extremis. It was definitely not intended to be a pretty little mnemonic for childhood pleasantries.
Of course, like those of all fine artwork, its lines are deceptively simple. Surely, we think, a stroke here, a dash there, and it was finished. Fa Shi cannot comment upon the creative struggle: she has no recollection of writing it. She can only explain that she composed the poem while sitting on a Southern California beach. “I was verging on suicide,” she says simply and without poetic license, “I had been falling through space for a long time and then the ground obliged me by coming up to meet me.” She adds, smiling, “It was quite a collision.”
It would have had to be. Gisho Senderovich sets high standards for calamity. She is a Jew, born in Poland in the Thirties, a survivor of the Holocaust.
The “free fall” and the depression about which she now so casually speaks was, this time, occasioned by the self-persecution of hopeless love. The man whom she had worshipped (not too strong a word to describe her obsession) had suddenly, and with stark cruelty, terminated their relationship. Confused, grieving, she began walking around Los Angeles and found her way to the beach at Santa Monica. Whatever hold she still had on reality, she let go of at the beach. She gave away all her money, and then as if to lost her identity, too, she threw away her purse. For three days she sat on the cold sand; then someone called the police who came and put her in a hospital’s psychiatric ward. A week later, coherent – but not much more than that – she was released into her daughter’s custody.
Fa Shi remembers little of the hospital and those days on the beach. She remembers only the lines she composed and that it was Passover and the moon was full.
I’ve come to see the pigeons ride
A crested wave of air
To fish for ocean memories
That are no longer there
To beg pardon of the setting sun
That it must go down to rise
And ask the moon ascending
If it will shine for me tonight
And hesitant, though willingly,
I too await the tide
That, inexorable, washes in
No matter where I hide.
The theme of this exquisite poem is resurrection and the redemption which resurrection implies. Though the words are taken from a universally understood religious vocabulary, they are particularly meaningful to Mahayana Zen Buddhists. Of all Buddhists, we are most devoted to Amitabha, He of the Infinite Solar Light, and to his divine, lunar emanation, the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, whose name is variously translated as the “Savior Who Is Seen Within” or the “Savior who looks down from above.”
What is there about the moon that so attracts us, especially when our defenses are down? Why, when torment separates us from our rational selves, do we come finally to appeal to the moon for help? What racial memory, what code-transmitted message of salvation speaks to us when our distress is so extreme? Why, poor moonstruck lunatics, do we turn to that one face which countenances us when all other faces have turned away?
To understand Fa Shi’s poem, we must first consider the origins of our moon-dependence. Surely it was in times as ancient as our phylum that the moon began to fix its awesome hold upon our psyches.
To recapture a little of the essence of this attachment we need only imagine ourselves living – cut off from all things modern – in some remote agricultural community.
During nights and dark winters the moon would be our principal source of light, often our only source. Out of doors, without the moon we would be immobile.
We would number our days and mark our seasons by a lunar calendar and we would even take a lunar cue for planting seeds.
We would see that it was by lunar command that the tides ebbed and flowed and that women menstruated and were fertile according to the same directive. We would count from the time of conception until the time of birth exactly ten lunar cycles, one for every finger on our prayer-pressed hands. We would labor hard by day, but in the evening, by moonlight, we would know the kind time, the time when, with family reunited, we could rest, eat, drink and love. It was the moon that presided over the best hours of our lives; and we would know we owed it more than veneration.
April is the cruelest month, if, of course, you have survived March. And March is only bearable to those who were not among February’s winterkills.
By the autumnal equinox, we would harvest crops and stockpile fuel, praying that both would last us not only through the winter but far enough into the spring to sustain us through the reaping of our first planting. But which of us would have laid-in enough? By the vernal equinox, we would all be trembling with hunger and uncertainty. This is when the passion begins. Around the northern hemisphere, there is no day so holy as Passover.
Fasting is a spiritual exercise. All religions recommend it especially to those who crave the sights and sounds of divine fantasy. (On or about the fifth day of fast, the human body produces a substance similar to lysergic acid.) And so, with so many starved into spirituality, we observe Lent (Spring’s “lengthening” of days). As long as we have nothing to eat, we might as well fast.
The priests would guide us. They would remind us of our sins and we would offer our hunger in atonement for them. But we would fear, with dreadful anxiety, that if this sacrifice were not enough, the Moon, sickened by our iniquities, would wane and die and enter Nirvana, leaving us to suffer forever in nocturnal darkness. The Rites of Spring are sacrificial rites.
Two weeks later the moon would indeed die, and for three terrible days and nights there would be no moon. But then, our Bodhisattva would hear our cries and, foregoing the pleasures of celestial paradise, would return to help us. Just as the full moon always rises at sunset, the new moon always rises at dawn; and so, on the third dawn, the morning yet dedicated by many to the Goddess of the Dawn, Eastra, our Lord would appear to us anew. (Also Sprach Zarathustra!)
Zen’s connection to Judaism and Christianity is not mere coincidence. Proselytizing Persians brought the salvation cult of Mithras (Maitreya) to China. This is why there is still debate about Bodhidharma’s nationality. Was he an Iranian or an Aryan from India? Aryan, Iran, and even Erin, are all cognates – the Chinese ideogram signifies their common meaning, “noble”. There in the land where Zen was born, the lunar, salvific attributes of Mithras were assimilated to the Guan Yin androgyne, Avalokitesvara, even as Ahura Mazda, the Solar figure, fused with the Buddha of the West, Amitabha. (Recall the many silver, “argent-moon” statues of Avalokitesvara and the golden images of haloed Amitabha.)
There are but three places for the heart: heaven, hell, and purgatory: Nirvana, Samsara, and the slough that separates the two. At critical times in our lives these places meet. We usually locate them through the coordinates of grief.
So, Gisho Senderovich (she was not yet Fa Shi) found herself at the beach where ancient elements converged. There, on the sand, by the sea’s edge, in the chilling ocean air, she brought her passion’s burnt offering: Earth, wind, water, and samsaric hellfire for the ego’s immolation. It was the time for great reckoning.
Gisho had been guilty of the worst sin that a mature person can commit: idolatry. She had failed to detach herself from the things of this world. She had not turned her ego-mirror around to let it reflect the Buddha Self in whose image it had been made. Instead, in the way of adolescents, she continued to look outward at things and people in order to give herself definition and purpose. She had not yet learned that we may need and worship nothing but our Buddha Self. “I am the Lord, thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me!” Indeed.
She had bankrupted her spiritual resources. She had emptied her vaults to squander adoration upon another human ego. And so, sitting amidst the converging elements, she watched the pigeons and contemplated the sun which had not yet set and the moon which had not yet risen.
The persons of her poem are none less than the Holy Trinity; God or Godhead – represented poetically as the setting sun, Amitabha, the Buddha of the West; the redeeming Savior or Bodhisattva, divine offspring, represented by the moon; and the Holy Spirit, the expression of divine love that is breathed into each of us, which is represented here, as it is universally, as a sacred bird – dove, phoenix, quetzal, among others.
Ego-dead, Gisho submits to judgment. She explains, “I’ve come to see the pigeons ride a crested wave of air..” The image is lovely. The Holy Spirit is borne upon a crown of spume-filled wind.
“To fish for ocean memories that are no longer there.” The lines tantalize us. Who is fishing? She or the birds? Both, for they are one in the same. She has lost everything. Not even in the depths of her unconscious `ocean’ is there a minnow’s worth of sustenance. “To beg pardon of the setting sun that it must go down to rise.” Here is the great mystery of the human condition. How we regret our need for divine sacrifice, that vital death and transfiguration without which there can be no salvation.
“And ask the moon ascending if it will shine for me tonight.” This is the poet’s crisis. She begs God to intercede and send the Savior.
Will the Moon rise for her? Will He illuminate her darkness? There can be only one outcome. The Bodhisattva of Compassion will hear her cry and He will come. He will look down upon her and she will find in his face the comforting assurance of the ancient covenant. The tide will flood, a baptismal cleansing. With understandable anxiety she awaits completion of the sacrament. She need not fear. Such is the mercy of our Lord that even if she were to hide, she could not escape His mercy.
The conclusion is always “inexorable.” Those who have been delivered know this to a certainty. (Recall Thompson’s Hound of Heaven, “I hid from Him, and under running laughter… I sped… From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.” Huysmans, too, in his introduction to A Rebours – that disturbing `yellow book’ that Wilde places in Lord Harry’s hands in Dorian Gray – confirms the same ineluctable conclusion. “… while certifying that the will is intact, we must nevertheless allow that the Saviour has much to do in the matter, that he harasses the sinner, tracks him down, shadows him, to use a forcible phrase of the police.” Huysmans, famous and successful after publication of his masterwork on decadence, left Parisian society to enter a Trappist monastery.)
To those who are bereft of resource or habitat there remains the primordial medicine: the healing solace of nature.
Can man be born again? Can his deadened body be filled with life again and can his spirit be redeemed? Of course. It was not long after this remarkable seaside communion that Gisho Senderovich, splendidly tranquil, became Fa Shi, a Buddhist renunciate.
The pigeons were doves of peace.
Gisho Senderovich’s poetry is published under her American name, Gloria King.