A student asked the teacher, “The physical body decays. What is the hard and fast body of reality?”
The teacher said, “Mountain flowers open like brocade, valley torrents flow deep as indigo.”
~ The Blue Cliff Record, Case 82
I was reviewing this koan with a friend on the day before poet Tony Hoagland passed this last week. In and around that time, our community email was aflight with his poems, perhaps in anticipation of his departure. I probably should be a better reader and writer of poets, and until recently did not know him outside of our sangha, but when I felt the beat of his wings, I knew him to be true, and I think you did, too. He seemed to love the elegant common, projecting a magical, breakout dimension:
I wanted to get the cement truck into the poem
Because I love the bulk of the big rotating barrel
As it went calmly down the street,
Churning to keep the wet cement inside
Slushily in motion.
I knew I might have to make the center of the poem wider
When the cement truck had to turn a corner,
Scraping thee bark of an overhanging tree,
Giving a nudge to the power lines–
At some point, maybe a few years ago, he got the cancer. Wikipedia said he died of pan-can, but it was not like sister Kim, who passed in less than 100 days. Tony stayed for a while, and I feel in his dying, he taught us how to sense the mountain flowers of brocade, and the indigo of the torrents flowing through. He taught us how to live.
When you are sick for the last time in your life, walking around,
shaky, frail with your final illness, feeling the space between yourself
and other people
grow wider and wider like the gap between a rowboat and its dock– you
will begin to see the plants and flowers of your youth.
And they will look as new to you as they did then– little lavender
bouquets arranged in solar systems delicate beyond your comprehension:
the dark gold buttons with the purple manes; the swan-white throat
splashed with radish-colored flecks; the threadlike stalks that end in
But Tony was not about death, he was of life:
Last night I dreamed of X again.
She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets.
Years ago she penetrated me
but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed,
I never got her out,
but now I’m glad.
What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle.
What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel.
What I thought was an injustice
turned out to be a color of the sky.