Mahayana Philosophy, Tantric Iconography, And The Magic Of Buddhist Compassion In Allen Ginsberg's ''sunflower Sutra'' by Charles Carreon
Every generation of poets derives inspiration from different sources. Social conditions, living environments, economic fluctuations and wars, in short, all the varied movements of life are the background for creative expression in every period of time. Writers are moved to find styles, forms, and mythic outlines appropriate to their experience, which help them to say what they want to say.
The anxiety brought on by what Alvin Toffler called "too much change, too fast," has afflicted many persons with a sense of hopelessness, and the eagerness of youth often finds itself with little to feed upon. Our society has warred against mythical consciousness, which is the nourishment of poetic minds. Scientific reductionism has consistently triumphed over structures which once gave spiritual meaning to existence, and questions of quality have been buried under a barrage of surplus goods. The mythic landscape has been razed; the flower of life has been killed by commerce and industry.
Allen Ginsberg, born in the Eastern U.S. grew up close to the chaos and confusion of this age. His poetry has never ceased to be a reflection of the anarchic conditions of our times, and yet it always rings with a spiritual impulse. In "Sunflower Sutra," these two qualities are quite evident, and the very title implies that the poem is some sort of spiritual instruction. There is no tone of resignation in the poem, despite an unpicturesque setting. For a Buddhist it is apparent that Ginsberg is affirming the Buddha nature, which remains pure in all circumstances, ever free from dualisms of all types. It is a part of the Buddhist Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) path to affirm the supreme reality of one's Buddha Nature, regardless of the apparent extremity of a situation. "Even if the sun were to rise in the West, the Bodhisattva has only one way," said Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of Zen practice in this country. By this he meant that followers of the heroic path of Buddhism (Bodhisattvas) are pledged to uphold the pure view of all phenomena as the play of an intrinsically empty awareness "even if the sun were to rise in the West."
Ginsberg, like a good Bodhisattva, has taken up the standard of enlightenment, though in a railway-yard he can find no better emblem than the wilted, besooted corpse of a dead sunflower. The holding of the sunflower "like a sceptre" parallels the symbolic postures of Tantric deities in Tibetan Buddhist iconography. These deities, who depict various aspects of the enlightened mind, often hold a ritual implement called a vajra (diamond) sceptre, representing their possession of the untarnished and indestructible quality of the pure, original mind. Almost comically, and yet with absolute seriousness, Ginsberg takes the same sort of posture. He is willing to stand up for the purity of beings, to affirm their intrinsic beauty and worth, though it be hidden within the grime and decay of phenomenal existence.
According to the Zen tradition there is only one place to look for enlightenment, and that is in the world. The Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng, said: "To seek for enlightenment outside the world is as foolish as looking for a rabbit's horn." Ginsberg's Sutra begins in the world, with a restless, roving description of decaying objects in a bleak environment. The sunflower is an ugly object in an ugly world. "... the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset, crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke of old locomotives in its eye --" He describes it with human attributes: "... big as a man ... seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air ... leaves stuck out like arms ... a dead fly in its ear ..." It is a pathetic figure, which Ginsberg identifies as his own soul: "Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O my soul, I loved you then!" The sunflower, with "all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad skin ... artificial worse-than-dirt ..." is afflicted by civilization, but even worse it has lost its identity as a living thing from long association with "rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely tin cans with their rusty tongues aslack, what more could I name ..." The sunflower is estranged from itself just like Allen and Jack: "rheumy-eyed and hung-over like old bums on the riverbank, tired and wily." There is real tenderness, genuine compassion in his question: "Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your sin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive?" And this is the turning point of the poem, which might have led to a depressing dead end but instead turns, stirs almost astonishingly to become a song of celebration, a defiance of appearances worthy of praise. Standing aside from the tragedy, Ginsberg can say, "You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower," which is, after all, not such an amazing thing to note. But then again, who else but Ginsberg would do it?
It is said in the Bodhicaryavatara, a root Mahayana text, that to discover compassion for other beings is like finding a jewel in a dunghill, because compassion transforms every situation in life. Unlike many modern poets, Ginsberg is able to use the magic of compassion to transform his perceptions, and purify, as it were, a rotten situation. He is able to assert, for his benefit as well as our own: "We're not our skin of grime ... we're blessed by our seed." He sees "golden hairy naked accomplishment bodies" albeit "growing into mad black formal sunflowers." The insight of this perception changes the tenor of the poem. The depleted, futile atmosphere of the poem's beginning has gone. The static, disheartening quality of "we thought the same thoughts of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery" has given way to an energetic vibrancy. Ginsberg's heroic declaration of life has strengthened him, and the closing image is tight, coherent and powerful: "... spied on by our eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision." He has made the enlightened gesture, or as the Chinese Master, Lin Chi said, "He has spoken a good word." And that is all one can ask of a Sutra. 1979, Charles Carreon