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Yeats converted: Vajrayana in Verse

forty poems plus one

Samsaric bliss is like a white jasmine flower in the shadow
of the full moon.  Hevajra Tantra 16. 579c

Poet’s Preface

The idea to convert some poems of W. B. Yeats into a medley of Buddhist contemplations came up spontaneously after a sojourn in Amsterdam with my Shakti, a one-time practitioner in Vajrayana, to whom this collection is dedicated. The germ of these verses was the tonality of a particular moment in Room 502 of the Hotel Schiller on the Rembrandtplein, a moment that is always now, when we two recalled a vow that bound us through time and death. In that moment refuge and recognition fused into a co-emergent awareness, the union of desire and emptiness. In commemorating that moment, these poems seek to celebrate love, carnal and mortal, as much as the transpersonal compassion of the enlightened heart.

The merge of mystic and lyric elements is of course already present in Yeats’ poetry, and persists throughout his entire career. Indeed, the signature of his best, most enduring work is just that merge. Lyricism in poetry is out of style, and has been for a long time now, I know, but what inspires the writing of lyric poetry is timeless and can never be in or out of style. I find in the lyricism of Yeats the perfect medium for the poignant contemplations of impermanence typical of the Buddhist view of life.

The original title was Currents of Mystic Wind, a play on “The Wind in the Reeds,” Yeats’ collection of 1899, although the poems are selected from other collections as well. The notation C.W. refers to The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats,, edited by R. J. Finneran (Scribners, 1997), where the poems are numbered consecutively through thirteen collections dating from 1889 to 1939. For some chronological continuity, the table of contents indicates the collections from which I have drawn.

The conversions are not offered as point by point renditions, consistent in rhyme, stanza, accent, and syllable count with the originals, but they are so more often than I deliberately intended—indeed, more often than not! Between originals and conversions, themes will tend to resonate oddly and obliquely. Again, I find that the resonance exceeds what I would have cared to contrive in a conscious way: it just happens, or not. But then I have been steeped in Yeats since I was fourteen or so. My experience in Vajrayana stems from a lucid dream at the age of four (“that lean hag upon the roof,” The Witch). The Celtic Twilight is rampant with dakinis. Faeries, by another name.

The mystic winds are currents that flow in the nadis, subtle channels of the body or, as I would prefer to say, in the gestures and masks of the embodied self, the phantom of identity. The mystic heat that arouses these currents may be something elusive, seemingly a bliss-filled surge from another dimension, or a burst of kundalini, the serpent fire. But ultimately what arises in the body has to originate there, because what is not here is nowhere else, either. The currents, mystic heat, the central channel and its two prongs, ida and pingala, are elements of occult anatomy known to all students of Hindu and Buddhist Tantra. These poems encode moments of mystical experience with the winds, the serpent fire, mantra, mudra, the diamond light, the rainbow body, and the enlightened heart of emptiness.

Yeats was often rhetorical—not surprizing for a man whose life comprised a series of open-ended arguments, recycled contradictions, and shape-shifting polarities. Compatible with this element of Yeats’ poetry, some conversions are geared rhetorically (and humorously) toward my case against Tibetan Buddhism. A few poems address the fairy-tale factor in Vajrayana, citing the birth legend of its founding father Padma Sambhava (In Misty OddiyanLotus Born), or challenging tall tales about the rainbow body (The Lama and the Dugpa). I sometimes use the dugpa, the indigenous Pre-Buddhist shaman or Bonpo, as the poetic antagonist to lama and tulku. I have nothing against magic and miracles, be assured. But I find the unquestioned mix of fairy-tale and high cognitive-epistemological dialectic, typical of Vajranaya, to be silly, if not ridiculous. As if you came across episodes from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in a treatise by Husserl or Wittgenstein.

At a deeper level, my argument against Tibetan Buddhism rests on a perceived inconsistency: between what it claims to offer and the management of that claim. In the first place, I do no accept that a totally male-run, monastic and paternalistic theocracy would monopolize the Divine Feminine, “the naturally arising dakini wisdom.” Granted, Nyingma lamas and those of other sects do marry, but that does not make them eqalitarians, by a long shot. What’s worse, consort yoga in the Vajrayana scheme is a skewed affair, far too loaded on the male side (as Long Chen Pa admitted, much to his credit).

In the second place, the claim to have access to the non-originated ground awareness, and be able to “introduce” others directly to that sublime state of attention, involves an elaborate scheme of management, hierarchy, and training which is, to my mind, inconsistent with the state to be realized. How would I know, if I had not experienced that state myself, you might ask. Whatever I have realized of the Diamond Mind, unsteadily or incompletely, has convinced me, not just that it ought not to be managed, even in a self-styled benevolent manner, but that it cannot be managed at all. Anyone who presumes to do so is to be suspected of spiritual manipulation.

I take Vajrayana, the complex ritual and cognitive method of Tibetan Buddhism, to be the summit of Asian mysticism, but its ground is Hindu Tantra. My aspiration has always been to attain the summit from the ground, if not at the ground. In Tantra, the mystic lore of the winds, the rainbow body, and so forth, is the raw material for imaginative passions that liberate those who surrender to them. Ultimately, surrender answers to the beauty of its own intensity, no matter what arcane and ornate structures may be devised for the meltdown. These poems float in the meltdown of carnal passion, rather like those trite icons of Romanticism, swans. But swans in tandem are also the image of Tantrikas in maithuna, consort yoga.

These conversions contain allusions to the figure of the terton, the fabled treasure-finder of Nyingma tradition. The treasures entailed are wisdom teachings, dakini instruction, intentional propositions and cogent insight extracted from the Buddha Mind. The basis of my claim to be a terton, and how I came to be one, will be considered under that category on Kali Rising, if and when I get around to it.

In the course of writing these poems, I found myself veering beyond the operative limit of the conversions, initially intended to reflect the mystical and noetic elements of Tibetan Buddhism as it stands. A couple of poems open toward Planetary Tantra (The Shakti Cluster, The Dawn). and identify the earth as the dakini whose secret name may be invoked to draw her attention. Going through the collections decade by decade, I fell into a progression that may lead to a second set fully dedicated to Planetary Tantra. The second set would develop from the later collections, after 1928, probably beginning with Yeats’s signature poem,  “Byzantium.” The working title and supernumerary poem for that set is Two Swans in Diamond Light. The supernumerary poem for this set is Room 502.

* * * * *

The merge of the mystic and the lyric is inescapable. The Romantic Impulse, of which Yeats was a prominent avatar, was deeply inseminated by Vajrayana wisdom teachings through a mysterious process of historical confluence reflected in the mission of Lama Govinda, the alleged reincarnation of Novalis, and other transcultural shape-shifters who often worked in pairs, as Lama Govinda with Li Gotami, and Helena and Nicolas Roerich.

These poems are testimony to an all-too-brief experiment in “consort yoga” that would honor that immense act of spiritual-cultural insemination, and modestly aspire to complete it.

jll October 2008 – January 2009 Amsterdam-Andalucia-Flanders

March 6, 2009