Mole Valley Poets, 27th January 2014
Rosemary Wagner: Maitreyabandhu: Poetry as Spiritual Practice

Rose led the evening with brief reference to biographical notes on Maitreyabandhu who was born Ian Johnson in 1961, began studying Buddhism in 1986 and was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order and given the name Maitreyabandhu in 1990. He trained as a nurse, went on to study fine art at Goldsmiths College, London and has written books on Buddhism as well as being successful in publishing poetry.

In an interview Maitreyabandhu was asked how he balanced the competitive side of publishing poetry with his practice as a monk. He acknowledged that spiritual life and worldly life (success and so forth) are mutually incompatible. He tries to guard against his ambition by giving time primarily to Buddhism – to teaching, going on retreat, trying to help others a little – so that the focus remains on his spiritual life.

Maitreyabandhu sees the spiritual life as committing ourselves to values such as empathy and insight. Poetry can be a spiritual practice, a way of life. In an article in Magma 51 he set out thirteen points which describe some of the more important aspects of that life. These points were considered in turn and gave rise to much lively discussion within the group. The thirteen points are highlighted below together with a very brief summary of each one.

  1. Cultivate uselessness This is the antithesis of acquisitiveness and is a mode of appreciation, relating to life not for what it can give us but for its own sake, living simply so as to get on with the real business of poetry.
  2. Work Hard Spiritual life is a pursuit of excellence, authentic feeling, clear thinking and imaginative sympathy and so drafting and re-drafting is a spiritual practice.
  3. Be Open to Criticism Let go of of pride and egotism to embrace criticism – let go of what you think to allow the writing to develop.
  4. Engage with Primary Experience Engage with sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Drop beneath the racket of thought into direct sensation. Allow proprioception and introception.
  5. Develop Imagination Imagination is the synthesis and transcendence of reason and emotion. Imagination brings the whole person together and always goes beyond you.
  6. Beware 'Fancy' With fancy, a sort of showing off, nothing genuinely new comes into being, there is no realisation of the thought the poem is trying to think.
  7. Beware Success Success can lure us away from inner space, can inflate ego, separate us from friends, can be addictive. To mitigate against the dangers of success: give. Share success, give to others.
  8. Embrace Disappointment This hangs around like a stray dog that likes you. All that has happened is that we have not got what we want. Embrace the feeling and so let go of self. As an antidote read great poems – we are trying to write that well.
  9. Read Deeply (and broadly) In order to write poems you need to read them. Read contemporary poems, poems in translation, the acknowledged best: Shakespeare, Milton, Keats etc. Read intensely.
  10. Read Well Read for enjoyment, delight and ecstasy. Read and appreciate. Give dedicated time to reading. Read with emotional and intellectual commitment. This needs to be a kind of meditation.
  11. Do it for Poetry Anything you write, any poem that lifts off the page is only partly your own. You have been helped by the poems you've read, the courses you've attended, the tuition, mentoring and editing you've received. You stand on the shoulders of others. Honour your debts, express gratitude to those who help you. Do this for the love of poetry.
  12. Pass it on Engage deeply with poetry and write out of that engagement. Poems need effort, application and concentration. Help people see why it is an effort worth making.
  13. Develop yourself Deep poems, achieved poems are written by deep people. If you want to write well you need to live deeply, you need to develop yourself. A poet needs to observe vividly, feel strongly, reflect deeply and think rigorously. A robust sympathy for others together with genuine independence of mind is needed for poetry.

Rose rounded off the discussion with a reading of Hammer and Still life with geranium from Maitreyabandhu's collection The Crumb Road.

This was a most engaging and enjoyable presentation.