Fushan kids back in bus


San Francisco—30 April 2011:
Illumination: Seeing the Light in Hong Kong


Stone reality,

dream cloud;

reality isn't,

only the dream.

Is isn't,

is it?

Don't let the job be you;

full mental employment is no job at all.

For profit is not for yours;

it's for wasting your life away,

don't do it.

If it's not free,

it has no value.

Contradictions abound

when there is no truth.

Kowloon nights,

San Francisco days.

Dreams that are real,

reality adrift on a cloud.

The whole thing

or nothing's smallest part, dearie!

Let us go to the Land of Nod

where the nights are long

and day never comes.

We will earn our living kissing ...

What do you say?


Awhile back I began to ask myself the question: Where is the poetry in all this? I was seeking something beyond the surface value of things, most things being pretty dull and routine or even aggravating. I guess I was seeking some beauty, inner meaning, or even harmony. The business world would regard me as mad of course; and others would shrug me off at best as idealistic.

In my trips to Hong Kong I met a Chinese-Canadian guy who was traveling around the world trying, as he told me, "to put the pieces of the puzzle together." We were hostel roommates. Ten years ago he had quit his job, having concluded that all work was worthless, and bought stocks so that he could live off the dividends. His income was extremely modest. He had been working at putting the pieces together for the last ten years. Apparently there were still many pieces to put together.

He spent his days wondering around whatever city he was in and asking himself questions. He went by his English name of Alvin. At the moment he was pursuing more mundane topics than I was, however; he confessed that he had spent a lot of time in Hong Kong trying to understand economics. The year before, my own economy in shambles, I had pursued that too, until it had become a kind of who-done-it with the guilty parties identified. But now I was pursuing more advanced topics, such as the nature of reality. This was not poetry of course but seemed to me a more interesting topic than economics and banking and investor schemes. The reality topic had come to me, or come to me again, maybe I should say, while reading a book called "Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac. The book itself is poetic as well as philosophical, so perhaps the reality question is related to the poetry one. Does poetry raise questions about reality? Does the understanding of reality require a poetic approach?

The book had posed a question—a favorite Zen topic, I believe—about the nature of reality. Do we construct it in our own heads—and therefore that is what is real—or is reality an objective thing, something "out there" that we are observing? My own opinion was sort of a mix. I felt like there was an external reality but that our brains or minds determined its interpretation, hence colored it in various ways.

Alvin soon dropped the economic pieces of the puzzle that he was trying to put together and took up the reality question as well. We came up with no final answer—probably no one ever will—but we did both agree that there was an external component.

We took up the related question—how can you avoid it?—as to whether the earth—or shall I say whole universe?—had a beginning, and if so, how it had begun. Recently I had read a piece in the "Shanghai Daily" stating that physicist-philosopher Stephen Hawking had concluded that the creation of the universe did not require a god. In some fashion or other he had "proved" this. I begun to wonder how. A few days later, seemingly by chance, I found myself in Swinden's bookstore in Kowloon and picked up one of Hawking's books. Thumbing through it, I came upon a curious notion of his that you did not need to "solve every equation"—i.e., answer every question—to come to a conclusionin  scientific inquiries.

This was different from the logical training in physics, mathematics, and philosophy that I had received at the university. In my days, every equation had to be solved, every possibility had to be examined before a conclusion could be reached. The academics of the day demanded it, and maybe it was a good thing: It created more jobs for academics, whose "jobs" could not be offshored as their work was little understood. I related this new way of thinking to Alvin, who appeared now to have completely abandoned the pieces of the economic puzzle in favor of the reality puzzle. Were those pieces, the economic ones, even real, I think he was wondering.

We talked about Lao Zi and the void. We talked about "black holes," though neither of knew much about them at that time. We talked about Zen Buddhism and the purpose of meditation: To rid the mind of conventional thought and open it up to original thinking. We talked about the dullness of ethics and Kong Zi and rules and regulations. No wonder Lao Zi had told him to get lost when he came to him for advice! One evening I asked Alvin if he thought a person had to "hit bottom" to rise to great heights. Kerouac had certainly hit buttom in a book called "Big Sur." Alvin said he thought so. I was surprised at the immediacy of his response; it seemed to arise from some personal void as surely as air bubbles float to the surface of water.

But as interesting as these questions were to me—I too was now wandering around Hong Kong, taking the ferry across Victoria Harbor from Kowloon to wonder the hilly irregular streets of the island, sitting on benches in the lovely Hong Kong Gardens, staring into spouting fountains and examining the intoxicating purple and white orchids hanging from trees, and taking the tram to "The Peak" to look out over all Hong Kong—my heart was not totally dedicated to coming up with the answer. I was more interested in discovering the poetry in something than in understanding the thing itself. Every place I went I asked: Where is the poetry here? Muse, where are you? Poetry, if I could find it, seemed like the deeper answer to all these questions.


Poetic Art: Clear San Francisco Day