Shelley's Golden Wind: Zen Harmonics in A Defence of Poetry and "Ode to the West Wind"

Romanticism and Buddhism

Shelley's Golden Wind: Zen Harmonics in A Defence of Poetry
and "Ode to the West Wind"

John G. Rudy, Indiana University Kokomo

Art for Shelley entails a self-emptying exposure to a prior Buddhistic oneness with all beings, an 'origin' dislocated in time and space yet forever emergent in the moment and accessible through poetry as a mode of spiritual practice. This article explores the theoretical features, the practical functions, and the critical implications of this 'origin' through a Zen Buddhist reading of Shelley's _A Defence of Poetry_ and 'Ode to the West Wind.' This essay appears in _Romanticism and Buddhism_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (, University of Maryland.

  1. Early in his Defence of Poetry, Shelley undertakes to define art in relation to a "principle" of "harmony" that "acts otherwise than in the lyre," the Aeolian image he deploys to explicate his thesis that poetry is "the expression of the Imagination" and that it is "connate with the origin of man" (480). This principle of harmony undermines all notions of perspective in art, all presumptions of there being anything like a separate poetic self or a separate cosmic force creative in itself and inaugural of human productivity. The aesthetic base of this harmony, if it can be said to have a base at all, is meditative unfolding rather than hermeneutic perception. Art for Shelley is a journey from selfhood (a relational mode of subject-object dissociation) to full personhood (an opening process aligned with interdependent origination). The method of this journey is not self-affirmation or self-projection, as the term "expression of the Imagination" may imply, but self-emptying exposure to a prior Buddhistic oneness with all beings, an "origin" dislocated in time and space yet forever emergent in the moment and accessible through poetry as a mode of spiritual practice.

  2. We get a glimpse of this journey, as I wish to call it, in the two sentence groupings comprising the four-sentence discourse on poetry at the head of the second paragraph of the Defence. The first two sentences offer what for all practical purposes we may call a conventional dualistic framework for understanding poetry, Shelley's term for all art or creative achievement:

    Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be "the expression of the Imagination": and poetry is connate with the origin of man. Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. (480)

    The compound construction of the first sentence, augmented by the second sentence's image of humanity as instrumental to a variety of inspiriting forces, suggests that art is one thing, humankind something else. Despite the implications of the term "connate" (inborn, congenital), the sentences, taken together, convey a basal dualism reflected in and extended by the effort to define. Shelley, possibly in keeping with the Defence as a discourse about rather than a demonstration of poetic theory, employs the language of dyadic construction to explore what must here be perceived as a relationship between creativity and human origin. The wind, as the preferred item in this dual construction, plays upon the awaiting harp, quickening it to "melody." Shelley thus objectifies his subject, creating a perspective necessarily outside that which is to be examined.

  3. The second grouping of sentences, however, offers a different strategy for understanding human creativity, one that moves well beyond the relational notion of humankind as an instrument of forces sympathetic to yet other than itself:

    But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody, alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them. It is as if the lyre could accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them, in a determined proportion of sound; even as the musician can accommodate his voice to the sound of the lyre. (480)

    Shelley's syntax here is noticeably convoluted, confounding cause and effect through reference to a "principle" that "produces" harmony "by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them." The internality of the process is displaced. The "sounds or motions" discerned as functions of the harp are depicted as adjusting paradoxically to the very "impressions which excite them." The two dimensions of Aeolian activity—functional adjustment and inaugural impulse—arise integrally, as if from within each other. Additionally, as the "impressions" which strike the chords are themselves conceived as both "external and internal" to the lyre, to recall the earlier grouping, the locus of adjustment is itself displaced into an indeterminate rhythmic activity. There is, as it were, adjusting, but no separable object that is doing the adjusting. One cannot find here a projective subject to range against an object or, conversely, an inspiriting object to range against a passive subject. The "proportion of sound" itself may be "determined," as Shelley puts it, but its "origin," to use his earlier term, is mysteriously hidden in the activity it appears to excite. The principle of harmonic accommodation adumbrated in these sentences offers an image of humankind, not as a separate instrument over which inspiriting forces play, but as a displaced process of interactive creativity inclusive of yet beyond the dyadic configurations of wind and harp, external and internal, self and other, and, most importantly, beyond the dual notion of poetry and humanity as related forms rather than as mutually pervasive events.

  4. The problem here is that the principle of harmony specified in this passage as a condition of unity beyond the melodic constructions of the harp is an enacted process: it "acts," to recall the third sentence, and "produces." It does not, however, remain stable enough for either the poet or the reader to apprehend it existentially in a discursive context, a point Shelley seems to be making when he says, later in the Defence, "Every original language near to its source is in itself the chaos of a cyclic poem: the copiousness of lexicography and the distinctions of grammar are the works of a later age, and are merely the catalogue and the form of the creations of Poetry" (482). Discourse can talk about the interactive process of accommodation suggested earlier in the Defence, but the closer it comes to the "source" of the process, the closer it also comes to what Shelley calls "the chaos of a cyclic poem." To the mind seeking a definition of what at its origin is a process of mutual disappearance of one thing, say wind, in another, say "lyre," the preoccupation with form, the melody indicated in the first grouping of sentences, must give way to participation in the "chaos" of the creative process itself, enacting through reading what the poet does in writing. And what the poet does is to enact a displaced spirituality. "A Poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one," says Shelley later in the Defence; "as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not" (483). Like the displaced internality affirmed earlier in the mutual adjustment of wind and harp, the poet is himself displaced in time and space. Without "time," "place," and "number," he is without perspective, literally beyond the proverbial fulcrum by which he would move the lever of his understanding.

  5. What Shelley offers in place of such understanding is a holistic mode of life itself enacted through image. "A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth," he writes elsewhere in the Defence (485). Such life, however, is not available to us through a stable perspective outside the interactive dynamics of a unitary, ongoing creativity. A "poem," he says in explication of the theme of eternality expressed above, "is the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the creator, which is itself the image of all other minds" (485). Shelley's image of the mind of the creator as reflected in "all other minds" finds an illuminating analogue in Hua-yen Buddhism—Fa Tsang's Hall of Mirrors. (Hua-yen is "one of the five traditionally recognized schools of Zen" [Ferguson 317].) Affirming one day that "One cannot really understand Totality in an immediate sense before reaching Enlightenment," the Tang Empress Wu asks the Buddhist master Fa Tsang (A. D. 643-712):

    With your genius, however, I wonder whether you can give me a demonstration that will reveal the mystery of the Dharmadhatu ["the Infinity and Totality of the Buddha's Domain"]—including such wonders as the "all in one" and the "one in all," the simultaneous arising of all realms, the interpenetration and containment of all dharmas, the Non-Obstruction of space and time, and the like? (Chang 23)

    Fa Tsang responds by building a room lined with mirrors on the ceiling, the floor, all four walls, and in the corners. He then places in the center of the room an image of Buddha "with a burning torch beside it" so that in "each and every mirror" one finds "reflections of all the other mirrors." Asserting that "The principle of interpenetration and containment is clearly shown by this demonstration," Fa Tsang explains that "These infinite reflections of different realms now simultaneously arise without the slightest effort; they just naturally do so in a perfectly harmonious way. . ." (Chang 24). The harmony that Fa Tsang remarks expresses the Zen Buddhist understanding that mind as the condition of "Enlightenment" Empress Wu seeks is not limited to individual skulls. Explaining that "the mind is timeless and permeates all" and that "Its function is not merely that of perception and cognition," the nineteenth-century Japanese Soto Sect priest Tanzen asserts that "It [mind] is limitless, containing all phenomena—mountains, rivers, the whole universe. A fan can soar skyward, a toad fly, yet never outside the mind" (Stryk and Ikemoto 91). In Fa Tsang's demonstration, mind and form, like hall and mirror, implode upon each other. The individual mind both contains and reflects all things as any given form both contains and reflects all other forms.

  6. Shelley's perception of a poem as the "the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth," together with his notion of "the mind of the creator" as imaged in "all other minds" during the act of creation, qualifies, in the manner of Fa Tsang's demonstration, mind and form as a creative interactive process both reflective and productive of a dynamic unity at the base of life. While the forms remain stable, the endless reflection of form in every other form keeps the perceiving eye in a state of endless motion. It is not motion, however, that impels us to look always to the future. Nor is it motion that impels us toward the past in quest of the elusive origin "connate" with poetry. Rather, it is motion in which origin, as well as past and future, is always here in the present through the mutual reflection and interaction of each form, or poem, as creative process itself. As the mind of the creator is a moving composite of actions reflective of and implicate in the minds of all others, therefore without beginning and end, there is no beginning and no end to creativity. Creativity subverts linearity through what Fa Tsang calls the "principle of interpenetration and containment" (24)—what Shelley, I believe, is affirming in the cyclical claim that a poem "is the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the creator, which is itself the image of all other minds" (485). For Shelley, form and function, or form and action, to use his vocabulary, are mutually embedded through an originative process of interpenetration as a mode of mutual containment. Each form reflects all other forms, and each form contains all other forms as the mind of the creator both reflects and contains all other minds. The Japanese Zen philosopher Nishida Kitaro sees this process in terms of interactive consciousness itself: "The act of consciousness consists in this dynamic interpenetration of subjectivity and objectivity" (84). The journey from melodic constructiveness to harmonic oneness accrues through a process of opening upon origin, or "source," as itself the endlessly shifting, endlessly emergent containment of one thing in and as all other things. One journeys to such an origin only in the sense that one encounters it as already existing at the base of one's being—"perhaps within all sentient beings," as Shelley puts it—and as available through the process, decidedly paradoxical, of engaging in oneself the very forms, the very melodic constructions, one must necessarily get beyond.

  7. With few exceptions, however, Western critical thought has difficulty understanding this principle of mutual penetration and containment in creativity as the actions of a vital, though centerless, unity. Jerrold E. Hogle, for example, in a study significantly entitled Shelley's Process: Radical Transference and the Development of his Major Works, articulates the importance of action in Shelley. But, as the subtitle of his study indicates, he comprehends the process in the dualistic terms of transference and development rather than of mutual containment. "There is no 'undifferentiated unity' from which Shelleyan thinking or writing develops," writes Hogle. There is, rather, what Hogle calls a "motion between at least two 'externalities.'" Closer in understanding to the dyadic fluctuations implicit in melodic constructiveness than to the multidirectional accommodations of codependent harmony, Hogle's concept of "motion" views Shelleyan process as "a drive toward a counterpart rising ahead of it and a harking back to a different one receding in its wake." The "harking back" that Hogle affirms, however, does not result in a mode of absolute containment of mutually creative minds in the present. It contributes, rather, a unidirectional "drive" toward an ever-receding future: "It seeks a future relationship that may carry forward a portion of a previous one now outside it and already dissolved" (10).

  8. While Hogle's notion of a decentering process at work in Shelley's practice goes a long way towards explaining the poet's railings against what Hogle calls "a self-contained Immanence" (6), it does not appreciably alter our sense of Shelleyan "harmony" as a bridged togetherness of self and other, inner and outer, past and present. There is yet for Hogle's Shelley a power, "an 'invisible influence,'" causing all these "fadings and changings." This power, according to Hogle, "is the permanent, though self-concealing, self-mover causing all these transpositions, and it is the actual movement from state to state that turns one coloration into another without revealing any self-contained point of departure (any 'seed' leading to the 'flower' and its changes)" (11). The poet in this state of continual transition toward the future is forever divorced from the present, even from himself, moving like a latter-day deconstructor from one interpretive perching point to another in a process of endless deferral.

  9. Subsequent commentaries seem for the most part to confirm and extend this fundamentally binaristic vision of Shelley's life and poetry as a mode of endless perceptual quest rather than of existential fulfillment in the eternally unfolding originative moment. Kathleen M. Wheeler, for example, attempts to substitute the term matrix for center in dealing with Shelley's philosophy. But in so doing, she comes dangerously close to denying the poet's preoccupation with origin: "In Shelley's matrix or field theory of consciousness, there is no centre, no origin. . ." (14). There are instead for Wheeler various "centres" that work in relationship with equally various "circumferences." This paradigm frees us from the notion of a "self-contained Immanence," to recall Hogle's terminology. But it does not free us entirely from the dualism, admittedly subtle, of the centering process itself and the attendant notion of a projective subject located in time and space. Concomitantly, the process of circumferencing, however shifting and variable it appears, does not elude the notion of containment as boundary. Origin as a process of endless unfolding gives way in critical discourse to variable demarcation, the process of a perceptually based constructivism preoccupied with definition rather than with existence.

  10. Given the force of these binaristic wrasslings, as we might call them, it is not surprising to find a recent commentator, Tim Milnes, arguing that Shelley maintained a kind of "duplicity" regarding the entire question of epistemic centers: "like many modern 'ordinary-language' philosophers he maintained a patient indifference or double-mindedness concerning the relation between the fixed 'centre' of knowledge and an impermanent 'circumference' of experience" (5). Despite Shelley's claim in his letter to Medwin that his "mind is at peace concerning nothing so much as the constitution & mysteries of the great system of things—my curiosity on this point never amounts to solicitude" (qtd. in Milnes 5), Milnes insists that "At the same time, his curiosity never waned into insouciance, but mediated between an inherited Cartesian epistemic imperative to seek a (perhaps unattainable) ground for a knowing relationship with the world, and an emergent view of our relationship with the world as one which was not soley or primarily predicated on knowing" (5; italics Milnes's). The "peace" that Shelley remarks in his letter to Medwin, a condition arguably resonant with the Aeolian "harmony" mentioned in the Defence, is explicated in terms of mediation and doubleness, idiomatic initiatives that rely on a presumed distinction between "knowledge" and "experience" and that by their very nature subvert the implicit oneness Shelley affirms at the base of his practice when he avers that "poetry is connate with the origin of man."

  11. If we are to appreciate fully the "harmony" of his poetic theory, we must, I think, read Shelley in two directions at the same time. Having moved, for example, from the first two sentences of paragraph two of the Defence forward to the second two, we are invited to move backward to and through the first grouping to live, rather than simply understand, Shelley's notion of origin. If poetry is indeed "connate with the origin of man," it is of the nature, not only of human life, but of life itself. And life itself, as Mark Lussier reveals in a recent study of Romantic dynamics, is for Shelley not a linear progression from one point to another but a process of "rhythmic oscillations" depicted in the emerging science of Shelley's day as wave theory. "This rhythmic presence, shared by cosmos and consciousness alike," writes Lussier, "allows Shelley to argue that: [Poetry] 'is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge . . .'" (163). Like centering and circumferencing, harmony may act "otherwise," as Shelley puts it, than melody. But it nevertheless embraces and folds into melody as melody, rightly encountered, opens onto a prior and enabling harmony. It is the aesthetic counterpart to the cause-effect process in Fa Tsang's Hall of Mirrors. "Fa Tsang held that earlier and later events mutually require each other," writes Charles Hartshorne. "Effects are as necessary to their causes as vice versa" (64). A truly oscillatory process is one in which both dimensions of aesthetic experience—melodic constructiveness and harmonic priority—die into each other as the creative mind—a mind continuous, as Lussier affirms, with the universe—experiences its own creativity as a mode of eternal fading or dying. "A man cannot say, 'I will compose poetry,'" writes Shelley later in the Defence. "The greatest poet even cannot say it: for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness" (503-4). Neither the wind nor the "transitory brightness" it appears to inspire can be separated from the mind, the "coal," that is simultaneously producing and undergoing the experience. As Shelley writes in yet further explication of the process, "this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure" (504). As the very coloring of a flower is itself the functioning of the flower's emergence, so fading, transitoriness, is the function of its creativity. But creativity, the ambient field of a mind continuous with the universe, is eternal. We die in creativity not to be reborn in another form but to manifest as none other than the universe itself. Fading is the function of creativity, which is in turn the eternally unfolding collyrium, the necessarily "transitory brightness," of our inherent oneness, or original harmony, not with but as the oscillatory cosmos. Consciousness located in a separate self must of necessity remain "unprophetic either of its approach or its departure." The creativity Shelley is describing occurs in the realm of no-self, or non-self, a place, if you will, where death is neither loss of one state nor transport to another.

  12. Nowhere in the Shelley canon do we see this process of creative death enacted more forcibly and succinctly than in the famous "Ode to the West Wind." Comprising both a perceptual and an experiential context for understanding the poetic principles set forth in the Defence (the "Ode" was composed approximately a year and a half before the Defence), the first two tercets of the last stanza of the "Ode" reveal the poet as both a suppliant and an intendant of the West Wind. The mode of this interactive dynamic is a displaced voice whose movement from preoccupation with lyric expression to concern with harmonic oneness forms around a generative meditative self-emptying that illuminates the spiritual features of the journey implicit in the second paragraph of the Defence. Addressing the wind, Shelley says:

    Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
    What if my leaves are falling like its own!
    The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
    Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
    Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
    My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one! (57-62)

    We cannot find in this passage a still point, a center, from which to launch an expedition into understanding. Like a hall of mirrors, Shelley's poetry teases the observing eye into endless motion. But the motion is not linear, moving from one point to another. Nor is it eschatological, moving from a presumed beginning to an expected end. Rather, the motion here is all interanimate. The death implicit in the falling leaves is at the same time the voiced life of the forest upon which the wind plays. Harmony is tumult. Sadness converges into "Sweet," and the plaintive note of longing in the voice of the suppliant is inseparable from the persistent imperative in the reiterated "Be thou." To be the lyre is to be the wind itself. To be the wind is to be empty of all abiding form while at the same time inclusive of, indeed productive of, the very forms that reveal it. Caused by the rotation of the earth, which is itself caused by the universe, invisible, unheard, unfelt, literally unperceived except through the motions, the tonal variations, and the sensations produced by the objects upon which it plays, the wind is at once all things and no-thing in particular, a "cyclic" event without beginning and end. To be the wind itself rather than to become one with it, as a dualistic frame of reference might impel us to infer, is to be, in the moment of creativity, nothing less than the universe itself. It is to move beyond the melodic configurations of metaphor and transcendence to the harmonic empty field of generative oneness as all things. One emerges, or opens oneself, as creativity in the mode of each thing's dying into all other things and of all other things' eternal dying into each thing. Or, as the famous Ocean Seal of Hua-yen Buddhism expresses it, "In One is All, / In many is One." Beyond all notions of inaugural force, "One is identical to All, / Many is identical to One" (qtd. in Odin xix).

  13. In Zen terms, Shelley's "Be thou me, impetuous one!" expresses the central principle of Buddhist metaphysics:

    Here, O Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness is no other than form, form is no other than emptiness; whatever is form that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness that is form. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness. Thus, O Sariputra, all dharmas [teachings] are empty of own-being, are without marks; they are neither produced nor stopped, neither defiled nor immaculate, neither deficient nor complete. (Conze 140)

    Known as the Heart Sutra, this passage, recited daily in Zen temples throughout the world, incorporates the Buddhist principle of impermanence—of all things being in a state of eternal change—to advance the notion that all things are empty of abiding form yet implicate in all other things. Emptiness, therefore, is not absence, the nihilistic surmise by which a dualistic frame of reference might understand it, but, in the words of Masao Abe, present patriarch of the Kyoto School of Zen Buddhism, "true Fullness" (Abe 10). The dharma, the teaching by which this principle would be understood, is at one and the same time the practice of emptiness embodied in the forms themselves (Robinson, Johnson, and Thanissaro 324). To understand emptiness, one must practice emptiness. To practice emptiness, one must allow oneself to be all things. "Emptiness empties itself," writes Abe, "becoming non-emptiness, that is, true Fullness" (10).

  14. Given the force of these interactive dynamics, the central question for Buddhists and for readers of Shelley alike must of necessity be one of methodology. How does one be the emptiness, be the wind, in a context that moves beyond all modes and forms of dualistic understanding? Shelleyan criticism tends to answer this question in terms of transcendence. "The man rises from his state of prostrate surrender to join himself to the force of the wind," writes Irene H. Chayes, "master it—fulfilling his [Shelley's] boyhood ambition to 'outstrip' it (ll. 50-51)—and turn it into an instrument of his own." The process, for Chayes, is one of simple inversion: "Passive becomes active and active, passive; agent and medium, performer and performed upon, change places" (Shelley 623-24). The result of this inversion is for Chayes a new transcendentalism, one in which "the man raises himself to a level above both the human and the mundane natural" (Shelley 624). A similar dualism informs Richard Cronin's thesis that the poem expresses "a contrast within itself between rigid order and uncontrollable energy" (232). Reinhard H. Friedrich, writing a few years later, avers that "The last two stanzas of the 'Ode' intensify the dual states of despair and hope that are characteristic for the prophetic and visionary experience, but their passionate urgency applies most strongly to the prophet-poet himself who yearns for release and transcendence" (167). Another critic, Simon Haines, views the final section of the "Ode" as exhibiting "something of the odour of megalomania, the sheer desire for power without the limiting sense of moral fallibility" (161). Recent studies of the Asian influence on Shelley continue a line of dualistic commentary inseparable, perhaps, from Western epistemic traditions.[1] "Shelley's prayer 'make me thy lyre' presents the wind as a singer," writes Asha Viswas. "The poet wants to be a passive instrument of this singer." Comparing Shelley to the "poet seers" of Vedic lore, figures who "pray to the Maruts [phenomena of nature] to spread their hymns far away," Viswas affirms for the poet a condition of eternal "desire" as a transcendental base for his relationship with the world. "Thus the structure of a poet's desire never changes. It transcends time and space" (92). Such transcendence, however, serves only to leave the participant in yet another relational field—a new and higher condition, perhaps, but one that begs endlessly for further resolution.

  15. For Buddhists, there are no limits to the process of identification, of opening upon interdependent origination as the grounds of one's being, and no authoritative dialectic by which the act may be systematized. Unlike other spiritual traditions, including Gnosticism, Pantheism, and forms of Christian apophasis and via negativa, the Buddhist understanding of oneness does not rely on the monotheistic perception of a centrally located source or an indwelling force or principle that acts to create coherency. "Monotheistic oneness does not include the element of self-negation and is substantial," writes Masao Abe, "whereas nondualistic oneness includes self-negation and is nonsubstantial" (24-25). As such, Buddhism offers a generative alternative context for helping readers explore and understand the full theoretical implications of mind and form as the moving, integrative basis of creative enterprise.

  16. Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes meditative self-emptying as a harmonizing end sufficient unto itself, offers an equally generative alternative context for helping readers understand the practical dynamics of the interanimate oneness at work in voidist documents and acts. The oneness of "One is identical to All, / Many is identical to One," to recall the Ocean Seal, inheres in a monadic experience beyond representational logic. "Truth simply can't be re-presented," writes the modern Zen priest Steve Hagan (5). As a Soto Sect practitioner, Hagan is affirming the principle of oneness iterated succinctly in the School's leading Japanese philosopher, Dogen Zenji (1200-1253): "We have to accept that in this world there are millions and millions of objects and each one respectively is the entire world" (Cleary, Timeless Spring 12). Acceptance inheres in identification rather than in accession to a principle of oneness or in an individual's mystic joining with a perceived force or power. Zen meditative practice is particularly useful here in helping us understand that Shelley was already the wind prior to his appeal. The answer to the question "How does one be the wind?" lies not in perception—that is, in the dual frame of reference by which one seeks that which is susceptible of definition, therefore separate from the seeker herself—but in the continual practice of self-emptying as an end in itself. The lesson surfaces with remarkable clarity and precision in the twenty-seventh case of The Blue Cliff Record, a major training manual for the Rinzai (Chinese, Lin-chi) tradition in Zen Buddhism. The case revolves around a conversation between the tenth-century Zen master Yun Men and one of his disciples: "A monk asked Yun Men, 'How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?' Yun Men said, 'Body exposed in the golden wind'" (Cleary and Cleary 176). Variant translations depict the master as responding with "That's wholly manifest: golden Autumn wind" (App 131) or simply with "Golden Wind!" (Shimano 23). The disciple's question to his master is, in the words of his latter-day translator, "What will happen when thoughts, ideas, opinions, emotional reactions, psychological problems, attachments, expectations, life, death, sickness, and old age all fall away and our minds become bare?" (Shimano 24). The master's response, tairo gimpo in Japanese, may be rendered loosely in English as "become the living body of the golden wind" or "manifest golden wind as yourself" (Shimano 24). The term tairo is both indicative and imperative. One must be literally the golden wind of absolute emptiness (freedom from such attachments as those listed above) in order to be consentaneously the absolute fullness of life in all its forms—the "Totality" of "Enlightenment" Empress Wu asks Fa Tsang to demonstrate. Eido Shimano Roshi, aware of the complexity of the term tairo, does not attempt to translate it directly. Instead, he translates the master as saying simply, "Golden Wind." The wind embodies for Shimano both the ontological and the epistemological at once: it is what one is seeking to be, and it is simultaneously the process of knowing by which one will become it. "Golden Wind blows away the monk's streams of delusions," writes Shimano, while at the same time "perfectly revealing" the master's "own state of mind" (25), the state of perfect selflessness and oneness with all things. Put another way, we may say that it is what Shelley means when, to recall the Defence, he says that "A Poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not" (483).

  17. To be empty of thought and yet to be in a state of "conceptions," as Shelley calls it, a state in which "time and place and number are not," is to be free of thought as representation. Thought as we know it must die in the very act of its being deployed in order that our original nature, what Empress Wu refers to as "Enlightenment," may manifest. The modern Zen Master Bernie Glassman states the case as follows:

    Intrinsically, we are enlightened, we are the Buddha. Not just us, but everything—sticks, flowers, trees, stars. But experientially, we are not enlightened because we have yet to experience this fact. Without such experience, without such a realization, the intrinsic, though real, is just words to us. (16)

    Getting to this state of "realization," of literally making real our "origin," to use Shelley's vocabulary, requires that we give up our ideas about reality. "Whatever notion we may have about emptiness is not emptiness," writes Glassman, "but merely an idea of emptiness." In giving up our ideas about reality, we do not come to see another reality. Rather, as Glassman puts it, combining the indicative and the imperative, we "Just see everything as it is instead of the concept we have of it." If we can see that "The concept is not the thing itself," we will, in Glassman's terms, see "This world as it is, and that's what emptiness means" (18-19). Thoughts, to put it another way, must die in the very act of their emerging so that the thinker may see that which he already is.

  18. Shelley affirms the same principle, I believe, when in the final lines of the "Ode" he says to the wind:

    Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
    Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
    And, by the incantation of this verse,
    Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
    Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
    Be through my lips to unawakened Earth
    The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
    If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? (63-70)

    What is perhaps so difficult for Western readers to understand is that the act itself of dying is the act of awakening. William Keach, for example, offers a reading of these lines that accepts "death and change," but he sees the process in the dual terms of triumph and loss, "the fierce triumph of temporal life to which imagination and desire and will themselves belong; that is what Shelley's style works persistently and brilliantly to realize" (40). Death in creative awakening, however, or death as a giving up or a letting pass the very thoughts our minds are forever conjuring, is not a matter of triumph and loss. It is, rather, the actual manifest oneness of the universe itself. This manifest oneness is for Shelley a matter not of belief but of awakening practice, a being "through my lips" the awakening of "Earth" itself, not just "mankind."

  19. From the Zen perspective, the lesson on practice as itself the awakening of the earth surfaces with remarkable poignancy in yet another Zen anecdote involving wind:

    As Zen master Pao-ch'e [n.d.] of Mount Ma-ku was fanning himself, a monk came and said, "The nature of wind is permanently abiding and there is no place it does not reach. Why, master, do you still use a fan?" The master said, "You only know that the nature of wind is permanently abiding, but you do not yet know the true meaning of 'there is no place it does not reach.'" The monk said, "What is the true meaning of 'there is no place it does not reach'?" The master just fanned himself. The monk bowed deeply. (Yasutani 106-7)

    Commenting on the monk's first question, Hakuun Yasutani says that "the spirit of the question is, 'since sentient beings are originally buddhas, why are practice and realization necessary?'" (Yasutani 97). The monk understands, as all students of Buddhism would, the lesson iterated so bluntly in the important Nirvana Sutra: "All beings have the Buddha-nature." What he does not understand is the more existential affirmation, as conveyed in Zen master Dogen's revisionist translation, that "entire being [Japanese, shitsuu] is the Buddha-nature" (61). Popularly rendered as "All beings are the Buddha-nature," the revision cuts to the understanding that Buddha-nature, rendered frequently as "original nature" or "original face," must be lived beyond its representations and its meanings as conveyed in texts and teachings. Addressing the second question, in which the monk asks Yun-men the "meaning of 'there is no place it does not reach,'" Yasutani explains that "his real question" is "'What is this buddha-nature with which we are originally endowed?'" (Yasutani 97). The monk is obviously having difficulty getting beyond the dual frame of reflective thinking with its tendencies to definition rather than lived experience. In remaining silent and continuing simply to use his fan, however, the master, again according to Yasutani, "exposes his buddha-nature and thrusts it forth. He thrusts forth muji [nothingness, emptiness]; he unsparingly reveals his original face" (Yasutani 97). He abandons definition, together with the entire framework of representational thought, for the simple "act," to recall Shelley's term, of harmonic oneness. Practice is the evocation of oneness.

  20. Shelley's insistence on "incantation" rather than on interpretation as the means of approaching his poem, together with his concluding question about winter and spring, is a variant of Pao-ch'e's fanning. Shelley is enacting rather than simply representing the "origin" he will affirm later in the Defence as "connate" with poetry. He is asking the same of his readers. Denied the reassurance of a definitive response, we are invited to go back through the poem to engage the practice of self-emptying implicit in its incantatory dynamics. That dynamics can, from a Zen perspective, be viewed in terms of the threefold process Dogen offers as the base of all Buddhist meditative practice:

    To learn the Buddha Way is to learn one's self. To learn one's self is to forget one's self. To forget one's self is to be confirmed by all dharmas [teachings as things themselves]. To be confirmed by all dharmas is to cast off one's body and mind and the bodies and minds of others as well. All trace of enlightenment disappears, and this traceless enlightenment continues on without end. (41)

    The effect of this procedure, what Dogen describes as being "confirmed by all dharmas" (41), is expressed poignantly in the widely popular claim by Shitou that "A sage has no self, yet there is nothing that is not himself" (Cleary 391). Intrinsically (to recall Glassman's term), there never really was a separate self to empty. Empress Wu was already in a state of "Enlightenment," of oneness with all things, though she was not awake to it. The meditative enactment described by Dogen, which appears like a movement from self to non-self, is in essence an opening upon an original interanimate oneness that is always here and that, again in Dogen's words, "continues on without end" (41).

  21. A cursory glance at the overall movement of thought and image in the "Ode" provides a glimpse of this meditative process as Shelley intuited it. The first three stanzas correspond roughly to the first fold of Dogen's claim that, popularly rendered, to study Buddhism is to study the self. Addressing the wind first as a "breath" (stanza 1), then as a "Dirge" (stanza 2), and finally as "Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams / The blue Mediterranean . . ." (stanza 3), Shelley affirms that the wind is an awakening process aligned with death. The wind in these early stanzas, however, is yet other than the poet himself. It is a force to be apprehended, pursued, and appealed to by a self that is yet other than what it discerns. In stanza 4, however, Shelley commences the process of self-forgetting, longing first to be a "leaf," then a "cloud," and finally a "wave," anything that can be taken up by the wind. This longing—together with the declaration, "I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!" (54)—implies his understanding, perhaps intuitive, that the separate self is nothing but an inhibiting illusion that must give way to one's initial identity with all things. The stanza's concluding couplet, however, with its assertion that "A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed / One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud" (55-56), signals that the process of self-forgetting is not complete. Shelley is yet attempting to define something in relation to a perceived self and so is caught yet in the dualistic frame of seeking to know what can never be apprehended through ideas. It is not until stanza 5, with the death of thought itself as definitive process—"Drive my dead thoughts over the universe / Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!" (64-65)—that the poet as a separate self disappears into his practice ("my lips"), into prophecy itself as that which is beyond affirmation and denial.

  22. Beyond definition, one with the earth upon which it plays, Shelley's "Wind" (69), no longer identified as autumnal, is also one with the poet as the practice itself of poetry—a practice that extends beyond writer and reader to effect the awakening of earth itself. Caught up in the interfluent dynamics of this creative breeze, the reader encounters concomitantly a state of spiritual unknowing or non-knowing that opens upon ever-new possibilities for awakening to the full sufficiency of the lived moment. As the monk simply bows and the master simply continues fanning, leaving students of the koan in the state of what Zen calls "no-mind" (Suzuki, esp. 28-29), so Shelley simply withdraws, leaving us in a state of questioning that should, if we take literally his reference to incantation, drive us back into the processes of the poem as a self-emptying enterprise sufficient in itself to the evocation of human "origin" as the act of harmonic oneness with all things. The process is, for all practical purposes, a poetic variant of what Zen calls zazen (Japanese, meditative sitting). "Zazen reveals the total reality of interdependent origination," writes the modern Zen master Shohaku Okumura. "When we let go of thought, we put our whole being in the reality of interpenetrating reality. This is how we are verified by all beings" (114-15). In a variant of Shelley's question to the wind, we may well ask: Are we equal to the task?


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1 See my Romanticism and Zen Buddhism, 47-69.

2 Also Shiton, 700-790.