Repost: “Shoveling Snow with Buddha,” by Billy Collins

Readers of this blog will know that I first posted this poem in November, after our first snow of the season. At that time, no shoveling was required. This time, plenty was: we have been shoveling for days here in northern MA, and it seemed appropriate to post this poem again.

I was also able to track down a recording of Collins reading this poem. It can be found here.

Shoveling Snow With Buddha

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

 

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Mary Oliver, “The Buddha’s Last Instruction”

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We had our final day of the term yesterday. Two of my three classes were studying Buddhism, and the third was looking at post-Holocaust theology, trying to make sense of how to engage meaningfully with this fragile world.

The Buddha’s Last Instruction

“Make of yourself a light”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal — a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire —
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

“Shoveling Snow With Buddha,” Billy Collins

Shoveling Snow with BuddhaWe had our first snow of the year over the weekend, and while it didn’t require any shoveling, I did want to share this lovely poem from Billy Collins.

Shoveling Snow With Buddha

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

 

Taoism and Teaching: Reflections on Silence

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We’ve been studying ancient Chinese Religions in my Asian Religions course this fall, and we recently read Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching. While reading it, I was reminded of two of my favorite chapters and their connections to teaching. (Both chapters are from the Feng/English translation, a favorite of a former colleague and blog reader who asked me about my preferred translation of this text in my initial interview at my current school.)

Chapter 11:

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

I find this distinction between benefit and usefulness to be so helpful when thinking about my classes. We need to shape clay into bowls and cups, but those objects are useful because they also enclose space: they create openings into which other things can be put. And so it is with me as a teacher in the classroom: I need to shape words and ideas, yes, but I also need to step back and to create silence. Me pausing (and then pausing some more if necessary) opens up space for students to step into and speak. Part of my usefulness is an educator comes from what is not there: silence, space, an open invitation to participate.

I was reminded of this idea recently with one of my classes this fall. I’ve been writing short reflections after each day, in part as a practice to keep better track of what I’m doing, and in part to look for broader patterns and trends. A word kept emerging in my after-class reflections: oversteering. I felt as if I was too involved, and was doing too much work in class. More recently, I have decided to step back more during discussion, to allow for more silence, and to let students make some of the connections themselves. This means trusting my students more, and working on being more comfortable with silence and in uncertainty.

We had real success with this in class two days ago. We were discussing rescuers during the Holocaust, and I saw a connection to a previous reading we had done about a German bystander. In my enthusiasm, I almost made the remark, but I caught myself and waited. A student stepped into the silence, and then a few more spoke after her, building upon her ideas. Together they made the connection I wanted to make for them. They created something together, making connections to the material and to each other that they would not have been able to do if I had jumped in too soon.

This anecdote reminded me of Chapter 17 as well. Although the passage is written in the context of leaders and leadership, it has deep resonances with education as well.

The very highest is barely known.
Then comes that which people know and love.
Then that which is feared,
Then that which is despised.
Who does not trust enough will not be trusted.

When actions are performed
Without unnecessary speech,
People say, “We did it ourselves!”

Even better than being a teacher who is loved, Lao Tsu argues, is the one who is barely known. In this context, perhaps it’s preferring silence and the creation of space to an impassioned connection to another reading. If all goes well, this type of learning and classroom environment creates a space where students can talk to and learn from each other – where they can genuinely say, “We did it ourselves!”

“Did I Miss Anything?” by Tom Wayman

Did I Miss Anything?

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 percent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 percent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
the hereafter
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring the good news to all people
on earth

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human experience
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been
gathered

but it was one place

And you weren’t here