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"Teahouse Poems" by Jane Hirshfield

17 March 2010

In Japanese Zen, it’s sometimes said that there are four kinds of Buddhist practice. One is priest practice, one is monastic practice, one is layperson’s practice, and the fourth is “teahouse practice.” Teahouse practice is the practice path of the old woman who runs the teahouse by the side of the road. No one knows why they like to stop there for some green tea and a small sweet cake. The fragrance of the tea, the freshness of the cake, are good, but nothing special. The old woman wipes the wooden counters with a clean, soft cloth and the wood glows a little, and each person who enters is met with a friendly and slightly curious look. “Who are you?” the look says, and “What can I bring you?” and something in it is also like the look of the truck stop waitress who calls everyone “Dear,” and means it. If she also sees far into them, it is into who they are just as they are.

Writing poems is a teahouse practice, for me. A way to look at my own life, and the life of us all, and find them larger, more spacious, and more multi-directional than I had realized, and more dear.

Watch a video of Jane Hirshfield reading "For What Binds Us"

It Was Like This: You Were Happy

It was like this:
you were happy, then you were sad,
then happy again, then not.

It went on.
You were innocent or you were guilty.
Actions were taken, or not.

At times you spoke, at other times you were silent.
Mostly, it seems you were silent—what could you say?

Now it is almost over.

Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life.

It does this not in forgiveness—
between you, there is nothing to forgive—
but with the simple nod of a baker at the moment
he sees the bread is finished with transformation.

Eating, too, is a thing now only for others.

It doesn’t matter what they will make of you
or your days: they will be wrong,
they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.

Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.

Three Times My Life Has Opened

Three times my life has opened.
Once, into darkness and rain.
Once, into what the body carries at all times within it and starts
      to remember each time it enters the act of love.
Once, to the fire that holds all.
These three were not different.
You will recognize what I am saying or you will not.
But outside my window all day a maple has stepped from her leaves
      like a woman in love with winter, dropping the colored silks.
Neither are we different in what we know.
There is a door. It opens. Then it is closed. But a slip of light
      stays, like a scrap of unreadable paper left on the floor,
      or the one red leaf the snow releases in March.

  • National Endowments for the Humanities
  • PBS
  • Corporation for Public Broadcasting
  • The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation

Major funding provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by: the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Shinnyo-en Foundation, the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Bumper Foundation, and viewers like you.