Stephen Pain

The poem is a cosmic joke. The monks referred to in this poem are Zen monks. In Zen monasteries the monks have what are called "koan" interviews: On hearing the Master's bell, the student whose turn it is leaves the general meditation-hall and goes to the Master's room, after responding with two strokes on a bell to indicate that he is coming. He enters and makes his triple bow, which he will repeat on leaving. The Master gives the student a koan, and there may be a stormy interview, which will conclude only when the Master strikes the bell at his side. Ernest Wood. Zen Dictionary. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977). p.55. Much of the monk's existence is punctuated by the sound of the bell and gong. Each strike represents an end of a period and the beginning of another. The humour in Mr. Beattie's poem is derived from a profound understanding of the Zen Buddhist rituals, and the basic tenets of Zen philosophy. One aims to achieve a state of "non-attainment" and towards a state of Mu which is a form of cosmic nothingness. Although there is an end in sight (that of Buddhahood), most of the path towards Enlightenment is taken up with changes. If one dies as a human there is the always the possibility of reincarnation. So when the narrator in the poem complains of so many endings, he is being ironical. We must remember that in Zen Buddhism there are no preferences for endings or beginnings as there are in Western philosophy. >From "On Believing in Mind"Shinjin-no-Mei The Perfect Way knows no difficulties Except that it refuses to make preferences; Only when freed from hate and love, It reveals itself fully and without disguise; A tenth of an inch's difference, And heaven, and earth are set apart; If you wish to see it before your own eyes, Have no fixed thoughts either for or against it. in D.T. Susuki's Manual of Zen Buddhism.( London: Rider and Company, 1950).