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Meditation on a Snow Man

by Fleda BrownNovember 07, 2011

Our local meditation group had quite a few people for our 4-hour sitting yesterday and 8-10 people stayed afterward for tea and cheese and crackers and apples and various things people brought. Since there was no regular discussion for me to report on, I have a poem for you, instead, by Wallace Stevens. Poetry often points us toward the gaps in our rationality where we glimpse something else—call it ineffable, call it holy, call it Truth.

Stevens’ poem reminds me of “Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi,” a poem chanted as a sutra in Soto Zen monasteries and one you’ll hear if you attend services at Sokukoji Buddhist Community in Battle Creek, Michigan. Sokuzan Bob Brown is currently giving a series of talks on that sutra. What made me think of it and Wallace Stevens’ poem at the same time is this part of the sutra: “Filling a silver bowl with snow, hiding a heron in the moonlight/ Taken as similar they’re not the same;/ when you mix them, you know where they are./ The meaning is not in the words,/ yet it responds to the inquiring impulse. . . .”

If we are to really see winter, says Stevens’ poem, we need a mind of winter. If we’re fretting about winter, thinking about “misery in the sound of the wind,” we’re rejecting, holding ourselves separate from it. We must settle into its own mind, full of the same blowing. Then we can hear the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

What are we, really? When we look at a silver bowl filled with snow, we can barely tell the difference—they’re the same color. But they’re not the same. The image only takes us so far—this is the way of images—along the road toward seeing. “The meaning is not in the words,” says the sutra. But if we keep our minds on that image, sometimes the mind can open up and be a “mind of winter.”

I notice that he named his poem “The Snow Man.” A snow man is “real thing” and is, in a sense, but it’s made of snow. It melts. It’s snow and it’s water and it’s evaporated steam. It doesn’t stay the same. When we make a snow man, we’ve made our “idea” of a man, out of snow. We can think about that for a while. . . .

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

If you travel across cultures, you see that the intuition about what’s true has no borders. In our own culture, many writers and poets have arrived at the same insight. You can read the poetry of T.S. Eliot, especially his very Christian “Four Quartets,” as well as St. John of the Cross, and St. Theresa of Avila. And Rainier Maria Rilke, particularly in his “Duino Elegies,” and more contemporary poets such as William Stafford, Jane Hirshfield and Jim Harrison. And many. many more.

I’m always reading someone’s poetry and finding a line or a stanza that makes me say, “Oh yes! This person found, by his or her own kind of concentration, the truth that can’t be said, really.”

Next week we’ll be back reading our book, One Dharma, by Joseph Goldstein, Chapter 7, “Purifying the Mind.”


Poet and writer Fleda Brown reflects on the gatherings of her weekly meditation group, speaking to you as one who has long practiced meditation but still comes to the practice with a learner’s mind.

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