By Rachel Marie Burnett, Brandon University
One mind, out of one
Hundred thousand fine grains of
Sand, whispering in- wait
Clockwork shifts one grain
Amidst a tidal wave, one will
Lead the oncoming
Rush hour traffic, pours
Surrender through duty to
fill the next sixty
Minutes, one granule
Hesitates to “Listen,” for
Suspension within- eternity
Within, the Buddha
Teaches the seed to be mind- ful
As the wheel turns ahead
“Now, hold space in breath”
Hourglass sand sifts a steady hum
One grain, watches prattling
Thoughts of wishing for
The rush of wind to save them
From being buried next
This one grain commis- erates
Vision begins with light re- flecting
Blue out of tears, red- rage
One precious, perfect wisdom
This one grain aspires
To unveil a neck
Choking two bulbs, they expect
One hundred thousand
Weeping grains of sand
Sharpening wit, when there is
No glass to contain it.
This is part of the Doing Buddhism at Brandon University series. Read the series introduction here.
The purpose of this essay is to critically reflect on the poem Cittā, using the knowledge and education acquired regarding the Buddhist doctrine of the bodhicitta (aspiration for awakening). Included in this review is an introduction to the poem, the inspirations, and format used in its creation. An interpretation of sub-themes inherent in the poem, include concepts such as cittā (mind), the Dharma (teachings), dharmas (phenomena), and the bhavanga (inactive or subconscious mind). Also included is a reflection on how the bodhicitta is a virtue of the Mahāyāna school’s understanding of Bodhisattva (awakened one).
The poem Cittā, describes the very moment that one establishes an aspiration to follow the path of enlightenment. It is imperative to understand the connection between cittā as the mind and unit of consciousness, and the role of the Bodhisattva. Robinson and Johnson highlight these two aspects in their Mahāyāna-specific definition: “[A Bodhisattva is] a being that is to become Awakened (bodhi)”, … who [has] aroused bodhicitta” (1996, 320). In order for a being to become awakened (Bodhisattva), one must have attained the virtue of the bodhicitta by having aroused particular conditions of the cittā. This is how the poem Cittā, is intended to mirror the Mahāyāna Buddhist path toward enlightenment.
My source of inspiration for the poem Cittā begins with the first line of a poem by William Blake called, Auguries of Innocence, “To see a World in a Grain of Sand” (Blake 1950). As I sit on my cushion in zazen, holding my mala beads I also hear the echo of the third and fourth lines of Blake’s poem, “Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour” (Blake 1950). Blake’s poem helps me focus intently on each bead as the very moment of space and time between breaths. Between thoughts of the past or the future. This is where I focus on consciousness as it is revealed to me, existing within this one, present moment. This space between thoughts seems to be the essence of the kind of mind that is cittā, and by nature without temporal limits. The more I contemplate cittā, the more it seems that every bead and every grain of sand is part of an empty and eternal consciousness.
Cittā is a poem that comprises eleven stanzas, with a metric that resembles a Japanese Haiku in its 5-7-5 pattern. This experience of meditation with an echoing of words to serve as a focal point is not unlike the Buddhist Gatha, which is a verse that helps one to be mindful in the present moment while performing an activity (Thich Nhat Hanh 2021). Trying to come to terms with form the idea of applying Gatha – using lines such as, “Now, hold space in breath”– serves as a mindful reminder to develop awareness. Because each stanza is not independent of the other, I could not define the format of this poem as entirely Gatha or Haiku. Both lyrical forms inspire Cittā, an original poem that expresses my own authentic voice and reflections on Buddhist doctrine.
Within the cittā there are two conditions necessary to arouse the bodhicitta – the desire to awaken and the desire to act with compassion for others (Robinson and Johnson 1996, 100). In the first three stanzas of the poem, the audience is introduced to a potential Bodhisattva personified as one grain-of-sand immersed in the experience of being part of a shifting mass of sand flowing through an hourglass. The condition of the desire to awaken is reflected beginning with the fourth stanza, where Buddha eventually teaches the grain-of-sand how to begin the practice of meditation. The condition of the desire to act with compassion for others begins in the seventh stanza where the grain-of-sand begins to notice the suffering of others. Out of this experience, the virtue of the bodhicitta evolves.
As Dr. Marshall (2021) discussed in class lectures, the Mahāyāna school made changes to Buddhist doctrine, one of which was to focus on the idea of intention, notably through developing the concept of the bodhicitta. In the fifth stanza of the poem Cittā the grain-of-sand is referenced as the seed, which Buddha instructs in mindfulness. The mind is selectively asked to “[l]isten,” and to be mindful of the value of living within samsara’s wheel of life. Thus, aspiring to a state of awakening involves inner contemplation and also the cultivation of compassion and attention to all beings within the realm of samsara.
Through the abhidharma (higher dharma), we learn about the dharmas, and the phenomena of the realm of samsara from which we gain wisdom that enables us to cultivate bodhicitta. These dharmas are conditioned or co-dependent beings, as these building blocks of reality depend on each other to exist. They are different from Dharma, an ultimate truth that does exist independent of other things. Chosen specifically to demonstrate truth of existence, the word “Illuminating” in the ninth stanza of the poem Cittā, is an allegory for Dharma. The dharmas are then reflected in this one grain-of-sand (cittā, as one unit of consciousness) which rides a “tidal wave” (Cittā, line 3) within the cycle of samsara, co-dependent and yet, the first of the dharmas within the abhidharma. The abhidharma is conveyed in different ways across different schools of Buddhism. Earlier, I mentioned that cittā is comprised of two parts: the desires to awaken; and to act with compassion. The Theravādin school of Buddhism also identifies two operating parts of the mind – the part that is conscious and the other that is the sub-conscious (Gethin 1998, 215). Cittā is like a throne built out of its aspirations, and from this throne the conscious mind perceives and operates. In the poem Cittā, the grain-of-sand is active in the same way that cittā is mindful of the activities moving in and around it (the phenomenal world and the one hundred thousand grains of sand). The part of the mind that is sub-conscious is called the bhavanga, and “[the mind] returns to the inactive mode of the bhavanga between each consciousness process” (Gethin 1998, 215).
Like the representation of sand demonstrating co-dependency of the dharmas, the bhavanga as ever-present enriches this poem. The allegory of sand as a whole describes a population of beings that are filling up their time with “[s]urrender through duty to” (Cittā, line 8), a life of suffering. Once the grain-of-sand (having developed heightened compassion) dispels the illusion that the sand is contained by the hourglass, then the grain-of-sand gains the virtue of the bodhicitta. This begins its path toward becoming a Bodhisattva. When the Bodhisattva becomes enlightened and chooses to remain in samsara to help relieve the suffering of others, this grain-of-sand will return to the sand as a whole (Gethin 1998, 229). Now, this grain-of-sand is essentially changed. As we know sand settles and shifts with the wind and the ocean tides. The grain-of-sand Bodhisattva will rise and fall just as the bhavanga ebbs and flow.
The last stanza of the poem Cittā suggests the suffering of the sand-beings, and how ineffective their intellect is if it does not help them perceive the Dharma where there is, “[n]o glass to contain it.” By the end of the poem, I hope the audience might look back and reflect on the skandas (five aggregates). The skandas refer to the process by which a sense of own being and selfhood is created through the bodily form, its feelings and perceptions, and ultimately how we come to think that the phenomena we experience reflects our consciousness and an enduring sense of self. By cultivating and concentrating on the cittā and awakening our aspiration and compassion for others in the pursuit of the Bodhisattva path, we come to realize that all phenomena, including ourselves are ultimately empty, or formless, as the hourglass itself. The intention of this poem and critical review may be summarized as process. From cittā to Bodhisattva; one grain-of-sand may help to relieve the suffering of us all.
Blake, William. 1950. “Auguries of Innocence.” Poets of the English Language (Viking Press, 1950). Poetry Foundation. 2021. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43650/auguries-of-innocence. Accessed: February 12, 2021.
Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Marshall, Alison. Buddhism Lectures. Modules One to Four. MPEG Layer-4 digital audio-video recording, 2021.
Robinson, Richard H. and Willard L. Johnson. The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction. 4th ed. Assisted by Sandra A. Wawrytko and Thanissaro Bhikku (Geoffrey DeGraff). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1996.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Practice Right Now. Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation, 2021. https://thichnhathanhfoundation.org/practice-right-now. Accessed: February 12, 2021.
Rachel Burnett is a student in the Department of Religion at Brandon University, a poet and writer, and a member of Westman Dharma. Grateful for supportive mentors, she is focusing her studies toward a career in Spiritual Care.