American Poetry, Beat Poetry, Poetry

A Buddha in the Woodpile

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a poet and an activist and one of the central figures of the Beat movement in the 1950s. From his City Lights Bookstore and publishing house, he published writers like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac who were breaking with the norms and traditions of not just poetry and literature, but also the social codes of a culturally stiff 1950s America. This poem, A Buddha in the Woodpile, was written much later than that era: centered around the Waco massacre of 1993, it pans out to many other events and controversies of the 20th century and bemoans the culture and lack of wisdom or compassion that creates the climate for this kind of violence. 

 

A Buddha in the Woodpile

If there had been only
one Buddhist in the woodpile
In Waco Texas
to teach us how to sit still
one saffron Buddhist in the back rooms
just one Tibetan lama
just one Taoist
just one Zen
just one Thomas Merton Trappist
just one saint in the wilderness
of Waco USA
If there had been only one
calm little Gandhi
in a white sheet or suit
one not-so-silent partner
who at the last moment shouted Wait
If there had been just one
majority of one
in the lotus position
in the inner sanctum
who bowed his shaved head to the
Chief of All Police
and raised his hands in a mudra
and chanted the Great Paramita Sutra
the Diamond Sutra
the Lotus Sutra
If there had somehow been
just one Gandhian spinner
with Brian Wilson at the gates of the White House
at the Gates of Eden
then it wouldn’t have been
Vietnam once again
and its “One two three four
What’re we waitin’ for?”
If one single ray of the light
of the Dalai Lama
when he visited this land
had penetrated somehow
the Land of the Brave
where the lion never
lies down with the lamb —
But not a glimmer got through
The Security screened it out
screened out the Buddha
and his not-so-crazy wisdom
If only in the land of Sam Houston
If only in the land of the Alamo
If only in Wacoland USA
If only in Reno
If only on CNN CBS NBC
one had comprehended
one single syllable
of the Gautama Buddha
of the young Siddartha
one single whisper of
Gandhi’s spinning wheel
one lost syllable
of Martin Luther King
or of the Early Christians
or of Mother Teresa
of Thoreau or Whitman or Allen Ginsberg
or of the millions in America tuned to them
If the inner ears of the inner sanctums
had only been half open
to any vibrations except
those of the national security state
and had only been attuned
to the sound of one hand clapping
and not one hand punching
Then that sick cult and its children
might still be breathing
the Free American air
of the First Amendment

 

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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