Notes to Poem: ABC Book for the New Year

Peter Y. Chou,

Preface: On New Year's Day 2009, my friend and I went for a hike on the Los Alamitos Creek Trail in San Jose near Almaden Lake Park. Because of recent rain, we walked on this paved bike trail that ran along the Almaden Creek. Our hike started at Bret Harte Drive and Camden Avenue where there were beautiful aspen trees with bright orange and yellow foliage. As I snapped a photo of an arch of aspens, a biker riding by said "Pretty isn't it!" The sycamore trees with white barks and seed balls near the creek were quite picturesque for more photos. Near the Pfeiffer Bridge, I heard a father with his young daughter in a stroller behind me say "She loves her ABC Book— it's amazing how fast she's learning the alphabet and reading A is for Apple." I asked my friend if she were to write an "ABC Book" what would she select for "A". My friend said "A is for Apple, Apricot, and Acorn— why just one apple. Give the kids more to choose from." For the rest of the hike, I began thinking of my own "Alphabet Book" as a gift to my nephew and nieces that we were going to meet at Almaden Center later that afternoon. This poem is the result of that reflection during my hike. Palo Alto's Waverley Writers had their monthly Poetry Reading on the first Friday at the Friends House on January 2. As we had a smaller crowd than usual, most poets read two poems. I read "Meditation on the Moon" and "ABC Book for the New Year". These Notes were compiled a week later and have deepened my understanding on these words of the alphabet.

Commentary on poem "ABC Book for the New Year"

A is for Attention— the first step to Awakening.
"Five steps to enlightenment—:
Attention, Concentration, Meditation, Contemplation, Self-Realization."
Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (1927-2001), Merging with Siva (1999), p. 177

B is for Being— Be still and know that I am That.
When visitors asked the Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi for advice in finding God, he would cite Psalms 46:10"Be still and know that I am God." I've substituted "That" for "God" because "Tat Tvam Asi" in Sanskrit means "That thou art." It's cited in Chandogya Upanishad VIII.7, where Uddalaka tells his son Svetaketu: "Now, that which is the subtle essence— in it all that exists has its self. That is the True. That is the Self. That thou art, Svetaketu." The Self in its original, pure, primordial state is identical with the Ultimate Reality that is the ground and origin of all phenomena. In the beginning of this same chapter (VIII.1), Uddalaka tells his son "When one enters deep sleep, he becomes united with Pure Being (Sat), he has gone to his own Self." It is interesting that when Moses asked God for his name— "And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM." (Exodus 3.14). Biblical scholars equate God's name as "I am" but perhaps it should be "That"— the Supernal Unknowable That is Infinite and Eternal.

C is for Consciousness— essence of waking, dream, and sleep.
The essence of ice, liquid water, and steam is H2O.
Likewise the essence of waking, dream, and sleep is Consciousness.
The form is transient and changes but the essence is eternal and changeless.

D is for Dancing— to the music of the spheres we swirl.
Music of the spheres is a concept originating with Pythagoras that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies— the Sun, Moon, and planets— as a form of music. From atoms dancing within us to the planets orbiting the sun to the stars revolving around spiral galaxies, everything in the universe is dancing.

E is for Enlightenment— for God said "Let there be Light!"
"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." (Genesis I.3)
While this Biblical passage relates to physical light, there is a spiritual light that comes even to the blind as Saul's conversion to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts, IX.3-19). Other examples of spiritual enlightenment in prison, include Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), Aurobindo (1872-1950), and Arthur Koestler (1905-1983). Perhaps when deprived of seeing the physical world when enclosed within four bare walls, one can journey within and discover spiritual light and enlightenment.

F is for Friendship— treasure this wonder above all else.
Ralph Waldo Emerson says it well: "I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new." Emerson's friend Henry David Thoreau says "Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?" Friendship poem from an anonymous author: "There is a miracle called Friendship that dwells within the heart and you don't know how it happens or when it even starts. But the happiness it brings you always gives a special lift and you realize that Friendship is God's most precious gift."

G is for Gratitude— be thankful for gifts that come your way.
Cicero (106 BC-43 BC), Pro Plancio (54 BC): "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others." (Gratitude Quotes; Gratitude Book)

H is for Heart— for courage is the center of action.
Courage is derived from the French cuer or coeur for heart. In Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz, Tin Man needed a brain, Straw Man needed a heart, and the Lion needed courage. Ramana Maharshi said that the Self is centered not in the brain but in the heart. That's why when someone calls your name, you point not to your head but your heart with your forefinger saying "Who, Me?"

I is for Insight— from inspiration to illumination.
Insight or in-seeing is where inspiration occurs. Such moments of epiphany or eureka leads to illumination or spiritual enlightenment.

J is for Joy— even when deaf Beethoven's Ode was full.
Beethoven's Heiligenstadt testament (October 10, 1802) described his depression and suicidal state of mind: "O Providence— let a single day of untroubled joy be granted to me! For so long already the resonance of true joy has been unknown to me. O when— O when, Divine one— may I feel it once more in the temple of Nature and of mankind? Never?— no— that would be too hard!" (Michael Hamburger, Beethoven: Letters, Journals, and Conversations, 1960, p. 34) Out of this deep despair, Beethoven found a new outburst of creative energy in composing his Eroica Symphony #3 (1804) that changed symphonic music. His Symphony #9 (1824) again broke new musical grounds by adding the human voice to the symphony using Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy". Composed when wholly deaf, Beethoven's Ninth premiered on May 7, 1824 in Vienna. He shared the stage with the conductor Michael Umlaug. Although deaf, Beethoven stood before the lectern and gesticulated furiously. At times he raised, at other times he shrunk to the ground, he moved as if he wanted to play all the instruments himself and sing for the whole chorus. At the end, the whole audience acclaimed him through standing ovations five times; there were handkerchiefs in the air, hats, raised hands, so that Beethoven, who could not hear the applause, could at least see the ovation gestures. The theatre house had never seen such enthusiasm in applause.

K is for Kindness— more important than fruits of knowledge.
Buddha taught the importance of prajna (wisdom) and karuna (compassion). The Blessed One is also called "The Compassionate One" because he is kind to all sentient beings, extending love even to animals and plants. King David sings in Psalms 145.8-9: "The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy. The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works." Knowledge blossoms into wisdom, and the fruit of wisdom is kindness to all beings.

L is for Love— that moves the sun and the other stars.
This is the last line and conclusion of Dante's Divine Comeday in Canto 33.145 of Paradiso: "l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle."
"the Love that moves the sun and the other stars."
(Mandelbaum translation)

M is for Mindfulness— this is the heart of meditation.
Mindfulness (Sati in Pali): Maintenance of "bare" attention to whatever is occurring in the moment. Right Mindfulness is one of the disciplines in Buddha's Eightfold Path. Mindfulness is seeing things as they are without preconceived notions or subjective judgments of good or bad. (See Buddha on Mindfulness)

N is for Now— where everything happens this present moment.
We spent too much time worrying about the future and regretting about the past. Past and future events are beyond our control, but we have power in the present moment to act and determine our future. Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment (1997) is a recent classics on this theme. Tolle says "Nothing exists outside of the Now. What you think of as the past is a memory trace, stored in the mind, of a former Now. The future is an imagined Now, a projection of the mind. When the future comes, it comes as the Now." Just as moonlight is borrowed sunlight, so the reality of the past and future is "borrowed" from the Now. A Zen question: "If not now, when?" (pp. 41-43)

O is for Oneness— out of which flows the ten thousand things.
Ten thousand things is an expression in Buddhist and Chinese philosophy regarding everything in the universe. The many comes from the One, or multiplicity from unity.
In Plato's Parmenides (370 BC), Socrates says "The All is one."
Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, Chapter 42:
  The Tao gives birth to One.
  The One gives birth to Two.
  The Two gives birth to Three.
  The Three gives birth to the ten thousand things.
  All things carry Yin yet embrace Yang.
  They blend their life breaths to create harmony.

(Poem: "On the Nature of the One")

P is for Peace— not absence of war but of desire.
Whenever war breaks out, there are people marching for peace. However the "peace that passeth all understanding" which Christ speaks of is of a different kind. Ramana Maharshi tells visitors who are pacifists and wishing to bring about Peace: "Peace is always present. Get rid of the disturbances to Peace. This Peace is the Self." Buddha discovered that the cause of suffering is excessive desire and cravings. So long as we harbor desire, the mind is agitated and not peaceful. That's why the less desires we have, the more peaceful and happy we are.

Q is for Quintessence— the quest of the sacred spirit.
Plato's Timaeus posits the existence of a fifth element called quintessence, of which the cosmos and all celestial bodies are made. Beyond the four elements of earth, water, air, fire, this fifth element is aether according to Aritstotle and the medieval scholastics. Aether or ether fills the Universe above the terrestrial sphere. More recently (circa 2001), in physics, quintessence is a hypothetical form of dark energy postulated as an explanation of observations of an accelerating universe. In Madeleine L'Engle's children's book A Wrinkle in Time (1962), Mrs. Whatsit tells the children "Well, the fifth dimension's a tesseract. You add that to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go the long way around." In alchemy, Quintessence is the fifth element that partakes of both the Above and the Below, the mental as well as the material. It can be thought of as the ethereal embodiment of the life force that we encounter in dreams and altered states of consciousness. It is the purest individual essence of something that we must unveil and understand in order to transform it. On George Ripley's 15th century alchemical work Cantilena Verse 30:
                  Four Elements, Brave Armes, and Polish'd well
                  God gave him, in the midst whereof did dwell
                  The Crownèd Maid, ordained for to be
                  In the Fifth Circle of the Mysterie.

Edward F. Edinger comments in The Mysterium Lectures (1995): "The Four Elements would correspond to the four sides of the square, and they are now united in the fifth essence, the quintessence, which is the Fifth Circle. This fifth circle is personified as the 'Crowned Maid' and she's Luna, or she's the representation of the coronation of the Virgin Mary— that's another 'Crowned Maid'. In other words, she's the sublimated transformation of the materiality principle." (p. 201) Beyond this material universe is the substratum, the sacred spirit that supports everything from atoms to galaxies. The quest for this Quintessence is a noble one comparable to Percival's quest of the Grail.

R is for Rain— the spiritual downpouring of heaven.
This image came from Botticelli's Primavera (1478) where Mercury points his winged caduceus to the clouds in spiritual contemplation to bring down the rain. Walt Whitman writes in his "The Voice of the Rain" (1885):
And who art thou? said I to the soft-falling shower,
Which strange to tell, gave me an answer, as here translated:
I am the Poem of Earth, said the voice of the rain,
Eternal I rise impalpable not of the land and the bottomless sea,
Upward to heaven, whence, vaguely form'd, altogether changed, and yet the same,
I descend to lave the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe,
And all that in them without me were seeds only, latent, unborn,
And forever, by day and night, I give back life to my own origin,
    and make pure and beautify it;
(For song, issuing from its birth-place, after fulfillment, wandering,
Reck'd or unreck'd, duly with love returns.)

S is for Space— the empty canvas for time to paint in.
My first version was "S is for Sunlight— may your mind be bright." I realized that this was a cliché and changed it to the above before my reading at Waverley Writers. The image of Time painting in Space seems more fresh even though Time itself is an illusion. In Pathways through to Space (Nov. 13, 1936), Franklin Merrell-Wolff (1887-1985) says: "SPACE remains the highest Divinity that is in any sense knowable, however dim that knowledge may be. Beyond lies the Eternally Unknowable, surrounded by impenetrable Darkness, Silence, and Voidness." In Consciousness Without an Object (1973), Merrell-Wolff writes in Aphorism 53 & Commentaries: "The GREAT SPACE is not God, but the comprehender of all Gods, as well as of all lesser creatures.— The GREAT SPACE transcends and embraces all entities, even the greatest. There is a sense in which we may validly speak of the Divine Person, but, underlying, overlaying, and enveloping even This, is THAT, symbolized by the GREAT SPACE." In Sanskrit, Akasha means aether (upper space) or the fifth element, the basis and essence of all things in the universe. In Buddhist philosophy, Space is akin to Sunyata, the idea of Emptiness. (See Sunyata in Mahayana Buddhism). In James III.13 "a wise man does humble and wise works" If God is the wisest and humblest, then Space is his characteristics, for what could be more humble than Space, never exerting force on anything, and letting everything inhabitating its domain, accepting all and rejecting none, like a clear mirror, like Infinite Mind. This is not a jealous God, but One with true humility and wisdom.

T is for Tao— The Awakened One is here and now.
When I realized that "The Awakened One" may be an acronym for TAO— that eternal nameless mystery that gives birth to Yin & Yang and the ten thousand things, I was overjoyed. "The Awakened One" may be ascribed to Lao Tzu, Buddha, or Christ, but it is also the present moment— here and now. Be attentive and mindful so we feel the blessings all around us each day.

U is for Understanding— more precious than rubies and gold.
"Happy is the man that finds wisdom, and the man that gets understanding. For it is better than silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou can desire are not to be compared unto her." (Proverbs 3.13-3.15)

V is for Vision— the inner compass that guides our life.
In Joel II.28, the Lord tells the Israelites: "I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions." While our physical eyes provide vision of the outer material world, the Inner Eye gives spiritual guidance to our life. This inner vision provides direction when we're at the crossroad to take the right path.

W is for Wisdom— the fruit that nourishes our soul.
In Proverbs 24.13-14: "My son, eat thou honey, because it is good; and the honeycomb, which is sweet to thy taste: So shall the knowledge of wisdom be unto thy soul: when thou hast found it, then there shall be a reward, and thy expectation shall not be cut off." The Dalai Lama said "I know many billionaires who are not happy." Kings and Queens who possess fame, fortunes, and power, still make pilgrimage to the sage who dwells in wisdom and a life of bliss.

X is for Xmas— birth of Christos, the Bringer of Light.
At Winter Solstice (December 22), the darkest time of the year (8 hours sunlight), we celebrate Christmas. Christos "the light bringer" is born and from this moment onward, each day becomes brighter until the Summer Solstice (June 21) when we experience 16 hours of sunlight. Jesus said in Ch. 27 of Pistis Sophia: "And my garment of light was upon me, and I was shining exceedingly, there being no measure to the light which I had." The First Mystery is God's first creation— "Let there be light". In this sense, we may say that Christ is God's Son, emerging from the deep darkness. Christos means "Bringer of Light", but he is also the Light which has "no measure"— that is beyond time. That's why Jesus said "Before Abraham was, I am." (John 8.58)

Y is for Yes!— be positive in everything you do!
"Yes" appears in the last line of Molly Bloom's inner monologue that ends James Joyce's Ulysses (1922): "and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes." It occurs in Allen Ginsberg's Poem 55 "Variations on Ma Rainey's See See Rider" of his last book Death & Fame (1999) Lines 12-13: "see what I want today / yes yes yes". Shunryu Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: "So the secret is just to say 'Yes!' and jump off from here. Then there is no problem. It means to be yourself, always yourself, without sticking to an old self."

Z is for Zen— beginner's mind doing all things afresh.
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is a book (1970) by Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971). Quote from book: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." A beginner's mind is always afresh and make new discoveries because it is attentive. This brings us back to A is for Attention and Awakening.

                                  — Peter Y. Chou
                                       Mountain View, 1-7-2009

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