An article writer in a past issue of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle described his personal interests, how little they intersected with worldly concerns, and asked rhetorically:
Am I out of the loop? Well, that depends. As William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” I’d argue that I’m in the loop, the loop that Hsieh Ling-yun and Meng Hao-jan and Wang Wei and Han Shan and Su Tung-P’o and Shih-wu and countless others call home. It’s a bigger loop, an older loop, a far more stable and enduring loop.
That much said, it is difficult, isn’t it, to write on a computer, flip a switch for electricity, expect the refrigerator to preserve food, drive a vehicle down the street — and still claim to be out of the loop. The loop is bigger not just because we think we can afford to absent ourselves from parts of it, but because, happily, we have access to historical resources like the ancient Chinese poems. The content of ancient poems is just one example of an intellectual alternative to a physical reality.
The Taoists understood that only “heaven and earth” last. Buddhism called it impermanence. But these are natural law, so to speak, the nature of things, in short, the Tao. Today (and from the beginning, really) the evanescent is not what infects or undermines the “ten thousand things” but rather the material and artificial culture that surrounds us daily and rips us away from nature. Moderns might call the Tao flux, but not impermanence, permitting moderns to enjoy the worldly concerns our writer disdains. (One strives for a deeper metaphor than “heaven and earth” when reflecting on the destruction of earth itself, while the populace blithely ignores nature.)
Being in the loop with the ancients is always relevant because human culture is itself primarily a superficial gloss to material existence, an epiphenomenon that ignores the authentic values that we glean from remnants like poetry. We can weary of art, music, or literature as so much manipulation when a product for mass consumption pursued one day and discarded the next. In contrast, the ancient Chinese poets present a structure from feelings, and present feelings with structure. This structure and the well of authentic observation from which they emerge is transcendent. At the same time that the ancient poets bid us to pay attention to the moment — for it is the whole outpouring of the universe at the given time — we find in poetry the preservation of moments, reproduced for us accidentally, not consciously. For us, who have access to it, we grasp it deliberately and affirmatively.
The “moment” is brokenly understood by moderns who assign it a hedonism of spirit, a false epicureanism. For the ancient Chinese poets, as Taoists or Buddhists, the moment is the instance of the Tao to be understood. It is to treasure the snow in winter and not long for the flowers of spring. It is to treasure the fruit of summer and not rue the coming autumn; it is to treasure the falling leaves of autumn and not reflect on the snows of winter. It is to appreciate the moment before it is gone and not to resent its passing, not to rue what is gone or what is to follow.
This is not romanticism of the moment but a profound awareness of what is real. All of time is the Tao or Path, and the path is only ourselves watching in silence and awe. To this loop, yes, we can become a part, for it is a big loop and we have already been a part of it all along.