Poem: The Old Mendicant

By Thich Nhat Hanh Being rock, being gas, being mist, being Mind, being the mesons travelling among the galaxies at the speed of light, you have come here, my beloved. And your blue eyes shine, so beautiful, so deep. You have taken the path traced for you from the non-beginning and the never-ending. You say that on your way here you have gone through many millions of births and deaths. Innumerable times you have been transformed into firestorms in outer space. You have used your own body to measure the age of the mountains and rivers. You have manifested yourself as trees, grass, butterflies, single-celled beings, and as chrysanthemums. But the eyes with which you look at me this morning tell me that you have never died. Your smile invites me into the game whose beginning no one knows, the game of hide-and-seek.

O green caterpillar, you are solemnly using your body to measure the length of the rose branch that grew last Summer. Everyone says that you, my beloved, were just born this Spring. Tell me, how long have you been around? Why wait until this moment to reveal yourself to me, carrying with you that smile which is so silent and so deep? O caterpillar, suns, moons, and stars flow out each time I exhale. Who knows that the infinitely large must be found in your tiny body? Upon each point on your body, thousands of Buddha fields have been established. With each stretch of your body, you measure time from the non-beginning to the never-ending. The great mendicant of old is still there on Vulture Peak, contemplating the ever-splendid sunset. Gautama, how strange! Who said that the Udumbara flower blooms only once every 3,000 years? The sound of the rising tide—you cannot help hearing it if you have an attentive ear.

This "love poem," as Joanna Macy calls it, has to do with the original face. In Buddhism, when a teacher says to his student, "Show me your original face," it is an invitation to discover one's nature of interbeing. "My beloved, you have come from the mineral, the gas, the mist, and consciousness. You have gone through many galaxies at the speed of light. And no-beginning and no-ending have come together in order to trace your way. And now you are a caterpillar. I look into you and I recognize that. Although you look small, you have created a firestorm in outer space. And you have measured the age of river and mountains with your tiny body." The infinitely small contains the infinitely large. Practicing meditation is like seeking your beloved. The old mendicant, Shakyamuni Buddha, is still sitting there. Don't think that he has disappeared. He is still contemplating the beautiful sunset. His preaching is still strong, like the sound of the rising tide, if you have ears to hear it. I first visited Vulture Peak in 1968, and once in the early evening I saw myself contemplating the sunset with the eyes of the Buddha. When a group of us went there together in 1988,1 felt the same thing again. This poem was written in 1970.

—from Call Me By My True Names: The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallax Press, September 1993)

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