Tonight, I will be focusing on poetry and the evocation of movement. Ordinary words cannot encompass the enormity of suffering in war-torn Middle East and Ukraine, and in Acapulco, Mexico, where the body count continues to rise after last week’s stage five hurricane.
In 2020, Matty Weingast wrote an article titled “The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns.” While he stayed with a sangha of nuns at Aloka Vihara Forest Monastery in northern California, Matty declared that “the humaneness and universality of the Buddha’s path is more alive in the Therigatha—[a] collection of 73 poems by the first Buddhist nuns—than anywhere else in the Pali canon. Here we find teachings from women of all backgrounds—old and young, rich and poor, mothers and daughters and grandmothers, princesses and courtesans, and widows and orphans. Each comes from a different place and offers a different teaching in a different way.”
Originally, these poems were not written, but spoken. As he recited the poetry aloud in the ancient Pali tongue, Matty learned to listen for questions behind the words. He heard questions that led the author away from home or that helped her endure difficulties, or that supported her final steps. He concluded that, “There cannot be only one right way to read a poem, live a life, or walk the path to awakening.”
I was particularly moved by the following poetry verses of a nun named Tissa:
Find your true home on the path.
Find the path right here in the center of your heart.
If you keep searching in the past
And searching in the future,
You will search and search,
But your searching will never end.
Another excerpt of Tissa’s poetry reads like this:
Why stay here
In your little dungeon?
If you really want to be free,
Make every thought
A thought of freedom.
Break your chains.
Tear down the walls.
Then walk the world
A free woman.
This past weekend, Mark and I followed Gabriel Clark’s recommendation to attend Houston Grand Opera’s stunning world premiere performance of Intelligence. The modern, multimedia opera’s music is composed by Jake Heggie, who wrote the score to the operatic version of Dead Man Walking. The libretto is by Gene Sheer, and the director and choreographer is Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.
The Houston Grand Opera program notes describe Zollar in this way: “[She] is an icon in the dance world. She’s a fearless artist-activist, the recipient of major awards including a 2021 McArthur Foundation fellowship, and a leading voice of women’s empowerment. In 1984, she founded Urban Bush Women to blow up modern dance conventions. With her choreographic style that is both forceful and fluid, Zollar established an all-female powerhouse, based in Brooklyn, to tell stories of racial injustice, the Black experience, and the life of women in America.
Inspired by the jazz scene she gravitated to in New York, Zollar built Urban Bush Women into a tight-knit ensemble company—a rarity at a time in the underfunded modern dance sphere, where dancers are frequently hired short-term on a “pickup company” basis…. She discovered that a stage actor’s focus—direct, involved, and intimate—feels more dramatic that the typical dancer’s focus, which is softer, veiled, generally aimed over the audience’s head. Zollar also developed a technique of dancing that looks natural and improvised rather than meticulously rehearsed. Even though it is.”
In her own words, Zollar states, “I wanted it to become a system, with many methodologies informing it. [Actors and directors] helped us understand, as dancers, what it [means] to tell a story in your body.” She continues, “It’s what I call living in the moment. Cultivating the practice of being completely in the present so it feels like everything just happened in that moment, and the movement came out spontaneously.”
The opera Intelligence tells the true story of two Southern women, Mary Jane Bowser, a Black slave, and Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy white abolitionist. Elizabeth sends Mary Jane to a northern school to learn to read and write and then recruits her to serve in the home of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate government. Without any suspicion that his new servant is literate, Davis allows Mary Jane access to clean his office. There she copies intelligence about his war strategies and sews the information into hems of dresses, which Elizabeth passes on to Union soldiers.
For choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the only way to bring such an improbable daring saga to the stage was to find the truth in her body. She says, “My style is visceral. I wanted to understand the story not just on the page but through the different sites, to sense the power of this story.” She traveled to the Van Lew mansion—now a school—in Richmond, Virginia. There she absorbed the view of a sweeping lawn that had led to a prison yard, where Elizabeth had carried food to incarcerated Union soldiers, hiding some of the prisoners in her mansion before smuggling them north to freedom.
After connecting with the spirit of Elizabeth, Zollar toured the White House of the Confederacy. She felt in her bones the perils that Mary Jane must have encountered as an undercover spy. Zollar attuned herself to the physical language that Mary Jane needed to perfect as she carried her body so that she could slip by unnoticed, eavesdropping, stealing battle plans, and hiding her truth as an educated woman.
The choreographer recalls, “It’s one thing to read the facts of what they did. But when you experience it and understand what was on the line if either of them had been caught—it’s very powerful.”
Caught up in the superb blend of impeccable acting, music, singing, orchestration, lighting, costumes, video effects, scenery, choreography, and breathtaking dancing, Mark and I lost track of ordinary space and time. As we were transported to the Civil War era, we recognized that the bloodshed that is occurring in today’s world has many historical precedents.
Since the time of the Buddha, what saves human beings from despair is living in the creative life force of this very moment. Our meditation practice asks us to let go of mundane, habitual thoughts and worries, to focus on each fresh new breath of life. As we grow still inside, we resonate with our wise and compassionate hearts and sense our interconnection with all sentient beings. Until we calm the warfare inside ourselves, we cannot truly help with the suffering in our troubled world.