Erasures of the self: the body’s poetry

Michelle Cahill

In this last post for Southerly I would like to share the detours of my writing and spiritual journeys, with brief reflections of a more general nature on Australia’s cultural and literary engagement with Asia. I began my sojourns in Buddhist monasteries in Thailand thirteen years ago when I was disillusioned with capitalism, with what the West had taught me about happiness: commodities, acquisitions, the posture of ego, the indoctrinations of education, culture, all of which, without exception had left me unfulfilled and restless. My teacher Pra Ajahn Po had trained under theradical-conservative Thai monk Buddhadhasa Biku, who left the dirty and corrupt Wats of Bangkok in 1932 to establish a Southern monastery where Dhammic ecology and Dhammic socialism could flourish. Buddhadhasa’s teaching centres on intimacy with nature as practice (or Dhamma). Accordingly, he taught that nature and natural laws are ways of deconstructing the abstractions of Dhamma and political theory.

My teacher, Venerable Pra Ajahn Po

My training was austere, but relatively brief and episodic. Over a period of several years I travelled several times to southern and north-eastern Thailand and Laos. Whenever I returned to Australia I always felt the brutality of that disruption. I joined communities (or sanghas) so that I could develop a practice to blend into an urbanised Western life. I made several rains retreats at a beautiful monastery, Wat Buddha Dhamma, in Dharug National Park (NSW). Even to think of this forest wat with its community of monastics and laity, the astonishingly beautiful sala, the solar power and compost toilets, the pine forest and wild animals, brings calmness and coolness into my heart. When the heart is still, the mind is clear and the joints of the soul are oiled with patience, wisdom, emptiness. These are elements which may not always find their way into a text but which, I believe, are beneficial for the writer’s deeper understanding of the nature of self and others, and the complexities of social beings.

Ajahn Buddhadhasa spoke about Dhammic Socialism in the 1960’s within a cultural milieu that had silenced monks, separating their spiritual development from politics and other “worldly affairs”. At that time the Vietnam War was being fought with the help of Australian troops and thousands were killed in the conflagrations between communist insurgents and the US-backed right wing.Thailand itself had been deforested and exploited on many levels by Western tourism. Buddhadhasa Biku spoke of Dhammic socialism as a middle ground between materialist visions of Marxism and the violent capitalist-driven ideologies of the West. I was drawn to his teaching and the simple lifestyle of the monastery as an alternative yet unassailable ethical and aesthetic practice, which emphasises collective well-being over individual expertise.

Wat Buddha Dhamma

I came to appreciate that Buddhist thinking and meditation in particular had anticipated post-structuralist theory about the notion of materiality and the self. Over a period of time I studied Iyenga and Ashtanga yoga with different teachers. Meditation had always taken priority over my yoga practice until the birth of my daughter, when it became difficult to find the time to sit without interruptions. But in 2007 after a sojourn in Rishikesh, northern India,my yoga practice suddenly changed. I found that I could meditate through the breath of the body. I began to call this the body’s poetry. For the Buddha’s spiritual path of freedom from suffering has much in common with the writer’s search for ‘meaning’, for expressing the undisclosed.

Several poems I wrote in my first collection, The Accidental Cage, were an attempt to convey my experience of Buddhism as liberator, as a modest catalyst of change in my life. (I also explored in that book how language is liberating, jouissance. As well I was concerned with that frisson between ethics and aesthetics.) Recently, a short story inspired by one of my sojourns, “Finding the Buddha”, has appeared in Antipodes. I’ve found that when writing poems or fiction about Buddhism I do not feel the pang of losing those small illuminations but I am vulnerable to this when writing in the genre of memoir. Writing directly about my spiritual practice can feel like trading or being cheated. Perhaps I have laboured long to find the right weight for these words. Perhaps, not long enough. But I count it amongst my little triumphs to have contributed something which, however minor, is deeply and intricately layered in Asian non-secular philosophy.

During my travels, and my readings I studied another Theravadan monk, Ajahn Cha, whose dhamma talks have been widely published in the West. I began to discern connections and experience syncretism between Buddhism, Hinduism, deconstructionism or post-structuralist thought, between Dhammic socialism and hybridity. Hinduism’s multiplicity and double-gender incarnations were potent forms of rhetoric for negotiating barriers of gender, class and caste in my second collection, Vishvarūpa.

I am most content to reflect on my writing as practice, performance, or path, as distinct from writing as a tutored or goal-oriented undertaking. Naturally, I admire these qualities in the work of poets like Judith Beveridge, Michael Heald, Nguyên Tiên Hoàng, Jennifer Mackenzie, Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey and in the prose of writers like Michelle de Kretser, Hoa Pham, Sophie Cunningham and Merlinda Bobis. I am at present enjoying Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale by Chi Vu. This beautifully written novella sensitively articulates Buddhism within the context of Melbourne’s Vietnamese refugee communities in the 1980’s. Such nuanced engagements with Asia have been undervalued in favour of more clichéd representations of Asian culture as objects to be appropriated. The aesthetics of silence and the subtle art of the bildungsroman are genres almost entirely overlooked amongst contemporary tropes, which tend to favour the narratives of assimilation, and which domesticate Asian-Australian voices of trauma and hybridity.

Buddhism’s silence and erasures can be interpreted by the writer as a fragmented subjectivity.  The teachings and practices I was so privileged to learn were encountered during multiple journeys to Asia, crossing the Indian Ocean numerous times in several lives. In profound ways they have deepened my writing and my activism, my poetics and my ethical positioning.Like most Western nations, Australia’s encounters with Asia have involved tremendous economic, political, even military pressure and this is reflected in our literatures. I believe the time for Australia to renegotiate a deeper more meaningful engagement with Asia is now. Our shared journeys of writing and spirituality gesture towards more respectful understandings of Asian philosophical perspectives on materiality, subjectivity, silence and rhetoric.

5 thoughts on “Erasures of the self: the body’s poetry

  1. Thanks Michelle, I found this post very thought-provoking. I’m especially intrigued by what you say re buddhism anticipating aspects of poststructuralism. And I’ll be tracking down a copy of the Chi Vu, too.

  2. Thanks for the lovely comments Emily; I’m sure you will enjoy Chi Vu’s novella ~

  3. There is so much to consider in your story Michelle and I look forward to catching up with you sometime. I’m especially interested in hearing more of your thoughts on “I am most content to reflect on my writing as practice, performance, or path, as distinct from writing as a tutored or goal-oriented undertaking.” This is something I’ve been investigating for the past decade and know how easy it is to ruffle the feathers with such things.

  4. Jayne, thank you for your comments. It would be nice to hear more about your experiences and research into writing & spiritual practice. Hope we might meet soon ~

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