Why Buddhist Poet Ocean Vuong Practices a Death Meditation
For the poet Ocean Vuong, being an artist requires an allegiance to wonder and a willingness to get closer to what scares him. As he shared in an episode of life as it isTricycle’s monthly podcast with editor James Shaheen and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, he believes it’s the writer’s job “to take a long and hard look at the most difficult part of the human condition – to samsara– and make something out of it so that it can be shared and understood.
Vuong wrote his latest book, time is a mother, following the death of her mother, and the collection addresses a variety of forms of loss, both personal and communal. On life as it isVuong discussed Buddhist mourning rituals, how he protects his sense of wonder, and how his Buddhist practice influences his approach to writing and how he lives his life. Read an excerpt from the conversation below and listen to the full episode here.
Sharon Salzberg: As a child, you attended Baptist church services with friends, where you say you developed an infatuation with Noah’s Ark and the idea of building a vessel for the future when the apocalypse arrives. Can you tell us a bit more about Noah’s Ark and what it means to you?
Ocean Vuong: As a kid, I thought it was real. I was 7 years old, I was going to a Baptist church in my neighborhood and I lived these myths. For me, the myth of Noah’s Ark made perfect sense – it reminded me of the Le Loi myth my grandmother used to tell me about, where an ancient Vietnamese king defended his country from Chinese invasion by going to the lake and by summoning a turtle, which leapt up and gave him a sword to defend the land. I thought it was real, and so when I heard Noah’s Ark, I was like, “Yeah, that sounds good.” I was fascinated by the idea of this great flood to come and then this responsibility of discernment so important for Christian thought. And I think for me it’s also important for Buddhism. Another way to translate mindfulness is discernment. What good things are you going to put into what you do, regardless of what you do? One can be a cobbler or a poet, but when you really think about it, it no longer becomes a task or a job but a vocation invested with a spiritual intention. And it makes the job so much better. It also makes you so much the better because you are now imbuing the object and the task with a personality. If two people cook the same recipe and one of them cooks it with intention and love, that meal will be much better. Noah’s Ark was so important to me because I realized that I still had the power to decide what words to use. If the poem is the ark, then what words? We must ask ourselves, why this word, as opposed to the others? It is a deep and prolonged practice of impregnating care in what you do.
James Shaheen: You start your latest collection, time is a mother, with a verse by the Peruvian poet César Vallejo, who writes: “Forgive me, Lord: I died so little. Can you tell us a bit about this epigraph and the relationship you see between poetry and death?
Ocean Vuong: I love Vallejo. For me, it has this quintessential plea for a higher being, which is the classic condition of poetry. Before Homer begins The Iliad, he begged the muses: “Help me do this. I can’t do it myself. In Buddhism, I think the same plea happens, but it’s more horizontal. It’s a call to the world, “Help me do this, world.” It is a call to the people we know, to the books we have read, to our teachers, present and gone. The spiritual crisis of the artist is to say that I am not there yet; I can’t do this alone. I think what Vallejo means by “I died so little” is “I know so little”. To die so little, to suffer so little, is to know so little. Pain is also a vector of knowledge. It may very well be knowledge itself. I think that’s actually the seat of a lot of my work. I included this epigraph to remind myself that we are never there. If the destination is clear in sight, then there is no point in going there, no point in traveling the world. And so it all starts with this cry, but also this admission, that we are still so far from the knowledge we need.
Pain is also a vector of knowledge. It may very well be knowledge itself. I think that’s actually the seat of a lot of my work.
Sharon Salzberg: You mentioned that you live across from a cemetery and practice meditation on death since the age of 15. How has your relationship to this practice evolved over the years, and how has it influenced your writing?
Ocean Vuong: It influenced my writing and it influenced my life. You’re meditating on death, and it’s hard to be really mad at someone because you’re getting closer to this condition that, as mammals, we’re so terrified of. It’s such a beautiful thing. You see an ant and you slap the table next to it, and it rushes in in absolute frantic energy trying to preserve its life. I think it’s such a beautiful fact that we’re all here to stay longer, and then the fact that we have to leave reminds us that there’s that last door. When thinking about walking through that last door, it’s hard to have those little thoughts about who’s doing the dishes or taking out the trash or something a colleague said in a committee meeting. Everything disappears. So it’s a really powerful tool to refocus on what matters, on this Noah’s Ark. For me, these two philosophies go hand in hand. The meditation of death brings us back to the workshop of the ark. It’s like now that the silly pettiness is out of me, I can get to work and build something valuable and useful for myself and others. Since I was 15, it’s been my North Star.
When you think about going through that last door, it’s hard to have those little thoughts.
But despite the amount of death meditation I did, it never prepared me for my mother’s death. I thought I was some kind of expert, especially within my family. There were about eight of us there, and I was kind of in the lead. I was able to read the signs of death and I could tell my aunts and uncles what was going on. When my mother took her last breath, all of a sudden I realized that I was just kneeling next to her bed moaning, screaming into her sheets. And I realized that there is nothing you can do to prepare yourself for the ultimate truth. There is, in retrospect, a beauty in watching death happen because it is the ultimate truth. Honesty, for example, is the truth that requires a medium. Honesty is the vehicle of truth. But death does not need a vehicle. It’s himself. And I’ve never seen anything so truthful before and so devastating at the same time.