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July 2004

Speaking In Tongues: Religious Literature

Image: Dina Pearlman

For the high travel season, WWB will take you on some inward as well as outward journeys. The divine is perhaps the oldest source of literary inspiration, and many-tongued. Yet our idea of religious literature has been cheapened by pious equivalents of pulp fiction. WWB offers renewal. Vijay Dan Detha's True Calling makes us think twice about true and false holiness; Paola Capriolo's Brothers retells the story of Cain and Abel with modern psychological insight; David Hinton's translations of Wang Wei and the late Jerome W. Clinton's translations of Sohrab Sepehri display the rich allusiveness and delicacy so abundant in the Buddhist and Sufi literary traditions, respectively. Peter Cole's translations of three medieval poets, Moshe Ibn Ezra, Yehudah HaLevi and Avraham Ibn Ezra, speak from the mystical heart of Judaism. In V. Y. Mudimbe's Shaba Deux, a young nun in Zaire struggles with faith in the midst of personal and social chaos. Not to ignore religious conflicts while we celebrate the harmonies, Richard Murphy translates and introduces a contemporary Pakistani sermon about the battle of Karbala, the decisive event in the rift between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims. In August, Part II will bring you more of this liturgy: both chapters and verse.

Illustration by Dina Pearlman, courtesy of Institute of Advanced Theology,


Two brothers, the first two brothers. Conceived on the threshold of paradise, so to speak, when Adam and Eve, driven out by the cherubim with the flaming sword that turned every way, took up

Mourning Meng Hao-jan

My dear friend* nowhere in sight, this Han River keeps flowing east. Now, if I look for old masters here, I find empty rivers and mountains. *Meng Hao-jan was another of

Karbala as Court Case

Karbala is a medium-sized city in central Iraq, recently the scene of violent clashes between U.S. troops and Iraqi militants loyal to the young Shi'a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But for


A cloudless sky, no breath of wind, I sit beside the courtyard pool. The slow stirrings of the goldfish, the radiance and I, the earth and


Let's not muddy the water. Imagine that close by a dove is drinking from it, or in a distant grove a finch is washing its wings in it, or in


Why is my beloved so haughty,      and why is He so angry with me? Before Him why do I shake like a reed? He's forgotten how I walked in the wilderness after Him—and

A Dove in the Distance

A dove in the distance fluttered,    flitting through the forest—       unable to recover she flew up, flustered, hovering,    circling round her


"Where is the friend's house?" asked the horseman just at dawn. The Heavens paused. A wayfarer took the bright branch from his lips, conferred it on the darkness of

He Who Always Knows

He who always knows to which god he prays, will never be heard.

In Reply to Vice-Magistrate Chang

In these twilight years, I love tranquility alone. Mind free of our ten thousand affairs, self-regard free of all those grand schemes, I return to my old forest, knowing empty.

On Returning to WheelRim River

At the canyon's mouth, a far-off bell stirs. Woodcutters and fishermen scarcer still, sunset distant in these distant mountains, I verge on white clouds, returning alone.

Adrift on the Lake

Autumn sky illuminates itself all empty distances away toward far human realms, cranes off horizons of sand tracing its clarity into mountains beyond clouds. Crystalline waters

Mourning Yin Yao

Returning you to StoneTower Mountain, we bid farewell among ash-green pine and cyprus, then return home. Of your bones, now buried white cloud, this much remains forever: streams

BirdCry Creek

In our idleness, cinnamon blossoms fall. In night quiet, spring mountains stand empty. Moonrise startles mountain birds: here and there, cries in a spring gorge. From Mountain

Fragments from the year 1989

. . . Mute, my head covered, I stand with a pebble on my lips in front of a wall of fire and oblivion counted among the helpers of death . . . Take the ash from

In Reply to P’ei Ti

The cold river spreads boundless away. Autumn rains darken azure-deep skies. You ask about WholeSouth Mountain: the mind knows beyond white clouds. From Mountain Home: The

In the Mountains, Sent to Ch’an Brothers and Sisters

Dharma companions filling mountains, a sangha1 forms of itself: chanting, sitting ch'an2 stillness. Looking out from distant city walls, people see only white clouds. 1A

In Reply to Su, Who Visited My WheelRim River Hermitage When I Wasn’t There to Welcome Him

I live humbly near the canyon's mouth where stately trees ring village ruins. When you came on twisted rocky paths, who welcomed you at my mountain gate? Fishing boats frozen

The Promise

I don't look over my shoulder, no idea where I'm going and not an ounce of fear, falling like fluff from an eiderdown quilt and piercing the afternoon air, real as an hour of

Unanswered Plea

I learn things by myself, which is why it takes so long. I'm asking you to be patient. That's not asking much. I learn by myself, learn to cross the village, it's not every

Save Me, Guide Me

Save me, shield me, faithful journey, from my own lies and from our era. Protect me, you, Angel and Guardian, but you, White Cloud, guide me. Keep me from thunder, hurricane,

Buddha, Christ

Buddha, Christ, in vain you are hiding in so many incarnations.

This Year

This year I bore no fruit only leaves that give no shade I'm afraid, Rabbi, I'm afraid, Lord, that a hungry weary man curses me on the endless road

(from Meister Eckhardt or Zohar?)

nothing, God

Who Doesn’t Exist

Fear God who doesn't exist in your heart.

Job’s Guilt

Everything was fulfilled, I was spared nothing. Who will forgive me.

A True Calling

Nothing happens to a story if all you do is listen. Nothing happens if all you do is read, or memorize word for word. What matters is if you make the heart of the story part of your very

from Shaba Deux: Les Carnets de Mère Marie-Gertrude

Sister Marie-Gertrude is the only black nun from Kolwezi in a French-run Franciscan convent in Zaire (now once again the Democratic Republic of Congo). The time period is that of the May 1978


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