A sower went forth to sow. Some of his seeds fell upon stonyplaces.
Centuries passed; millennia. And the seeds remained.
And the stones crumbled and became good soil, and the seeds brought forth fruit.
“Wait a minute,” said one listener. “You can’t play fast and loose that way with the natural facts. The seeds would die long before the soil could receive them.”
“Why would they die?”
“Because they can’t hold out in stony places, for thousands of years.”
“But, my dear, what kind of seeds do you think we’re talking about?”
—The Parable of the Sower
Parables and Portraits is Stephen Mitchell’s sixth book and the first in which he shares his own poems. In his earlier works such as The Book of Job and the Tao Te Ching, Mitchell revitalizes timeless expressions of Truth through contemporary translations/interpretations. These reflect the dharmic knowledge of a well-practiced yogi. In Parables and Portraits, Mitchell’s deep understanding and originality finally blossom without the filter of anyone else’s work.
Here we are treated to poems about archetypal figures and situations, about myths and historical legends, about famous people and ideas. We are left enchanted, with tears in our eyes, laughing in great amusement, and, at times, profoundly touched. Many of these poems are pure dharma and Mitchell is able to offer them up in a bright and fresh fashion; we find page after page of mini-satoris:
Eve bites into the fruit. Suddenly she realizes that she is naked.
She begins to cry.
The kindly serpent picks up a handkerchief, gives it to her.
“It’s all right,” he says. “the first moment is always the hardest.”
“But I thought knowledge would be so wonderful,” Eve says, sniffling.
“Knowledge?!” laughs the serpent. “This fruit is from the Tree of Life.”
—In the Garden
Many of Mitchell’s tales have a quality of quiet strength about them, as if someone of great presence crept up from behind without a sound and was just suddenly beside you! This quality is similar to those moments in practice when awareness of an insight arises, awareness that this “knowing” has always been there:
The truth is that Sisyphus is in love with the rock. He cherishes every roughness and every ounce of it.
He talks to it, sings to it. It has become the mysterious Other. . . .
He doesn’t realize that at any moment he is permitted to step aside, let the rock hurtle to the bottom, and go home.
—The Myth of Sisyphus
Often Mitchell’s portraits, although engaging the mind in a profound manner, actually speak directly to the heart, to our intuitive knowing. And even if we cannot explain the poem in a lucid fashion, there is an understanding, a knowing within us; some part of us recognizes and responds in a way beyond our rational minds:
Lying back on the unbelievably lush grass, he remembers: all those years (how excruciating they were!) of fasting and one-pointed concentration, until finally he was thin enough: thaumaturgically thin, thread-thin, almost unrecognizable in his camelness: until the moment in front of the unblinking eye, when he put his front hooves together.
Took one long last breath.
The exception may prove the rule, but what proves the exception?
“It is not that such things are possible,” the camel thinks, smiling.
“But such things are possible for me.”
—Through the Eye of the Needle
These poems are indeed much like advanced dharma practice: They have a sense of ease about them; they are simple and unencumbered. Yet advanced practice requires intense effort and energy in order to flow effortlessly. The sense of ease is the result of painstakingly crafted understanding. And the simplicity of practice both produces and is produced by complex discernment. Successive readings of Mitchell’s poems show an analogous quality: At times a poem will have a sense of ease and effortless simplicity about it, yet a deeper look might show how much effort went into creating that sense of ease, and how complexly arranged and crafted the wording and structure had to be to produce the simplicity.
One final thread of dharma ties these poems together for me. Mitchell writes through archetypal figures, myths and legends about the human condition, your condition and my condition. To see the nature of existence clearly, as he does, requires an acceptance of all that is true, neither holding on to pleasure nor pushing away pain. The full acceptance of things-as-they-are is another name for love. “The Annunciation” is one of Mitchell’s sweetest statements of this loving acceptance:
He tiptoes into the room almost as if he were an intruder. Then kneels, soundlessly. His white robe arranges itself. His breath slows. His muscles relax. The lily in his hand tilts gradually backward and comes to rest against his right shoulder.
She is sitting near the window, doing nothing, unaware of his presence. How beautiful she is. He gazes at her as a man might gaze at his beloved wife….
Ah: wasn’t there something he was supposed to say? He feels the whisper far back in his mind, like a mild breeze. Yes, yes, he will remember the message, in a little while. In a few more minutes. But not just now.
— The Annunciation