Ani Lin: The Journey of a Chinese Buddhist Nun, Pip Griffin – Reviewed by Patricia Prime

Ani Lin: The Journey of a Chinese Buddhist Nun, Pip Griffin.  Pohutukawa Press, Leichhardt, N.S.W. 2040, Australia.  pip.griffin@bigpond.com  2010.  144 pp.  ISBN 9780980318425 (pbk).  AUD20.00 + postage from the author.  AUD27.95 + postage from gleebooks  49 Glebe Point Rd., Glebe, N.S.W. 2037, Australia.  books@gleebooks.com.au  www.gleebooks.com.au  Overseas orders through gleebooks, please.

Reviewed by Patricia Prime

 For the poet, the credo or doctrine is not the point of arrival but is, on the  contrary, the point of departure for the metaphysical journey.

            — Joseph Brodsky

An odd choice to introduce a review of the poem novel Ani Lin: The Journey of a Chinese Buddhist Nun, by Pip Griffin?  Perhaps; perhaps not?  The collection is about explorations and discoveries which are as much cerebral and metaphysical as geographical and physical.  The path readers are taken on by Griffin has origins that are intriguing and transits that are stimulating.

As the dust jacket informs its readers: “In 1892, 18 year old Lin enters a mountain nunnery, where she begins a journey that will take her on a difficult spiritual and physical path.  Her dream is to work for equality for women in the Buddhist world.”  In her Afterword Griffin announces that this is an imaginary tale: “In 1874, my imaginary nun, Lin, was born in a village near Yunnanfu (capital of Yunnan Province and renamed Kunming in the 1920s).  She died in 1939, the year I was born.  Her story was conceived in 1985 when I first travelled to Guilin (Guangxi Province) and experienced feelings of déjà vu in the spectacular karst landscape.”

Griffin’s opening poem “Coming home from the market” exemplifies the ethos behind the poem novel as she introduces the young girl to her readers:

 I ride my bicycle
 on the bumpy road
 through hazy landscape
 patchwork gardens illuminated
 by the setting sun

 stacked mountains layered
 against orange sky

This is a work laden with possibilities that result out of an engagement with people, places and landscape, real but also mythically-charged.  Take the poem, “Life in the nunnery.”  Here the reader is taken through a ‘rite of passage’ as the young woman enters the novitiate:

 Rising before dawn
 a splash of cold water
 clears my mind

 my body
 will soon learn
 to ignore discomfort

 the big drum
 calls us to the Shrine

The experience may not be familiar to many readers and yet it is subjective, a combination that ensures that our view of the unrecognizable and the intimate coalesce with one another.

The girl’s transformation hinges upon her memories – upon whether what is remembered is truthful, an accurate recollection of her experiences.  In “An audience with the Abbess,” for example, her meditations reveal

 that in another life
 my husband was
 a wealthy merchant.

 Though privileged,
 I was a second wife,
 of value merely
 by belonging to a man.

In “Ordination,” an evocation of taking her vows, Lin’s life is transformed into a meditation on the way in which she will live her life from now on:

 I will respect all life
 not take things not for me
 keep chaste
 neither speak untruth
 nor become intoxicated
 will never eat from noon
 until the sunrise of the next new day

In “Leaving the nunnery,” meanwhile, it is time for her to begin her travels over the remote and mountainous Horse Tea Road that leads to Tibet, where she will teach in a village for six years.    Her only possessions are her bamboo flute and the scrolls that Reverend Mother gives her:  “precious texts on / scrolls of silk” with the prayer

 Lord Buddha’s words
 will guide you
 and the girls
 that you will teach

The journey is beautifully evoked by Griffin as the girl traverses rivers, mountains, sacred peaks, sanctuaries and a visit to the Mu household where, in the poem “Visiting the Mu household” “Prince Mu has asked us / to take tea with him.”

Griffin’s poem novel is activated by small moments unfolding from the fragments of daily minutiae: a sense of miracle, bliss is localized, transcendence is brief and raw, insight comes from focusing on the elements of Lin’s journey, the playing of her flute, wandering in the lamasery garden, meditating, eating and drinking.  Noticing, honoring, entering the most ordinary experience is urged on us throughout the volume.  For Griffin, the moment suffuses and suffices.  For example, she concludes the poem “Dance of the Dongba.” 

 next  morning
 at the little shrine I’ve made
 my flute sings
 my prayers fly
 to Kuan Yin:

 Oh my Lady – you who
 hears the cries of all the world –
 my spirit has a home here.
 It does not want to leave!

In another poem, “The courtship dance,” she takes us right into the midst of the dance:

 In firelight
 Zhema whirls
 while men and women
 dance a double circle

 her many-coloured belts
 swing wildly from her waist

The tension in many of the poems making up the poem novel is between the travelling and experiences, arising thoughts and meditation.  In “Travelling the Horse Tea Road” Lin treads “with care on fallen / rhododendron petals”; turns “golden prayer wheels / with devout Tibetans” and shares a meal with monks.  Lin is loaded with awareness, how at her journey’s end she will make “the village women happy / with my teaching.”  Griffin paints delightful pictures of those met along the journey: the man at the border hut, the weary merchant, the boatman:  “The Bhakor” evokes the sights and sounds of the market place in Lhasa:

 yak bells   goat bells
 sing calling notes
 dust rises
 whirrs clangs bangs
 shouts cries squawks
 squeals bleats
 hurt my head

In “An audience with the Dalai Lama,” Griffin wires her tense imagery on taut, honed lines that vibrate with currents of feeling.  The potent tone of a meeting with the Dalai Lama in his beautiful palace is tenderly written.  The narrative traces Lin’s day, from waking with the sparrows, to climbing “the Sacred Steps / of the Red Palace” to the meeting with His Holiness”:

 a beautiful young man
 chrysanthemum and saffron robed
 he sits cross-legged
 on blue-gold brocaded cushions
 of his throne

Her life is now taken up with teaching the young women and the guidance of the young girl, Pema, whom she takes under her wing.  The poem “Teaching” is where we first meet Pema:

 her name is Pema Choki
 ‘lotus of the happy faith’
 child of an artisan Yishe
 whose wife is dead

 though only ten years old
 she cares for father
 and five brothers

The years pass under Lin’s guidance until she decides that Pema, although only an ordinary girl, is ready to be trained for ordination.  She consults the Rinpoche, who says:

 Ani, you speak with fancy’s tongue!
 There have been no female reincarnation
 Here for many centuries.  You know
 Our practice precludes women’s ordination

Lin convinces Pema’s father and Jigme Trungpa Rinpoche (head of the gompa) that Pema should be allowed to become a novice, as we see in “Pema is allowed to become a novice”:  “The Rinpoche is won over / Pema’s father yields.”  Now Lin’s guide Lobsang goes off to war.  The love and respect Lin feels for her guide Lobsang throughout her journey until his death in war is beautifully evoked.  In the poem “Attachment” we see how the news of Lobsang’s death affects her, as she cries out

 I have failed failed failed
 failed Lord Buddha
 failed to keep heart
 free from attachment                                                                                                          

In “Pema reveals esoteric knowledge,” the outstanding novice “has spoken / words she cannot know.”   The lama resumes her lessons “with far stricter rules / she must chant texts for hours / keep eyes downcast / pray with humility / must not presume / to gainsay learned elders”  and her story

  tumbles
 down steep hillside
 like a spring thaw stream
 Pema must be a Chosen One

 could she be reincarnated
 Princess Lhacham Pema Tsal
 astonishing yogini
 brought back to  life
 to Guru Rinpoche
 entrusted with his precious
 teachings centuries ago?

But gossip reaches the Rinpoche and it is decided that Pema must be sent far away to the Bekung Monastery.  This decision forces Lin and Pema to decide to leave Tibet.  In “Lin and Pema flee Lhato,” they find a young village man to guide them back to China.  In “Return to Fanchu Si” they reach their destination where

 these dear sisters
 faces wet with tears
 who hug first me
 then Pema
 take us to my old room
 that’s quite unchanged

The poem novel ends with “Lin’s poem for Lobsang”: 

 Here’s peace

  beneath our old azalea tree
  now to reflect
  to play my flute
  and write:

                       In mountain stream, your face
                       in bamboo stems, your voice
                       in lotus flowers, your life –
                       live on in flute’s sweet notes

The details which make Griffin’s verses so memorable are samples of scenes from a receptive life, formed by emotion; minimal, muted, they nevertheless brim with beauty.  Griffin’s poems are often spare, yet never neutral: there is heat and depth throughout.  Understated, quietly reflecting the protagonist’s journey towards her destiny.

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