Hold Them With a Smile

Emptiness in the Heart of Compassion: Spirituality in the Writings of Cyril Wong.
by Stewart Dorward

Cyril Wong is one of the most striking and provocative figures in Singaporean literature. His prize winning and acclaimed work encompasses poetry, short stories, and a novel. The content ranges from self-confession to fairy tales but the themes remain constant. One is a compassionate unflinching examination of love, sexuality, and death. The other is how these are ultimately empty of significance except for the labels we give them. This dual commitment to compassion and insight is rooted in his rejection of his biological Catholic family, the embrace of his new Hindu family and his experience of Zen meditation.

Wong rejects his traditional Catholic upbringing and family because they reject him as a gay man. This theme is emphasized in his earlier poems in Unmarked Treasure, which is described on the back cover as his “most personal sequence of poems.” In “God Is Our Mother,” he writes:

God is our mother
and does not exist
without her children
who are leaving…

The theological God and the earthly mother have their roles taken away and are shown to be empty of significance. The children are packing their bags and walking away to a future indifferent to both. Neither the prayer “Our Father who art in heaven” nor the mother’s apron strings can hold the family together. The damaging effects of Christianity spread beyond the family in later volumes; for example, both “Crucifix” and “Exorcism” in The Lover’s Inventory describe the stultifying and traumatic effects of the religion on the speaker’s lovers.

For Wong, the Christian God and the biological family are things left behind. It is love for his partner that brings him to affection for popular Hinduism. In powerful contrast to his Catholic mother’s rejection is the welcome he received from his partner’s mother, described in “Legacy” (After You):

your mother
cooked for me
and read from the Ramayan
while sitting at the same table
I ate in grateful silence
so when I say I love you
I mean I love her too since
she lives in you
her kindness and spirituality

As opposed to the disciplinary stance of the Christian tradition, erotic and playful use is made of Hindu sacred imagery in Tilting Our Plates To Catch The Light. Scenes from the Skandha Purana appear seven times, scattered through the volume, and poems making use of the myths appear a further three times. On the last page the threads of mythological and earthly loves are joined as the men stand in front of a statue of merged male deities “whose effigy hangs in the shared mind of the lovers at the temple, two men who are suddenly inspired to face each other.” Instead of walking away from mothers and gods, these lovers discover the simple joy of appearing together in public, “walking together down Little India watched by the astonished stars of Divali lights” (“Divali Tribute” in After You). Popular Hinduism is a religious tradition warmly embraced as it provides Wong with a new family life, rich in its own customs, to replace the Catholic one he left behind.

At times this affection for Hinduism becomes more philosophical. In Tilting Our Plates To Catch The Light there is the idea of atman or the eternal universal Soul from which we all come and will return:

We are only
of a single being
and no matter
who I love, or who I am
loved by, we are but
folded back into
the same
origami sea.

The lovers are “folded” back into the sea. Likewise, the Hindu gods dissolve into a pool of brightness, or a teardrop of light, as they merge into one. However, origami is not Indian but Japanese and points us towards the Japanese Zen Buddhism in Wong’s life.

In contrast to Hinduism, Buddhism views the belief in an eternal self/Self of any kind as being the main problem that afflicts humankind. (1) Hence the emphasis on emptiness as a core philosophical insight that is especially stressed in the Zen Buddhism that Wong seems to practice. In the poem “Temple” in After You, there is a simple description of Wong going into a zendo while his partner enters a Hindu temple, the two buildings sharing a car park. Two published works by Wong have overtly Buddhist titles, the chapbook-length poem Satori Blues and the short story “The Bodhisattva Makes Her Case.” The first is rooted in Zen meditation whereas the second is based on the powers of a bodhisattva, both of which are major aspects of East Asian Mahayana Buddhism. The short story is a good example of Wong integrating detailed knowledge of a religious tradition into a narrative. I will discuss Satori Blues further down.

The bodhisattva is the unnamed wife of the Minister of Finance in an unnamed Southeast Asian country. A loving, demure, and discreet spouse, she has been meditating at home for decades and so has unlocked her full spiritual and psychic potential. In the Pali scriptures, the psychic powers of advanced meditators are often listed as general supernatural powers, clairaudience, telepathy, recalling one’s own past lives, knowing others’ karmic destinations and the “extinction of mental intoxicants,” after which enlightenment naturally follows. (2) The bodhisattva in Wong’s story shows most of the above powers as she easily reads the minds of those around her, sees their past experiences and previous lives and uses her insights to ease the situation of those around her. Her beneficence is set against her indifference to the luxurious lifestyle her status affords her. When her husband comes back from a jog and goes upstairs to change for his birthday party, she is “possessed of the sudden knowledge that he does not have much longer to live.” She collects herself and takes the opportunity to give an unexpected speech at his party. She highlights the moral failings of the government he is a member of to an audience that includes the Prime Minister. At the end of her speech her husband has a heart attack and dies. She chooses to stop her heart and die with him for maximum dramatic effect and to help him on to the next stage of enlightenment or rebirth. However, she must leave him for the welcoming light of the Pure Land whereas he returns to earth for another birth. Although she loves him she cannot go with him this time. This neatly crafted story shows a precise and detailed knowledge of classical Buddhist thought. The overwhelming impression of the bodhisattva is of compassion for her servants, her husband, her children, and her country. She knows she can leave them at any time but she stays to be of whatever service she can. This is the Buddhist balance of compassion in the mundane world with insight into ultimate truth.

Satori Blues, published as a stand-alone poem in a chapbook, has a deeper psychological connection with Buddhism. The word satori comes from Japanese Zen and is considered to be a deep spiritual experience or perception of emptiness, a strong theme of this poem. The major Mahayana themes of meditation, wisdom, and compassion constantly drift across the reader’s mind as the poem progresses. I suggest that this poem is rooted in personal experience rather than background reading.

Reading the poem is like seeing the whole of Mahayana Buddhism put into a slow food blender, each burst of energy churning disintegrating pieces of doctrine and history in front of your eyes. To listen to it is to hear sung the pain of becoming enlightened. In his first sermon, the Buddha said, “Now this, monks,….is the painful true reality: birth is painful, aging is painful, illness is painful, death is painful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, unhappiness and distress are painful, union with what is disliked is painful, separation from what is liked is painful; not getting what one wants is painful; in brief, the five bundles of grasping fuel [that make up humans] are painful.” (3) Blues music is intimately tied up with the lived experience of suffering, so the Buddha sings the blues. Lived experience is painful, escape is the bliss of nirvana but escaping is not pain-free. Satori Blues is a song about the pain of process.

A common misunderstanding about Zen meditation is that the sitter should zone out and experience a blank mind. True meditation is the opposite and Zen teachers have been clear on this point from the beginning. The 8th century Chinese teacher Moheyan makes it clear that the mind should not be blank “like an egg” (4) and the 21st century Zen writer F. D. Cook states, “Sitting has nothing to do with anesthesia.” (5) If that were the case, every frog in the world would be enlightened. Thoughts will drift across the mind but, as they arise you “should not suppress concepts. Whenever they arise, if you do not fabricate anything but instead let them go, then they will stay as they are and come to rest by themselves; thus you will not pursue them.” (6) Zazen “is the experience of events without subjective judgments…we do not correlate our experiences with some idea or judgment such as “good” or “bad”.” (7)

Wong’s poem starts with the end of a zazen session at which eyes open, legs are brought back to life and the sitter encounters existence again. What some have described as the somnolent effect of the poem (8) is actually a description of the images, echoes of experience, and rationalizations that float across the mind focused on imageless contemplation. These thoughts flit from a child’s laugh to a scene of self-immolation to philosophy to glory holes and round again. This is the monkey mind of someone sitting in meditation and is hard to describe unless experienced. Blues music articulates lived experience; Satori Blues articulates the writer’s meditative experience.

This experience includes the realization that “the senses are already on fire.” A fire that burns, brands, licks, catches, eats, melts, and blazes before it is extinguished. Putting out the fire is the root meaning of nirvana, the goal of Buddhism. (9) However, to simply seek your own release from the fire would be selfish, so Mahayana Buddhism has held up the bodhisattva ideal. A bodhisattva is enlightened but chooses to stay here in order to help alleviate the suffering of sentient beings. Wong shows us an old woman pushing her cart, tired migrant workers paused over a coffee, and the participants of an orgy. At the orgy he was not concerned with “being ploughed by lust” but instead “wanted all of you to abandon self-hatred for joy.” The use of sex as an aid to enlightenment is a permitted expedient because, “Where Buddhas are concerned, all is subordinate to their compassionate intentions that entail appropriate behavior in that particular context.” (10) In the Upayakausalya Sutra, the Buddha, in a previous life, used sex to prevent a girl from killing herself. (11) The young girl was in love with the Buddha and threatened to kill herself if he did not spend the night with her and reciprocate her love. Even though, as a monk, he was forbidden any sexual outlet, he acceded to the girl’s pleading. Compassion overrules any other consideration.

Compassion, however, needs wisdom to avoid the drift into sentimentality and the key Buddhist insight is emptiness. There is no self or soul, changing or stable, a key Buddhist belief that separates it from Hinduism. As Wong puts it, “The self is simply a knot along an endless piece of rope that unravels like a magic trick with the gentlest tug.” This idea is not new in Wong’s work; it can be found as far back as his collection Unmarked Treasure.

What my ghost would see:
a cupboard left open, clothes
that signaled once
at a personality;
a mirror looking
back upon the room
doubling emptiness.

There is no indication here that Wong lacks sympathy or empathy for the person or ghost even though neither really exists. Compassion is to act in the conventional reality in which we live, move, and love. Wisdom is to grasp that all of it is empty of any enduring reality. Wong holds both together with a smile.

Satori Blues is a long poem and the swirl of images can be confusing. Wong recognizes this at the end when he states, “Nothing, after all, to try, nothing, after all, to do. Listen to what I’ve said. If the truth agitates, perfect! If not, sing along – this number is for you.” Agitation, and not sleep, is the aim but if you need a lullaby, so be it. I hesitate to label Wong because I suspect he may well take a chainsaw to the pigeonhole. However, with his habit of sitting, his wholehearted embrace of emptiness balanced by the warmth of his compassion, it looks like Zen.

Wong’s works cited:
Narrative Fiction
Let Me Tell You Something About That Night (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2012)
The Last Lesson of Mrs. De Souza (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2013)
Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me and Other Stories (Singapore: Epigram, 2014)
Satori Blues (Singapore: Softblow Press, 2010)
Unmarked Treasure (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2012)
Straw, Sticks, Brick (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2012)
Tilting Our Plates To Catch The Light (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2012)
After You (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2013)
The Lover’s Inventory (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2015)

1. Cook F. D., 2002, How to Raise an Ox: Zen Practice as Taught by Dōgen’s Shobogenzo, Wisdom, p23
2. Mendis A.K.G., 2006, The Abhidhamma in Practice, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/mendis/wheel322.html accessed 14/1/17
3. Harvey P., 2013, An Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge, p52
4. Schaik, S. van, 2008, Early Tibet, https://earlytibet.com/2008/06/10/tibetan-chan-iii-more-teachings-of-heshang-moheyan/ accessed 25/1/17
5. Cook, ibid, p.10
6. Schaik, ibid
7. Cook, ibid, p9
8. Kunapipi (commenting on Cyril Wong), 2010, Satori Blues, https://satoriblues.wordpress.com/ accessed 1/12/17
9. Williams P., 2010, Mahayana Buddhism: the Doctrinal Foundations, Routledge, p152
10. Schaik, ibid
11. Williams, ibid

Stewart Dorward Photo

Stewart Dorward is a British-born teacher trainer living north of Tokyo. He has multiple degrees in law, education, and religion, and a long-standing interest in traditional Asian spirituality in modern popular literature. He also runs a bed and breakfast and tries to grow vegetables.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.


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