Posts Tagged ‘robert frost provide provide’

On Thursday, May 6, 2010, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly a thousand points in less than an hour. By the end of the day, the Dow had bounced back up to record a net loss of 348 points. On that same day, British voters went to the polls, and the next morning we learned that Britain had created its first “hung parliament” since the 1970s, exposing America’s closest ally to new uncertainties.

Observing these changes and others like them, I’m reminded of the word rely, whose root meaning is “to bind” or “to fasten”—a root it shares with the word religion. Whether the context be financial, religious, or personal, on what if anything should we fasten our trust? On what should we rely?

“Some have relied on what they knew,” writes Robert Frost in “Provide, Provide,” a poem about old age, “Others on simply being true. / What worked for them might work for you.” Perhaps it might, but the realist Frost, who knows that “[t]oo many fall from great and good  / For you to doubt the likelihood,” is not convinced. “Make the whole stock exchange your own!” he urges the chastened reader. And in his closing stanza he offers this advice:

Better to go down dignified

With boughten friendship at your side

Than none at all.  Provide, provide!

In New England dialect, “boughten” means “purchased.” If you have indeed provided for a wealthy retirement, you can bribe your greedy friends to surround your deathbed. Better them than no one.

At about the same time as Frost was writing “Provide, Provide,” the Japanese poet Miyazawa Kenji composed these lines:

In the world of these phenomena

where everything is unreliable,

where you cannot count on anything,

the unreliable attributes

help form such a beautiful raindrop

and dye a warped spindle tree

like a gorgeous fabric

from rouge to the color of moonlight.*

Like Frost, Miyazawa recognizes the unreliability of the world. Unlike Frost, however, he views the “unreliable attributes” of the natural world as the basis of natural beauty. Undependable though they are, those shifting conditions create the beauty of the raindrop and the gorgeous, changing colors of the spindle tree.

The Diamond-Cutter Sutra, a core text for Zen practitioners, offers yet another perspective.  In one of the most celebrated passages of that sutra, the listener who would become a Bodhisattva (an enlightened being) is admonished to develop “a pure, lucid mind that doesn’t depend upon sight, sound, touch, flavor, smell, or any thought that arises in it.” He or she should cultivate a “mind that alights nowhere.” According to legend, the peasant boy Hui-Neng, who would later become the Sixth Ancestor of the Zen tradition, experienced awakening upon hearing monks recite that passage in the marketplace.

But what does it mean to develop “a mind that alights nowhere”? The Buddhist scholar Mu Soeng understands the original phrase to mean “a mind that is free from any kind of clinging.”** It binds to nothing. However, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, using a different translation, interprets the passage to mean “that mind that is not caught up in anything.”*** Such a mind does not get caught up in the objects of the five senses because all such objects are “conditioned and constantly changing.” They are unstable and not to be relied upon.

What, then, are we to rely upon? As Thich Nhat Hanh points out, there are many stable things upon which to depend—the earth and the air, for example. But the most stable is “to abide in the non-abiding,” which is to say, to return through the practice of meditation to absolute reality, the ground of being, from which all conditioned phenomena, including the fluctuations of the stock market and the changing colors of the spindle tree, are constantly arising. Like the wave that rises from the water, only to return, the uncertain, fearful mind can return to immovable awareness, finding a place to rest and a source on which to rely.


*Miyazawa Kenji, “Past Desire,” Selections, ed. Hiroaki Sato (University of California Press, 2007), 100.

**Mu Soeng, ed., The Diamond Sutra (Wisdom, 2000), 110.

***Thich Nhat Hanh, The Diamond that Cuts through Illusion (Parallax, 1992), 78.

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