What Is This?

A Poem by Paul Lambakis

Paul Lambakis, co-teacher of the Des Moines Meditation and Mindfulness Group, was inspired to write the following poem at the end of a full day meditating on the koan, “What is this?”. He was participating in a meditation retreat taught by Buddhist teachers and authors Stephen and Martine Bachelor at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center. More information about the Zen meditation practice of koans can be found in the article “What Is This? “ by Martine Bachelor in the Fall 2008 issue of "Tricycle: The Buddhist Review" magazine.

What is this?

Who is the one breathing?

You came out of your mother’s womb
and had your first separate
experience of oxygen.

And you have been breathing ever since.

And now, many years later, you sit still
and follow your breath.

Who is the one who is breathing?

Who is the one following the breath?

What is this?

And as you breathe, every other living
being is also breathing,

And every being and every thing
has a relationship to oxygen.

Right now, this moment, a Zebra
breathes in Africa and a sterling
platter oxidizes in London.

People breathing, animals breathing,
trees breathing, plants breathing,
fish breathing, insects breathing,
earth breathing.

What is this?

And if you draw a circle around
your body,

One thousand miles to the East, one
thousand miles to the North, one
thousand miles to the West, one
thousand miles to the South,

Soil, water, trees, asphalt, houses,
buildings, garbage trucks, hospitals,
grass, flowers - all in that circle -

And someone having sexual intercourse right now,
and someone dying right now,
and someone vomiting right now,
and someone fighting right now,
and someone menstruating right now,
and someone nursing right now,
and someone in chemotherapy right now,
and someone in an accident right now.

What is this?

Is an Oak tree in an acorn?
Are you in your photograph?
Is a house in the architect’s mind?
Is a word in a string of letters?
Is a concept in a string of words?
Is a stream in the river into which is has run?
Where is the baby that you were now?

What is this?

You are going to die,
your children are going to die,
your cousins are going to die,
your aunt is going to die,
your dog is going to die,
the mouse in the wall is going to die,
your piano is going to disintegrate,
your car is going to corrode,
every tree on earth is going to die,
every rock will erode away.

The earth freezes around my sister’s bones.

What is this?

Beethoven, deaf, salutes joy with sound.
Aretha, now raspy, basks in her glory.

What is this?