The Taliban Tantrum: A Buddhist Response to the Destruction by the Taliban of
Ancient Religious Statuary in Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan

The UN Launch of Dana Gioia's Interrogations at Noon

The UN's Primary Dialogue: Ragan, Komunyakaa, Oates, Berssenbrugge, and Chimoy.



The Taliban Tantrum:
A Buddhist Response to the Destruction by the Taliban of Ancient Religious Statuary in Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan

One of the primary tenets in Buddhism is: "Let go." Hence, the practice of creating exquisite sand paintings. Monks study long and hard to be able to create these works of consummate artistry. When their work is completed, it is celebrated and then destroyed.

We are taught to live in the present, in the moment, not to carry anger or sorrow or anticipation from yesterday to today, from today to tomorrow. One walks and stumbles and lifts oneself, and walks and sometimes limps along the path, the fabulous journey, the adventure of life.


I am a horseman,
And I live to move across the earth
In a simple and dignified manner.
I do not ask if pine trees always remain
I do not ask if flowers blossom unconditionally
I do not ask if, in future generations,
The milk of my precious mares will be sweet.
I only ask that I remain in the gentle harmony
In which I feel both delight and ever-present bewilderment.

(From "Spontaneous Playground", Sakyong Mipham)


The Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban on the grounds that Islam forbids idolatry. (The same tenet forbids photography.) An Egyptian intellectual said the edict was contrary to Islam because it respects other cultures even if they include rituals that are against Islamic law. Their ruins were first displayed for foreign journalists the last week in March.

Carved from a mountainside with patience, skill and artistry in the 3rd and 5th Centuries, one (female), 120 feet high, the other (male), at 170 feet, believed to be largest standing Buddha in the world. A narrow stairwell carved into the sandstone mountain alongside the female Buddha led to rooms where smaller statues stood in niches carved into the walls. Imagine the dedicated, arduous work. Residents of the valley called the statues, "Solsol", meaning "year after year." Even Ghengis Khan left the statues unmolested.

All was destroyed, with pride, on the orders of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban. UNESCO called an emergency meeting to find an alternative to destruction. Officials at The Metropolitan Museum in New York proposed to travel to Afghanistan and bring home what they could carry. Officials of Islam countries, including Pakistan (where the Taliban are alleged to have originated), who argued for the statues to be spared were ignored. (Some argued that the statues were irrelevant since they were no longer worshipped.) An appeal by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, was ignored. It took four days of blasting to demolish the taller statue.

Asked about my reaction, as a Buddhist, to this vandalism, I reply that I feel sorrow. I feel immeasurable pity for the shallowness, ignorance, and desperation of this man and his followers, who seized on these means to declare to the world: "Look at us. Acknowledge our power, the power to destroy! We are important!" Willful, infantile, I pity them the poison that devours their innards, that affords them "fulfillment" in killing, in enslavement, in destruction.

We do not see things as they are;
we see things as we are.
-- The Koran

The statues were symbolic, a material manifestation of Buddha and his teachings. Their destruction leaves untouched the teachings which continue to live in the hearts of all those who believe in tenderness and compassion and the wonder of sacred earth.

-- EK

[Claiming status as the official Taliban web site, the links on offer a weirdly Buddhist 404 error message: "You step into the stream, but the water has moved on." Browser discretion recommended. The crossed-sword symbol appears on and was borrowed from this site. Ed.]

The UN Launch of Dana Gioia's Interrogations at Noon

So much of what we live goes on inside--
The diaries of grief, the tongue-tied aches
Of unacknowledged loves are no less real
For having passed unsaid. What we conceal
Is always more than what we dare confide.
Think of the letters that we write our dead.

"Unsaid" was originally thirty-two lines long, the last in Dana Gioia's new collection which, like The Gods in Winter (1991) and Daily Horoscope (1986), is published by Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN). Deleting but not suppressing the other twenty-six unspoken, the poet has quite clearly granted the poem its economy and the reader his intelligence. By its placement he seems to indicate that what has been left unsaid poetically in this book may become the starting point for the next.

The six lines of "Unsaid" began and ended Gioia's launch reading at the United Nations on March 28. Others included excerpts from his opera libretto for Nosferatu (see Other Arts), "Elegy with Surrealist Proverbs as Refrain" and the aloof anguish of "The Voyeur" (see both in 12). For all his seriousness, the essayist who set off a national debate with his 1991 Atlantic Monthly article, "Can Poetry Matter?" enjoys a good goof. He read the French surrealist refrain, "There is always a skeleton on the buffet", in the voice of Maurice Chevalier. He borrowed on Tennyson for a bit of Eliotic buffoonery in "Alley Cat Love Song":

Come into the garden, Fred,
For the neighborhood tabby is gone.
Come into the garden, Fred.
I have nothing but my flea collar on.

As Gioia can spoof on the garden, he can also renew and re-lose it, and still admire its beauty without needing to possess it.

So many trees to kiss or argue under,
And greenery enough for any mood.
What pleasure to be sad in such surroundings.

At least in retrospect. For even sorrow
Seems bearable when studied at a distance,

. . .

The trick is making memory a blessing,
To learn by loss the cool subtraction of desire,
Of wanting nothing more than what has been,
To know the past forever lost, yet seeing
Behind the wall a garden still in blossom.

(from "The Lost Garden")

Gioia understands theatre at least as well as he understands metrics. Though long not a "performance poet", he has said, "Poetry is a bodily art." He means it: When met with an audience, he delivers. The title poem and "New Year's" were introduced with aplomb and efficiency, then read for understanding. The first was commissioned by the BBC, the second by The Philadelphia Enquirer.

Just before noon I often hear a voice,
Cool and insistent, whispering in my head.
It is the better man I might have been,
Who chronicles the life I've never led.
[. . .]
"You cultivate confusion like a rose
In watery lies too weak to be untrue."

(from "Interrogations at Noon")


Let other mornings honor the miraculous.
Eternity has festivals enough.
This is the feast of our mortality,
The most mundane and human holiday.

(from "New Year's")

To conclude that the speaker self-interrogates in a 9-to-5 office while paging through the script of middle age is facile, to conclude that the speaker is Gioia is benighted. Gioia is a commentator for the BBC on American culture, so the clue may lie there. The country has been sucking in its gut and dyeing its temples since at least 1980 when the advent of Reaganomics brought us Michael Milken and Bonfire of the Vanities. Gioia himself sprang off the NYC corporate ladder soon after and fled home to California wine country.

The basis for criticism lies elsewhere. Quite adequate viewed apart, these two riffled like commissions alongside "Planting a Sequoia" which Gioia also read at the UN, thereby returning to his earlier The Gods of Winter.

In Sicily a father plants a tree to celebrate his first son's birth--
An olive or a fig tree--a sign that earth has one more life to bear.
I would have done the same, proudly laying stock into my father's orchard,
. . .
But today we kneel in the cold planting you, our native giant,
Defying the practical custom of our fathers,
Wrapping in your roots a lock of hair, a piece of infant's birth cord,
All that remains above earth of a first-born son,
A few stray atoms brought back to the elements.

-- MH

Note: A review of Interrogations at Noon was commissioned and delivered for this month's issue, but had to be reassigned and rescheduled.

~ . ~ .

The UN Dialogues Summit: Ragan, Komunyakaa,
Berssenbrugge, Chimoy, and Oates.

The nature of poetry is musical, thus, Lyric Recovery Festival™ culminated National Poetry Month with its appearance at Carnegie Hall (See March). The nature of poetry is international, thus, Rattapallax culminated its Spring "Dialogues" project at the United Nations headquarters.

On Thursday, March 29, the UN's 800-seat Conference Room 3 and most of the observers' balcony were filled to capacity. For two hours, from the vantage of our respective desks--Mexico and Micronesia--earpieces and microphones live, we were the picture of Keats's assertion that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

Giandomenico Picco, the Personal Representative of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, opened the session with his own work, a love poem written to his wife. Unremarkable, though doubtless sincere, the original Italian was likely more compelling. When he yielded to Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, language took over.

My origin is a linguistic surface
like an ornamented wall.

With her first piece, "Chinese Space", Berssenbrugge began a redefinition of light, motion and the contextual illusion of terrestrial and temporal continuities, in which each poem evolved from the physical to the metaphysical and thence to a geometry of consciousness beyond cogitation. A childhood house evoked becomes a room which "prefers to scatter", the notion of containment an "ungrained regression of lyric spaces", contents the fragments the very plasticity of whose fragmentation defies definition by containment. So too, a self, disproved as container or contents, may be a phenomenological ambiguity of affinities in a constantly reconstituting idea of space where "light removes a non-bearing wall", identity a nomad on a multiplane where "all memories of tribe are replaceable".

The session host, Catherine Vijaya Claxton, introduced Sri Chimoy, regarded by some as India's greatest poet, who read several short rhyming works in an aged voice with a singing cadence: "My eternal days are found in speeding time." His themes were so large, his treatment so universal that they sometimes dissipated into the banal: "Eternity is a slave at my feet, Death a weeping child." More compelling was his piece, "The Absolute": "No mind, no form . . . I am it whom I have sought. . . . It, his compassion loves me." Well known for his treatment of some 70,000 birds, both in poetry and in paintings, Chimoy closed with the image of a "bird of fire winging the infinite."

Yusef Komunyakaa read seven pieces, all of them based in an earthy tangible, even when his speaker "darts in and out presence and memory". His odes to drum and maggot ("No one gets to heaven / without going through you first.") had the transformative ease of one with carnal knowledge of nitty-gritty evils (Talking Dirty to the Gods, Farrar Straus & Giroux 2000).

A woman once shattered me into a song . . .
Ghosts cannot slip back into the drum . . .
I have to drive trouble from the valley . . .

Ka-dong. I've beaten a song back into you.
Rise and walk away like a panther.

In "Thanks", he avoids a sniper's bullet in Vietnam, then a dud grenade wrapped in a "woman's wild colors," and yet "I'm still falling through silence." Later, he stands at the Vietnam memorial wall in Washington, "half-expecting to see my own [name]." He closed with a deep inhalation of life, its "salt and honeycombs", gratitude for his own bodily form, "I love this body . . . the soft quick motor of each breath . . . the birthmark like a cockfighter. . . . I know I was born to wear out."

Joyce Carol Oates followed Komunyakaa's gauzy Southern vowels with an Upstate New Yorker's flat a's, her very brief poems preceded by lengthy explanations. Most from this author of some of the darkest and most elegant of American novels, including Black Water, Bellefleur and Them, were humorous and unadorned, even playful. She gave us Elvis and the down-home waitress. "He fingered the lace of her slip / and she slapped his hand a little." In the 80's, she wrote a series of essays on heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson, the squeaky-voiced wife-beating, ear-biting, late-night red-light violating bad boy, who was disgusted by audiences who wanted him to hospitalize his opponent. He wore his soul "like jewels outside the body" and conveyed the "You don't know, but you know" redemption Oates finds inherent in boxing.

James Ragan embodies both the musical and the international nature of poetry. He featured at Carnegie for Lyric Recovery™ (with Galway Kinnell). An "ambassador of poetry," he has read for four heads of state. Multilingual himself, his work has been translated into a dozen European and Asian languages. As his Soviet hosts explained in 1985 at the first International Poetry Festival in Moscow, he writes about "things that matter in the world outside a country that needs to be invaded." It was only appropriate that he be (a contributing editor to this magazine and) the culminating reader at the United Nations, the closing voice on 200+ readings held worldwide as part of the UN's "Year of Dialogues Among Civilizations Through Poetry"

With his five poems--not read, but rather, recited fluidly from memory--from "The Rivers of Paris" (down the chutes of Montparnasse / birth-wet and river-deep / in bones descending") and "The Hunger Wall" ("watching hunger well"), to the humorous "Rilke on the Conveyor Belt at LAX [Los Angeles Airport]", then to "The Tent People of Beverly Hills" (They are the new ecology") and "The Astonishment of Living" ("Let all buckets fill, all loss be light"), Ragan held us transfixed, the gentle, but authoritative Speaker of the House for would-be poet-legislators. When he finished, the applause was unloosed, the congress united.

As a parting word, Ram Devineni announced an anthology of poems from the participating venues and we streamed out into the rain.

-- MH

Program coordinators for the "Dialogues" project were: Ram Devineni, publisher of Rattapallax, Bhikshuni Weisbrot, Gary Shapiro, and Catherine Vijaya Claxton. Coordinators for the 200+ events worldwide were: Larry Jaffe, Antonieta Villamil, Kole Ade Odutola, Shaylaw Hawkins and Erminia Passannanti. will help collect and publish the anthology. Details appear on