A young W.S. Merwin
(Credit: Estate of W.S. Merwin)

I met W.S. Merwin forty-three years ago at the Koko-an Zen Center in lower Manoa on the island of Oahu. Other than his beautiful Hawaiian girlfriend, there was nothing that really distinguished him from others at Koko-an. Back then, I didn’t even know his name. We didn’t talk much. We both were there to practice Zen. We often sat in silent meditation for long periods. During week-long retreats, we worked silently together cleaning the grounds, chopping fruit or washing pots and pans. One evening, we went to a free movie at the University of Hawaii. Even then, we spoke little.

At the time, I had no idea I was in the presence of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet.

Thirty-three years later I discovered W.S. Merwin.

In 2009, his photo appeared in a magazine announcing that, for a second time, he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Turning to Google, I learned that Merwin met Dana Naone in 1975 while on a reading tour in Hawaii. Later that year, Merwin and Naone went to study Buddhism at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado where Alan Ginsberg ran the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. An incident involving the two at Naropa was featured in a 1995 New York Times article by Dinitia Smith titled A Poet of Their Own. The article is excerpted below.

W.S. Merwin and Dana Naone

“Naropa was presided over by a Tibetan guru, Chogyam Trungpa, a tireless drunk and womanizer. At a Halloween party, while Ginsberg was away, Trungpa ordered everyone to undress. Merwin and Naone refused. Trungpa’s bodyguards tried to batter down the door to their room. “I was not going to go peacefully,” Merwin recalls. “I started hitting people with beer bottles. It was a very violent scene.” Trungpa’s bodyguards stripped them, and the two figures cowered together before the guru like a chastened Adam and Eve.

“The incident came to be mythologized as “The Great Naropa Poetry Wars.” Naropa became an epitaph for an era, a paradigm of the difference between two kinds of poetry — between Ginsberg’s passionate, declamatory style and Merwin’s restrained, Western formalism.

“After Naropa, Merwin moved to Hawaii for good. He built his house with an inheritance from his mother. Later, he bought additional land with money left to him by George Kirstein, former publisher of The Nation. Eventually, he broke up with Dana Naone.

“Despite what happened at Naropa, Merwin is still a Buddhist. He likes to quote the 13th-century Buddhist teacher Dogen, a contemporary of Dante’s: ” ‘You must let the body and mind fall away.’ ” In his house, Merwin has a zazen (meditation) room, a sparse place with four pillows, where he meditates — 45 minutes before breakfast, and again before dinner.”

In Buddhism, periodic rites are observed after a person dies; one occurs on the 49th day. In homage, I note that today marks the 49th day since W.S. Merwin passed away in his sleep at the age of 91 at home on the island of Maui.

Living with the news by W.S. Merwin

Can I get used to it day after day
a little at a time while the tide keeps
coming in faster the waves get bigger
building on each other breaking records
this is not the world that I remember
then comes the day when I open the box

that I remember packing with such care
and there is the face that I had known well
in little pieces staring up at me
it is not mentioned on the front pages
but somewhere far back near the real estate
among the things that happen every day
to someone who now happens to be me
and what can I do and who can tell me
then there is what the doctor comes to say
endless patience will never be enough
the only hope is to be the daylight

published in The New Yorker, July 20, 2014

The Buddha said:

Life is a journey.
Death is a return to earth.
The universe is like an inn.
The passing years are like dust.

Regard this phantom world
As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp – a phantom – and a dream.


Yamada-koun Roshi

I first practiced Zen meditation in 1973 when I returned to Japan for university. Over the next four years, I practiced at the Jesuit Zen Retreat founded by Father Enomiya Lasalle. Later, I was introduced to the Japanese Zen Master that Father Lasalle studied under, Yamada-Koun Roshi. Yamada Roshi had a number of westerners practicing at the zen center attached to his house in Kamakura and there were many Protestant and Catholic priests and nuns that studied there.

During an open Question and Answer Session, I recall that an Anglican Priest asked Yamada Roshi, “In short, what is Zen?” Yamada Roshi replied, “It is becoming intimate with something.” The point was then made that in the West, the focus is on “the something“- that is naming it- God, Jehovah or Allah. Whereas in the East, the focus is on “becoming intimate“.

Having practiced Zen now for over 45 years, I have to say that I have never found a feeling of peace as profound as that of having a baby sleep on my chest. It was not until I became a grandfather in 2014 that I discovered this. The peace I found when my grandson, Max, slept on my chest was born out by physical measurement. I wear a device on my wrist that monitors my heart beat and tracks sleep at night. Not long after I began helping take care of Max during the work week, I noticed that my sleep monitor was showing me sleeping during the day. What was happening was that while Max slept on my chest, my respiration and heartbeat slowed down and blood pressure fell to the point where my sleep monitor thought that I was sleeping.

I am sure that this is nothing new to you mothers out there. But to a man in his 70s, it came as a blessing.

40 YEARS AGO: Iran Part Two

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Two months before being evacuated from Iran, the tipping point occurred on Ashura (عاشوراء). (see below)

Nine days earlier on December 2nd, two million people flooded Tehran’s Shahyad Square calling for the overthrow of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and the return of Khomeini. By the day of Ashura1978, two million people had grown to nearly nine million. About 10% of Iran’s population now demanded the Shah step down.

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Though this turning point was not unexpected, we lived without access to the news. Three months earlier on what became known as ‘Black Friday’ (September 8th), ninety people had been shot to death and over 200 injured when the Shah’s soldiers opened fire on protesters in Tehran’s Jaleh Square. A month earlier on August 12th, martial law had been declared in Isfahan when protesters set fires and attacked the Shah Abbas Hotel. A week later 470 Iranians were burnt to death when the Cinema Rex in Abadan was set ablaze. The Shah and SAVAK, the secret police, were blamed.

In truth, this horrifying arson terrorist attack was plotted by revolutionaries to create a tragedy and blame it on the Shah. It took twenty-three years for the truth to come out that anti-Shah revolutionaries barred the entrance doors of Abadan’s Cinema Rex and strategically placed flammable materials inside and around the building before setting it alight. They set fires on all four sides of the building to prevent rescue attempts. The fire had been the work of four Islamic activists who had carried out the deadly mission as part of their allegiance to Khomeini and his Islamic Revolution. Only one arsonist survived the fire and remained in hiding until he could stand his anonymity no more. He confessed to the crime because he could no longer sit and watch someone else receive the credit for what he saw as the ultimate act of sacrifice for the Islamic Revolution.

Meanwhile, our life in Isfahan went on peacefully as we were pretty much oblivious to events as they unfolded. The only TV we had was the government channel that broadcast mostly nature films. We occasionally got news through the radio on BBC world news if weather conditions were right. Otherwise, we relied on expat community rumors for our news. Surprisingly, those of us who lived in the Jolfa district of Isfahan were not affected by events. Our work with Bell Helicopter training pilots was periodically interrupted but, on those days, we went to work, we were ‘briefed’ on developments, as best Bell Helicopter knew.

For Thanksgiving, Bell Helicopter traditionally gave out turkeys and peanut butter. I remember going to the American School to pick up our turkey. Streets were pretty much empty we seemed to be the only ones at the Bell Compound. An Iranian rug merchant had driven down from Ferdowsi Street in Tehran to sell carpets that day. My wife and I looked through his carpets. He insisted we pick out our favorites. So, we did. Then he asked how much we would pay for them. Off the top of my head, I offered an insultingly low-ball price. To my surprise, he accepted it. So, I said, “Will you take a check?” He agreed so off I went in a cab to pick up my checkbook. When I returned, he grabbed me, took me aside and made me swear that I would not let anyone know the prices I paid. The sun had come out, and there were lots of expats picking up their turkeys and looking at carpets.

Soon after Thanksgiving, Muharamm started, and a curfew went into effect. Work at the airbase was suspended and we did not work for the remainder of our stay in Iran. At night, Iranians would go up on the roof of their home and shout, “Marg bar Shah! Javid Khomeini!” (death to or down with the Shah and long live Khomeini). On a wall not far from where we lived, scrawled in paint, was “KILL THE CARTER AND THE SHAH.” Under it a culturally insensitive expat has scrawled, “RAGHEADS SUCK.”

Vank Cathedral in Jolfa

Soon rioting spread to the bazaar district of Isfahan and fellow workers in that area had fled their apartments and came to live with us in the Jolfa District. Jolfa is one of the oldest Armenian quarters in the world and was established in Isfahan in 1606 by Shah Abbas to resettle the thousands of Armenians fleeing the Ottoman War of 1603. Armenians are Christian. The Vank Cathedral in Jolfa has existed since 1606 and is the cultural heart of Jolfa. In Jolfa, one could purchase wine, liquor, and freshly baked pastries. One of the saddest memories I have of my time in Iran is a bombing in Jolfa. On Christmas Eve 1978, Mr. Armeni was saying goodnight to his daughter when a pipe bomb was lobbed into her bedroom. The blast killed them both. Mr. Armeni was a leader of the Armenian community and owned the Armeni Store in Jolfa.

Pipe bombings became a real threat as the revolution gained momentum in Isfahan and Captain Jack, the upstairs neighbor of our good friends in Isfahan, always carried a loaded 45 with him, as a result. By now, we lived collectively and shared meals. Needless to say, we had a lot of turkey to eat. Though Captain Jack had departed early, he had stocked up on wine and vodka, so our little group was well lubricated. Unfortunately, the smokers in the group had stocked up on cigarettes, and it didn’t matter if you smoked or not, just by being in the room, you smoked.

The new year approached. As a last-ditch effort the Shah to appointed Shahpour Bakhtiar of the National Front to form a government on December 29th. The new year comes, and in Paris, Khomeini announces the formation of a revolutionary council to prepare for an Islamic Republic. On January 16th, 1979, the Shah departs Iran and on February 1st, 1979 Khomeini returns. We watched his return on TV. By this time, an evacuation was on everyone’s mind. Bell Helicopter now held periodic briefings at the Kourosh Hotel a few blocks from where we lived. Many expats had already left Isfahan. Our contract was under the Department of Defense and until they declared “condition red,” we would not be reimbursed for our losses. I our case the loses would be considerable. We lived in the local community. We were not provided with “company housing,” and we had to completely furnish our apartment. Which we did at considerable expense. Our landlord was a ‘bazaari’ (member of the Isfahan Bazar) and ran a samovar shop. We lived above he and his family. He was most apologetic about the revolution as it was bad for his business. His daughter, however, wore black chador and supported the revolution.


In preparation for evacuation when it came, we began trying to sell everything we could. Rather, we began to barter everything we could. Mostly we bartered our TV and furniture for Persian carpets. Regular Bell Helicopter employees were asked to take things they wanted to be shipped out of Iran to the American School. As subcontractors, we were on our own. So, my wife and I packed the carpets we had bought or bartered for into two trunks and awaited word to evacuate. Then word came down that we were being relocated to Sharhin Shar, an Iranian Airforce Base north of Isfahan under the control of the Islamic Guard.


Ashura in Arabic means the 10th day- the 10th day of Muharamm (مُحَرَّم‎), the first month in the Islamic Calendar. Muḥarram ( مُحَرَّم‎) is one of the four sacred months of the year during which warfare is forbidden and is held to be the second holiest month, after Ramadan. Because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, Muharram moves from year to year in comparison to the Gregorian Calendar. The tenth day of Muharram is known as the Day of Ashura, part of the Mourning of Muharram for Shia Muslims and a day of fasting for Sunni Muslims.

The practice of fasting during Ashura stems from the hadith in honor of the story of Musa (Moses) and the victory his people obtained a victory over the Egyptian Pharaoh on the 10th day of Muharram. Accordingly, the Prophet Muhammad asked Muslims to fast on this day and on the day prior.

Conversely, Shia Muslims mourn the death of Husayn ibn ‘Alī and his family in 680. As martyrs, Husayn and his family are honored through prayer and abstinence from joyous events. Shia Muslims do not fast on the 10th of Muharram, but some will not eat or drink until the afternoon to show their sympathy with Husayn.

The split between Sunnis and Shiites occurred soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, in the year 632. “There was a dispute in the community of Muslims in present-day Saudi Arabia over the question of succession,” says Augustus Norton, author of Hezbollah: A Short History. “That is to say, who is the rightful successor to the prophet?”

Most of the Prophet Muhammad’s followers wanted the community of Muslims to determine who would succeed him. A smaller group thought that someone from his family should take up his mantle. They favored Ali, who was married to Muhammad’s daughter, Fatimah.

“Shia believed that leadership should stay within the family of the prophet,” notes Gregory Gause, professor of Middle East politics at the University of Vermont. “And thus they were the partisans of Ali, his cousin, and son-in-law. Sunnis believed that leadership should fall to the person who was deemed by the elite of the community to be best able to lead the community. And it was fundamentally that political division that began the Sunni-Shia split.”

40 YEARS AGO: Iran Part One

Pan AmForty years ago this week, a Pan Am 747, staffed by an all-volunteer crew, landed in Tehran to evacuate us to Frankfurt, Germany.

Though Khomeini guaranteed safe passage for foreigners wanting to leave Iran, all regularly scheduled flights in and out of Iran had been canceled. Fortunately, Pan Am and their voluntary crew risked flying into the heart of a Revolution to get us out.

We had been held up in the Tehran Hilton for three or four days after arriving in a bus convoy from Isfahan 280 miles south of Tehran. US and Canadian Embassies coordinated evacuation flights from the Tehran Hilton while the Islamic Guard provided ‘security.’ Word was that the Communist Youth Movement that helped Khomeini to power realized they were being betrayed and were attempting to attack the Tehran Hilton. A lot of windows had been shot out on the lower floors of the hotel and machine gun positions were placed around the hotel.

PalestinianMost members of the Islamic Guard had been street cleaners or taxi drivers before the revolution. They lacked discipline or any understanding of how to handle firearms. As a result, they were more of a safety hazard than security. It wasn’t until we arrived at the Tehran airport that we saw any real disciplined military. These paramilitary forces, however, wore distinctive black and white keffiyeh and must have been Shia PLO because Hezbollah did not exist until 1985. Perhaps more significant than the black and white keffiyeh were their prominent Arab noses.

By the time we boarded the Pan Am flight, we had been searched dozens of times. Even when seated on the plane, paramilitary with AK-47s in black & white keffiyeh walked up and down the aisles for one last passport check. The barrel of an AK47 caught my cheek as one of them passed by. I froze. Fearing any movement might provoke violence, I endured the gouging. Five minutes later, we were in the air. A loud cheer reverberated throughout the cabin and the crew broke out the booze.