KR OnlinePoetry

weekend-readsFive Skull Diadem

at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

          you believe in your skin, you must

          elect the knife.

          Peel the hair, the scalp-skin down.
          Bow to the fruit-bearing crown.

• •

When someone asked Rinzai
          to define the essence of Buddhist teaching, he

stepped from his chair and slapped
          the questioner’s face.

Dazed and ashamed I stood.

Before the fantastic monsters, flame-fringed,
          speaking the mudra

soliloquies: Fear not, I bestow the boon
          of a corpse-headed pike, to gut

          your mind’s

Look at them, my sister says.
          They want to clean out your head with a trowel.

• •

          Necklaced with bloody, freshly-severed-head garland,
          your three eyes flash and bulge and dart about,
          your mouth gapes with sharp fangs gnashing,
          breath panting with poisonous snake vapors!

          Lord Yamantaka, terrible form that tames all evil—
          reverently, I bow!


stenciled in white on a black wall.


The hook because he pulls (others to salvation).

The noose because he binds (to the perfect wisdom).

The lance, because he pierces false theories.

Intestines draped over his twenty-fourth arm to explain our essential

Field trip: to
          Circle of Bliss—

Museum show where you stand in clumps
          before the Wrathful—

Lost in the mind’s
          imprisoned winds, its many-headed forms.

A lot of people
          in the room back there, the one you’ve ignored:

          Realm of Compassionate Gods—

You preferred eyeballs and blood in the offering bowl.

My sight my life in holy

Your sister rhapsodic (an “enlightenment nectar!”)
          about the room back there,

          where you had to take the scare-quotes off—

Kindness. You needed
          a savage kind.

Yama yak-headed whirlwinding in flames
          into your trip with death—

Which was your trip with flesh.

You had to be
          dismembered—just to

          loosen your grip.

By so many means, so many dead, yet these gods were suggesting

For all of us were torn

• •


They weren’t really gods, they were
Your choice to cloud up with the monstrous ones
          if the gentle ones didn’t


your plasmatic breath, your mental

Because you believe in your skin.

          you swing with a flourish: pride, blame, want, etc.—

Elect the knife.

Cut the cap from your head, dig in
          to the mind’s

          hard country—

Until blue skies and white peaks.
          In photos

          along the exit hall, a “geography

• •

          of the soul”—

They forged a faith
          with death as a condition, those Buddhist

          A red art under a black sky, where the stars

glittered sharp,
          where the stars hung

• •

          cold and high—

Bones for sale in the museum shop.

Skull chic in the land of plenty.

I had to shake my dream
          of I-am-I.


Rinzai, or Línjì Yìxuán (?–866), was the founder of the Linji school of Chán Buddhism in China. The slapping episode is recounted in D.T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture. Text for Tsong Khapa’s Praise of the Inner Yama is a derivation of same from Essential Tibetan Buddhism, Robert A.F. Thurman (translated by the author). Tsong Khapa, or Je Rinpoche (Precious Master), is one of the central master teachers in the Tibetan Buddhist lineage. He died, with “a demonstration of miracles,” in 1419.

Yama, or Yamantaka (Death Destroyer), is the yak-headed wrathful embodiment of Manjushri, peaceful buddha of wisdom. A dharmapala, or “protector of the dharma,” Yama is part of a host of wrathful beings that “throw back into the shadows the forces of nightmare and madness which always threaten to tear loose and subjugate the human psyche.” (Vessantara, Meeting the Buddhas). Wrathful Forms are often portrayed wearing the five-skull diadem of the title.

Text in part two of the poem is derived from The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art, exhibition catalog, Columbus Museum of Art.

Much gratitude to the curators and education staff of the tremendous Circle of Bliss show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which I visited in October 2003.