An excerpt from Moonlight Leaning on an Old Rail Fence:  Approaching the Dharma as Poetry


We Are Here to Transmit Virtue


just sitting

a flicker

of prayer flags

at the edge

of my eye

a flicker

of the sacrifice

and simple gift

that even



the dharma

over centuries

the meeting

of foreheads in blessing

the lighting

of butter lamps

the litany

of monks and nuns


their final blessing

into the teeth

of the great Rampage

that would

destroy them:

may all beings be released                                                            

from suffering

the whipping

of prayer flags

in the mountain wind

why are we here

in this world?

we are here

for the dharma

the old lama said

we are here

to transmit virtue



Commentary: We Are Here to Transmit Virtue


Just sitting, the gaze falls to the floorboards across the room, but is not focused there. The visual field is relaxed and open to its edges, dust in the sunlight, the nodding of maple leaves in the wind, and out the south window to my left, the flicker of prayer flags that trail from my roof and across the edge of view.


The world and all things sustain themselves by their inherent virtue far beyond the scope of my egotistical point of view. The immensity of the tree and its dance in the wind is vastly greater than any meaning or notice I may give to it in my pre-occupied life. So too the flicker of prayer flags, that they exist at all, that they reflect a sacrifice and simple gift beyond my knowing, the virtue of so many beings transmitting this dharma over human time, as all things gift all things with their virtue beyond our knowing. May we not forget it.


What is virtue? It is the Tao. It is the self-nature of all things manifesting for the sake of all things. It is the water gathering in the air, the great rain clouds saluting and pelting the earth, the water that penetrates the ground and bathes the roots of all things, sustaining and nourishing all life. It is the great sunrise sky as the virtue of light meets the virtue of our atmosphere.


Everything is transmitting this virtue to everything. The great exploding supernovas are transmitting it throughout space, their elements arising again as the virtue of our own bodies; and we transmit it as we cast our loving gaze anywhere; or as Confucius says, we “watch with affection the way things grow.” Or as Emerson says, in one of his Taoist moments: “Virtue is the adherence in action to the nature of things.”


This has sustained the dharma over the centuries. Not Buddhism as such, but this “adherence in action” on the part of countless beings, not only through heroic acts of virtue and realization beyond my comprehension, but in the meeting of foreheads in blessing, the simple acts of praise or remembrance, the willingness of awakened life to offer a blessing even into the teeth of that great rampaging unknowingness that is not awake to its own life and would destroy it.


The prayer flags whipping in the mountain wind are the same prayer flags whipping outside my window.


Why are we here in this world? We are already here as the rich and complete expression of that which our minds are drawn to seek – or drawn to deny. This is nothing other than the dharma sustaining itself over centuries, this bird call no less than the dedication of all those monks and nuns.


If we took a survey of this year’s graduating class of college students – Why are we here in this world? – I am sure we would get a very different answer. That is inevitable and perhaps as it should be. But this old lama has had the blessing of time to sift through it all and he sees nothing extraneous. We are here to transmit virtue.