Shovelling Snow with Buddha* entered my life when I needed it. My powers of concentration were at an unequalled low. My brain was like a sloth hanging upside down from a tree – slow and fuzzy. Motivation was nonexistent.
That the poem came through a friend also seems fortuitous. He did not hand it to me directly but left it on a hall bench in full view waiting patiently for the moment in which I would see it and pick it up. Although the title caught my attention immediately and while I have long been a Billy Collins fan (who isn’t?), I chose to, not so much ignore it, as put it off for another time. Avoidance is the word. Still, it kept putting itself in my way, foyer table to kitchen counter to sideboard and back. Until, finally, “Oh, all right,” I found myself saying, just the other day. I sat down to read.
In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.
Concentration. Ah, yes, that’s the very word I’m looking for. Let’s see what the poet has to say about that.
This particular Buddha is out of place. It’s unusual to walk down your city street and see a Buddha on someone’s driveway shovelling snow. He is out of character, a change from sedentary to active. He has gotten up (we can just imagine him groaning and heaving a huge sigh) from his timeless meditating position to travel to the snow of America. So what’s he doing here anyway? Well, what does a Buddha do? What’s his job description? The Buddha is a teacher. So he must be here to teach the poet a lesson.
A general impression of a first reading of the poem? Even though out of time and place, even though out of his comfort zone, the Buddha is happy shovelling snow. He is happy in the moment, mindful of the task at hand.
All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence
For Buddha, shovelling snow is not a chore, not a job, not even a physical activity, not something to get through so that he can get on to more interesting or more pleasant endeavours. Shovelling snow is the point, reminding us that the journey not the arrival matters.
A contrast between the poet’s being in the world and the Buddha being inside himself is emphasized. The poet chatters on about nature and religion: This is the true religion, the religion of snow… so much better than a sermon in church, while the Buddha keeps on shovelling, as if it were the purpose of existence.
Such contrast adds tension to the poem. The poet is in danger of losing focus and thus losing his poem. Near the end, we are taken out of the poem, out of the Buddha’s concentration of the task at hand, by talk of going into the house to drink hot chocolate and play cards. But the Buddha regains control as he drives the thin blade again/deep into the glittering white snow.
*For the full treatment, listen to Billy Collins read his poem on YouTube.