The Heart of the Bitter Almond Hedge Sutra – Thanissara

These days I seldom read poetry, but in past years I read, enjoyed, and wrote a great deal of poetry. But over the years one’s reading tastes can and do change. A friend lent me her copy of Thanissara’s long poem, and I’m so glad she did. Actually, its a book I’d like to own.
Thanissara has skilfully combined traditional San (Bushman) stories, with the Mahayana classic Heart Sutra, and woven in a thread of current eco-warrior concerns. This gives us an epic poem in 19 sections , plus a useful Introduction and Forward to the Heart Sutra. Non-Buddhists, and indeed many Buddhists, may not be familiar with this giant classic sutra and mantra, so explanations are necessary. I found them very helpful.
The poem deals with South African history, from the time of Jan van Rieebeek, the Dutch official of the Dutch East India Company who set foot on the tip of Southern Africa’s shore in 1652 and thus started the colonisation process in this part of Africa, culminating in the apartheid years of the 1960s to 1990s.
Each new section is prefaced by a wonderful traditional San story or legend – again, probably unfamiliar to many readers, both within and without our borders.
The book is one which demands slow, careful reading, many times over , to savour and digest the ideas as they unfold in the poem. Thanissara is drawing the link between our dislocated, numbed modern heart and mind, and our ravaged planet, and showing a path back to wholeness, via the Heart Sutra. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to understand and appreciate her ideas. Her message is universal.
I particularly enjoyed the San stories, all of which were new to me. I found them poignant and haunting. Once we become urban dwellers, our link to the natural world is inevitably diminished. We become denizens of a capitalist, consumer society and the natural world fades away from our immediate consciousness. Predictable, of course, but not necessarily beneficial either to us or the natural environment.
Maybe poetry is “not your thing” but this is a very different experience to the poetry forced down our unwilling throats at school. If you care for yourself and others, and are concerned over what’s happening to our planet, I urge you to try this very insightful and redemptive poem. You can buy it from the Dharmagiri Hermitage shop , which would be nice, as they would appreciate the support; alternatively it is available on .




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