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Zen and Poetry

June 23, 2013

by Stephen Damon

One of the central ideas of Zen is that we experience reality before we think about it and before we talk about it. Thought and language change everything by adding one “self” to a subject and another to an object. We may be able to find a word or two to describe our experience but if we put enough of them together to make a sentence or paragraph we are often caught up in the delusions of discrimination.

The Tao Te Ching begins:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.

But we need to communicate our own experiences with each other. So how do we do this? Sometimes Zen masters have given talks about their experiences of “things-as-it-is” using paradoxical statements. Sometimes the sutras themselves are self contradictory: Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. (Heart Sutra) Often, poetry is used to convey deep experiences of reality. Why? Poetry is used because it is not regulated by the usual rules of grammar and context and linear development. Sometimes you will find made-up words and unconventional spellings. And sometimes to call a few ungrammatical lines a poem is to try to make something out of nothing:

Who says my poems are poems?
They aren’t poems at all.

Only when you understand my poems aren’t poems
can we talk poetry. (Ryokan)

The conventions of grammar insist that even the simplest declarative statements express completion. If you don’t do this, Microsoft Word will underline in green what you have written. Poetry, on the other hand, sometimes expresses things incompletely, inviting us to find a resolution in our selves. Often a Zen poem feels more like a question than a direct teaching. The way that we often experience what the Buddha said about the insubstantiality of the self is to experience ourselves as a question. A Zen poem should bring you closer to the “question of yourself.” When it does this you sometimes get a paradoxical feeling of the unknown and the familiar. It is interesting and useful to watch the effects of a Zen poem as it gets slowly digested.

What is this mind?
Who is hearing these sounds?
Do not mistake any state for
Self-realization, but continue
To ask yourself even more intensely,
What is it that hears?

Zen poetry often uses detailed images of nature such as a bamboo branch swaying in the breeze or the sound of a pine cone falling to the ground. Often the appearance of a full moon in the sky, or the reflection of moonlight in the shadows of the night, is used as a way for us to see the world around us more explicitly. In a way, the natural imagery of a lot of Zen poetry is used in the way that Tibetan Buddhism uses visualization to experience reality in a new way. While Tibetans use cosmic images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas resting on thrones of clouds to direct a person’s meditation, Zen masters often describe the simplicity of nature. So you might try quietly reciting a few lines from a Zen nature poem before you sit in the morning. You can let yourself enter the imagery of the poem or maybe I should I say you can let the imagery of the poem into the deepest parts of yourself.

Why always just one color, white?
Who discusses sky and human beings?
Do not transmit the language of the bird who suffers from the cold.
Beyond is a calm and tranquil lake in the snowy Himalayas.


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From → Zen Buddhism

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