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Tag Archives: Zen poetry

sunday poem

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Feeling deeply appreciated and nourished by the comments to my previous post, I dip into The poetry of Zen* —

Whatever it is,
I cannot understand it,
although gratitude
stubbornly overcomes me
until I’m reduced to tears.

* by Saigyō Hōshi (西行 法師, 1118–1190) in Hamill, S., & Seaton, J. P. (2007). (trans.). Boston: Shambhala, p. 112. image: “Old Man Weeping” after Van Gogh by Gordon Christie when he was still a teenager.


this too

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this hungry monk
chanting by lamplight
is Buddha
and he still thinks of you

Ikkyu Sojin 一休宗純 (1394-1481), eccentric Japanese Zen priest and poet

an old man’s view

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Further to yesterday’s post, Steve sent these lines by Taigu Ryokan, nicknamed Great Fool (1758-1831), a Zen poet who lived simply. 

An old and useless body,
I have seen many generations of flowers in this
    lonely, borrowed hermitage.
When spring comes, and if I am still alive,
Surely I will come to see you again–
Listen for the sound of my staff.

Stevens, J. (1988). (trans). One robe, one bowl: the Zen poetry of Ryokan. New York/Tokyo: Weatherhill, p. 27.

neither happy nor sad

Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481) was a controversial Japanese Zen monk.

you’ve got mail

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Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind
and rain, the snow and moon.

Ikkyu Sojun (1394 – 1481); English version by Sonya Arutzen, found at “Ikkyu Sojun’s poetry is irreverent and iconoclastic, bitingly critical of false piety, hypocrisy, and formalistic religion.”

to err is human

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In the past, when I began to study Zen,
it was all a mistake.
Wandering through numberless
mountains and rivers,
I wanted to find
something to know.
(It’s all clear in hindsight.)
It is hard to understand it
because talk about “no-mind”
just brings more confusion.
The teacher has pointed out
the ancient mirror
and I see in it
the time before I was born of my parents.
Having learned this,
what do I have?
Release a crow into the night
and it flies
flecked with snow.
Note: “ancient mirror” refers to wisdom, to what is true, unspoiled; “before I was born of my parents” refers to our Buddha or true nature, before we were shaped and conditioned. By Dayang Jingxuan (n. d.) found at image: “Cawing crow on snow covered branch” by Koson; woodblock, ca. 1912, 

crooked line

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I’m venturing into an intimate relationship: first with caution, then courage, I’m opening my/self to being loved –allowing body-heart-mind (shin in Japanese*) to be touched: withholding nothing. Immersed in bliss, I’m tasting absolute presence, without a single thought of past or future, fully immersed in sensory and spiritual mindfulness. Not even during week-long retreats with their long hours of meditating, chanting, and working, have I experienced such intense alertness. Only chaplaincy work — sitting at hospice patients’ bedside, attending to the emotional needs of their loved-ones and coworker — has given me a similar taste. 

The Danish philosopher Søren Kirkegaard says that while life must be lived forward, it can only be understood backwards. Looking back on my last ten years shows a direct line, even if at the time it’s been obscured by upheaval and disarray: → Zen training → three years of self-imposed celibacy → tumultuous affaire d’amour → first taste of spiritual sexuality → extended grief → gradual recovery and healing → end-of-life and spiritual care work → more celibacy → now this → beyond that: not-knowing.

True, I may appear
unkempt like a rotten tree,
jetsam or flotsam,
but on the right occasion
this old heart can still blossom.

By the monk Kengei (ca. 875).

*my given name is Daishin, boundless heart; source: Hamill, S. & Seaton, J.P. (2007). The poetry of Zen. Boston: Shambhala, p. 100. image: