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Zen Poetry


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To cash in on the runaway success of my Zen Gardens thread, a thread on "Zen Poetry".


Here we have Sogi (1421 - 1502):-


To each thing, its own

true deepest inner nature:

water does not think

of itself as consort

of the bright moonlight it hosts.


(Translation from the Japanese by Sam Hamill)


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Look to the movement of the clouds,

the touch of the unseen wind,

the embrace of the raindrop,

the glow of the sun,

the illumination of a lightbulb,

the movement of the passing car,


Everything, man made or otherwise,

pulsates with unseen energy,

lose your individual pulsation,

Join the universal vibrations,

Meet Nirvana


Scott Shaw

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Thanks Joseph, a good poem. I was once warned to beware of any mention or use of the word "vibration", but I'll let that one pass....... :)


We seem to be the only ones here, apart from Burl, who knows his woodprints from his watercolours.





Moving on, Jane Hirshfield writes of great art and great poetry that it is "a truing of vision.........a changing of vision. Entering a good poem, a person feels, tastes, hears, thinks, and sees in altered ways................by changing selves, one by one, art changes also the outer world that selves create and share."


Another zen poem.......


Although the wind

blows terribly here,

the moonlight also leaks

between the roof planks

of this ruined house


(Izumi Shikibu)


Jane Hirshfield tells us that in Japanese poetry the moon is "always the moon" yet is also an image of Buddhist awakening. She adds that the poem reminds her that "if a house is walled so tightly that it lets in no wind or rain, if a life is walled so tightly that it lets in no pain, grief, anger, or longing, it will also be closed to the entrance of what is most wanted."


This is how her own vision was "trued", and I can learn.


Here is another poem, by Lal Ded (14th century).......


I was passionate

filled with longing,

I searched

far and wide.


But the day

that the Truthful One

found me,

I was at home.




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You are not alone, Tariki, it's just that nothing can be said about these verses, nor should there be anything to say.


To what shall I compare this life of ours?

Even before I can say

it is like a lightning flash or a dewdrop

it is no more.


- Sengai

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You are not alone, Tariki,


Hi Steve, I was just being whimsical/slightly flippant, I have a strange sense of humour.


Thinking of my grandchildren......


For those who proclaim

they've grown weary of children,

there are no flowers.


​(A Haiku translated by Sam Hamill, poet unknown)

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I looked up "zen and stillness" and found this......


Earth, mountains,

rivers - hidden in this nothingness.

In this nothingness -

earth, mountains, rivers revealed.

Spring flowers, winter


There's no being or

non-being, nor denial itself.


​(Saisho, circa 1506)


Is it all in the translation?


Two translations of another poem........


To what shall

I liken the world?


In dewdrops,

Shaken from a crane's bill


​(written by Dogen, translation by Steven Heine)


The world? Moonlit

Drops shaken

From the crane's bill


​(The same poem, translation by Lucien Stryk)


How would we "translate" it?





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I seem to be having a fertile period...... :) ........I suspect because I am reading a book at the moment called "Bloodlands" which documents the period 1931-1945 in Soviet Russia and Germany, when approximately 14 million human beings died as a result of the various policies of Stalin and Hitler (this excludes casualties of actual soldiers) It is hard reading but necessary to my own mind, when so many now are calling for the need of "strong leadership". There are different forms of strength. Anyway, escaping from the book I turn to a few poems and think of this Forum and post a little bit more.


Here is one by Ryokan (1768-1831) entitled "Chinese Style Poems"


I know a gentleman poet

who writes in the high old way -


master of form from Han and Wei

or new-style modelled on the T'ang


With elegant strokes, he quietly composes

deftly adding images to startle.


But he hasn't learned to

speak from the heart;

all wasted! Though he writes

all night long.


​This made me think of a poem I had written myself, now over 40 years ago. By no means zen, at least I don't think so.


Convention speaks.

The heart is dead,

only the remembered said.


The mind revolves

within its files

choosing words

and picking smiles

to convey to watching eyes

if the heart

laughs or cries.


But it does neither.

It is dead.

Only the remembered said.



Well, another poem from Ryokan...


Ryokan, if

anyone should ask, had

these last words for the world:

Namu Amida Butsu -

and offered nothing more.




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I eventually gave up on "Bloodlands". Such books must needs exist to document exactly what we are capable of doing to each other. But enough is enough. It has darkened the day a bit, and here are a few little zen poems on Death, by various poets. Apparently "Death poems" are a particular genre of Japanese poetry, although Basho did say once that EVERY poem he wrote was a "death poem" (which makes you think if you are that way inclined)



Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going —
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.




My old body:
a drop of dew grown
heavy at the leaf tip




Man’s end
a mound of gleaming bones:
a flowering and a fading




Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
With luck
the cask will leak




Thirty years and more
I worked to nullify myself.
Now I leap the leap of death.
The ground churns up
The skies spin round.




A raging sea
thrown from the deck —
a block of ice




Since I was born
I have to die,
and so …




On a journey, ill:
my dream goes wandering
over withered fields




Death poems
are mere delusion —
death is death.


With luck the cask will leak...........


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Zen? Perhaps Christian Zen if we stretch it a bit... or a lot :unsure:


The Tiger by William Blake (1757-1827)


Tiger Tiger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tiger Tiger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

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"zen" or not, that is one of the songs of experience from "Songs of Innocence and Experience" which show "the two contrary states of the human soul". Its corresponding song is "The Lamb".........


Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Little Lamb I'll tell thee,
Little Lamb I'll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.




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I like this Zen poem to remind me how simple life really is (well at least I think it's Zen):


Empty handed I entered the world.
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going-
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.


– Kozan

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