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Buddhism and Literature

Buddhism and Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Buddhism and Literature


Buddhism and Literature

Despite its origins in sixth century India, the religion of Buddhism took hold most strongly in China and Japan after it spread there during the Middle Ages. In general, Buddhism teaches that the phenomenal world is a realm of suffering that may only be transcended through meditation and contemplation. The influence of Buddhism and Buddhist ideas on literature has been enormous, especially in medieval east Asia, where Japanese Zen Buddhism—called Ch'an in China—originated.

Zen propounds the ideals of wholeness, harmony, antirationalism, and the dissolution of the self (called sunyata, "emptiness" or "egolessness") as a means of reaching a state of spiritual enlightenment, or satori. Among the earliest Ch'an inspired writers was the Chinese poet Wang Wei (701-761). In his landscape poetry scholars have observed a thorough detachment from temporal concerns and a gradual loss of the self into oneness with nature. The seventeenth century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho is largely responsible for the association of 17-syllable haiku verse with Zen Buddhism. In Basho's haiku, critics find brilliant and succinct statements on the nature of Zen enlightenment.

The modern era has witnessed the advent of Buddhist thought in the West, particularly in North America. In the nineteenth century, the American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau absorbed certain aspects of Buddhism into their philosophy—Emerson's Oversoul, for example, resembles somewhat the oneness that the Zen monk seeks to attain by eradicating the boundaries of the self and the other. The modernists also alighted upon certain aspects of Buddhism as part of their eclectic gathering of world myth and spiritualism. Analogies to the Buddhist quest for enlightenment have been observed by critics, for instance, in the poetry of W. B. Yeats and the writings of T. S. Eliot. A less intellectual concern with Buddhism at mid-century can be found in the work of the Beat poets, particularly Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Kerouac's The Dharma Bums (1958) has done much to popularize the religion and its precepts in the west. In the contemporary era, poets and novelists such as Gary Snyder and Peter Matthiessen have furthered the modern conception of Buddhism in literary form. Meanwhile the American poet and translator Lucien Stryk has helped to strengthen the ties between Eastern and Western Buddhism by translating the Zen writings of the twentieth-century Japanese poet Takahashi Shinkichi for English-speaking audiences.

Representative Works*

Basho Matsuo

The Narrow Road to the Far North, and Selected Haiku (journal and poetry) 1980

Chomei Kamo

Ten Foot Square Hut (autobiography) 1970

Di Prima, Diane

Selected Poems: 1956-1975 (poetry) 1975

Pieces of a Song: Selected Poems (poetry) 1990

Forster, E. M.

A Passage to India (novel) 1924

Ginsberg, Allen

Allen Verbatim: Lectures on Poetry, Politics, Consciousness (lectures) 1974

Collected Poems 1947-1980 (poetry) 1985

Han Shan

Poetry of Han Shan: A Complete, Annotated Translation of Cold Mountain (poetry) 1990

Hesse, Hermann

Siddhartha (novel) 1922

Ikkyu Sojun

Ikkyu and the Crazy Cloud Anthology: A Zen Poet of Medieval Japan (poetry) 1987

Crow with Noh Mouth: Ikkyu, 15th Century Zen Master (poetry) 1987

Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu (poetry) 1995

Issa Kobayashi

Dust Lingers (poetry) 1981

The Autumn Wind (poetry) 1984

Kazantzakis, Nikos

Salvatores Dei: AskÂtik [The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises] (nonfiction) 1927

Buddha (drama) 1956

Kerouac, Jack

The Dharma Bums (novel) 1958

Mexico City Blues (poetry) 1959

Matthiesson, Peter

Far Tortuga (novel) 1975

The Snow Leopard (travelogue) 1978

Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals, 1969-1982 (journals) 1987

Merton, Thomas

Mystics and Zen Masters (essays) 1967

Zen and the Birds of Appetite (essays) 1968

Miyazawa, Kenji

Milky Way Railroad (poetry) 1996

Myers, L. H.

The Near and the Far (novel) 1927


Lotus Moon: The Poetry of the Buddhist Nun Rengetsu (poetry) 1994


Between Floating Mists (poetry) 1992

Ryokan: Zen Monk—Poet of Japan (poetry) 1992

Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf (poetry) 1996

Salinger, J. D.

Franny and Zooey (novellas) 1961

Snyder, Gary

The Real Work: Interviews & Talks 1964-1979 (interviews) 1980

No Nature: New & Selected Poems (poetry) 1992

Santoka Tandeda

Mountain Tasting: Zen Haiku (poetry) 1980

Soseki Natsume

Zen Haiku: Poems and Letters of Natsume Soseki (poetry) 1994

Suzuki Mitsu

Temple Dust: Zen Haiku (poetry) 1992

Stryk, Lucien

Awakening (poetry) 1973

Selected Poems (poetry) 1976

Takahashi Shinkichi

Afterimages: Zen Poems (poetry) 1970

Triumph of the Sparrow (poetry) 1986

Wang Wei

Laughing Lost in the Mountains (poetry) 1992

Welch, Lew

Ring of Bone: Collected Poems 1950-1971 (poetry) 1979

Whalen, Philip

On Bear's Head (poetry) 1969

Wu Ch'engen

Monkey: A Folk Novel of China (novel) 1958

*Publication dates for works by Chinese and Japanese authors indicate the date of the English-language translation listed.

Eastern Literature

Lucien Stryk

SOURCE: "Poetry and Zen," in Encounter with Zen, Swallow Press Books, 1981, pp. 51-65.

[In the following essay, Stryk explores the nature, meanings, dominant moods, and other characteristics of Zen poetry.]


One spring day in 1912, the German lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke had an extraordinary experience, which, based on the poet's account to her, the Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe described in the following manner:

He wandered absent-minded, dreaming, through the undergrowth and maze of briars, and suddenly found himself next to a huge old olive tree which he had never noticed before.… The next thing he knew he was leaning back into the tree, standing on its gnarled roots, his head propped against the branches.… An odd sensation came over him so that he was fixed to the spot, breathless, his heart pounding. It was as though he were extended into another life, a long time before, and that everything that had ever been lived or loved or suffered here was coming to him, surrounding him, storming him, demanding to live again in him.… 'Time' ceased to exist; there was no distinction between what once was and now had come back, and the dark, formless present. The entire atmosphere seemed animated, seemed unearthly to him, thrusting in on him incessantly. And yet this unknown life was close to him somehow; he had to take part in it…

Of course, the princess was suitably impressed and saw the experience as further proof of the poet's otherworldliness, romantic disposition. Had Rilke spoken with a Zen master of the event, it would have been called perhaps by its right name, spiritual awakening. Zen Buddhism's main purpose is to make such experiences possible, for their result is liberation.

Because Zen exists as a discipline to make an awakening possible, and because its adherents are made aware, early in their training, that all their labors will be fruitless unless they are enlightened, many have at least simulacra of the event. If in the West the mystic realization is extremely rare, in the Zen communities of the Far East it is consciously worked for, induced in a thousand and one ways. Often the Zenist writes a poem expressing the essence of his awakening, the depth of which is suggested by the quality of the poem.

Zen is unique as a religion-philosophy of artistic manifestation, the attainments of its practitioners often gauged by the works of art they make. The disciple is expected to compose poetry of a very special kind (toki-no-ge in Japanese, or "verse of mutual understanding") on the occasion of the momentous event which the solving of his koan, or problem for meditation, always seems to be. Koans are set to disciples by the masters so as to make them realize that there are things beyond the reach of common sense and logic, that the sensible, normal way of handling things does not always work and that if they hope to win enlightenment they must break through the barriers created, in all of us, by "mind." Satori poems are always genuine because only those winning the approval of the poet's spiritual guide are designated as such: the poet does not himself refer to a poem as an enlightenment poem before the fact of his master's approval.

As a consequence of the anciently established practice, a rather natural process of criticism and selection takes place: what has passed down as satori poetry is, in other words, the cream—the rest, what in fact was not reproduced, was for some reason found wanting (this is true only of awakening poetry: "death" poems are written only by mature and established masters who have earned the right to be heard at such a time, and "general" poems written by those masters whose words are considered important enough to preserve). Enlightenment poems rejected by masters are sometimes, as the result of the poet's later eminence, reproduced, as in the case of the Chinese master Chokei, the first of whose following satori poems was rejected, the second approved:

Rolling the bamboo blind, I
 Look out at the world—what change!
 Should someone ask what I've discovered,
 I'll smash this whisk against his mouth.

All's harmony, yet everything is separate.
 Once confirmed, mastery is yours.
 Long I hovered on the Middle Way,
 Today the very ice shoots flame.

It would be presumptuous even to try to imagine why the first of these poems was rejected as lacking sufficient insight by Chokei's master (to assume that it was its "arrogance" would be risky, as many true satori poems seem even more "arrogant"), but the second is surely an extraordinary poem. Only the master, aware of his disciple's barriers, can determine whether a breakthrough has been made: if it has, the poem will show it. Such judgment, considering the spiritual context, places the highest sort of value on art. The most famous example in Zen history of the manner in which a satori poem is written, and the tremendous consequences it can have for the writer, is recounted in one of the most important Zen texts, the Platform Scripture of the Sixth Patriarch of Zen in China, Hui-neng:

One day the Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen, called all the disciples together and said: "Life and death are serious matters. You are engaged all day in making offerings to the Buddha, going after blessings and rewards only. You make no effort to achieve freedom, your self-nature is obscured. How can blessings save you? Go and examine yourselves—he who is enlightened, let him write a poem, which, if it reveals deep understanding, will earn him the robe and the Law and make him the Sixth Patriarch. Hurry, hurry!" Shen-hsiu, the senior monk, wrote:

Our body is the tree of Perfect Wisdom,
 And our mind is a bright mirror.
 At all times diligently wipe them,
 So that they will be free from dust.

Then the humble Hui-neng, who as a mere "rice pounder" was practically unknown in the monastery, wrote in response to Shen-hsiu's poem:

The tree of Perfect Wisdom is originally no tree,
Nor has the bright mirror any frame.
Buddha-nature is forever clear and pure.
Where is there any dust?

Which so impressed the Fifth Patriarch that Huineng was named his successor, saying: "You are now the Sixth Patriarch. The robe is the testimony of transmission from generation to generation. As to the Law, it is to be transmitted from mind to mind. Let men achieve understanding through their own effort."

Death poems are perhaps the most unusual of the Zen poems: rarely morbid, self-serving, or self-sorrowful, and never euphemistic, they serve a uniquely spiritual end, as inspiration for the master's immediate followers and for the Zen community at large. The tradition of the death poem is very old, and as with many traditions, it perpetuates itself. Expected to write such a poem, the master not only steels himself for the task but for death itself. He is, as a Zenist, expected to face the inevitable stoically, and he does not fail his disciples. There are many anecdotes about the valor, before death, of the masters, the following being well known:

When a rebel army took over a Korean town, all fled the Zen temple except the Abbot. The rebel general burst into the temple, and was incensed to find that the master refused to greet him, let alone receive him as a conqueror.

"Don't you know," shouted the general, "that you are looking at one who can run you through without batting an eye?"

"And you," said the Abbot, "are looking at one who can be run through without batting an eye!"

The general's scowl turned into a smile. He bowed low and left the temple.

In the Zen communities not only the masters were expected to write death poems. The greatest of the haiku writers Matsuo Basho (1644-94) was asked by his friends, when it was clear that he was about to die, for a death poem, but he refused them, claiming that in a sense every poem he had written in the last ten years—by far his most productive period and one of deep Zen involvement—had been done as if a death poem. Yet on the next morning his friends were called by the poet to his bedside and told that during the night he had dreamed, and that on waking a poem had come to him. Then he recited his famous poem:

Sick on a journey—
over parched fields
dreams wander on.

There are perhaps as many ways of dying, or at least of facing death, as there are of living, and though all death poems are compact, deep, intense, they reflect, as might be expected, the many differences to be found among men, including Zen masters. There is, for example, the serenity of Hofuku Seikatsu:

Don't tell me how difficult the Way.
The bird's path, winding far, is right
Before you. Water of the Dokei Gorge,
You return to the ocean, I to the mountain.

The power of Dogen:

Four and fifty years
I've hung the sky with stars.
Now I leap through—
What shattering!

The self-honesty of Keisen:

The first illusion
Has lasted seventy-six years.
The final barrier?
Three thousand sins!

In the case of enlightenment and death poems, there are certain recognizable norms and standards, and it is possible to compare them for their concision and gravity, whatever the distinction of the poets. The general poems, as might be expected, are less easily judged and cover a multitude of subjects, for in spite of the exigencies of the Zen life, not to speak of the expectations from him of others—to be ignored at peril—the Zen man finds himself moved to poetry by things not ostensibly associated with his discipline (though many general poems are so associated). As some have remarked, Zen art, be it the monochromic inkwash painting {sumie) long connected with Zen, or poetry, is best characterized by its celebration of, its wonder at, the intimate relationship of all that exists in the world. Such feeling is, of course, not unknown in the West, and is beautifully expressed by Martin Buber:

Believe in the simple magic of life, in service in the universe, and the meaning of that waiting, that alertness, that "craning of the neck" in creatures, will dawn upon you. Every word would falsify; but look! round about you beings live their life, and to whatever point you turn you come upon being.

In Zen poetry the phenomenal world is never treated as mere setting for human actions; the drama is there, in nature, of which the human is an active part, in no way separated from his surroundings, neither contending with them, fearing them nor—for that matter—worshiping them. The Zenist is no pantheist: in order to feel at home in nature he does not find it necessary to imagine it as a godly immanence. Many of the general poems, then, express a simple awe at the beauty of the world:

Hearing the Snow

This cold night bamboos stir,
Their sound—now harsh, now soft—
Sweeps through the lattice window.
Though ear's no match for mind,
What need, by lamplight,
Of a single Scripture leaf?

Disciplined by wind and snow,
The Way of Reinan opens.
Look where—moon high, plums a-bloom—
The temple's fixed in stillness.

Though most of the general poems are written in the spirit of celebration, some are clearly meant to instruct or hearten the master's disciples, or as in the case of the following waka by Dogen, inspire those among the followers who might in moments of weakness question the purpose of what they are required to do:

Waka on Zen Sitting

Scarecrow in the hillock
Paddy field—
How unaware! How useful!


What have all Zen poems, of whatever type, in common and what distinguishes them from poems written by the artistic equals of the masters who work in other traditions, or independently? Zen's aesthetics are well and very subtly defined.

The four traditionally recognized dominant moods of Zen-related art are: Sabi, Wabi, Aware, and Yugen. Often in largescale works such as Noh plays, as the result of natural modulations, all the moods may be suggested, but in short literary works and in sumie painting the mood is clearly apparent. These moods are not consciously created, as in the case of Indian rasas (emotional "flavors" so precise that one rasa, say of a sitar melody, may "belong" to a particular time of the day and is always deliberately induced): they are experienced as we experience the light of the sky, hardly aware of the delicacy of its gradations.

Sabi may be defined as the feeling of isolation, or rather at a midpoint of the emotion when it is both welcome and unwelcome, source of both ease and unease. This mood, as all strong moods, comes as the result of many things, but clearly associated with Sabi is the sense of being detached, as in Honei's poem "Fisherman":

On wide waters, alone, my boat
Follows the current, deep/shallow, high/low.
Moved, I raise my flute to the moon,
Piercing the autumn sky.

Of importance to the mood of the poem is that in ancient China the fisherman, one of the so-called "four recluses" (the others being the farmer, the woodcutter, and the herdsman), was held in great esteem by Taoists and Zenists. Hakuin, greatest of the Rinzai Zen masters of Japan, significantly titled a remarkable account of his spiritual progress, Yasenkanna, which can be rendered as "talk in a boat at night."

Sabi is associated with the period of early monastic training when, if one is to succeed in Zen discipline, a strong detachment must be cultivated. While in training, the fifteenth-century Japanese master Saisho wrote as an interpretation of the koan on Joshu's Nothingness a poem the equal of Honei's in its spirit of Sabi:

Earth, mountains, rivers—hidden in this
In this nothingness—earth, mountains, rivers
Spring flowers, winter snows:
There's no being nor non-being, nor denial itself.

Here the feeling of detachment is not only strong, it is identified as an essential precondition of enlightenment. Ch'ing-yuan's well-known words on the importance of wu-hsin (no-mind, detachment) will serve to paraphrase Saisho's poem:

Before I had studied Zen I saw mountains as mountains, waters as waters. When I learned something of Zen, the mountains were no longer mountains, waters no longer waters. But now that I understand Zen, I am at peace with myself, seeing mountains once again as mountains, waters as waters.

Wabi is the spirit of poverty, the poignant appreciation of what most consider the commonplace, and is associated in Zen with one of the principal characteristics, if not ideals, of the sect, an antirelativism: what's good? what's bad? what's valuable? valueless? The mood is perhaps most apparent in relation to that quintessential Zen art, the tea ceremony, which—from the utensils employed in the preparation of the tea to the very timber of the tea hut—is a celebration of the humble, the "handmade." The nineteenth-century haiku artist Masaoka Shiki writes:

Thing long forgotten—
pot where a flower blooms,
this spring day.

Wabi is not to be found in objects alone. As in the following awakening poem by the sixteenth-century Japanese master Yuishun, it is the feeling of something hitherto ignored suddenly being seen for the precious thing it is (and always has been, though hidden from us by illusion):

Why, it's but the motion of eyes and brows!
And here I've been seeking it far and wide.
Awakened at last, I find the moon
Above the pines, the river surging high.

One day while practicing zazen (formal sitting in meditation) with his followers, the Chinese master Daibai was moved to say aloud for their benefit, "No suppressing arrival, no following departure." Immediately after the words were spoken, the shriek of a weasel pierced through the meditation hall, and Daibai recited this extemporaneous poem:

I'm at one with this, this only.
You, my disciples,
Uphold it firmly—
Now I can breathe my last.

To know what Daibai meant by asking his followers to "uphold" the simple fact of the weasel's shriek is to appreciate the importance of Wabi to Zen. How much more real, how much more relevant to the spiritual quest than even the wisest words is Nature's least manifestation, when accepted for the profound thing it is.

Aware is the sadness that comes with the sense of the impermanence of things, the realization that they are lost to us even as they are found. It is so constant a mood in the poetry touched by Buddhism, that as far back as the tenth century, when the Japanese poet Ki no Tsurayuki (died 946) compiled the anthology Kokinshu, the first done under Imperial order, he could write:

When these poets saw the scattered spring blossoms, when they heard leaves falling in the autumn evening, when they saw reflected in their mirrors the snow and the waves of each passing year, when they were stunned into an awareness of the brevity of life by the dew on the grass or foam on the water… they were inspired to write poems.

A few centuries later, Kenko Yoshida, a famous poet and court official of his day who became a Buddhist monk in 1324, wrote in his Essays in Idleness:

If we lived forever, if the dews of Adashino never vanished, the crematory smoke on Toribeyama never faded, men would hardly feel the pity of things. The beauty of life is in its impermanence. Man lives the longest of all living things—consider the ephemera, the cicada—, and even one year lived peacefully seems very long. Yet for such as love the world, a thousand years would fade like the dream of one night.

At times the sense of Aware is so powerful that the only way of coming to terms with it is to identify with it totally, perhaps retiring from the world and the constant reminders of its limited, conditioned nature. Many of the finest Zen poems, seemingly "escapist," have this spirit of acceptance, of oneness with what is, whatever it happens to be. Here is the fourteenth-century Japanese master Jakushitsu:

Refreshing, the wind against the waterfall
As the moon hangs, a lantern, on the peak
And the bamboo window glows. In old age
Are more beautiful than ever. My resolve:
That these bones be purified by rocks.

And here the Chinese master Zotan is seen praising a fellow monk, "Shooku" (Woodcutter's Hut), whose retirement very much impressed him:

Is the live branch better than the dead?
Cut through each—what difference?
Back home, desires quelled, you sit by
The half-closed brushwood door the spring day

It is perhaps in haiku poetry that Aware is most keenly felt, though, because it is so commonly suggested (Sunt lacrimae rerum—There are tears for things), it is the spoiler of many otherwise acceptable verses. But by those who care for haiku, the sentimental is never mistaken for the poignant, and a piece like the following by Yosa Buson (1715-83), important Nanga-style painter as well as poet, is greatly prized:

A sudden chill—
In our room my dead wife's
comb, underfoot.

Yugen, most difficult of the dominant moods to describe, is the sense of a mysterious depth in all that makes up nature. Often the term is used in almost a purely aesthetic way, as in the theoretical writings on Noh theater by the most important figure in its development, Zeami (1363-1443). In his essay, "On Attaining the Stage of Yugen," he speaks of the mood as that which "marks supreme attainment in all the arts and accomplishments" and describes its essence as "true beauty and gentleness," a "realm of tranquility and elegance." Though such may be the effect of Yugen on the Noh stage, perhaps a better sense of what the mood can represent in Zen is suggested by these words of the contemporary Japanese Soto master Rosen Takashina:

The true basis of the universe is stillness, its real condition, for out of it comes all activity. The ocean, when the wind ceases, is calm again, as are the trees and grasses. These things return to stillness, their natural way. And this is the principle of meditation. There is night, there is day, when the sun sets there is a hush, and then the dead of night, when all is still. This is the meditation of nature.

Yugen is the sense of the mystic calm in things (in T. S. Eliot's phrase, in "Burnt Norton," "the still point of the turning world"), which is always there, below the surface, but which reveals itself only to the "ready."

Etsuzan, the Chinese master, aware that his time was nearly up, looked into things as never before, and wrote:

Light dies in the eyes, hearing
Fades. Once back to the Source,
There's no special meaning—
Today, tomorrow.

For him the world had returned to a stillness, its natural condition, and perhaps the realization gave him comfort in his final hour. Yugen also suggests the sense of a strong communion with nature, a descent into depths, as in this poem by the seventeenth-century Japanese master Manan:

Unfettered at last, a traveling monk,
I pass the old Zen barrier.
Mine is a traceless stream-and-cloud life.
Of those mountains, which shall be my home?

And in this poem, one of his most famous, by Dogen:

This slowly drifting cloud is pitiful;
What dreamwalkers men become.
Awakened, I hear the one true thing—
Black rain on the roof of Fukakusa Temple.

To hear that "black rain" with Dogen, to sense that it—or anything like it, for though intensely particular it is symbolic—is the "one true thing" is to enter the realm of Yugen, which as a mood is not of course peculiar to Zen but which, nonetheless, is most commonly felt in its art. Not to hear it, on the other hand, not to know if one hears that one has identified with the Source is to remain a "dreamwalker," blind not only to the beauty of the world but to its reality.

The four dominant moods, however closely associated with Zen art, are not exclusively related to the philosophy, whereas zenki, the sense of a spontaneous activity outside the established forms, as if flowing from the formless self, is the constant in its art. Without Zen there could not be zenki, just as without muga (so close an identification of subject and object that "self disappears) the goal of Zen, satori, could not be realized. There have been occasional attempts to describe in detail the characteristics of Zen art, the most comprehensive being Dr. Hisamatsu's in Zen and Fine Arts, which gives as its chief qualities the following (all of which, according to Dr. Hisamatsu, are present harmoniously in every Zen work, whatever the medium): asymmetry, simplicity, freedom, naturalness, profundity, unworldliness, and stillness.

It is perhaps in poetry that these characteristics—subject and theme dictating to what degree, of course—are most apparent, the desired qualities of an aesthetic. The following poems have a common theme, and each in its way might be seen as representing the ideal Zen poem in Japan. This is by the thirteenth-century master Unoku:

Moving/resting is meaningless.
Traceless, leaving/coming.
Across moonlit mountains,
Howling wind!

And here is one by the fourteenth-century master Getsudo:

The perfect way out:
There's no past/present/future.
Dawn after dawn, the sun!
Night after night, the moon!

Against the facts of that wind, that sun, that moon, what are concepts such as time? these poems seem to be asking. And as in all genuine Zen art, calm replaces restlessness.

In Zen painting there are only the essential strokes, the space surrounding them being filled in by the mind, which poises itself on (imagines) what it knows best, that which is always tranquil, agreeable. The brush strokes, however few, serve to make the mind aware of the space, suggested not so much by the absence of objects but by the manner in which the objects are absorbed. And in poetry, perhaps the most important things are to be found in the silence following the words, for it is then that the reader or listener becomes conscious of the calm within. It is something felt, not known, and precious in the way that only the spiritual can be.


There are distinct types of Zen poetry, and distinguishing qualities, but what makes it unique in world literature is that it is recognized as a mystic Way—to a most difficult truth. Zen has other Ways (do) but Kado, the Way of poetry, is one that has always held a place of honor in its culture, which has always valued directness, concision, and forcefulness of expression. As Dr. D. T. Suzuki writes in one of his essays, "The Meditation Hall":

The Zen masters, whenever they could, avoided the technical nomenclature of Buddhist philosophy; not only did they discuss such subjects as appealed to a plain man, but they made use of his everyday language… Thus Zen literature became a unique repository of ancient wisdom… [refusing] to express itself in the worn-out, lifeless language of scholars.…

The masters also discouraged the dependence on scriptural writings, and a master like Tokusan could proclaim (in one of the stories of the Mumonkan [Barrier Without Gate], an early thirteenth-century classic of Chinese Zen): "However deep your knowledge of the scriptures, it is no more than a strand of hair in the vastness of space; however important seeming your worldly experience, it is but a drop of water in a deep ravine." And as the fourteenth-century Japanese master Shutaku wrote:

Mind set free in the Dharma-realm,
I sit at the moon-filled window
Watching the mountains with my ears,
Hearing the stream with open eyes.
Each molecule preaches perfect law,
Each moment chants true sutra:
The most fleeting thought is timeless,
A single hair's enough to stir the sea.

While discouraging dependence on scripture (sutra learning), the masters strongly encouraged the cultivation of non-attachment, upheld by all the sects of Buddhism, the ultimate aim of whose discipline was, quoting from Dr. Suzuki again, "to release the spirit from its possible bondage so that it could act freely in accordance with its own principles—that is what is meant by non-attachment."

To give some idea of the manner in which such an important ideal, one with scriptural authority, is dealt with by Zenists, here is the Japanese master Takuan (1573-1645) in a "Letter to the Shogun's Fencing Master":

If your mind is fixed on a certain spot, it will be seized by that spot and no activities can be performed efficiently. Not to fix your mind anywhere is essential. Not fixed anywhere, the mind is everywhere.… The Original Mind is like water which flows freely… whereas the deluded mind is like ice.… There is a passage [in the Diamond Sutra] that says: "The mind should operate without abiding anywhere."

Presumably dissatisfied with his explanation, Takuan goes on:

It is like tying a cat with a rope to prevent it from catching a baby sparrow which is tied up nearby. If your mind is tied down by a rope as is the cat, your mind cannot function properly. It is better to train the cat not to harm the sparrow when they are together, so that it can be free to move anywhere.… That is the meaning of the passage [in the Diamond Sutra].…

How bumbling and obvious when compared with the poem Takuan was to write on the theme some time later:

Though night after night
The moon is stream-reflected,
Try to find where it has touched,
Point even to a shadow.

Which is perhaps the equal of Dogen's poem on the same passage in the Diamond Sutra:

Coming, going, the waterfowl
Leaves not a trace,
Nor does it need a guide.

And resembles the eighteenth-century master Sogyo's:

Careful! Even moonlit dewdrops,
If you're lured to watch,
Are a wall before the truth.

And the contemporary Japanese Zen poet Shinkichi Takahashi's "Fish":

I hold a newspaper, reading.
Suddenly my hands become cow ears,
Then turn into Pusan, the South Korean port.

Lying on a mat
Spread on the bankside stones,
I fell asleep.
But a willow leaf, breeze-stirred,
Brushed my ear.
I remained just as I was,
Near the murmurous water.

When young there was a girl
Who became a fish for me.
Whenever I wanted fish
Broiled in salt, I'd summon her.
She'd get down on her stomach
To be sun-cooked on the stones.
And she was always ready!

Alas, she no longer comes to me.
An old benighted drake,
I hobble homeward.

But look, my drake feet become horse hoofs!
Now they drop off
And, stretching marvelously,
Become the tracks of the Tokaido Railway Line.

Thus an important Buddhist principle, first advanced by scripture, often quoted and allegorized by masters (as in Takuan's "Letter …" or Hyakujo Ekai's famous injunction, Fujaku fugu—No clinging, no seeking), is transmuted into superb poetry by men who not only know truth but feel.

We have examined the nature of the three main types of Zen poetry, its characteristics, and have shown the manner in which it expresses insights afforded by the philosophy. Perhaps from our discussion something like a view-point has emerged; namely that if one wishes to "understand" Zen Buddhism, one could do worse than go to its arts, especially the poetry, compared with which the many disquisitions on its meaning are as dust to living earth.

Shan Chou

SOURCE: "Beginning with Images in the Nature Poetry of Wang Wei," in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 42, No. 1, June, 1982, pp. 117-37.

[In the following essay, Chou traces natural imagery in the poems of Wang Wei and discusses the possible Buddhist themes implied by these symbols.]

Wang Wei (701-61) is a poet whose reputation primarily rests on his nature poems. Although in the poems which have survived other themes are well represented—elaborate and perfect poemsabout the emperor's court, sentimental sketches of bucolic life, poems expressing friendship—it is with the nature poems that his name is universally identified. The prominence given a handful of nature poems reflects both the judgment that they contain the essence of Wang Wei's achievement and an acknowledgment of the position they occupy in the evolution of nature poetry. The sense displayed in these poems of a life lived in harmony with nature marks an important development in the appeal of landscape and nature to the poetic sensibility.

The world of Wang Wei's nature poems is a narrow one of simple and recurring scenes—a brief wind lifts his sash, a slight chill hangs in the air, light fills the mountainside, a bell sounds once. These are small moments intensified, during which nothing much happens. In general, Wang Wei does not draw any conclusions from scenes so presented—and this is the problem. A small area of experience has been sharply delimited, but within this area the reader is not guided to an interpretation. The clarity of the moment distilled seems to bespeak openness, yet the reader who feels that a meaning beyond that moment has been intended finds it concealed and the poems lacking in internal clues. In this Wang Wei reminds me of Imagist poets, in which the sharpness of the observed details contrasts with the vagueness of the interpretation which has been implied. That a meaning beyond that captured moment has been intended seems a reasonable expectation. Indeed, given Wang Wei's enduring reputation, it seems a necessary one; for it is hardly possible that any nature poetry can continue to hold our attention that does not project a certain amount of significance onto the landscape presented.

The problem of significance—what is there besides descriptions of nature?—has been recognized for a long time. A major response has been concerned with identifying the Buddhist meaning of Wang Wei's poetry. This attempt seems justified in view of the whole of Wang Wei's poetry and also the known facts of his life. Wang Wei began the serious study of Buddhism about the age of thirty, adopted the tzu of Mo-chieh (which together with his ming Wei formed the Chinese transliteration of the name of the sage Vimalakirti), and began to move in Buddhist circles. In his poetry, his Buddhist interests are reflected in the many poems written to monks, in his appreciative descriptions of their lives, and in the frequent references to Buddhist practices and goals in his own life. These visible effects on his poetry are not disputed, but the most interesting claim of influence is made in a strong form. This is that the Buddhist influence is present in exactly those of the nature poems which show no overt signs of Buddhism, that is, those of Wang Wei's nature poems which I have described as simple and yet elusive. [There is no clear way to divide Wang Wei's poems into categories. I have chosen the ones set in mountains, following the description of landscape as shan-shui, and left out those set on the plains, which seem to me more pastoral, t'ien-yuan. The core is made up of the twenty poems of the "Wang-ch'uan chi," of poems about returning to Wang-ch'uan, and of those with mountain names or streams in the titles. A peripheral group includes poems about monasteries, whether or not monks are also there.]

The poems meant are such as these:

In Ching Brook white stones jut out,
The sky is cold, red leaves thinning.
On the mountain path, there had been no rain,
The cloudless blue, clothes are dampened.

—"In the mountains"

All at rest, the cassia flowers fall.
The night is quiet, the spring mountains empty.
The moon appears, startling mountain birds,
Which from time to time cry out from the spring

—"Birdcries Stream"

Of the first poem the Sung-dynasty monk Hui-hung (1071-1128) reports the opinion that it is full of t'iench'ü "the essence of nature." Of the second the Ming-dynasty critic Hu Ying-lin (1551-1602) declares that Wang Wei had entered into the ranks of Ch'an Buddhists. The Ch'ing anthologist Shen Te-ch'ien (1673-1769) says that Wang Wei's poetry does not use Ch'an vocabulary but often attains Ch'an meaning. Such views of the poems are widespread and usually expressed in similarly general terms.

Some modern scholars have therefore recently added various qualifying suggestions to the equation of Wang Wei's nature poems with Buddhist influences. Iritani Sensuke discusses the "Wang-ch'uan chi" in terms of its Ch'u tz'u elements, its realism, and its mysticism, but does not bring in Buddhism. Fujiyoshi Masumi emphasizes the limited influence of Buddhism on the T'ang nobility in general and the importance of Taoism in its mediating role between Confucian ideals of service and Buddhist withdrawal. Pauline Yu is at pains to show that Wang Wei's attitude towards retirement from public life was not uncomplicated. None of them denies the pervasiveness of Buddhism in Wang Wei's life and in his works taken as a whole.

I think that ultimately we will have to refer to Buddhism at least in order to appreciate the full context out of which Wang Wei wrote and possibly in order to appreciate the full meaning of the nature poems. However there are aspects of the poems which we can consider before this final appeal that do not deny the possibility of Buddhist influence and yet may make easier the problem of defining this influence. This consideration begins by recognizing the nature of the problems posed by the poems.

I think of the problems as of two kinds. The first is that the literary qualities of the poems are hard to define; hence the persistent fascination with Buddhism as a key to them. Literarily the poems are elusive because they seem to defy further analysis, so simple is the setting, so precise the imagery and unhurried the tone. The stillness and tranquillity seem impossible to explicate further. Discussion would merely intrude paraphrase onto these spare scenes. The poems resist any response other than acceptance; they appear to be the simplest statements about themselves.

The second is that in those poems where Wang Wei does not use Buddhist terms—and these constitute the majority of what I have called nature poems—the Buddhist themes prove elusive to specify. I suggest that we deal with this problem by secularizing it, by looking first to see whether any philosophical viewpoint, rather than a specifically Buddhist one, is expressed in the poems. Then we may ask whether this philosophy can be identified with some aspect of Buddhism. This approach brings us to the more familiar uncertainty that the true meaning or intent of poems might always remain to some degree unverifiable, and especially so in poems, like these and like the Imagist poems, where the reader finds few guides to an interpretation. Differing literary analyses would then stress different themes, not all of which would have Buddhist analogs, but each of which may nonetheless be literarily acceptable.

I propose in this essay to begin with an analysis of some literary qualities of Wang Wei's nature poems and from this analysis to make a suggestion about the problem of meaning in these poems.

The spareness of a Wang Wei scene is not a reflection of nature but the consequence of careful selection. The images which make up each poem are simple; the elements which make up the images are few. I suggest that it is the physical spacing displayed in the images which provides a key to the remoteness and the uncanny stillness which are their chief impression on the reader.

A central image in the nature poems is the physical isolation of the poet. Not only does he live away from man, but he chooses to live in the mountains, which encircle him on all sides. Furthermore he is often stationed inside an enclosure of some kind:

I sit alone in a secluded bamboo thicket.
The bright moon shines among the pines.
The bright moon shines on me.
The mountain moon shines on a zither played.

The moon by creating a well of light around the poet emphasizes his placement in a clearing.

Further, the poet is not only isolated, but his existence is not even suspected by others:

Deep in the forest, no one knows [of me].

He suggests the same isolation for a friend:

On the wide waters, no one will know [of you].

Again, of monasteries Wang Wei likes to emphasize that to the unsuspecting they do not exist:

From the city, seen afar, a deserted cloud-capped

From the city walls, looking out,
One would see only white clouds.

The poet lives alone in harmony with nature, but he has not dissolved into nature. As a personality he is self-effacing: there is generally no emotion reaching out to the landscape, no emotion aroused in turn by the landscape. Rather, the continued existence of his ego is expressed by the insistence on an active separation between himself and others. Again, this separation often takes the form of exclusion. One aspect of an experience that he savors is the exclusion of others from it. In poems by Meng Hao-jan (691-740) which describe scenes similar to Wang Wei's, it only gradually becomes apparent to the reader that the poet is alone, for the fact is not stated. Wang Wei, on the other hand, tells us many times and in so many words that no one is around. Wu jen ("there is no one") and pu chien jen ("I see no one") are used repeatedly. K'ung ("empty") is often used of a forest or a mountain to mean that no one is about, save for the poet. This absence of people gives to his solitude a delicious edge:

The house by the stream is quiet, unpeopled.
In profusion, [magnolias] blossom and fall.

Where once there had been people living, there is now no one, and the scene is the more piquant. The same sense of specialness can be seen in the poet's being privy to the secrets of the landscape:

Beautiful spots which only I know of.

Where he walks, no one else seems to have walked:

Beneath ancient trees, an unused path.

Another type of isolation is often established by the first two characters (the first phrase) of short poems:

All at rest, the cassia flowers fall.
The night is still, all movements cease.
In the empty mountains, after the new rain.

(The second example is twice used as a first line.) Inside the bell jar of quietude defined by the first two characters, the remainder of the poem takes place. Within a poem Wang Wei will often define a space by the silence which pervades it. This silence is then broken by a sound which also emphasizes the space defined:

The mountains are still, the spring even noisier.
The valley is still, the spring even noisier.
The valley is still, the autumn spring noisy.
The valley is still, only the pines whisper.

Or the sound occurs first, then the space is defined:

The travellers echo through the empty forest.

The image of isolation explains other types of images that occur, in particular Wang Wei's preference for sound over sight. Again, he can be very insistent, both that he sees nothing, and that he hears only sounds:

Empty mountains, I see no one,
But hear the echoes of people's voices.
The bamboos ring with the returning

The effect is that of a one-way mirror. Through sound images, the poet knows about other people's existence without their guessing his.

Sound has the additional advantage that what the poet hears need not be close by, but can be transmitted over an intervening distance. This distance then acts as an invisible barrier that expresses his isolation:

From the valley mouth, the sound of a distant bell.
The fisherman's song enters deep into this
Deep in the mountains—from where?—a bell.

The last is a refinement, a sound whose source is unknown. The barrier is sometimes made explicit by the use of ko ("separated by"):

At times I hear dogs on the far side of the grove.
Across the river I ask the woodcutter.
On the far shore I see homes.

We can compare these examples with a characteristic pose found in Meng Hao-jan's poetry. The figure of Meng's poet is often on a river bank, or by a jetty, from which he can also see the people making the noise. The Meng Hao-jan line "From the mountain temple a bell sounds, day is already dusk" contains elements familiar in Wang Wei too—the temple, the bell, dusk—but in Meng Hao-jan is followed by the cheerful noise of people actually seen ("By the fish dam, at the ferry, the clamor of everyone wanting to cross"). For Wang Wei, on the other hand, the consciousness of humans a distance away and dwindling further makes his solitude the more sweet. It is a solitude that perseveres on the edges of other people's activities and is the consequence not only of the circumstances of composition but of a certain control by imagery of the physical spacing.

It is not hard to find in the work of other poets, especially Meng Hao-jan, lines which are similar to some cited here. The world created in the poem as a whole, however, is almost always different. One much praised line by Wang Wei, for example, in its crucial part can be found in Sung Chih-wen (d. 712):

Returning rays enter the cliffs and valley.

In Wang Wei:

Returning rays enter the deep forest.

The returning rays are the afternoon light, which shines in the opposite direction from earlier in the day. In Sung Chih-wen, the line is one of twenty in a poem confiding the poet's hopes and fears during his recovery from an illness. In Wang Wei, it forms part of a pattern of solitude:

Empty mountains, I see no one,
But hear the echoes of people's voices.
Returning rays enter the deep forest,
Shining once more upon green moss.

The arrangement of sights and sounds, seemingly so artlessly noted as they impinge upon the poet's consciousness, constitute the whole of Wang Wei's world. The exclusion of other concerns is what is meant I think by the common description of Wang Wei's nature poems as the first ones to have been "pure." The subsequent unity of the poet with this world is then effortless, so pared is this world. The poet is able to transcend the world through immersion in nature in part because his natural world already transcends our natural world.

The spacing controlled by the images is physical and literal. I would like to suggest that the same control of spacing has a metaphorical and sometimes symbolic existence on the level of the whole poem. It is possible to interpret the themes of some poems in terms of distance and barriers, and also to offer such an interpretation for other poems which seem to be solely description.

The control of space, for instance, is implicit in one common theme we find, the theme that on the other side of an intervening distance exists a desirable state which I think we may call truth. In one of the ways in which this pattern is worked out, the truth is attained by bridging the distance. This distance is usually bridged only unknowingly: a journey is made which is not deliberately undertaken. At least the goal is not deliberately sought. This is the pattern found in the poem "Visiting Hsiang-chi Monastery":

I had not known of Hsiang-chi Monastery
When I was several li into the cloudy peak.
Beneath ancient trees, an unused path,
Deep in the mountains—from where?—a bell.
Noise from a spring burbles over sharp rocks,
The sun's light chills the dark pines.
At dusk, by the empty curve of the pond,
Meditation to subdue the poisonous dragon.

The poem begins with the poet isolating himself from men by asserting a limited ordinary knowledge of his world, in this case the existence of Hsiang-chi Monastery. Without saying what he has in mind (for the first couplet constitutes only a denial of a purpose), the poet moves towards and, in the last couplet, reaches the hidden monastery. At this point, in the last line, the image of isolation is repeated at a higher level: the figure in the last line, either a monk or the poet himself, withdraws from his world and from us into meditation.

Real journeys of course often imply a journey of another kind, and not always as subtly as in this poem. In the poems "Green Stream" and "The Shih-men Monastery in the Lan-t'ien Mountains," Wang Wei is explicit about the truth reached at journey's end. In the first, the traveller rounds a bend in the river and sees a spot ideal for living in retirement. In the second, the traveller happens upon five or six hermit monks, living peacefully unbothered by any knowledge of the world outside. It is of course a second Peach Blossom Spring. In both endings, the identification of man and nature is achieved by the fact of his finding an ideal natural end to his journey. Although the moral is obvious, the pattern of the journey is the same as the Hsiang-chi Monastery one. The journeys are made without a purpose, the discoveries are serendipitous, and the distances deceptive. It is just that in these poems Wang Wei depends rather on the charm of such qualities than on the profundity of the meaning. Two couplets from each poem illustrate this:

To reach Yellow Flowers River,
One must always follow the waters of Green
Hugging the mountains, it makes ten thousand
The true distance no more than a hundred li.

From afar I had admired the beauty of trees in
At first I thought we were on a different course.
How was I to know the clear stream wound
And led to the mountain before us?

Although in the journey poems, the distance is bridged and the truth temporarily seen, in other poems, the stronger theme, and I think the more profound one, is expressed that though the truth lies on the other side of an intervening distance, only across this distance is it knowable. This variant is less obvious than the journey theme and not directly stated. Therefore the tracing of this theme through imagery poses a problem of interpretation. A certain image might be more than an element in the scenery, it might contribute to the poem's meaning, but how much significance we are meant to find in that image is not specified by Wang Wei. Instead we have to bring together hints scattered through many poems to lend some weight to the reading of a single occurrence which might otherwise be a case of over-reading. There is no certainty, however, that in each case the same truth is being so delicately hinted at. These uncertainties do not exist in every poem; Wang Wei can be disconcertingly flat about his meaning. However, where the uncertainties do exist, in Wang Wei it is not enough to consider each occurrence of the image on its own.

The function of the image of white clouds, an image which occurs in about twenty poems, illustrates this problem of interpretation. In many of the poems, the reader feels that the white clouds must be a significant image, but what it is and what is implied in each case is not always specified. I would like to go into this in a little detail.

An example of the unfixed significance of white clouds occurs in the following poem:

Playing on flutes, we cross to the far shore.
At day's end, I see off my friends.
On the lake, I turn back once—
Around the hill's green are wreathed white clouds.

The poem is the eleventh of the set of twenty quatrains, the "Wang-ch'uan Garland," which Wang Wei wrote about various scenic points on his country estate. This one is entitled "Lake Yi." Is it as simple as it appears to be? The first two lines are purely narration. Are the last two lines more significant? Is it significant that the white clouds are placed last? I will return to this poem later.

In several other poems, the white clouds lie in the unspecified distance, and mark a place towards which some are headed and to which others long to go. It seems to be the ultimate and natural resolution of the scenes of nature described, the home of one's true self. Accordingly, the verb kuei ("to go home") is often used of going there. Examples are:

I am returning to the foot of the Southern

Where white clouds will never fail.
My heart has always been in the green hills,
As though to keep company with the massed white clouds.
Saddled for going home, beyond the white clouds.

These white clouds exist only in the mind, clearly a symbol for a longed-for place, though, unlike the Peach Blossom Spring, not a readily describable ideal place.

In general, no one is shown as having reached that place, although no difficulties are placed in the way of going. The white clouds are far away, but there is no implication that they are unreachable, or that one needs special qualifications—wisdom, unworldliness, etc.,—to make the journey. It is simply that they are described from a distance. People do live among the white clouds. For example, in lines quoted earlier, monasteries are located within the clouds. But those clouds exist only for the viewer looking upon them from a distance. In poems where one is actually at the monastery, it is only an inhabited monastery and white clouds are not mentioned. There is no line such as "In the midst of white clouds." In a poem about the majestic Chung-shan Mountain, when the poet "turns to look, the white clouds have closed up," but when he "enters it, in the blue mist I see nothing." The image is beautifully apt, for clouds do dissolve into mist when one is in them, so when the poet has covered the distance, he enters to see "nothing."

This double view of the same place depending upon the poet's location and emphasizing the inaccessibility of the place is seen very clearly in the poem "Lament for Yin Yao":

We escorted your return for burial on Shih-lou
Dark and green, the pines, the cypresses, as the
guests turned home.

Your bones are buried under white clouds, for all
Only the flowing stream reaches the human world.

The poet has accompanied his friend's coffin to Shih-lou Mountain and seen his burial (lines 1 and 2). After his return, he visualizes it as the place of the white clouds, remote, its only communication with the world a stream.

The white clouds are most within reach when they can be gazed upon. The two together, the viewer and the clouds, define the boundaries of an ideal world. The poet's content is to sit and gaze:

I walk to where the waters end
And sit and watch the clouds begin.

In the past we stopped on our excursions
When we had come to where the clouds end.

Wang Wei admires a friend's study:

I envy your refuge here:
A distant view of white clouds.

Now let us return to the poem "Lake Yi":

Playing on flutes, we cross to the far shore.
At day's end, I see off my friends.
On the lake, I turn back once—
Around the hill's green are wreathed white clouds.

The poet has made a pleasant excursion out of seeing off his friends, and in line 3 he recrosses the lake to return home. When part way on this crossing he turns to look back, he is looking towards the place, and the day, he has just left: the green hills and white clouds show an untroubled serenity. What is the meaning of this sight? The recrossing of the lake has placed a distance between that day's gaieties and the quiet now. The white clouds confirm that distance; they reveal nothing of what had passed that day and hint at the finality of its pastness. Their presence—their passivity almost—is a comment on the pleasures of the day. That the image can bear the weight of such a firm closural function with some confidence is due not to the poem alone but also to the occurrences of the image in other poems.

It is interesting to see a later evolution in the white clouds image in a poem by Yuan Mei (1716-98). In this poem, "white clouds" has lost its faint capacity to hint at some meaning. The last couplet of a 32-line poem, the clouds nicely end the poet's visit to an unsophisticated village. Naturally the Peach Blossom Spring story is also referred to. I give the first and last couplets:

I saw in the distance peach orchards in leaf,
But did not know what village it was.

My one regret is that I must leave it;
I turn my head; there are only white clouds.

The white clouds, the distance, peach blossoms, and rustic utopia have all blended together in Yuan Mei's easy geniality.

As an image acquires more significance, its vividness in nature begins to fade. The reader begins to discount the literalness of some of the recurring images: the white clouds in a sense had to be there across Lake Yi. The immediacy of the scene gives way before the philosophical meaning that is implied in the recurrence of the images. This is true of the sound of the bell, of the white clouds, and of other images such as the empty mountains or the woodcutters. As the literalness of the images loses force, the questions of the reader about the philosophical meanings grow stronger. As in the case of the white clouds, one could consider all the occurrences together in order to return to an understanding of one poem. Knowing how much to draw upon Buddhist thought as an extra-poetical context would help in these circumstances. We may learn for instance the weight of pu chih ("do not know") when it occurs without an object, and of k'ung ("empty"), so central a concept in Buddhism. In this paper I have suggested mainly literal readings because I want to emphasize that these words first have a literal function in the poem. The pattern of images I have suggested I hope will prove to hold on several levels and to remain an identifying mark for Wang Wei on the simplest level of the visualizable world he created.

Can poems be explained at a less elaborate length by referring directly to Buddhism? I think that it is a step which follows literary analysis. At this point, for example, we may ask whether the gazing upon clouds can be considered a secular form of contemplation. The unstriving movement towards knowledge I described as a theme is certainly familiar from Buddhism, as is the distance between humans and an enlightened state. I suggest that by fully tracing out a theme, one then knows what kinds of correspondences to seek in Buddhist philosophies. In other words the literary analysis precedes the philosophical one. The theme is after all expressed in literary terms. To say that "Visiting Hsiang-chi Monastery" is Buddhistic because it is a monastery the poet visited rather than because of other qualities in the poem eliminates its literary existence. The problem, however, with this approach—literary analysis preceding philosophical analysis—is that the answers tend to be restricted to a kind of perception of Buddhist influence that is probably too diffuse to satisfy those readers who feel vividly the Buddhist nature of the poems. These answers tend to boil down to the conclusion that certain themes thread through the poems because the consciousness that brought them before us was imbued with Buddhism. Only the themes perceived (and the examples selected) might vary with the analysis. What this approach cannot provide is an answer which states that these poems in their details specifically contain certain Buddhist views of phenomena and truth.

What if we began from the other direction, by considering the possible Buddhist meaning before the literary detail? Of the critics who do give examples of what they mean by the Ch'an nature of Wang Wei's poetry, few also explain how to read the poems that way. Tu Sungpo is one who does, and so I give his reading of the first two poems translated in this essay as an illustration of the direct philosophical approach:

In Ching Brook white stones jut out,
The sky is cold, red leaves thinning.
On the mountain path, there had been no rain,
The cloudless blue, clothes are dampened.

—"In the mountains"

All at rest, the cassia flowers fall.
The night is quiet, the spring mountains empty.
The moon appears, startling mountain birds,
Which from time to time cry out from the spring

—"Birdcries Stream"

Of "In the mountains" Tu Sung-po writes:

Concealed are principles of Ch'an. The first two lines show that when the visible is exhausted the tao manifests itself (hsiang ch'iung tao hsien) and that the essential is revealed through its function (t'i yu yung hsien). The second couplet shows that the tao has no physical form (tao wu hsing-chih), but can be responded to and known. If one does not bring to the poem this kind of empathy, then he will see only the technical skill of the polished lines and completely miss what may be called the t'ien-ch'ü of the lines.

And of "Birdcries Stream":

When a person is at rest, all reaches its quietest (ching chi). He becomes aware of the falling of the cassia flowers. His mind (nei hsin) and his setting (wai ching) are as one and thus he becomes aware of the emptiness of the spring mountains. Into this quietness enters a sudden stimulus (chi): the moon comes out and the birds cry in alarm. Thus is illustrated the sphere of stimulus (chi ching).

One great difference is that this type of interpretation can only be couched in Buddhist terms, for which I have retained the Chinese. Is it possible to arrive at the same explanation of the poems through literary analysis? Yes and no. In the poem "In the mountains," the second couplet has a certain mysteriousness about it (why are his clothes damp? is there a mist? why an empty sky rather than cloudless [for cloudless is my paraphrase]? why yuan?). One naturally asks whether the mystery spills over into the other lines and imparts a deeper meaning to the whole poem. For the literary critic, the question is raised by the poem itself in the unexpectedness of the description. I have no explanation for the poem myself, but Tu Sung-po does. Comparing his with the poem, I can see that the mysteriously wet clothes can be accounted for as an image of the nonphysical tao, but why involve the first couplet? Literarily the couplets are quite different, but the philosophies Tu attaches to them are of equal weight. If symbolism can be read into the landscape of the first couplet, why not into every landscape described? What are the limits?

The interpretation of "Birdcries Stream" is problematical in a different way. There is no mystery in the poem, and one could give the same description of the poem's development from silence to sudden sound without bringing up Buddhist terminology. The assignment of a technical term, stimulus, to the moon's appearance is the chief addition. What a Buddhist reading misses is that, because of the name of the stream and the title of the poem, the birds' being startled into cries turns the poem on one level into an etymological poem. The literary critic would raise a question about the poem's meaning only because otherwise it seems an inconsequential, though very nice, poem.

Tu Sung-po may well be right in both poems about Wang Wei's intent. There is no way directly to verify it. The Chinese tradition seems to allow an interpretation that parallels the poem without being anchored in it at any point. The oddest example is the way in which love poems from the Shih ching were used, according to the Tso chuan, in interstate diplomacy with perfect understanding on all sides. (The Shih ching poem sung by the envoy substitutes for speech and the poem's scenario is supposed to parallel the situation between the two states.) This is interesting because it is a well-documented instance of the complete confidence and total agreement with which certain poems were at one time understood—and yet from an external source, the discipline of folklore and mythology, we can say with some sureness that theirs was a misunderstanding about the nature of the poems. The question in Wang Wei's case is whether he intended his nature poems to carry a parallel philosophical life as some of the Shih ching poems did a political life. Short of external proof, the question is complicated to resolve. The position of the literary critic is conservative in not assuming any intention on the poet's part that cannot be discovered within the poem. Perhaps by this method, however, not enough meaning can be recovered from the poems to do them full justice.

There is overlap and empathy between poetry and Ch'an Buddhism, especially in rhetorical devices. Thus all critics assume that it is Ch'an which permeates Wang Wei's poems, though in fact which sect or sects he held to is not known. In choosing to write poetry, however, Wang Wei displayed no consciousness that language might be unable to express truths, as the Ch'an sect taught. Moreover, although there is empathy between poetry and Ch'an, between poetry and true Buddhist (or Ch'an) poems there is a great difference. In Buddhist poems written to convey a teaching or to voice a truth seen at the moment of enlightenment, the intent of the author is unmistakable: everything in such a poem stands for some-thing else and the whole illustrates a lesson. The appeal is in the beauty of thought. In poetry, there is no such certainty about the creator's intent, and the appeal is in the beauty of language. There is no evidence that, devout as Wang Wei was, he ever attained enlightenment, though such themes hover around his poems.

However much these poems are Buddhistic in premise or inspiration, the level in the poetry that can be paraphrased by reference to Buddhist philosophies is probably not unique to Wang Wei. Poetry, unlike religion, values the language in which a truth is conveyed as much as the truth itself; the paraphrased truth of a poem deprived of the language of which it is composed may be no more than cliché whereas the truth of religion is absolute, unqualifiable by clumsiness of expression. It is by using the secular tools of language that Wang Wei has preserved for us so much of the beauty of his temporal world and of its eternal principles.

Robert Aitken

SOURCE: "The Old Pond," in A Zen Wave: Basho's Haiku and Zen, John Weatherhill, Inc., 1978, pp. 25-29.

[In the following essay, Aitken analyzes a Buddhist haiku poem by Matsuo Basho.]

The old pond;
A frog jumps in—
The sound of the water.

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

Old pond!
frog jumps in
water of sound

The form Ya is a cutting word that separates and yet joins the expressions before and after. It is punctuation that marks a transition—a particle of anticipation.

Though there is a pause in meaning at the end of the first segment, the next two parts have no pause between them. In the original, the words of the second and third parts build steadily to the final word oto. This has penetrating impact—"the frog jumps in water's sound." Haiku poets commonly play with their base of three parts, running the meaning past the end of one segment into the next, playing with their form, as all artists do variations on the form they are working with. Actually, the word haiku means "play verse."

The Japanese language uses postpositions rather than prepositions, so phrases like the last segment of this haiku should be reversed when translated into English: "water of sound" becomes "sound of water."


This is probably the most famous poem in Japan, and after three hundred years of repetition it has, understandably, become a little stale for Japanese people. Thus as English readers, we may have something of an edge in any effort to see it freshly.

The first line is simply "The old pond." This sets the scene—a large, perhaps overgrown lily pond in a garden somewhere. We may imagine that the edges are quite mossy and probably rather broken down. With the frog as our cue, we guess that it is twilight in late spring.

This setting of time and place needs to be established, but there is more. "Old" is a cue word of another sort. For a poet such as Basho, an evening beside a mossy pond is ancient indeed. Basho presents his own mind as this timeless, endless pond, serene and potent—a condition familiar to mature Zen students.

In one of his first teisho (presentations of the Dharma) in Hawaii, Yamada Koun Roshi said: "When your consciousness has become ripe by true zazen—pure like clear water, like a serene mountain lake, not moved by any wind—then anything may serve as a medium for enlightenment."

D. T. Suzuki once said that the condition of the Buddha's mind while he was sitting under the bodhi tree was that of sagara mudra samadhi (ocean-seal absorption). In this instance, "mudra" is translated as "seal," as in "notary seal." We seal our zazen with our zazen mudra, left hand over the right, thumbs touching. Our minds are sealed with the serenity and depth of the great ocean in true zazen.

It was in such a condition that the Buddha happened to look up and notice the morning star. As Yamada Roshi has said, any stimulus would do—a sudden breeze with the dawn, the first twittering of birds, the appearance of the sun itself. It just happened to be a star in this case.

In Basho's haiku, a frog appears. To Japanese of sensitivity, frogs are dear little creatures, and Westerners may at least appreciate this animal's energy and immediacy. Plop!

"Plop" is onomatopoeic, as is oto in this instance. Onomatopoeia is the presentation of an action by its sound, or at least that is its definition in literary criticism. The poet may prefer to say that he himself becomes that sound. Thus the parody by Sengai Gibon is very instructive:

The old pond!
Basho jumps in,
The sound of the water!

Hsiang-yen Chih-hsien became a sound while cleaning the grave of Nan-yang Hui-chung. His broom caught a little stone which sailed through the air and hit a stalk of bamboo. Tock! He had been working on the koan "My original face before my parents were born," and with that sound his body and mind fell away completely. There was only that tock. Of course, Hsiang-yen was ready for this experience. He was deep in the samadhi of sweeping leaves and twigs from the grave of an old master, just as Basho is lost in the samadhi of an old pond, and just as the Buddha was deep in the samadhi of the great ocean.

Samadhi means "absorption," but fundamentally it is unity with the whole universe. When you devote yourself to what you are doing, moment by moment—to your koan when on your cushion in zazen, to your work, study, conversation, or whatever in daily life—that is samadhi. Do not suppose that samadhi is exclusively Zen Buddhist. Everything and everybody are in samadhi, even bugs, even people in mental hospitals.

Absorption is not the final step in the way of the Buddha. Hsiang-yen changed with that tock. When he heard that tiny sound, he began a new life. He found himself at last, and could then greet his master confidently and lay a career of teaching whose effect is still felt today. After this experience, he wrote:

One stroke has made me forget all my previous knowledge.
No artificial discipline is at all needed;
In every movement I uphold the ancient way
And never fall into the rut of mere quietism;
Wherever I walk no traces are left,
And my senses are not fettered by rules of conduct;
Everywhere those who have attained to the truth
All declare this to be of the highest order.

The Buddha changed with noticing the morning star—"Now when I view all beings everywhere," he said, "I see that each of them possesses the wisdom and virtue of the Buddha …"—and after a week or so he rose from beneath the tree and began his lifetime of pilgrimage and teaching.

Similarly, Basho changed with that plop. The some 650 haiku that he wrote during his remaining eight years point surely and boldly to the fact of essential nature. A beforeand-after comparison may be illustrative of this change. For example, let us examine his much-admired "Crow on a Withered Branch."

On a withered branch
A crow is perched:
An autumn evening.

Kare eda ni
kara su no tomari keri
aki no kure

Withered branch on
crow of perched:
autumn of evening

Unlike English, Japanese allows use of the past participle (or its equivalent) as a kind of noun, so in this haiku we have the "perchedness" of the crow, an effect that cannot really be duplicated in English.

Basho wrote this haiku six years before he composed "The Old Pond," and some scholars assign to it the mile-stone position that is more commonly given the later poem. I think, however, that on looking into the heart of "Crow on a Withered Branch" we may see a certain immaturity. Though the poem certainly demonstrates his evocative power, that is not enough. Something is missing. What this haiku shows us, in fact, is quietism, the trap Hsiang-yen and all other great teachers of Zen warn us to avoid. Sagara mudra samadhi is not adequate; remaining indefinitely under the bodhi tree will not do; to muse without emerging is to be unfulfilled.

Ch'ang-sha Ching-ts'en made reference to this incompleteness in his criticism of a brother monk who was lost in quietism:

You who sit on the top of a hundred-foot pole,
Although you have entered the way, it is not yet
Take a step from the top of the pole

And show your whole body in the ten directions.

The student of Zen who is stuck in the vast, serene condition of nondiscrimination must take another step to become mature.

Basho's haiku about the crow would be an expression of the "first principle," essential nature, emptiness all by itself—separated from the world of sights and sounds, coming and going. This is the ageless pond without the frog. It was another six years before Basho took that one step from the top of the pole into the dynamic world of reality, where frogs play freely in the pond and thoughts play freely in the mind.

The old pond has no walls;
A frog just jumps in;
Do you say there is an echo?

Jo Sanders

SOURCE: "Zen Buddhism and the Japanese Haiku," in Anagogic Qualities of Literature, edited by Joseph P. Strelka, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1971, pp. 211-17.

[In the following essay, Sanders examines the importance of Buddhist enlightenment—called satori—to haiku poetry.]

Zen Buddhism, which came from India by way of China to Japan, has had a great influence on Japanese culture in general and Japanese art in particular. Suzuki points out that "the idea that the ultimate truth of life and of things generally is to be intuitively and not conceptually grasped is what Zen has contributed to the cultivation of artistic appreciation among the Japanese people."1 At this very point we find the closest connection between Zen and haiku poetry, that is, in their intuitive rather than conceptual apprehension of life which is concentrated into one brief, yet atemporal moment. This is satori in Zen, or what Yasuda calls "the haiku moment,"2 the aesthetic experience in haiku. Satori is enlightenment (similar to the concept wu in Chinese), a self-awakening, quite similar to the unio mystica of Christian mysticism. The haiku poet may also experience an enlightenment, which is seeing reality as it is, seeing "kono-mama" or "sono-mama" (similar to the Sanskrit thatata): the suchness, the is-ness of things, with no value judgments as to goodness, badness, or the comparative worth of objects, but accepting everything just as it is. A glimpse into the intrinsic nature of things is afforded by haiku, the seventeen syllable brevity of which allows us one swift image of the world en soi.

Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry which is generally characterized by three main elements: first, its form, usually consisting of seventeen syllables divided into the pattern 5-7-5; second, the use of a seasonal word or theme; and third, the restriction of the poem to one scene, experience, or image. The best haiku do not directly express emotions or ideas; a concrete picture is presented and its interpretation is left to the reader. As Otsuji indicates, "What is expressed in a haiku is a very small aspect of phenomena; yet what the poet experiences is the reality hidden behind what he expresses."3

Suzuki states that a haiku puts forward images reflecting intuitions. "These images are not figurative representations made use of by the poetic mind, but they directly point to original intuitions, indeed, they are intuitions themselves. When the latter are attained, the images become transparent and are immediate expressions of the experience. An intuition in itself, being too intimate, too personal, too immediate, cannot be communicated to others; to do this it calls up images by means of which it becomes transferable. But to those who have never had such an experience it is difficult, even impossible, to reach the fact itself merely through images, because in this case images are transformed into ideas or concepts, and the mind then attempts to give them an intellectual interpretation. Such an attempt altogether destroys the inner truth and beauty of haiku."4

The roots of haiku reach back to the very beginnings of Japanese poetry. Yasuda indicates that the characteristics typical of haiku: ellipsis, condensation, spontaneity, and nakedness of treatment, are already commonly found in the katauta form of poetry around 700 A.D. Related verse forms—sedoka, choka, and tanka—developed into the renga or linked verse, the opening stanza of which was called hokku and was written in the pattern 5-7-5. The hokku fulfilled a function similar to the use of the title in the West: it summarized the theme of the poem. From this hokku the haiku developed into an independent form as early as the fifteenth century.

The haiku has undergone very little change since its origin. The zenith of its evolution was undoubtedly reached in the seventeenth century with the poetry of Basho (d. 1694); since then there have been small peaks in the history of haiku, but the general trend in quality has been downward. In 1957 there were approximately fifty monthly haiku magazines being published in Japan and individual haiku appeared frequently in other periodicals. Henderson estimates that over a million new haiku are published each year, and innumerable others are written privately and enjoyed within a limited circle.5 These figures would perhaps suggest a haiku renaissance today. There is indeed a renewed interest in haiku, but it must be emphasized that this does not necessarily indicate a spiritual renaissance; many haiku are written by poets who have never experienced satori.

In order to understand where satori is to be found in haiku, we must examine the concept of satori more closely. Unfortunately, the best one can do is hint at its innermost nature because, as in the unio mystica of Christian mysticism, one can work all around the essence of the experience verbally without really approaching the heart of the phenomenon. Blyth referred a "spiritual orgasm".6 Suzuki explains has it as acquiring to satori as a new viewpoint for looking into the essence of things.7 He tries to define satori by enumerating its most prominent characteristics, and it is striking how similar they are to the features of unio mystica reported by Christian mystics. These eight traits are:8

  1. Irrationality. Satori is not attained by a logical process of ratiocination, and it cannot be explained coherently.
  2. Intuitive insight. Another name for satori is kensho, which means "to see essence or nature." One perceives the essence of reality; objects become transparent. Satori is the knowledge of an individual object and also of reality which is at the back of it.
  3. Authoritativeness. Because the satori experience is direct and personal it cannot be refuted by logic; it is sufficient unto itself.
  4. Impersonal tone. Satori is a highly intellectual state, not an emotional one.
  5. Feeling of exaltation. One feels a calmness and mild exaltation at the overcoming of the individual being.
  6. Affirmation. This is not seeing things in a positive or negative view, but accepting them as they are.
  7. Sense of the Beyond. The experience of satori extends beyond the personal level, although it never embraces the concept of a personal God as Western mysticism may do.
  8. Momentariness. Satori usually comes abruptly and unexpectedly and is a very brief experience.

Although nearly everyone agrees with some of Suzuki's points, many experts would omit some of his characteristics and add some that he has not mentioned. A briefer listing of traits, yet one which is preferred by some, is the following:9

  1. Illumination.
  2. Thoughtlessness yet awareness. Non-distinction or jijimuge is the "unimpeded interdiffusion of all particulars."10
  3. Elimination of dualism. There is no perceiver, no "perceived," no subject, no object. "The perceiving I is in one sense unaltered," explains Humphreys. "It still sees the morning paper that it knows so well, and the bus to the office remains unaltered, but the perceiver and the perceived have merged into one, and the two-ness of things has gone. The undifferentiated totality of things is, as it were, understood from inside."11
  4. Stoppage of breathing.

Satori may be either a sudden or a gradual achievement. It may be totally unexpected or it may come after a series of steps or stages designed to lead one up to enlightenment, such as the koans provide. However, even using the gradual stages provided by meditation on the koans, satori comes abruptly and often when one least expects it. Also, there are various degrees of satori, depending on the depth of the experience.

To achieve satori is to overcome the dualistic way of thinking; it is to become conscious of the unconscious. Only the experience which evolves from a person's inner being can be truly his own. His innermost being opens up its deep secrets only when he has passed beyond the realm of conceptual thinking to the sphere of the unconscious, of mushin, no-mind, which means "going beyond the dualism of all forms of life being and non-being."12 The mind is empty of thought as Takuan (d. 1645) demonstrates in this poem:

To think that I am not going
To think of you any more
Is still thinking of you.
Let me then try not to think
That I am not going to think of you.13

In a state of mushin one may become egoless; the unconscious may go beyond a personal unconscious, or even a collective unconscious, to a sort of cosmic unconscious.14 Hisamatsu calls satori "recognizing the real noumenon of a person, his original feature… [It is becoming] one who is unhinderedly free, released from all chains, one who recognizes himself truly, being no longer attached to the forms of matter and of spirit, one who faces the present world of existence and non-existence, life and death, good and evil, pro and con." 15

Eugen Herrigel calls satori "jumping into a new dimension."16 The first characteristic of the new way of seeing, he asserts, is "that all things are of equal importance in its sight.… They all seem to have acquired an absolute value." Haiku underscores the basic equality of all things when the body of a dead dog or a "horse pissing" near the poet's ear are not better or worse, no more or less important than Basho's frog or the cherry blossoms at Yoshino. Blyth correctly maintains that in haiku "man has no dignity, nature no majesty."17 The truth of the universe is expressed in one small intuitive image. Let us look more closely at Basho's famous frog haiku:

The ancient pond.
A frog jumps in.

This is not just a serene landscape interrupted by a frog plunging into the water. It is this, but it is also much more: it opened a new perspective of reality for Basho. A Christian would say that Basho saw God in a frog as frog. The sound of the water "was heard by Basho as filling the entire universe. Not only was the totality of the environment absorbed in the sound and vanished into it, but Basho himself ness." Basho from his was ceased altogether being effaced28 the old Basho; he conscious- heard the plop of the frog in the water and was enlightened. He saw the suchness, the is-ness of things; he beheld the world with new eyes. Reality became transparent for him in this experience of satori. Basho was not unprepared for this, for he had attained mushin, the state of no-mind, having gone beyond consciousness to the cosmic unconscious. In the middle of his selflessness, the sound of the water cut across his tranquility and caused him to perceive reality from a new point of view.

Satori is impersonal in that the Self has been overcome and an unconscious level below the ego has been reached. Haiku, too, must be egoless. The poet must not project his philosophy, ideas, or purposes into the poem; he is merely the person giving expression to the intuition. An example of haiku which is rather poor because it speculates against speculation was written by Basho:

When the lightning flashes,
How admirable he who thinks not—
"Life is fleeting."

Humor is an essential element in Zen Buddhism and may also find a place in haiku, but wittiness certainly does not belong there. In haiku the poet must submerge himself in an object until its intrinsic nature becomes evident. Witty or speculative haiku come from without, not from within; they contain no Zen and certainly are never representative of a poet's satori. There cannot be such a thing as a haiku with a point; this device merely drags the poem down to the level of an epigram. Sokan's haiku does not succeed, in my opinion:

If to the moon
One puts a handle—what
A splendid fan!

In haiku, just as in the Christian unio mystica or the Buddhist satori, there is a central point of silence, a sanctum silencium, which can never be touched by words. That is why haiku merely points, suggests, indicates; it never explains. In haiku as in most good poetry, the half is better than the whole. Moritake (d. 1549) goes a bit too far in making an obvious comparison:

A morning-glory!
And so—today!—may seem
my own life-story.

The brevity of the haiku poem is by no means an accident. Kenneth Yasuda, Herbert Read, and Igarashi explain it as being the average length of the breath a person draws, and thus the length of the haiku is determined by the number of words one can utter in a normal breath. Yasuda calls this the duration of the state of "ahness."19 That is, when one is moved bya scene, say the first spring crocus, the duration of one's wonder, as expressed by a drawn-out "ahhhhhhhhh," is the length of a breath. So too the experience works in haiku. This act of perception is explained by Read: "All art originates in an intuition, or vision.… This act of vision or intuition is, physically, a state of concentration or tension in the mind.… The words which express this vision are arranged or composed in a sequence or rhythm which is sustained until the mental state of tension in the poet is exhausted or released by this objective equivancle.20 Blyth agrees with this interpretation of the length of haiku: "The philosophic significance of 5, 7, 5 in Japanese syllables, may be this. Seventeen such syllables are one emission of breath, one exhalation of soul. The division into three gives us the feeling of ascent, attainment and resolution of experience."21

Blyth, in his authoritative four-volume work on haiku, sums up the spirit of Zen Buddhism in Japanese haiku: "A haiku is the expression of a temporary enlightenment, in which we see into the life of things.… Each thing is preaching the law [Dharma] incessantly, but this law isnot something different from the thing itself. Haiku is the revealing of this preaching by presenting us with the thing devoid of all our mental twisting and emotional discoloration; or rather it shows the thing as it exists at one and the same time outside and inside the mind, perfectly subjective, ourselves undivided from the object, the object in its original unity with ourselves.… It is a way in which the cold winter rain, the swallows of evening, even the very day in its hotness and the length of the night become truly alive, share in our humanity, speak their own silent and expressive language."22


1 D. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture (New York, 1959), p. 218.

2K. Yasuda, The Japanese Haiku (Rutland, Vermont, and Tokyo, 1957), p. 24.

3Otsuji, Otsuji Hairon-shu (Tokyo, p. 24. 1947), p. 131.

4Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, pp. 240-241.

5H. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku (Garden City, New York, 1958), pp.1-2.

6R. H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics (Tokyo, 1942), p. 176.

7Suzuki, Introduction to Zen Buddhism (Kyoto, 1934), P. 127.

8Suzuki, The Essentials of Zen Buddhism (New York, 1962), pp. 163-168.

9C. C Chang, The Practice of Zen (New York, 1959), pp. 152-3.

10C. Humphreys, Zen Buddhism (London, 1949), p. 115.

11Ibid., p. 116.

12Suzuki, Essentials, p. 441.

13Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, p. 112.

14Ibid., p. 110.

15S. Hisamatsu, "Zen and the Various Acts," Chicago Review, vol. 1958.

16E. Herrigel, The Method of zen (New York, 1960), p. 46

17Blyth, A History of Haiku (Tokyo, 1964), vol. 1, p. 28.

18Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, p. 228.

19Yasuda, p. 31.

20H. Read, Form in Modern Poetry (London, 1953), pp. 44-45.

21Blyth, History of Haiku, vol. 2, p. 350.

22Blyth, Haiku (Tokyo, 1947-52), vol. 1, pp. 270-271.

Lucien Stryk with Kent Johnson

SOURCE: "Lucien Stryk: An Interview by Kent Johnson," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 19, No. 2, March/April, 1990, pp. 47-55.

[In the following interview, Stryk, an American poet and translator of Zen poetry, reveals his thoughts on the work of Takahashi Shinkichi, the art of translation, and the nature of Zen in poetry.]

[Kent Johnson:] Your work in the past two decades as translator and scholar has been instrumental in bringing Zen literature to the English-speaking world. Your translations of the poems of Shinkichi Takahashi are among the work that has caused the most impact. Sadly, you received a call from Japan a few months ago informing you of his death. I was wondering if you'd be so kind as to reflect today on what his work and friendship have meant to you, both personally and as a poet.

[Lucien Stryk:] The friendship has meant everything, and I have felt strongly for many years now that he was one of the great poets of the world. This obviously made my sense of him very special. I felt always, in his company, that I was privileged in being with a very great spirit. This led, I suppose, to my taking the greatest possible care with his poetry. The desire at all times was to give the English-speaking reader as full a sense as possible of this man's genius.

So because of the high regard I had for his character and his poetry, the friendship was very special; I would say, in fact, that the feeling was more familiar than such relationships tend to be. It certainly wasn't a literary relationship. I have a very great feeling for his life, not only as a poet, but as a husband and father of two daughters.

I also had a very strong sense of his position in the literary community of Japan. He, of course, benefited, as all would, from his special gift, and was recognized for it. But at the same time he was thought by many as some-thing of an oddball, an outsider—his was a very special kind of position. The feeling, I'll tell you, was very exceptional, and I've never known anyone like him. He set the standard for me. I take it we're going to be talking about the nature of Zen poetry, or of matters along those lines, and perhaps I might say at this time that when I think of Zen poetry written by anyone, wherever in the world, it's always measured against what he accomplished. And this is something that I have become conscious of, if anything, more acutely in recent years, when I have been asked rather often to comment on the work of Zennists—some of the moderns who write what is sometimes termed "Zen poetry." There's always the feeling that he accomplished the very rare feat of expressing his Zen spirit fully through poetry. And this, I think, is very rarely achieved, in Japan or elsewhere. Now when we talk of the older Zen poetry, the sort that I included in books such as Zen Poetry and The Crane's Bill, well there, of course, we have great masters and the pure expression of profound insight.

Takahashi's verse is filled with the depth of those older poems. He was of an extraordinary character, as might be expected of an enlightened man, given formal testimonial of his achievement by Shizan Ashikaga, one of the great modern masters. He is, in my judgment, unsurpassed as a poet of our day. What his person, his friendship, have meant to me, is very difficult indeed to put into words.

Judging from comments of his, Takahashi also thought quite a bit of you.

A very remarkable thing, for I had no idea why! What I think he felt was that I made a very great effort to understand him and to render his poetry as it should be in English. Takahashi read English, as you might know, so we worked closely with him through the drafting process. When I say "we," I am speaking, of course, of the late Takashi Ikemoto, my friend and collaborator on so many projects. A very interesting, often complex process… Takahashi gave permission in many cases for things in the original to be left out, simply because they did not work well in English. One of the best examples is in the poem "Burning Oneself to Death," one of the best known and most admired of his poems. There was material—about a stanza—that I felt was too discursive. Not in Japanese, perhaps, but no amount of trying could bring it over adequately into English. Hence he agreed, after discussion, that it would be all right to cut that out. This actually happened in a number of cases, and Ikemoto mentions this in his brief account of our translation practice in Zen Poetry. So in many cases you have pieces that are greatly compacted, but always with his stamp of approval. The creative element hence became enthralling, because, you see, I was given virtually a free hand in working with the material.

What Takahashi saw as my major qualification was my involvement in Zen thought. It certainly wasn't linguistic, because that work I couldn't have done on my own; I had to work very closely with Ikemoto and Takahashi. There was a sense of exuberance working on texts that were far more than poetry—they were documents, spiritual documents of the most important kind. And when Afterimages, the first collection, came out, there were responses that suggested the poems could indeed affect lives in a very profound way.

I remember Jim Harrison's essay in the American Poetry Review.

Yes, his was especially moving—and as you may know Zen is of deep importance to him. The work on the Takahashi poems has always been of that kind, a spiritual exercise, more than just the making of literary translations. Anyhow, these are some of the things I have felt for him.

I was aware that there were a few poems that were "compressed," where things were left out. But it seemssome might object, on the basis that the original text was being manipulated.

I think that when the translator is privileged to work with the poet, it's not so much a matter of literalness, because, you see, the poet has made a judgment regarding the nature of what is being done. Takahashi's approval in some instances of deleting material came out of his understanding of the difficulties of bringing certain things into another language. The question of literalness is a central one in translation, of course, but I think in the case of our work with Takashi, we were seeking always to transmit—as "literally" as possible—the spiritual energy of the poem.

Could one say that the more highly charged the "spiritual energy" of a text such as one tends to find in Zen poetry the more open to interpretive possibility the translator should be?

Exactly what I have to do as translator of Takahashi is rise to the challenge; rise with passion and tact when that is called for. I've never thought of a translator as someone who should be an apologist, always worried, hat in hand, about the degree of faithfulness to the original. But as someone who when working intensely can spark those magical moments, when in fact he is the equal of the person he is translating—he must be that equal in order to render those poems properly. This is particularly true of Zen literature; an energy level as great as the poet's, a like degree of linguistic inventiveness, simply has to be there, there cannot be a gulf between such things. Otherwise there is only the husk.

When was your last meeting with Takahashi?

Two summers ago. It was when I was in Japan putting together Triumph of the Sparrow and also beginning an Issa volume.

Did he give you new poems at that time?

No, he was too ill to be thinking of new poetry. When I was with him that last time he couldn't even stand. You might remember my mentioning that he postponed a visit to the hospital to spend time with me. That touched me very deeply. But he had said the important Zen poems were behind him, and in his last years he was occupied mainly with prose, though far from prolifically. Actually, the poems I've translated were selected from a large group—they represent only that part of his work that I felt capable of dealing with. Other translators, perhaps, will attempt those other poems someday.

So many of the poems still overwhelm me when I think of them: Poems such as "Position of the Sparrow"—I have rarely found any work of poetry which is as compact and full of the deepest philosophical insight and velocity. It's amazing to me how much he was able to get into those verses.

Clearly, then, the work with Takahashi has influenced your own poetry.

I think profoundly. But I must qualify immediately. I don't mean I have hope of ever matching his greatness—far from it!

I think the best things I have done—and some of the poems in my new collection are perhaps among them—may have a trace of his velocity and the impact that comes of the arresting image. In others I'd like to feel I've won through to moments of stillness, though one must not counterpose stillness to energy—and often in Takahashi's work there is an amazing interdependence of the two… but it's very difficult to characterize one's own work. You are familiar, I'm sure, with Stephen Berg's book, Singular Voices. I'm represented there by my poem "Awakening," and I discuss it at some length. I think that poem shows to what degree there has been from time to time in my work an attempt at that kind of compactness and rigor.

Were you aware of Takahashi when you wrote "Zen: The Rocks of Sesshu"?

I was, though less completely. The thing about that poem to me is that it was, almost by design, an attempt to deal clearly and overtly with Zen principles. Later poems, such as "Awakening" are not ostensibly about Zen, but more personal, maybe take things beyond that stage into areas of further clarity and suggestiveness. Which doesn't mean, incidently, that I would dismiss the earlier poem. I would think of it as one of my lucky moments in poetry. But it so happens that at the time I wrote that I was clearly involved in trying to grapple with and straighten out my attitudes toward Zen at a relatively early stage of my practice. Now I feel that poems written about my immediate world, sitting out in my backyard, here in DeKalb, capture the spirit more fully than anything. There are poems in the last section of my Collected Poems, like "Where We Are," which I feel are as deeply grounded in Zen as the earlier, might one say, more "doctrinaire," pieces.

Or "Willows," which is clearly about your practice, yet somehow also a ceremony of place.

Yes, "Willows," and what makes that an important poem for me is that it represents a serious effort to come to terms with problems of discipline, when one lives away from the Zen community for long periods of time. That is, "Where am I?" and "What am I doing?," and "Is it still possible for me to feel that way?" and testing, pushing those questions to their limits. I found, in doing so, what I hope is a productive metaphor.

You used the term "a lucky moment" a few minutes ago to describe writing the "Rocks of Sesshu," and that seems a curious way of referring to a poem that took you two years to compose.

Well, there are "moments" and there are moments! You see, this poem led me to other things, opened up paths I had never suspected, and I speak of this in my essay "Making Poems" in Encounter With Zen. Incidentally, I had a very special experience recently in Japan, the time I saw Takahashi for the last time. I visited Joeiji temple where "Zen: The Rocks of Sesshu" was written and made—and I hesitate to use the term, but it certainly felt like it at the time—a spiritual return to the very house in which the poem was done. It was not occupied at the time and I was able to go to the very window and look in where that was experienced, when I stayed up all night, literally, beginning to think in the early afternoon and working until 6:00 the next morning, restructuring and reworking and getting a sense of what I might do with the haiku—like patterning that was emerging so insistently.

I had a powerful sense, looking into that empty room, that I had begun there something that was central to my life. I say "lucky," for in a sense the poem was sparked by my having said something shallow about the rock garden to Tenzan Yasuda, who did not hesitate to dress me down and to challenge me to look at it with fresh eyes. "Willows," I think, was another such moment. It is a poem that deals frankly with the difficulties of practice, and it seems to have struck a chord in others to whom Zen is important: a friend wrote me recently that he's at the "seventh willow"!

As long as we are talking about poems, let me show you this one, which is very recently finished. May I read it to you? (Stryk reads "Translating Zen Poems.")

That's very fine. The image of the vase…

It is written in memory of Takashi Ikemoto, of course. This poem was another return to a room—to the one in Yamaguchi where we sat together and worked. The memories of those days are very intense. It is from a new collection, Of Pen and Ink and Paper Scraps, which will be published in 1989, and I'd like to feel that it exhibits the kind of thing we've been talking of—where such spirit takes over the work when I'm lucky. Anyhow, I was very fortunate, of course, in having Ikemoto as a friend and collaborator. He was very patient with me, and there was a perfect balance in that he was a very careful scholar, with a deep appreciation of poetry. He knew that I would have to take certain liberties, but never too many, and often he would pull on the reins!

So it was a marvelous thing; we shared in the spirit of the enterprise and in all practical ways. It was a trusting and, really, a loving relationship—a rare thing. All of it a wonderful sense of our doing something important, not only to us, but to others.

This comes back to Takahashi. In his youth Takahashi was influenced by Dada, and his first book is, in fact, titled Poems of Dadaist Shinkichi. I'm curious about the possible relationship between his intellectual and emotional involvement with Dada and his later Zen, particularly in regard to his poetry. It seems one could find analogies between the alogical dissociations in Takahashi's Zen imagery and those informing much Dada poetry and art. Are these similarities superficial, or is Dada and its iconoclastic spirit perhaps informed, at a deeper level, by intimations of Zen awareness?

I think in Takahashi's case the predisposition was clearly there, the movement away from all things conventional. For Takahashi the literature of 1920s Japan, certainly its poetry, was empty of spirit. And one day he was galvanized by an article on Dadaism which seemed to him absolutely what he was looking for. Well, Takahashi became the central figure of Japanese Dada, publishing a manifesto, his poems, even a novel entitled Dada.

He was quite confrontational during this time and was often in trouble with the police. You may remember the story, as I have told it, that he was in prison when his book of Dada poems was published. When he was handed a copy through the bars of his cell, he went into a rage and tore it up. You see, attractive as the feeling was, and as spirited as the work was that came of it, Takahashi realized that he wasn't doing anything for his life. It was that simple.

In Japan it's been a long tradition that when an artist needs help he goes not to an analyst, but to a Zen master. There's a remarkable story, mentioned in my interview with the calendar-maker in Encounters with Zen, in which Yukio Mishima sought out Shibayama-Roshi just before his ritual suicide and then canceled the appointment at the last minute. Who knows what might have happened had they met. Mishima was not a Zennist, but clearly there are instances of a Zen-like sensitivity in his work—no artist in Japan, really, can avoid being affected by Zen culture. And one might well find glimmerings of a Zen awareness in those Dada pieces of Takahashi, but—and this must be emphasized—not in any essential way. Perhaps it is useful to speak of the comparison on the level of the individual's psyche: Clearly, the state of spiritual completeness and harmony associated with Zen is quite different from the nihilism so often exhibited by those involved with Dada.

Now Takahashi wanted some advice and guidance and he went to the right man. He went to a man who was a distinguished Zen master, who would not be impressed by his poetry, but would see him as one who might use his poetry as an integral part of a spiritual quest, in handling koans, for example, as in the case of the poem "Collapse."

When he became a Zennist, naturally the poetry he wrote would reflect the kind of freedom Dadaism called for. But it was suddenly anchored in a very special world, with definite principles and clear aspirations, with concerns of a very special sort; the sort, of course, that Dada would never have. Dada had no concerns.

So he brought to his Zen inquiries that same freedom. And one might say he was prepared, as poet, for the kind of freedom that the Zen pursuit requires. But if you look at his poems with their wildness of imagery in mind, you find that when examined properly, they make the most absolute sense in Zen terms. There's nothing "dadaist" about his Zen poems. One thinks, for example, of "Burning Oneself to Death," a poem of profound spiritual and, I might say, political message. Of course, there is also much precedence in Zen literature for the kind of strange vision expressed by Takahashi—in the work of Kiso, Zekkai, Hakuin—and many others.

I'd like to return to the dynamics of form and content in Zen art, but since you mentioned the political implications of one of his poems, I'll pick that up and ask you about Zen's relevance to social issues today. In the Introduction to Afterimages, Takashi Ikemoto writes of Takahashi: "He had read Marx and Lenin and set out to discover whether Marxism or Zen had the ultimate truth." What seems implied here in the counterposition is that Marxism—and even perhaps the idea of any activist stance towards social reality—decisively lost out to Zen. Could you speak on your views concerning the relationship of Zen art and culture to the social and political issues of today?

Takahashi discusses his early attraction to Marxism in an essay called "Komu," an autobiographical essay, where he speaks of his youth and of the philosophical issues that preoccupied the young during that time. He was born in 1901, and Marxism was in its heyday—in Japan as elsewhere—during the twenties and thirties. So there was a climate of political excitement sweeping up the young intellectuals of the day, and Takahashi came to feel that too many were allowing themselves to be too easily swept up. It is in this sense that his option for Buddhism may be seen as a statement, as the taking of a stand. It was not so much a rejection of the nature of Marxism, as it was an assertion of the essential value of spiritual life. Very difficult point to make, and I'm not sure I'm making it well. But Takahashi was not then and never was "apolitical" or "reactionary."

You see, he could not compromise; the undertaking of Zen study is all-consuming. One cannot have, in Zen, two masters: one that guides and challenges the disciple to revolutionize his or her spirit, and another political or ideological one. But the full commitment to spiritual practice by no means precludes an involvement with social concerns. There is no solipsism in Zen. To the contrary, Zen practice may be seen as a ripening of the subject for a more profound and effective engagement with the world. In fact, this is the disciple's vow, to act compassionately for others. I have never encountered a Zennist who was anything less than hopeful about social progress, and indeed, the Zennists I've known were all strongly progressive in their views.

What is important to recognize is that in the Buddhist worldview, there can be no meaningful social change without an equally radical transformation of spirit. The coupling of these two tasks is, really, an expression of the Zennist's quest to break through the subject/object distinctions that govern our daily consciousness.

You mentioned that training is importantly a preparation to "act compassionately for others." Can "compassion " encompass activist positions that assume ideologically oppositional stances to the social order? One thinks of Gary Snyder, for instance.

Absolutely, and Snyder of course is our most eloquent spokesperson—and example in practice—for that joining of compassionate attitude and full commitment. Hard to measure the extent of his contribution—how the writing, life and political vision are so interwoven… an exemplary person, I feel. And of course, we have countless examples of Buddhist monks in Asia who have been visible participants in many movements and causes: against nuclear weapons, for human rights and democracy in various nations, against the war in Southeast Asia. One mustn't deny that there has been, at times, a quietist impulse. Snyder himself has spoken critically of this; certainly Zen has not had throughout its history a hegemonic stance in terms of social action. But, clearly we know that there is no fundamental conflict between Zen spirit and enlightened action. I would say that Buddhism has had, and must have, a meaningful role to play in movements for peace and especially in defense of the planet's environment. There is no question that the current disregard for the planet's ecology is a profoundly spiritual problem.

I had an interesting experience a number of years back. Let me tell you about it, as it may strike home with the things we are talking about. During the sixties, Alan Watts befriended me. He admired, and was kind enough to say so, the early book of mine, World of the Buddha. It was around the time of the '68 election. Watts was invited to give a talk at Purdue University and he suggested that I be invited to be on the panel, which also included Van Meeter Ames and a Japanese Zen Master. I myself had the highest regard for Watts's book, The Way of Zen, and found him to be a most generous person. Anyhow, Watts was the keynote speaker and he was very persuasive, because he was a very brilliant man and a thoroughly engaging orator.

There was a huge crowd and the election was very much in the air. McCarthy had spoken at Purdue the day before. During the discussion period someone directed a question at me, asking if my statement that "Zen would guide one's life in all ways," meant also that it would guide one's decisions in an election year. And I said that of course it would, and that it would tell you necessarily for whom to vote, and that if it didn't, questions might be raised about Zen's relevance to modern society. Now Watts did not receive this practical association too kindly, and I found him looking over at me with an expression of—should I say—marked skepticism! But I believed men and I believe even more today that, yes, Buddhism does guide one in making choices in all areas of life.

Watts, then, viewed political involvement as interfering with spiritual life?

He might have explained it that way. But again, if you read carefully the books he was doing in those days, Zen for him was a very personal quest, and if one had personal problems and hang-ups this was a way of getting rid of them. I don't mean to sound critical here. He was a very brilliant man and his writings—especially The Way of Zen—will continue to affect lives for a long time to come. But I think there was a sense on his part that one could go too far in bringing Buddhism into the practical arenas; and certainly that concern was legitimate during the spontaneous atmosphere of the sixties. But for me Zen has a vital role to play in the moral and social issues of the day. The people I most respected in Japan—Takahashi and Takayama—expressed this clearly as well.

And yet you recently spoke of Takahashi's personal option for Zen over a practical involvement with the issues of his day. Could you clarify?

It's important that we make a distinction here between the period of formal discipleship, and what may follow a completion of study. One must also distinguish between the responsibilities of the disciple and the lay person with a Zen practice.

You know of the idea of "non-attachment" in Zen. I think that the non-attached state is not only desirable, but absolutely necessary. If one is going to make progress in discipleship, one cannot hope to work properly under the guidance of a master while at the same time attending political rallies and getting excited about things outside the Zen community. In World of the Buddha, I have a chapter based on a special surra in Buddhism that is shocking because it suggests that a disciple should not only be apart from, but be virtually disdainful of all life outside the Zen community. The purpose—and I say as much in my commentary—is to lead to the kind of non-attachment that would make progress in a community possible.

Now this is meant, of course, to be abandoned. And the length of time will vary, from disciple to disciple. That attitude reflected in the surra is meant to be supplanted by a healthy, positive attitude of commitment to all living things. But in the process of training there can be no divided allegiance. To an outsider, the intense, non-attached spirit of training in the early stages may seem indifferent, cold, lacking in compassion. And that can be a problem, I think, for many.

The assumption, you see, behind the principle of practicing non-attachment, is—and this may seem a paradox—that action is better performed when one is free of those concerns and concepts that will lead to a kind of unsteadiness; so that if one's hands are free to act without being misdirected by a confused,...

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Western Literature

R. H. Blyth

SOURCE: "What is Zen?" in Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, Hokuseido Press, 1942, pp. 1-24.

[In the following essay, Blyth endeavors to find a definition of Zen by providing examples of the philosophy from English literature.]

Consider the lives of birds and fishes. Fish never weary of the water; but you do not know the true mind of a fish, for you are not a fish. Birds never tire of the woods; but you do not know their real spirit, for you are not a bird. It is just the same with the religious, the poetical life: if you do not live it, you know nothing about it.…

[Zen] is the real religious,...

(The entire section is 48636 words.)

Further Reading


Kamens, Edward. The Buddhist Poetry of the Great Kamo Priestess: Daisaiin Senshi and 'Hosshin Wakashñ. ' Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies, 1990, 170 p.

Offers Buddhist readings of the poetry of Daisaiin Senshi, a Japanese writer of the late tenth and early eleventh centuries.

Master Sheng-yen. The Poetry of Enlightenment: Poems by Ancient Ch'an Masters. Elmhurst, N. Y.: Dharma Drum Publications, 1987, 103 p.

Translated collection of Chinese Buddhist poems designed "to describe the ineffable experience of Ch'an" (Chinese Zen).

Pollack, David, ed. Zen Poems of...

(The entire section is 912 words.)