Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

One of the prominent themes of the poem, perhaps the most prominent, concerns Zen, the form of Buddhism that holds meditation as the primary key to all knowledge, and how Zen compares to Western philosophies, especially those that rely on more analytical approaches to understanding the universe. The circle that Shoichi paints in the first section of the poem is a mystic circle, a Zen symbol for a personal awakening—a sudden awareness or epiphany that bypasses the rational part of the human mind. Such epiphanies often come after meditation.

In section II the poet’s meditation on the “laced ice flowers” leads to a vision, a sudden transformation to a meadow, born from the side of a glacier, and the near-death experience of Hakuin “Freezing in an icefield.” These associations lead to an identification with Hakuin that is so strong that the poet vicariously experiences leg cramps and such an overpowering feeling of cold that he cannot move. He has been transformed into a state of understanding that is unattainable through simple logic.

In section III the poet presents another conflict between Zen and Western patterns of thought, especially in regard to the physical world. At first the poet tries to make too much of the stone. As he turns it in his hand he searches the stone for metaphorical meanings, perhaps something relating to the sun and the changing of the seasons. To the practitioner of Zen, the stone is itself, a stone, a part of the whole of existence...

(The entire section is 610 words.)