Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610

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.

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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 that needs no further justification. Its true nature and purpose are found when the poet drops it. “It falls. A small dust rises.” What seems so paradoxical to Westerners is that, although an object is not used as a metaphor for some other object, the object can be representative of the whole of existence, the entire universe, physically, mentally, spiritually. The stone cannot hold just the seasons or just the sun; it holds everything at once, and everything holds the stone.

Section IV, one of the more elusive sections, deals with naming and with uncertainty, a principle that makes most Westerners uncomfortable. Westerners depend heavily on analytical thinking and on attributing names to things so that they can pin them down or compartmentalize them. When one’s understanding of things expands them beyond one’s expectations, one often finds the names inadequate. In Zen the name simply expands and contracts with the object named. The poet has, through his meditations, learned from the objects about the nature of the world.

In section V the poet’s daughter amazes the poet with her sudden desire to understand the shape and nature of the entire universe and by her intuitive knowledge that the only devices she needs are pieces of the universe, each of which carries within it the nature of the whole. There is at least an implication here that Zen or Zenlike understanding is sometimes possible without the tutelage of a mentor or master. It may even be possible for the uninitiated to function as mentor. Children may be more receptive to Zen because their experiences have not yet encouraged them to prioritize and categorize.

In section VI the poet provides the reader with a taste of the universe and its total lack of discrimination. It is “Softness everywhere,/ snow a smear,/ air a gray sack.” The final section of the poem is like a summary of everything presented in the six preceding sections. The meditations of the poet have brought the poet full circle. By understanding the inevitability and the beauty of his beginning, he is now prepared for the necessity and the beauty of his death.

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