“Knock on the Sky and Listen to the Sound: On Zen Buddhism and Poetry” by Dick Allen

Dick Allen



The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain
       To see what he could see

       To see what he could see,
       To see what he could see.

The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain
       Was all that he could see.

       Was all that he could see,
       Was all that he could see,
The other side of the mountain,
       Was all that he could see!
             —Author Unknown


I’m fourteen, just having crossed a sunlit meadow in upstate New York. Now, I’m climbing down a gully to the shallow Kayaderosseras Creek below.

I pause.

Not my feet, but everything else shifts—as if I’d been watching a slide show and someone had inserted a totally different slide than the ones I’d seen.

And I lose myself. Rather, I lose my individualistic Self.

No separate meadow. No gully. No Kayaderosseras Creek. No me. No distinctions between me and everything that a moment before was Other …

The slides abruptly shift again and I’m back. Me. Fourteen. Descending a mundane gully to a mundane creek with a Budweiser can floating in it. White pines lining the gully. A crow’s caw. Slap at a black fly trying to bite my arm.

It’s an experience had by most humans at one time or another.


The Numinous, or the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans (“fearful and fascinating mystery”) is the term coined by Rudolph Otto in The Idea of the Holy.


For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face
to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know
even as also I am known.
       —1 Corinthians 13:12

In Buddhism, unlike in monotheistic religions, it’s not a glimpse or gaze but an immersion. There’s no glass, no other side. As Buddhists experience it, they at least for the brief period realize both Wholeness and Holiness, Yin and Yang simultaneously.

It’s the basic Buddhist and Eastern belief in Non-Dualism.


Literally millions and millions of poems seek to capture the unholdable experience of Mysticism. Some will compare it to the experience of “the Other,” but it’s not that. Buberians might say it’s the “I-Thou” experience, but it’s not that. William James would call it the core religious experience, as would Evelyn Underhill. Even at its most mundane, it’s the “runner’s high” when the runner enters a trance of homeostasis. Aspects of Mysticism provide the commonality shared by all religions, both East and West.


A first and primary characteristic of Zen Buddhist poetry is an assumption that (this is how Gerard Manley Hopkins would put it) “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” only in this case it’s not the Western Civilization monotheistic God but the Eastern and Buddhist way of using “God” to mean “All” or “holiness” or “Numinous” pervading everything, including what we blindly think of as our individual Selves as separate from other Selves or kinds of Selves.


To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
       —William Blake from Auguries of Innocence


Whenever I think about the realization that it’s impossible, incredible, wondrous, unfathomable to be alive, and that no matter how hard I try I can’t hold this realization for very long, lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” come into my head:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count there are only you and I together.
But when I look up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you …

In his Notes to the poem, Eliot references a delusion experienced by exhausted Antarctic explorers. And most critics identify the presence of the third figure as Christ. For me, the lines evoke what Zen Buddhists would call the “True Self ” that’s always there but is also almost always unrecognized in our daily clouded lives.


Attempting to arrive at commonalities shared by Zen Buddhism and poetry influenced by Zen Buddhism, I’ve found these words: Wholeness or Holiness, Is-Ness, Mindfulness, Reasonlessness, Calmness, Presentness.


Buddhist or Buddhist-influenced or oriented poetry is the antithesis of Confessionalist Poetry, that I-stressing dominant poetic sensibility and form of the second half of the 20th Century which has continued into the first part of the 21st Century. At its best, Confessionalism illuminates the turmoils of the individual “I” as representative of other individual humans; at its worse it turns narcissistic and self-pitying, even into a kind of glorification of suffering and desire.


In our century, it’s important to note that the “I” used in Buddhist-oriented poems is not the Confessional “I,” but the “I” that’s more a persona, an “I” that stands for almost anyone.


I’m often tempted to say Mindfulness is Poetry and Poetry is Mindfulness. Still, that’s not quite true. Mindfulness—that quality of acute attention to the Now, to precisely and specifically to what one is seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, thinking, feeling right Now—is at once a technique, a purpose and a result of Poetry. It is contained within but not the main stress of types of poems such as narrative, dramatic and epic. It is, however, the main stress of lyric and meditative poetry, our century’s hugely dominant types.


The primary stress on Mindfulness in modern and contemporary poetry comes from Imagism, particularly as used by Ezra Pound and exemplified by his famous haiku-inspired poem, “In the Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough.


No ideas but in things.
       —William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” has become equally important for modern and contemporary poetry. This tiny poem is actually a fragment from a longer poem and was given its title by others. The fragment states that “so much depends” upon a rain-water glazed wheelbarrow beside white chickens. When the conundrum the poem poses is answered or understood—that is, what is this “so much”?—the student’s face may break into a look of dawning revelation. Not a breakthrough into Satori, but close.


Satori. Sudden enlightenment and a state of consciousness attained by intuitive illumination representing the spiritual goal of Zen Buddhism. Rhymes with Satori: backstory, centaury, clerestory, fish story, ghost story, John Dory, Noyori, Old Glory, outlawry, self-glory, short story, sob story, vainglory, war story.
       —Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary


Everything depends on one’s ability to realize a thing for what it is, not to think about the red wheelbarrow, not to read the poem as symbolic, but just to see the thing itself. Ideally, if one can do this, she or he will be mindfully in the Present, desireless, at least momentarily free from suffering.


The main admonition given by almost all poets and poetry writing teachers in the last one hundred years: “Show, don’t tell.”


The entirety of Buddha’s Flower Sermon was Buddha simply holding up a flower and smiling at the assembled audience.


Poetry is a way of revealing the strangeness in the ordinary and the ordinary in the strange. For this, Mindfulness or acute attention is necessary.


From “Sandpiper” by Elizabeth Bishop:

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.


From “Hamlen Brook,” by Richard Wilbur, in which a trout swims …

Beneath a sliding glass
Crazed by the skimming of a brush
Of burnished dragon-flies across its face
In which deep cloudlets pass
And a white precipice
Of mirrored birch trees plunges down.


From “Spiderweb,” by Kay Ryan:

From other
angles the
fibers look
fragile, but
not from the
spider’s always
hauling coarse
rope, hitching
lines to the
best posts


Acute seeing and describing is transformational. A poem, one might say, can be a locking device, catching and holding something in a certain way for all time, so that one can never look at a familiar thing the same way again.


Buddhism calls for this way of experiencing, also, with such famous admonitions as (before enlightenment), “Chop wood, carry water” (after enlightenment), “Chop wood, carry water.”


Always the specific. To do things with great attention to the smallest detail, to the sacredness of things, which is also the mark of true craft in Zen Buddhism, in poetry, and in living.


As for finding the Familiar in the Strange, over and over poems seek to illuminate. Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” asked for “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” In Emily Dickinson, it’s the fly “with blue, unstumbling buzz” in the deathbed room. And what is more strange than Death.


In a poem we might identify as Zen Buddhist there’s forever an element of actual calm or stillness or silence. The entire poem may create such a sense, as do many haikus, and many of Arthur Waley’s great translations.



Gently I stir a white feather fan,
With open shirt sitting in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a jutting stone;
A wind from the pine-trees trickles on my bare head.
       —Li Po, translated by Arthur Waley


In Arthur Waley’s translations, which could be called versions and are sometimes regarded as poems by Waley as much as by the poet he’s translating, a part of the stillness and calm is created by the use of end\ stops, many lines being complete sentences. Enjambment is used infrequently. Such handling of lines creates a quiet painting effect, as if after each line is painted (here we are close to Asian languages’ use of calligraphy) the artist steps back, considering, before he or she adds another brushstroke line.


James Wright used a similar technique in “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” (note how the poem’s title echoes titles of Chinese and Japanese poems and paintings). This is from that poem’s closure:

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.


Slow down, you move too fast.
Got to make the morning last.
       —from “59th Street Bridge Song,” by Simon and Garfunkle


When I find myself in times of troubles, mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.
       —from “Let It Be,” by The Beatles


The famous way of jarring a Zen Buddhist disciple, or anyone for that matter, into Satori is with a koan. The most famous one:

Two hands clap and there is a sound.
What is the sound of one hand?
       —Hakuin Ekaku


The “key” to “answering” a koan is to discard reason, discard all attempts to find a rational answer to the question and simply let the answer happen. For some, the answer to the koan of the one hand clap might be “Libby’s Peaches!” or “The man fell off the cliff ” or “You forgot to feed the cat.” Whatever it is, the one posing the question will immediately know if the answer is “right,” as will the person who provides the answer.


I am doing the impossible, trying to explain the irrational.

Which can’t be explained. But of course it can be.


Here is a basic assumption: As in the Book of Job and to some extent in Ecclesiastes, the Nature of the Universe is unknowable except by God (as narrowly or widely defined). There are no Absolutes, but since the saying of this is itself an Absolute, it has to be phrased differently: There both are and are not Absolutes. Yet even that can be construed as an Absolute statement, so maybe the closest we can come is There are and are not Absolutes and this statement seems to be both true and untrue.


The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (italics below are mine):

uncertainty principle, physical principle, enunciated by Werner Heisenberg in 1927, that places an absolute, theoretical limit on the combined accuracy of certain pairs of simultaneous, related measurements. The accuracy of a measurement is given by the uncertainty in the result; if the measurement is exact, the uncertainty is zero. According to the uncertainty principle, the mathematical product of the combined uncertainties of simultaneous measurements of position and momentum in a given direction cannot be less than Planck’s constant h divided by 4π. The principle also limits the accuracies of simultaneous measurements of energy and of the time required to make the energy measurement. The value of Planck’s constant is extremely small, so that the effect of the limitations imposed by the uncertainty principle are not noticeable on the large scale of ordinary measurements; however, on the scale of atoms and elementary particles the effect of the uncertainty principle is very important. Because of the uncertainties existing at this level, a picture of the submicroscopic world emerges as one of statistical probabilities rather than measurable certainties. On the large scale it is still possible to speak of causality in a framework described in terms of space and time; on the atomic scale this is not possible. Such a description would require exact measurements of such quantities as position, speed, energy, and time, and these quantities cannot be measured exactly because of the uncertainty principle. It does not limit the accuracy of single measurements, of nonsimultaneous measurements, or of simultaneous measurements of pairs of quantities other than those specifically restricted by the principle. Even so, its restrictions are sufficient to prevent scientists from being able to make absolute predictions about future states of the system being studied. The uncertainty principle has been elevated by some thinkers to the status of a philosophical principle, called the principle of indeterminacy, which has been taken by some to limit causality in general.
       —Columbia Encyclopedia


The medium is the message.
       —Marshall McLuhan


Popularized understandings of contemporary physics and quantum mechanics theories are in effect Memes which point to Non-Dualism rather than Dualism as being the basic nature of the universe. The basic tenets of the West’s three major monotheistic religions, Christianity,
Judaism and Islam, are dualistic, whereas the basic tenets of Buddhism are not.

However, the core mysticism elements in Western religions are non-dualistic.


The double-slit experiment, sometimes called Young’s experiment, is a demonstration that matter and energy can display characteristics of both waves and particles. In the basic version of the experiment, a coherent light source such as a laser beam illuminates a thin plate pierced by two parallel slits, and the light passing through the slits is observed on a screen behind the plate. The wave nature of light causes the light waves passing through the two slits to interfere, producing bright and dark bands on the screen—a result that would not be expected if light consisted strictly of particles. However, at the screen, the light is always found to be absorbed as though it were composed of discrete particles or photons. This establishes the principle known as wave–particle duality.

A quote I may have somewhat disremembered from the original Hawaii Five-O, as said by Jack Lord: “That’s the Yin and Yang of it, Dann-0.




From the t-shirt advertisement, “Does Schrödinger’s Cat Live?”:

Every student of physics knows that Schrödinger’s 1935 paper regarding a hypothetical paradox involving a cat has perplexed and annoyed physics geeks for years. The basic idea; If the outcome of a circumstance is presently unknown and by observing the circumstance you will disrupt it, then it exists in all possible states simultaneously … Don’t get it? We propose the following thought experiment: Give your friend enough money to purchase the “Schrödinger’s Cat” shirt (don’t forget the shipping). Tell your friend to take the money and lock himself in a room with a cigarette lighter. Let your friend know that once in the room he is to randomly choose either to burn the money, or return in five minutes with the money intact. We emphasize that this must be completely random (aka, impossible for a human to determine, but bear with us). Your friend must then stay in this box for eternity. Hey, that’s how thought experiments work. Hopefully he/she is OK with that. Since you have no idea whether your friend will destroy the money, you will simultaneously either lose or recover that money. So in a quantum sense, if you extend that logic, you will simultaneously either be able to purchase or not purchase this very t-shirt which enabled you to make the choice in the first place. Isn’t physics fun? 100% cotton heavyweight t-shirt in black with “Schrödinger’s Cat is Dead” on the front and “Schrödinger’s Cat is Not Dead” on the back …
       —ThinkGeek, Online


The Observer in the act of observing affects that which is being observed.

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance
       —from “Among School Children” by W.B. Yeats


Even though the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the Double-Split Experiment and the Schrödinger’s Cat Experiment apply to microcosms and not really to macrocosms, the metaphors they provide significantly affect human consciousness concerning the Truth of Existence.


The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the Double-Slit Experiment, and the Schrödinger’s Cat Experiment, as popularly somewhat understood, lead to the 21st Century’s increasing assumption that the basic nature of the universe is unknowable, absurd, chaotic, random, governed by chance and whim.

Or Zen.


Add Chaos and Complexity Theory: Edward Lorenz, Chaos Theory’s first experimenter, discovered and proved that small changes in initial conditions, such as a butterfly flapping its wings in southern Iowa, produce large changes in long term outcomes. Whether or not the butterfly flaps its wings causes, ten days later, a lightning and thunderstorm in Connecticut on a previously balmy day. Or not.


Chaos theory may also apply to cause and effect, or karma.


Chaos theory, some say, may explain the occurrences of wars.


There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
       —Catch-22, Joseph Heller


Reasonlessness is important in Buddhism. We’re not to waste our time on the unknowable and unfathomable and must just accept it. If we can get out of the way the futile struggle to rationally explain the irrational, if we can accept that the Nature of the Universe is Absurd, we might be able to deal with more manageable matters, such as how to “eliminate” suffering through the application of the Eightfold Path.

Modern and contemporary poetry written with a Buddhist-like sensibility is greatly distanced from the likes of rational satires of Alexander Pope.


The use of Surrealism or New Surrealism in contemporary poetry, consciously or subconsciously on the part of the poet, reflects a basic assumption about unknowability. A surrealistic effect in a poem, albeit in a minor way, leads to a dissonance in the senses, a derangement that can cause the poem’s reader to suddenly see things in a new and different way.


Since in New Surrealism, the assumption is that the basic Nature of the Universe is absurd, satire is directed at those who don’t believe things have changed, at those who irrationally believe the world can be explained by rational means.


“There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not traveled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts.”

“Excellently observed,” answered Candide; “but let us cultivate our garden.”
       —Candide, by Voltaire


And you know something is happening
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
       —from “Ballad of a Thin Man,” Bob Dylan


For Western readers, something as simple as the inclusion of an exotic word or phrase from China or Japan has the effect of deranging the senses, the use of the exotic suddenly plunging the poem’s reader into an alternate reality.

T.S. Eliot ends “The Wasteland” with “Shantih shantih shantih” or, as translated, “The Peace that passeth understanding.”


Version 1:

       Let us gaze off into the mountains
       Where mist is rising.

Version 2:

       Let us gaze off into the Quinling Mountains
       Where mist is rising.

Version 3:

       Let us gaze off into the Adirondack Mountains
       Where mist is rising.

Why is “Version 2” so much more moving than “Version 3”?

How can the feeling of “Version 2” be rendered in a contemporary American poem?


Seldom remarked upon but often present is how inexpensive and convenient poetry is. You can hear it for nothing. You can carry it around in your head—or on a small piece of paper if you wish—from place to place, state to state, country to country. You can memorize it and keep it forever. At the drop of a hat, you can say it out loud for its content, for its feeling, for how the words roll around upon and drop off your tongue.


Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
      —Alfred, Lord Tennison

On being asked, whence is the flower

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals fallen in the pool
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.
       —Ralph Waldo Emerson


Orientalism and mysticism. Emerson owned an extensive library of Oriental literature in translation and was well versed in the texts and sacred writings of Hinduism (the Vedas and Upanishads), Buddhism, Confusianism, and Islam. Thoreau was introduced to Oriental religion and literature at Harvard and maintained an avid interest in Eastern spiritual lore throughout his life. Whitman’s interest in the Orient, though less formal and disciplined, was just as keen as that of Emerson and Thoreau, as is evident from even a cursory reading of Leaves of Grass. In addition to their belief in cosmic unity, in the ultimate interconnection and harmony of all things, these authors also absorbed from their Oriental sources the view that the phenomenal world—Nature—is a sort of Mayan veil which partly reveals, partly conceals, an ultimate Oneness.
       —David L. Simpson, “Transcendentalism,” Online


Over and over, poetry calls attention to eternal things that don’t have to be purchased, particularly things in Nature such as Wordsworthian daffodils, the Frostian deer in Frost’s “Two Look at Two,” the trout in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.”


Easily recognizable is how Buddhism stresses desirelessness as it seeks to mitigate Dukkha (suffering) by its Seven Noble Truths. Buddhism identifies the cause for Dukkha as desire, craving, wanting things to be different from what they are, letting ourselves be attached to things.

Buddhism is often called a philosophy of non-Attachment.


I got plenty of nothin’
And nothin’ plenty for me
I got no car, got no mule,
And I got no misery

Seems with plenty,
That you sure got to worry
How to keep the devil away …
       —from Porgy & Bess, by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward


The recognitions and acceptances of Wholeness, Reasonlessness, Mindfulness, Calmness as fundamental recognitions and acceptances of things for what they are rather than what can be read into them may lead to the further recognition and acceptance of Desirelessness.


A reason why meditation is so stressed in Buddhism, especially in zazen, is because it encourages the practitioner to become enraptured with only the Present. In meditation, thoughts—especially thoughts of the Past and the Future—are brushed away. The more they fade the more tranquility is achieved.


Many aspects common to Buddhism and poetry encourage the practitioner or reader (who may be the same) to live in the Present. True Mindfulness is only possible if all one’s attention is focused on the Present, for no one can fully and truly have the experience of plum tasting, for instance, without being all-at-once here.


From “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


The word “Present” contains within itself both itself as a state of time and itself as a gift.


To stay in the Present is in some ways like letting a Lifesaver or small hard candy dissolve in your mouth. Initially, most can do this, sucking on the sweetness. Soon, however, as the lozenge is further dissolved and diminished, the impulse to use the teeth to crunch and chew it is almost irresistible. It requires either a major effort of will to allow the lozenge to become nothing or it requires an utter Calmness, acceptance of what is, a Desirelessness.


When I was just out of graduate school, my wife and I bought an inexpensive limited edition of a Giacometti print. It is an utterly simple line drawing of a tall, thin figure.

Easy, I scoffed, and sat about trying to draw an equivalent on the sketchpad I’d bought for that purpose.

Hundreds of attempts later, I gave up.

I could copy, I could approximate, but I couldn’t imbue my sketches with the feeling Giacometti had bought to his.

Anyone trying to draw an ensō will likely feel the same frustration.


Ensō is a Japanese word meaning “circle” and a concept strongly associated with Zen. Ensō is one of the most common subjects of Japanese calligraphy even though it is a symbol and not a character. It symbolizes the Absolute, enlightenment, strength, elegance, the Universe, and the void; it can also symbolize the Japanese aesthetic itself. As an “expression of the moment” it is often considered a form of minimalist expressionist art.

In Zen Buddhist painting, ensō symbolizes a moment when the mind is free to simply let the body/spirit create. The brushed ink of the circle is usually done on silk or rice paper in one movement (but the great Bankei used two strokes sometimes) and there is no possibility of modification: it shows the expressive movement of the spirit at that time. Zen Buddhists “believe that the character of the artist is fully exposed in how she or he draws an ensō. Only a person who is mentally and spiritually complete can draw a true ensō. Some artists will practice drawing an ensō daily, as a kind of spiritual exercise.”1 Some artists paint ensō with an opening in the circle, while others complete the circle. For the former, the opening may express various ideas, for example that the ensō is not separate, but is part of something greater, or that imperfection is an essential and inherent aspect of existence (see also the idea of broken symmetry). The principle of controlling the balance of composition through asymmetry and irregularity is an important aspect of the Japanese aesthetic: Fukinsei, the denial of perfection. The ensō is also a sacred symbol in the Zen school of Buddhism, and is often used by Zen masters as a form of signature in their religious artwork.

1 Seo, Audrey Yoshiko; Loori, John Daido (2009). Ensō: Zen Circles of Enlightenment. Weatherhill. ISBN 1-59030-608-2.


Those who have tried writing English language haiku, with the commonly prescribed 5-7-5 structure, will know what I’m going to say: It is quite easy to write a haiku. Follow the syllable structure. Put in a season. Use specific imagery. Include something that looks like it will be or is a sudden realization and Shazam, you’ve got it.

Haiku writing, in Japan, is a favorite exercise and even party game for many, including members of garden clubs.

In America, it’s a favorite poem writing exercise for kindergarten children.

Millions and millions and millions of haiku!

Yet almost none are the real thing.

It is this proliferation, this spawn of haikus, that I suspect is the main cause for American Zen Buddhist poetry not being taken very seriously—a case of the okay drowning out the best.


American haiku, tanka, and forms derived from them and similar to them have, with a few notable exceptions, always seemed to me to be faux poetry, suffering particularly from being pseudo-profound. There are too many little gasps of wonder I associate with New Agers. It is oh so meaningful. There’s an air of reverence about it which smacks of arrogant self-approval. It feels worked. It feels thought. Or if it’s felt, what’s felt, sadly, is a cliché or an easy clichéd phrase. There’s nothing really held back as there is in all genuine poetry. It’s a stab, rather than a caress. Or, alternately, there’s no zaniness to it, no crazy wisdom.


As I get older, the less and less interested I am in writing poems the Past, and in writing nostalgic or elegiac poems. This may be a of my Buddhism, my continual attempts to live in the Present.


At a poetry conference, during a workshop I’m conducting, we’re discussing what makes a poem “contemporary” and “universal.” For the former, it may be that an awareness of technology and some acknowledgement or inclusion of technology and its impact on society is necessary. For the latter, perhaps the English language poem should use rhyme/meter? But the really interesting part of the discussion comes when someone says that “universal poetry is pastoral poetry.”

Is Buddhist or Zen Buddhist poetry a kind of pastoral poetry?


If you take away the shepherds and the cows, is traditional Buddhist poetry, with its misty mountains, steep mountain paths, monks’ huts, single leaves floating on the river, calmness, tranquility, lack of deep desire for other than the Present (so long as there is wine and visiting friends), heavily or primarily pastoral?


In the end is my beginning.
       —from “The Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot



If I explained aloud, then it wouldn’t be a true explanation,
And if I transmitted it on paper, then where would be the secret?
At a western window on a rainy autumn night
White hair in the guttering lamplight, asleep facing the bed.
       —Gido Shushin, translated by David Pollack


The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain
       To see what he could see

       To see what he could see,
       To see what he could see.

The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain
       Was all that he could see.

       Was all that he could see,
       Was all that he could see,
The other side of the mountain,
       Was all that he could see!
             —Author Unknown

from Rattle #36, Winter 2011
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