Zen poetry responding to the masters



In 2015, I sat down with a library copy of The Roaring Stream, an anthology of Chan/Zen writings from China and Japan, and began doodling short poems in response to ancient Buddhist masters. Keyword, answer. As in call and response, as in song. The idea was not to explain texts that for centuries have challenged readers around the world, or even to clearly understand the meaning of my own lines. Really, there was just this sudden desire, this spontaneous desire to make my language dialogue with the timeless language of the ancients, without conditions.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger, quoting the poet Friedrich Holderlin, once summarized the situation thus: “We are a conversation. All these years later, I’m still scribbling poems on the back of the bookmark, improvisational poems, call-and-response poems. Everything has changed and yet, somehow, nothing has changed. The cluttered library shelves keep me busy. The wise voices of old and far continue to excite and inspire my humble little voice. Something lasting—something fundamental—is at work here. And in game too!

Tricycle-in line and in the magazine– has published batches of my poems in the past, and now, in honor of National Poetry Month, you can find a new collection below. (The title of each poem is the name of the Buddhist sage to whom I respond.) Of course, for some of us, all month deserves the title, not just April. Ask Hui-neng, Bashoand hundreds of others from the Chan/Zen literary tradition – I suspect they will tell you the same.

Hui-neng (638-713)

Separate yourself from views.

It means keeping away from your own thoughts.
Stand meaning within the framework of an older thought.

granite ridges,
small sinuous pines.

The earth thinks.

Meaning to stand on the edge
of this cliff and enjoy,


the big view.

Lin-chi (d. 867?)

Become the host
you are already
on the spot
where you stand.

become home,
the home,
the chair,
the cup of tea.

welcome abroad
with the mean face
which looks like nothing
as much as flames.

You know this guest.
Where have we met before?

Please come in.
Rest your tired legs.

Basho (1644-1694)

Dying, he writes no poems on his deathbed.
Every poem since the age of forty, he said,
was that hello-goodbye.

the muddy road,
pissing horse,
the pine.

rice planting songs,
imperial dreams,
prostitute and priest.

Perfect uselessness, he said,
totally useless.

An old pond jumps
in an old pond.


jerky breath.

Takuan (1573-1645)

frozen lake,
bathing becomes difficult.

We could otter,
sliding on the stomach and back,
but the hard surface
barely cleans hair, hands,
buttocks, toes.

With stone or knife
we could break the ice
from the shore,
melt clear shards
above the chimney or in the mouth,
but it is laborious and slow.

The best way to go, maybe,
wait for spring,
the inevitable melting,
the sure thing
we call the bottom falling
and the fish call the return of the sky.

Read more poems in this series:

• What there is to do ?
• Ten minutes alone in the thickets
• Waking up from a crazy dream
• Sleep in an old friend’s room

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