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The Zen of Poetry

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

I like the phrase…to express oneself.

In Zen it implies the true self actualization of experience. Before speech was developed, gestures dominated. I suspect it was a series of “charades” acted by humans that signified objectives, action, expectations and collective meaning.

Common gestures of our ancient ancestors were accompanied by grunts or sounds. Using the same sound with the same gesture allowed understanding without seeing the person thus expanding the reach of communication.

One of the first poems I learned speaks to rhyme as a memory technique. This technique probably was a mainstay for retaining volumes of information. A mind “App” for categories and details. Here is the poem:

M, I,

Crooked letter, crooked letter I

Crooked letter, crooked letter I

Hump-back hump-back, I Mississippi

Flowing down to New Orleans

Samuel Taylor Coleridge makes an interesting point about this (What is poetry) — that there are two origins. ( the underling is by Sangaku)

  • One is that the use of devices like meter and rhyme help us memorize things

  • — and there is always much that we need to commit to memory in a community that needs a shared body of settled ideas.

  • The other origin is the need to find a means in the medium of language to take full possession of intense emotions. In this role, language also retains the formal qualities that make it memorable, but that memory is now dedicated to momentary experiences that we wish to keep in that frame of a specially adapted speech.

  • Then we can return to them and relive them. And not only the person gifted with the ability to commit them to speech, but to another person whom that speech can also address.

  • This role of memory takes on its great importance because in the first appearance of those emotions or impressions, we were not yet ready to grasp them in full. And in this form we crack the tyranny of time.

  • The moment of an experience persists as something to which the experiencer can return, but also as something that can be communicated to a person who was not in that moment him or herself.

  • It becomes the possible possession of all who hear or read it. And humanity accumulates a great fund of wealth in this experience.

It has only within the past three years that I became aware of the moving poetry of Therīgāthā:

These poems of early Buddhist nuns strike me in the way of the kyōsaku. These women speak in a way that seems both liberating and integrating, liberated from their past life and fetters of attachment, while becoming part of the sangha of women, who together, are compelling the practice of the Buddha.These poems resonate into my marrow. Therīgāthā - Wikipedia

Here is Vilma’s Way-Finding poem from 6th Century BCE:

Intoxicated with my complexion

figure, beauty, & fame;

haughty with youth,

I despised other women.

Adorning this body

embellished to delude foolish men,

I stood at the door to the brothel:

a hunter with snare laid out.

I showed off my ornaments,

and revealed many a private part.

I worked my manifold magic,

laughing out loud at the crowd.

Today, wrapped in a double cloak,

my head shaven,

having wandered for alms,

I sit at the foot of a tree

and attain the state of no-thought.

All ties — human & divine — have been cut.

Having cast off all effluents, cooled am I,


Vimala: The Former Courtesan

translated from the Pali by

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Ehi Dogen, founder of Soto Zen in Japan, was a scholar who began reading Chinese poetry at a young age. His writing style as an adult, is said to have a poetic prose style:

“Flowing is like spring.

Spring with all its numerous aspects is called flowing.

When spring flows there is nothing outside of spring. Study this in detail.

Spring invariably flows through spring. Although flowing is not spring,

flowing occurs throughout spring.

Thus, flowing is completed at just this moment of spring.

Examine this fully, coming and going.”

Great Master Dōgen.

Moon in a Dewdrop, (New York: North Point Press, 1985)

Alex Reed writes an essay on Zen and Poetry that speaks to the interconnectedness of expressing one’s experience. Just as it is difficult to speak the words that make sense to the listener. And one’s practice:

The American poet and Zen practitioner Jane Hirshfield has described poetry as a ‘potential path of awareness’. In this article I’ll discuss some of my own experiences of reading and writing poetry and reflect on why this has become important in my life. In doing so, I also hope to highlight some of the ways in which poetry has become relevant to my Buddhist practice.

Experiencing and then expressing the moment in whatever form is not easy. Yet Zen has influenced art in Japan expressed by voice and hand. From bonshi to poetry:

The arts in Japan, unlike those in the West which tend to be associated with the elite, are intimately connected to the life of ordinary people. Flower arranging, the tea ceremony, swordsmanship and martial arts, the making and appreciation of ceramic ware, haiku and calligraphy are all pastimes practiced at every level of society. Moreover, all of the traditional arts of Japan have roots in the Zen tradition of reaching enlightenment through everyday experience, in, as Suzuki explains, finding meaning hitherto hidden in our daily, concrete, particular experiences. Meaning is revealed “in being itself, in becoming itself, in living itself.” It is as Suzuki explains, “a life of kono-mama or sonomama, ‘the isness of a thing’” (16). In operating within a context of mu, in connecting to the formless, which is at once empty but the fountainhead of all possibilities, the Zen monks and the artists who came afterward learned to unleash, in a spontaneous act of creativity, form from nothingness. This act of creativity is one which, nonetheless, has been prepared for through the discipline of many years. Touching the Intangible: Zen and the Arts of Japan

Note the idea of experience opening creativity is a theme common to enlightenment and art. In Western terms “enlightenment” refers to the time after the “Dark Ages” which shined light on the arts and sciences.

So what can I say?

The Zen of Poetry

Transcendence held by heart recites essence by the meter

108 Bows


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