Just One Breath

The Practice of Poetry and MeditationGary Snyder

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Gary Snyder photographed by Allen Ginsberg

In this world of onrushing events the act of meditation—even just a "one-breath" meditation—straightening the back, clearing the mind for a moment—is a refreshing island in the stream. Although the term meditation has mystical and religious connotations for many people, it is a simple and plain activity. Attention: deliberate stillness and silence. As anyone who has practiced sitting knows, the quieted mind has many paths, most of them tedious and ordinary. Then, right in the midst of meditation, totally unexpected images or feelings may sometimes erupt, and there is a way into a vivid transparency. But whatever comes up, sitting is always instructive. There is ample testimony that a practice of meditation pursued over months and years brings some degree of self-understanding, serenity, focus, and self-confidence to the person who stays with it. There is also a deep gratitude that one comes to feel for this world of beings, teachers, and teachings.

No one—guru or roshi or priest—can program for long what a person might think or feel in private reflection. We learn that we cannot in any literal sense control our mind. Meditation cannot serve an ideology. A meditation teacher can only help a student understand the phenomena that rise from his or her own inner world—after the fact—and give tips on directions to go. A meditation teacher can be a check or guide for the wayfarer to measure herself against, and like any experienced guide can give good warning of brushy paths and dead-end canyons from personal experience. The teacher provides questions, not answers. Within a traditional Buddhist framework of ethical values and psychological insight, the mind essentially reveals itself.

Meditation is not just a rest or retreat from the turmoil of the stream or the impurity of the world. It is a way of being the stream, so that one can be at home in both the white water and the eddies. Meditation may take one out of the world, but it also puts one totally into it. Poems are a bit like this too. The experience of a poem gives both distance and involvement: one is closer and farther at the same time.

Traditions of deliberate attention to consciousness, and of making poems, are as old as humankind. Meditation looks inward, poetry holds forth. One is private, the other is out in the world. One enters the moment, the other shares it. But in practice it is never entirely clear which is doing which. In any case, we do know that in spite of the contemporary public perception of meditation and poetry as special, exotic, and difficult, they are both as old and as common as grass. The one goes back to essential moments of stillness and deep inwardness, and the other to the fundamental impulse of expression and presentation.

People often confuse meditation with prayer, devotion, or vision. They are not the same. Meditation as a practice does not address itself to a deity or present itself as an opportunity for revelation. This is not to say that people who are meditating do not occasionally think they have received a revelation or experienced visions. They do. But to those for whom meditation is their central practice, a vision or a revelation is seen as just another phenomenon of consciousness and as such is not to be taken as exceptional. The meditator would simply experience the ground of consciousness, and in doing so avoid excluding or excessively elevating any thought or feeling. To do this one must release all sense of the "I" as experiencer, even the "I" that might think it is privileged to communicate with the divine. It is in sensitive areas such as these that a teacher can be a great help. This is mostly a description of the Buddhist meditation tradition, which has hewed consistently to a nontheistic practice over the centuries.

Poetry has also been part of Buddhism from early on. From the 2,500-year-old songs of forest-dwelling monks and nuns of India to the vivid colloquial poems of Kenji Miyazawa in 1930s Japan, there is a continuous thread. Poetry has had a primary place of respect in Chinese literary culture, and many of the best-known poems of the Chinese canon are touched with Ch'an and Taoist insight. Some of the finest poets of China were even acknowledged Ch'an adepts—Bai Juyi and Su Dungpo, to name just two.

Although the Chinese Ch'an masters liked to say "The lowest class of monk is the one who indulges in literature," we have to remember that blame is often praise in the Ch'an world. The Ch'an training halls, with their unconventional dharma discourses and vivid mimed exchanges, and the tradition of the Chinese lyric poems, shih, with their lucid and allusive brevity, were clearly shaping each other by the early Tang dynasty.

Mayumi OdaCh'an teachers and students have always written their own sort of in-house poems as well. In formal gung-an (koan) study, a student is often called upon to present a few lines of poetry from the Chinese canon as a proof of the completeness of his or her understanding—an exercise called zho-yu, "capping verses" (jakugo in Japanese). Such exchanges have been described in the book A Zen Forest by Soiku Shigematsu, a Japanese Rinzai Zen priest. Shigematsu Osho has handily translated hundreds of the couplets as borrowed from Chinese poetry and proverb. They are intense:

Words, words, words—fluttering drizzle and snow.
Silence, silence, silence—a roaring thunderbolt.

Bring back the dead! 
Kill the living!

This tune, another tune—no one understands.
Rain has passed, leaving the pond brimming in the
    autumn light.

The fire of catastrophe has burned out all
Millions of miles no mist, not a grain of dust!

One phrase after another
Each moment refreshing.

These bits of poems are not simply bandied about between Zen students as some kind of in-group wisdom or slangy shorthand for larger meanings. They are used sparingly, in interviews with the teacher, as a mode of reaching even deeper than a "personal" answer to a problem, as a way of confirming that one has touched base with a larger Mind. They are valued not for the literary metaphor but for the challenge presented by the exercise of physically actualizing the metaphor in the present. They help the student bring symbols and abstractions back to earth, into the body. Zen exquisitely develops this possibility—yet it's not far from the natural work of poems and proverbs anyway.

The Buddhist world has produced numerous poets and singers of the dharma whose works are still admired and loved. Milarepa, whose songs are known by heart among Tibetans, and Basho, whose haiku are read worldwide, are perhaps the most famous.

I started writing poetry in my adolescence, to give voice to some powerful experiences that I had while doing snowpeak mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest. At first I wrote "directly as I felt." Then I discovered the work of Robinson Jeffers and D.H. Lawrence. Aha, I thought, there is more to poetry. I became aware of poetry as a craft—a matter of working with materials and tools—that has a history, with different applications and strategies all over the world over tens of thousands of years. I came to understand poetry as a furthering of language. (Language is not something you learn in school, it is a world you're born into. It is part of the wildness of Mind. You master your home tongue without conscious effort by the age of five. Language with its sinuous syntax is not unlike the thermal dynamics of weather systems, or energy exchanges in the food chain—completely natural and vital, part of what and who we are. Poetry is the leap off of [or into] that.)

I ran into a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins with the lines,

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep

This helped me realize that literal mountains were not the only place to climb. I was recovering at the time from a little frostbite suffered on a winter ascent of Mt. Hood. (It should be said that mountaineering is not simply some sort of challenging quest. It has that aspect, but for dedicated climbers the strategy, the companionship, and the cooperation is what makes climbing the game it is.) Climbing also opened me up to the impermanence, the total scariness, the literal voidness under my feet, the exposure, as we say, of consciousness itself. What deep and soulful thoughts that witnessing the gulf below can give you.

My interest in writing brought me to the twentieth-century modernists and Chinese poetry; and my thoughts on nature and wilderness brought me to Taoism and then to Zen. This growing awareness of Zen was also interwoven with the discovery of Chinese landscape painting. I studied classical Chinese with Peter Boodberg and Shih-hsiang Chen at Berkeley. I learned of the poet Han-shan in seminars with Professor Chen and began a little translating of my own. I came to see that some of the finest of the Chinese poems had a mysteriously plain quality, and I wanted to understand where that came from. I started doing sitting meditation, zazen, by myself at home. These various strands got drawn together in the summer of 1955 when I was a trail-crew worker in the High Sierra of California. I started writing poems out of the labor on the trails that echoed the crispness of classical Chinese poems and also had the flavor of my nightly meditations up on the cliffs. On those clear nights in the High Sierra I saw the stars as further rocks and trails leading onward and out. Although I had written dozens of poems before, these were the first I could acknowledge as entirely my own. They are in the collection Riprap. I made plans to travel to Japan, to learn more of meditation.

A year or so later, in Kyoto, I asked my teacher Oda Sesso Roshi, "Sometimes I write poetry. Is that all right?" He laughed and said, "It's all right as long as it comes out of your true self." He also said "You know, poets have to play a lot, asobi." That seemed an odd thing to say, because the word asobi has an implication of wandering the bars and pleasure quarters, the behavior of a decadent wastrel. I knew he didn't mean that. For many years while doing Zen practice around Kyoto, I virtually quit writing poetry. It didn't bother me. My thought was, Zen is serious, poetry is not serious. In any case, you have to be completely serious when you do Zen practice. So I tried to be serious and I didn't write many poems. I studied with him for six years.

In 1966 just before Oda Roshi died, I had a talk with him in the hospital. I said, "Roshi! So it's Zen is serious, poetry is not serious." He said "No, no—poetry is serious! Zen is not serious." I had it all wrong! I don't know if it was by accident or it was a gift he gave me, but I started writing more, and maybe I did a little less sitting, too. I think I had come to understand something about play: to be truly serious you have to play. That's on the side of poetry, and of meditation, too. In fact, play is essential to everything we do—working on cars, cooking, raising children, running corporations—and poetry is nothing special. Language is no big deal. Mind is no big deal. Meaning or no-meaning, it's perfectly okay. We take what's given us, with gratitude.

The poet in us can be seen at both the beginning and the end of a life. Everybody knows a child can come up with a rhyme, a song, a poem that will delight us. At the same time, the old priest on his deathbed will write a poem, his last act. The most refined and accomplished people will express their deepest understanding in a poem—and the absolute beginner will not hesitate to try to express a transient transcendent moment. There is no sure way to predict which poem will be better than the other.

Poetry is democratic, Zen is elite. No! Zen is democratic, poetry is elite. Which is it? Everybody can do zazen, but only a few do poetry. Everybody can do poetry but only a few can really do zazen. Poetry (and the literary world) has sometimes been perceived as dangerous to the spirit career, but also poems have been called upon to express the most delicate and profound spiritual understanding.

We can appreciate Ikkyu's probing poem:

Ridiculing Literature
Humans are endowed with / the stupidity of horses and cattle. 
Poetry was originally a / work out of hell. 
Self-pride, false pride, / suffering from the passions, 
We must sigh for those taking this path / to intimacy with demons.

Ikkyu, a fifteenth-century Japanese Zen master and a fine (and strikingly fearless) poet himself, laughingly ridiculed his fellow poets, knowing as he did the distractions and temptations that might come with literary aspirations. His "intimacy with demons" is not to be seen in the light of the occidental romance with alienation, however. In Japanese art, demons are funny little guys, as solid as horses and cows, who gnash their fangs and cross their eyes. Poetry is a way of celebrating the actuality of a nondual universe in all its facets. Its risk is that it declines to exclude demons. Buddhism offers demons a hand and then tries to teach them to sit. But there are tricky little poetry/ego demons that do come along, tempting us with suffering or with insight, with success or failure. There are demons practicing meditation and writing poetry in the same room with the rest of us, and we are all indeed intimate. It didn't really trouble Ikkyu.

On seeing Ikkyu's poem (and these comments) my friend Doc wrote me from his fish camp:

Ikkyu says, "Humans are endowed with the stupidity of horses and cattle."
I think Ikkyu is full of shit.
Humans are endowed with a stupidity all their own.
Horses and cattle know what to do.
They do it well.
He is right about poetry as a work out of hell.
We ought to know.
Phenomena experience themselves as themselves.
They don't need poetry.
We are looking at a mystery here.
How do these things have such an obstinancy and yet are dependent on my consciousness?
When I practice fishing with two teenagers
poetry never occurs to me.
But later it does.
I can go over the whole day.
Hooray! That's what being human is all about.
It is just as much a weakness as a strength.
You say a language is (a wild system born with us.)
I agree.
It is wilder than wild.
If we were just wild we wouldn't need language.
Maybe we are beyond wild.
That makes me feel better.

-Doc Dachtler
Kanaka Creek

Mayumi OdaBeyond wild. This can indeed include language. Poetry is how language experiences itself. It's not that the deepest spiritual insights cannot be expressed in words (they can, in fact) but that words cannot be expressed in words. So our poems are full of real presences. "Save a ghost," you might be asked by your teacher—or an owl, or a rainforest, or a demon. Walking that through and then putting a poem to it is a step on the way toward realization. But the path has many switchbacks and a spiritual journey is strewn with almost as many land mines as a poet's path. Let us all be careful (and loose as a goose) together.

Spending time with your own mind is humbling and broadening. One finds that there's no one in charge, and is reminded that no thought lasts for long. The marks of the Buddhist teachings are impermanence, no-self, the inevitability of suffering, interconnectedness, emptiness, the vastness of mind, and the provision of a Way to realization. An accomplished poem, like an exemplary life, is a brief presentation, a uniqueness in the oneness, a complete expression, and a kind gift exchange in the mind-energy webs. In the No play Basho (Banana Plant) it is said that "all poetry and art are offerings to the Buddha." These various Buddhist ideas in play with the ancient Chinese sense of poetry are part of the weave that produced an elegant plainness, which we name the Zen aesthetic.

Tu Fu said, "The ideas of a poet should be noble and simple." In Ch'an circles it has been said "Unformed people delight in the gaudy and in novelty. Cooked people delight in the ordinary." This plainness, this ordinary actuality, is what Buddhists call thusness, or tathata. There is nothing special about actuality because it is all right here. There's no need to call attention to it, to bring it up vividly and display it. Therefore the ultimate subject matter of a "mystical" Buddhist poetry is profoundly ordinary. This elusive ordinary actuality that is so touching and refreshing, all rolled together in imagination and language, is the work of all the arts. (The really fine poems are maybe the invisible ones, that show no special insight, no remarkable beauty. But no one has ever really written a great poem that had perfectly no insight, instructive unfolding, syntactic deliciousness—it is only a distant ideal.)

So there will never be some one sort of identifiable "meditation poetry." In spite of the elegant and somewhat decadent Plain Zen ideal, gaudiness and novelty and enthusiastic vulgarity are also fully real. Bulging eyeballs, big lolling tongues, stomping feet, cackles and howls— all are there in the tradition of practice. And there will never be—one devoutly hopes—one final and exclusive style of Buddhism. I keep looking for poems that see the moment, that play freely with what's given,

Teasing the demonic
Wrestling the wrathful
Laughing with the lustful
Seducing the shy
Wiping dirty noses and sewing torn shirts
Sending philosophers home to their wives in time for dinner
Dousing bureaucrats in rivers
Taking mothers mountain climbing
Eating the ordinary

appreciating that so much can be done on this precious planet of samsara.

Adapted from the Introduction to Beneath a Single Moon: Legacies of Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry. Edited by Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich. (Shambhala Publications).

Gary Snyder lives in the northern Sierra Nevada and Practices in the Linji Ch'an (Zen) Buddhist tradition.  Pulitzer prize-winning poet and essayist, his most recent book is Practice of the Wild (North Point Press).

Image 1: Courtesy of Allen Ginsberg.
Image 2 and 3: Courtesy of Mayumi Oda.

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robbenwainer@verizon.net's picture

Practice makes perfect.

John Haspel's picture

Beautiful and thoughtful words from Mr. Snyder. The Buddha often used verse in his teachings and these are some of the most useful and effective direct dhamma teachings still available today.

In the Sakalika Sutta the Buddha describes in eloquent and beautiful directness his response to being pierced in his foot by a stone sliver. Mara, the evil one, is used in this teaching to describe an ordinary person’s reaction to finding the Buddha reclined on the side of the road: (mara is often used as metaphor for one’s conditioned mind)

“Are you lying there in a stupor
or drunk on poetry?
Do you have no ambition?
Alone, secluded,
What is this dreamer, this sleepy-face?

The Buddha teaches:
“I lie not in a stupor
or drunk on poetry.
I have attained my goal,
I am free of sorrow
I am secluded and secure
as I lie down with understanding
and sympathy for all beings.

“I am not disturbed by worry
nor fearful of sleep.
I see no threat of decline
In any world.
That is why I rest,
Peaceful, unbound,
With sympathy for all beings.”

John Haspel

terrawi's picture

Gary wonderfully says ~
"[Koans] are valued not for the literary metaphor but for the challenge presented by the exercise of physically actualizing the metaphor in the present. They help the student bring symbols and abstractions back to earth, into the body." A remarkable koan speaking to this is:
"The entire Earth is the true human body."
Adding my gratitude for Gary Snyder, for Tricycle, for another great writer and koan teacher, John Tarrant, and echoing Vivian, "Thanks to all!"

Vivian Parker's picture

Thank you Gary, you are our voice. Thank you Tricycle. Thanks to all!

cobham's picture

"But to those for whom meditation is their central practice, a vision or a revelation is seen as just another phenomenon of consciousness and as such is not to be taken as exceptional." I agree, however it is difficult to do as the vision or revelation is accompanied by a numinous atmosphere.
" The meditator would simply experience the ground of consciousness, and in doing so avoid excluding or excessively elevating any thought or feeling. To do this one must release all sense of the "I" as experiencer, even the "I" that might think it is privileged to communicate with the divine." It is not that the ego feels privileged, but rather the opposite, the ego is unable to cope with the mental agony and then consciousness feels completely disorientated; the "I" feels incompetent, hopeless and at a loss. The lesson I learn from this, is that help can appear, or does step in, at such moments, so I feel a greater trust in the universe.
" It is in sensitive areas such as these that a teacher can be a great help." For the lucky ones! On applying: "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear" I'm obviously not ready, so I try to learn from anything or anyone I can.

James Mullaney's picture

My experience of poetry publishing is that you have to have enough confidence in who you are to write your own kind of poetry. The problem is, your own kind of poetry might not be the kind that's in vogue. You find out that the kind of poetry you have to write, you need to write - the only poetry it's worthwhile for you to write - isn't being published. It's out of vogue. They've moved on from that. I've found that a lot of poets who want to be published are looking around to see what everyone else is writing, and trying to attach themselves to that.

A true poet has to have the same courage as a brave meditator: You have to be who YOU are. You can't copy; you can't do it the same way as everyone else. You can't BE anyone else. And that can take you to a very lonely place. But you come away with the integrity of being true to your own Way.

marginal person's picture

walking weary in the world
erotic lilies line the path
to my heart's desire

marginal person's picture

You do not have to be good
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a thousand miles thru the desert, repenting
You just have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves

Excerpt of poem by Mary Oliver
We are "close and far at the same time"

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Just one breath for some...easier said than done," gasps the asthmatic one.

kentc33's picture


farasicansee's picture

Wonderful. Thank you, Gary.