No Words

Zen poetry is everything you might expect it to be, and less. An interview with Seido Ray Ronci.

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Every once in a while I read a book that insists on being taken on its own terms— a book that teaches you how to read it. When I first picked up the Zen monk Seido Ray Ronci’s seventh book of poetry, The Skeleton of the Crow: New & Selected Poems, 1980–2008, I found that it expressed the clarity, simplicity, and profundity of Zen in language that spoke to me as a practitioner. As I read more of his work, I came to appreciate the range of his subjects (from childrearing to painting to the austere solitude of his time as a monastic), as well as his humor, and perhaps most of all, his sensibility for the everyday. Like other writers working in the centuries-old tradition of Zen poetry developed by Ikkyu, Basho, and Ryokan, Seido Ray Ronci is concerned less with the words on the page than with the reality they point to.

Seido, who teaches in the English Department at the University of Missouri, is the director of Hokoku-an Zendo, in Columbia, Missouri. During recent email exchanges, we discussed some of the unique qualities of Zen poetry: its use of silence, the teachings it conveys, and its emphasis on the thing “as is.”

—Chase Twichell

Two Bowls. Window

You’ve said that you were once a poet who practiced Zen but over the years became a monk who practices poetry. Could you say more about this? My interest in Zen started in high school, but it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I learned how to meditate. It was then that I met my teacher, Joshu Sasaki Roshi. I vividly remember my first sanzen [private interview] with him. He asked me, “What do you do?” I stupidly replied, “I’m a poet.” He laughed, rang his bell to dismiss me, and said, “You’ll never be a poet.” Soon after this exchange, Sasaki Roshi gave me a koan that took me several months to answer. When I did finally answer it—without the use of any words—he said, “Now you become poet!”

For me, poetry has always been a practice in and of itself. It’s not only the practice of using language—it’s also the practice of being aware: of using all the senses and being absorbed by each moment. Zen practice is always about returning to that place where there are no words. Early on, I realized that to use words, you have to live life beyond words, before words, without words. Only then do you have the right to speak.

This is why I say that I used to be a poet who practiced sitting meditation and then became a monk who practiced poetry—poetry is that initial step away from the deep absorption that comes from sitting for long periods of meditation. It’s only when you realize that language is secondary, a step removed, that you begin to make poems.

It seems to me that there’s a profound paradox in the idea of a Zen poem. In “The Zen of Creativity,” John Daido Loori says that the Zen arts were created “to communicate the essential wordlessness of Zen.” Poetry, then, becomes a very strange enterprise for a practitioner. Just recently I was in training with Sasaki Roshi. During sanzen, I answered my koan by quoting one of my poems. The line was, “Not two. Not one. Not many.” Roshi went ballistic! He started whacking the arm of his chair with his stick. He said, “Now you make Roshi really mad!” I took this as a good sign. While he was yelling at me I asked him, “Where does a poem come from?” He whacked his chair again and said, in a deep voice, “Booooooooom!” I responded, “Booooooooom!” He rang his bell to dismiss me. As I bowed on the way out, he said, “Wonderful poem!” “Booooooooom!” That’s before language, before thinking.

As I see it, the main issue is getting out of the way. When I paint, and even when I play piano, I try to remove myself completely and let the painting paint itself, the song play itself, the poem write itself. With language, it then becomes what the words want to say, not what I want to say. As I indicated before, I believe that comes from silence. Without an intimate knowledge of silence, Zen poems—or any poems—are really just words that invite the imagination to ruminate; you could even say that they propel the ego into self-consciousness.

Sitting zazen, you really become intimate with the limitations of language, of narrative, of thought itself. With every thought there’s a “Yes, but....” With every idea comes another idea. This is the labyrinth of thought. Ultimately, you realize that “truth” is not to be found in words. I think it’s from this realization, this awareness, that the Zen poet speaks.

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marginal person's picture

:)

wilnerj's picture

__/|\__

Sanki's picture

The discussion of metaphor is interesting. Perhaps I have a different understanding of metaphor. To me, a metaphor establishes a relationship between two perceived phenomena. Words, all phenomena, for that matter, have no "essence" or substantial meaning or existence apart from their conditions and causes which establish a relational context and hence "meaning." The existence of words or meaning in experience occurs as a result of the relationships they are enmeshed in which give them meaning. The upshot of this is that all discourse--and all experienced phenomena--are metaphor (or "empty"). A poet who practices Zen, as for that matter any other poet, therefore cannot use words without using metaphors. The difference between poetry by Zen practitioners and other poets may be less than imagined by some (see the classic by R.H. Blyth for example). All words are metaphors, all "objects" are relationally existent, poems can only "point" at the moon--a seminal Zen metaphor by the way.

kammie's picture

But a metaphor is just a word picture meaning something not defined by the actual words used. Like when he said "under my heel/my dead wife's comb," in this country these days that would likely be deconstructed in some English class as a sexual metaphor of some sort, but in Zen, the actual things physically described are what's being referred to. "A finger pointing at the moon," is a metaphor when it's used to refer to some teaching words or actions, but when it's used to refer to a digit on one's hand straightened out with the nail end nearest the lunar orb it is not a metaphor but rather a description. The Zen poet describing his "piercing chill" at stepping on an object of his late lover is not using metaphor, he's just describing. "Piercing chill" doesn't stand for anything else there, but a metaphor does stand for something else.

wilnerj's picture

So that by metaphor you are referring to the separation between the signifier and the signified?

All this is well and good in linguistics especially from the lecture notes of Ferdinand De Saussure and it has its place, an important place at that, in our understanding of language and the speech act.

But through the lens of Zen (Skt. Dhyana) Basho's frog leaps into the sound of water.

Alas, one will find metaphor in the moonlight when intellectualizing about it. But there is only the moonlight.

"Only this."

marginal person's picture

Boom , buzz, hiss and moan, these sounds don't make the teacher groan. Smiling, i go back to work on my koan. Bang, crash whiz, wheee, onomatopoeia almost set me free. The theme of the piece is easy to describe, we invite the devil in when we conceptualize. Concepts we need when to understand we try, but whatever you do don't reify.

melcher's picture

Poems are words. Koans are words. No escape. Boooom!

wilnerj's picture

Poetry of silence may inspire words or silence one from speaking.
Koan (Public Case) are words and not words. When one ceases seeing and hearing a string of words as a koan what then?

"What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Can words complete the response to this?

"Show me your face before your mother was born!" What words completely describe your presence, and your essence, and what words label the core self?

And yet both koans may be sufficiently answered with each sip from a cup of hot tea and without overturning the stove.

safwan's picture

Undeniably, there are domains of life where words are unnecessary and others where words are insidpensable.

In dreams, in silent prayers, in deep conemplation we do not use words or voice. But reality is not confined to just that. Voice and language are THE most fundamental phenomena in the development of humanity.

Poetry (Zen or not Zen) is an example of how words can paint a field of sublime, colourful and supreme sphere of creativity, a field divine in nature. Poetry without words of poetry is aiken to the sound of one hand clapping, a useless trick. To look lightly at words, to say : no-words, or to separate words from the process of creativity of the mind - is just as someone exhalting a beautiful final product of a painting but belitteling and rejecting the physical paint which the artist skillfully used to project the wonderful image.

Zen has been caught up in this duality of thinking - in its focus on 'no-words / no-voice' - way of thinking since its inception. But, to teach about their silence-based doctrine, Zen masters had to use voice and words to belittle voice and words almost divine capabaility in conveying mental message (or observed truths of the dharma).

Whether written or spoken (and in particular when spoken), voice vibrations of words are products of the mind itself, and convey feelings and intelligence. The feelings and intelligence conveyed through words are not "beyond words", they are simply "beyong measure".

It is a mystery to recon with and not to belittle or deny: when the spiritiual aspect of the mind, having a certain intangible image to convey - interacts with the physical reality of the body, giving signals of commands to appropriate muscles at the throught, modulating air in the lungs and mouth cavity to create vibrations in a refined resonance and intensity - in order to encapsulate a mental message in a single envelope of sound waves. Then sending these waves to travell through space and reach the perception of the hearer, and subsequently to recreate the original message of a mind communicating with a mind.

This mystery - like music as well - is an act of "creation". What people call "divine creation" is simply the processs of the spiritual aspect (some call it god) manifesting itself by producing a physical aspect (of reality). No sepration.

It is attributed to Bodhidharma that he viewed charcaters of the sutras or words as mere scribbles of ink on paper. Maybe Bodhidharma is innocent of this story, but many Zen masters similarly view a bank note or cheque (carrying a highly needed value for someone) - as mere scribbles of ink over a piece of paper.

The Buddha mind is called the mind of absolute freedom. It has no hindrance before it. It creates words and voice. Voice and words do not limit the mind, they ARE the mind itself. What the mind produces is an extension of the mind.

Zen masters do not comprehend this and insist on a vision of separation of the words and voice from their origin. This understanding is based on duality: the mental aspect (with its infinite imagey) is mistakenly seen as incapable of manifestation in the physical aspect (reality of physical vibrations of words). Voice which encodes the mental aspect or vibrations of music which encode sublime feelings cannot be separated. They are two different aspects but are inseparable: 2 but not 2. Two but inseparable.

It is like the example of a house. The interior of the house can be supermely colourful and beam with creative imagination and lights - like the mind - and it is very very different from the exterior of the house. The exterior of the house, while existing in association with other physical objects in the surroundings has to be strictly defined (like words or voice). You cannot separate the interior of a house from its exterior. To separate the mind of Enlightenment from words of enlightenment is to separate the mental and physical, and duality is a non-Buddhist perspective.

http://www.sokahumanism.com/nichiren-buddhism/Miditation_and_Chanting.html

safwan

mosephine's picture

I read the piece on Meditation and Chanting in your link. Whoever wrote this seems to have a very narrow view of what meditation is. It is a much LARGER practice than how it is described by the author. Also, the tone of the piece is quite defensive, as if trying to make a case that chanting is better than meditation.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Times and people have changed in 2,500 years. Meditation has lost its effectiveness in bringing forth Buddhahood.

kammie's picture

Dude. I can't believe you said that. Rather than go on verbalizing my shock about your cavalier disposal of so many others' practices, may I respectfully inquire how you know so much about what "brings forth" Buddhahood?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Let's start by my asking you what you believe Buddhahood to be.

mosephine's picture

That is not my experience at all, nor that of thousands of people who I practice with.

Dominic Gomez's picture

What do you believe Buddhahood to be?

mosephine's picture

awakening to our true nature

Dominic Gomez's picture

You and the thousands of people you practice with are all Buddhas? What do Buddhas do?

wilnerj's picture

That is a huge generalization. I could not say how effective meditation is today as opposed to the remote past having no memories or at least no recall of those days! :)

And I could not say how effective meditation is within the Buddhamarga taking into account prayer, chanting, offerings, abstinence, and study of scripture as I do not know each and every instance in which a Buddhist (one who follows this path) may sit or walk or chop wood and carry water in contemplation.

Also, chanting and prayer are inseparable from meditation. Even the chanting of Nam Myoho Renge Kyo (the Japanese title of the Lotus Sutra) is meditation.

Dominic Gomez's picture

We can start by asking what Buddhism offers people vis-à-vis why people take up its practice. The Lotus Sutra presents the answer as Buddhahood, i.e. enlightenment. At least this quest has not changed in 2,500 years.

wilnerj's picture

No doubt that you are correct as all of the sutras and suttas point to Buddhahood.

But that is by far a vast goal. I can only commence this path by moving one foot in front of the other. .

Dominic Gomez's picture

That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. Shakyamuni commenced on a path 2,500 years ago moving one foot in front of the other, eventually encouraging countless people on their paths toward unshakeable happiness, i.e. enlightenment in THIS life. Don't ever stop moving forward.

wilnerj's picture

My dear safwan,

Here, in this reply you are thinking far too much!

melcher's picture

A practice that defines itself as in opposition to other practices, as most of the content of the above Nichiren site does, is hardly a glowing example of the practice of compassion.

Dominic Gomez's picture

If you try to treat someone's illness without knowing its cause, you'll only make the person sicker than before. Nichiren Buddhism gets right to the heart of the matter.

melcher's picture

As per usual, Dominic, I have absolutely no idea what you are 'talking' about, or what it has to do with what has been said before. Is there indeed a practice called 'Deliberate Obscurity?'

Dominic Gomez's picture

This site will help with any questions or concerns, Melcher: http://www.sgi.org/

marginal person's picture

Deliberate Obscurity or Byikyu Siedosho literally translated "sick dog feces" was a widespread practice used in zen monasteries around 1250 CE. The practice required zen novices to say exactly the opposite of what they meant. For example, if you wished to say yes, you said no, hello was goodbye, good was bad etc.
Byikyu Siedosho was considered the "short path" to enlightenment. Questionable historical sources reported numerous practitioners simply went insane before experiencing satori. After a brief popularity the practice was officially banned around 1300 CE.

kammie's picture

marginal person, that is hilarious. Who banned it, the Buddhist Pope? :)