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