No Words

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

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Three Bowls


Why is metaphor, part of the bedrock of Western poetry, absent in most Zen poems? I think metaphor is the bedrock of Western poetry because we’re never satisfied by what just is. This is why nonpractitioners often regard Zen poetry as trivial or overly simplistic. We love to complicate things, and we take delight in our imaginations and our creativity. Metaphor carries us over to another understanding; but that suggests that our present understanding is insufficient, doesn’t it? This is why people have such difficulty with koans. In the search for “understanding,” the mind grapples with ideas. And yet it’s only when ideas are exhausted that any breakthrough can occur. I’m a great fan of metaphors, as any poet or reader of poetry is bound to be. But from a Zen point of view, I think it helps to remember that metaphor can also be like putting a head on top of your head. Isn’t one enough?

I’m reluctant to say that Zen poetry doesn’t rely on metaphor—that seems too broad a statement. But usually the thing itself is sufficient, and it resonates in a profound way. There is a Buson poem that goes something like this: “The piercing chill I feel / my dead wife’s comb / under my heel.” What more do you need? The roaring resonance of such a poem occurs in the belly, not in the brain. Don’t misunderstand me—I’m not putting down metaphor. But where do metaphors come from? In a word: thinking.  

I want to go back to the problem of nonpractitioners finding Zen poetry “trivial or overly simplistic.” Do you believe that only a zazen-trained mind can fully apprehend a Zen poem? People often mistake profound subtlety for simplicity, and often equate simplicity with triviality. So a poem like the early-nineteenth-century poet Issa’s “Farmer / pointing the Way / with a radish” tends to get glossed over or ignored. I guess it’s not imperative that a person need be a practitioner to appreciate a Zen poem, but it sure helps. Why? Because one learns through zazen that enough is enough. The untrained mind starts to ruminate: What farmer? An old farmer, a young farmer? What does he farm? What “Way” is he pointing out? To whom?  

Are Zen poems written for a different purpose than other poems? I’m inclined to think that Zen poetry does indeed have a unique function. The Zen poem, as I see it, functions much like the koan—it is just a point of departure. The reader is eliminated, the ego drops, and what’s left is just the farmer pointing the way with a radish. For most readers, this is not enough.

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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.


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:

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? :)