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Zen poetry is everything you might expect it to be, and less. An interview with Seido Ray Ronci.
How do you regard the presence of an identifiable speaker in your own poems? In much contemporary American poetry, the “I” is seen as a persona, a character invented by the poet to function as a stand-in. In a poem, who are you? That’s funny! I just heard Roshi ask, “Who are you?”—a very difficult koan! The truth is that I really don’t know. The short answer is that “I” is me; but the ongoing question is still, “Who am I?” And I can’t tell you.
When asked, “What time is it?” Yogi Berra said, “You mean now?” I think that’s a pretty good response to the question “Who am I?” “You mean now?” I’m not trying to be evasive. Small self appears and disappears. There is no fixed self. The “I” in one poem is not necessarily the “I” in a different one. Strictly speaking, the “I”—any “I”—is an invention, a fiction, a narrative in response to innumerable conditions and circumstances.
In the introduction to Seung Sahn’s collection of poems, “Bone of Space,” he’s quoted as saying, “When the situation appears, then I make a poem.” What do you think he means by “situation”? Whether this is what he meant or not, this is what I think: the “situation” is the moment after the small self disappears and then reappears. It is what comes from being born. When a student goes in for sanzen, he or she must be willing to die—in other words, to give up all attachment to “my self.” If you hold onto this self, you cannot pass your koan. It is often said that Zen practice begins on the cushion, but if it remains on the cushion, it is not Zen practice. We train in a monastery, or we train at a Zen center or zendo, but our practice is right here in the world as it is.
Let’s talk about the similarity of Zen poems and koans— how both are “points of departure,” as you have said. You’ve been a Zen teacher for many years—are writing and teaching the same activity? Many Zen poems begin with the absence of the poet and the presence of the perception—in other words, what prompts a poet to write is an after-the-fact realization of “things as they are.” The poet is moved beyond self by something quite ordinary and natural—something common, mundane. In this realization, there is no subject and no object, just the thing itself. The poet then presents the thing “as is,” in the most simple and direct way. Then, often, but not always, the poet reappears, so to speak, and raises a question or enters the realm of duality, the realm of thinking. This is merely a manifestation of what consciousness does—it expands and contracts. Self disappears and reappears. This is Tathagata [Buddha-nature] as I understand it—appearing, disappearing, reappearing: suchness. But after the great question comes no great answer. There is just the thing “as is.”
For example, consider the koan “Where does the wind come from?” I suppose if you’re a meteorologist you can come up with all kinds of answers. But for the Zen student, an appropriate response might be: “The tall grass lies down; a crow hovers mid-air.” (At which point, a good Zen master might take the stick and beat you!) The poem begins in silence, makes a little noise, and then ends in silence because there is nothing else to say.
I agree that Zen poems do teach, but what do they teach? They teach nothing. I’ve heard people who have practiced Zen meditation for a while say that they “got nothing out of it” and stopped. The problem is, we already have too much. What more do you want? Stop wanting. Get nothing.