More than words

Poetry to enrich your practice

Dan Zigmond

The Poetry of Zen
Sam Hamill and J. P. Seaton
Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2004.
208 pp.; $16.95 (cloth)

What is it about poetry and Zen? The essence of Zen is meditation, solitary sitting. Zen resides outside the intellect and beyond words. Yet poetry and Zen seem inextricably joined, with many of our most illustrious teachers choosing to express themselves in verse. Poetry is often used both as a means to describe Zen practice and as an aid to the practice itself. The writer and translator Gary Gach collected numerous modern examples in his 1998 compilation What Book!? (Parallax Press), showing that this tradition of Zen-in-verse is alive and well today, extending to modern poet-teachers like Philip Whalen and Norman Fischer. And poetry has been part of Zen from the start: The Platform Sutra, that classic legend of Zen Buddhism, is essentially the story of two competing poems.

In their engaging new anthology, The Poetry of Zen, Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton have collected and translated over two hundred poems from China and Japan, spanning more than two millennia. Purists will note that this places the earliest poems long before the traditional dawn of Zen, marked by the arrival of China's first Ch'an (Zen) patriarch, Bodhidharma, in the sixth century. But this is no mistake; a defining premise of the collection is that Zen is rooted firmly in the Taoist tradition that preceded it. The first Buddhists in China were often schooled in Taoist philosophy, and earl y translators would use Taoist terms to express Buddhist terminology, grounding the new faith in the old. "Zen is Taoist Buddhism," the editors explain in one of two far-reaching introductions, or put another way, "Zen is Buddhist Taoism."

This somewhat unorthodox stance creates an eclectic mix of poetry, beginning with fresh translations of several parts of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching (thought to originate in the fourth or third centuries B.C.E.) and ending with a beautiful selection of haiku by the beloved Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa, who died in the nineteenth century. Many of these embody the typically irreverent spirit often associated with Zen masters through the ages, as in this untitled poem attributed to the sixth-century poet Wang Fan-Chih, which pokes fun at our natural egoism:

        When the rich pass proudly by
        on big, smooth horses,
        I feel foolish
        riding my scrawny donkey.

        I feel much better
        when we overtake a bundle of sticks
        riding a bony man.


Others works are more poignant, such as this one by Basho, Japan's celebrated seventeenth-century haiku master:

        Nothing in the cry
        of cicadas suggests they
        are about to die

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