Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Poetry and Zen, Part 1 of 3

It seems that I’ve gotten a little off track of late with respect to my posting frequency. My apologies and kind regards to anyone who might have been wondering where I’ve been. Actually, I was under the weather all last week – with barely enough energy to drag myself off of the couch, let alone sit up writing at a computer. I knew I’d be writing about poetry and Zen, though, so I was at least able to pull a dozen or so books down from my bookshelves to sift through as I lay about in recovery. I even managed to scribble out a few pages of notes related to inspiration (which I didn’t actually have), and the unconscious mind (which I had in abundance), and poetry as a spiritual practice, and how it is that words have anything at all to do with the largely wordless practice of Zen. I was even intending to include a few poems of my own – they are Zen poems, after all. Up until a couple of days ago, though, I had no idea how I was going to tie it all together.

So what happened since then? Well, I got better for one thing, and I also ended up stumbling across a poem in John Stevens’ One Robe, One Bowl – The Zen Poetry of Ryokan that provides perfect entrée into everything I’m trying to say. Ryokan (1758-1831) was something of a hermit-monk who lived a largely unadorned life. He meditated in his mountain hut; he went into town on his alms-rounds; he played with children and drank sake with farmers; and he visited with his young nun-friend, Teishin (Stevens, 1977). Throughout, he wrote some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. The poem that caught my eye is untitled, although it does appear grouped (as Ryokan had grouped it) with other selections under the heading ‘Dawn.’ Without further ado:

A COLD night – sitting alone in my empty room
Filled only with incense smoke.
Outside, a bamboo grove of a hundred trees;
On the bed, several volumes of poetry.
The moon shines through the top of the window,
And the entire neighborhood is still except for the cry
of insects.
Looking at this scene, limitless emotion,
But not one word. (p. 43)


At first blush this poem seemed to me to evoke the enlightenment experience that Dogen described as ‘the dropping off of body and mind.’ It is clear from Ryokan’s other work that he was familiar with Dogen’s turn of the phrase, and he even used a variation of it himself in one of his poems (Stevens, 1977, p. 32). Given that overall “feel” of the poem, I was a little bit puzzled at first by the strength with which Ryokan makes his individual presence known in just that first line. My puzzlement faded, however, as the nuance of the second line began to sink in. The room, after all, is filled only with incense smoke. Okay, but doesn’t he go on to contradict himself by describing a bed and “several volumes of poetry”? What’s going on here? Well, it seems to me that by drawing our attention to a room that is “filled only with incense smoke” in spite of the obvious existence of an observer and a bed and some books is actually Ryokan’s way of conveying to us the true nature of existence. Yes, there is an observer, and a bed, and some books, but the true nature of these things is emptiness – shunyata. We can easily grasp the impermanent and unfixed, i.e. empty nature of the incense smoke, so that is what Ryokan uses to describe the true nature of the scene in its entirety. Yes, we can point to various things in the room, but their ultimate nature is impermanent and without any independent existence. In this ultimate sense they are as formless as the incense smoke.

Outside, a bamboo grove of a hundred trees;
On the bed, several volumes of poetry.

I find it interesting here that Ryokan knows the full measure of the grove of bamboo outside his hermitage (a hundred trees), and yet the number of volumes of poetry that sit on the bed beside him remains vague. Why not the other way around? Why not merely say ‘a grove of bamboo trees’ and five (or whatever) volumes of poetry? I am convinced that this is by design. Anyone familiar with Ryokan’s life will know that his reverence for the natural world would likely have inspired him to get to know each and every bamboo tree on a personal basis. Sure, he might have taken artistic liberty in calling the number “a hundred,” but I suspect he knew the exact number. Why, then, the vagueness regarding the volumes of poetry? This, I believe, is to let us know that, in the state of mind in which he dwells in this poem, each and every bamboo tree is of utmost importance – worthy of individual consideration – even as the worldly endeavors of reading and writing poetry have become diminished. And why should that be? Reading and writing, after all, are merely about reality; they are not reality as it is – directly experienced and unobscured by conceptualizations. Words are no substitute for reality. Even a great poet can see that. Perhaps especially a great poet can see that.

Outside, a bamboo grove of a hundred trees;
On the bed, several volumes of poetry.
The moon shines through the top of the window,
And the entire neighborhood is still except for the cry
of insects.


Clearly, Ryokan is sitting shikantaza, accepting everything, pushing nothing away. The entire world is washing over him – through him, in fact – for all is emptiness, all is shunyata. Separation between observer and observed, subject and object, is fading away. The bamboo grove, the shining moon, and the singing of insects – these begin to appear in all their glorious suchness, or tathata – referring to the “true nature of all things", reality "beyond all concepts and distinctions”, reality “perceived through the realization of the identity of subject and object in the awakening of supreme enlightenment” (Schuhmacher and Woerner, 1994, p. 364). Yes, Ryokan is very close to ‘the dropping off of body and mind.’

Looking at this scene, limitless emotion,
But not one word.

The beauty of the world fills him with such joy that it is beyond description. Perhaps he is joyful as well at having nearly arrived at his destination. Yes, the Buddha was right. The patriarchs were right. Ryokan is in the midst of verifying their teachings for himself. Ah, but is it only joy? If it were only joy, then presumably he would have stated that it was limitless joy. Instead, Ryokan describes “limitless emotion.” What else could there be – sorrow at the fleeting nature of life itself, compassion for all the world continually striving, striving, striving to actualize its nature, longing for a friend with whom to share the view, regret for that which would remain undone? Perhaps the very poetry for which he was already well known then seemed to represent a poor choice – time spent with ink and paper that could have been spent playing with a child, or drinking sake with a farmer, or getting to know the birds of the forest or another grove of bamboo.

Yes, Ryokan is sitting with the full range of everything it means to be human – feeling the entire range of everything it means to be human; and yet he also sees the impermanence of and insubstantial nature of those very emotions. The hut, after all, is filled only with incense smoke. At this point, I’d like to propose the possibility that Ryokan has skillfully built a bit of ambiguity into the first two lines of this poem. Perhaps when he writes “sitting alone in my empty room filled only with incense smoke” he is saying even more directly than I have interpreted to this point that ‘I am sitting here with the full realization of my own emptiness.’

Thus, Ryokan sits on the threshold between two worlds. One world is the world of Ryokan playing with children, and Ryokan drinking sake with farmers, and Ryokan listening raptly to Teishin. The other world is that of shunyata, the world where subject and object are not two, the world where all things are without abiding identity. On one side of the doorway is the world of poetry and on the other side there is not a single word. On one side of the doorway is Ryokan and on the other side is ‘the dropping off of body and mind.’ These worlds are, in fact, the same world – it is merely mind that changes as the threshold is traversed.

A COLD night – sitting alone in my empty room
Filled only with incense smoke.
Outside, a bamboo grove of a hundred trees;
On the bed, several volumes of poetry.
The moon shines through the top of the window,
And the entire neighborhood is still except for the cry
of insects.
Looking at this scene, limitless emotion,
But not one word.

No, not one word. Ryokan sits in a place beyond the words of even a Zen master of poetry. He sits in a place of limitless emotion, glimpsing suchness, accepting everything, pushing nothing away. But has he arrived in the realm of the buddhas? Perhaps he is a heartbeat away. Surely there is a reason that he has included this poem with others under the heading ‘Dawn.’ The light of day and ultimate awakening await. Practice continues ceaselessly.

References
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Stevens, J. (1977). One robe, one bowl – The Zen poetry of Ryokan. John Weatherhill, Inc.


Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

 

Photography Credits
Blue Smoke Trail photograph courtesy of Paul Brentnall via:
Group of Bamboo photograph courtesy of hinnamsaisuy via:


6 comments:

  1. Hello! Glad you're feeling better. You've inspired me to read more of Ryokan's work. I think I'll see if my friendly local bookstore has a copy. ;) This also brought to mind Brad Warner talking about the Heart Sutra. You know, form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

    Looking forward to part two!
    -K

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  2. Thanks K! I'm glad you enjoyed Ryokan. The book I reference has a newer printing date so I'm sure you'll be able to find it. Yes, the emptiness spoken of in the Heart Sutra is the very same emptiness mentioned here. The Heart Sutra is so named because it represents the heart of Buddha's teaching. Our inability to grasp the fact that form = emptiness and emptiness = form is where our difficulties begin.

    Let us know if/when another of Ryokan's poems really strikes your fancy!

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  3. Hi Maku.
    I, too, am glad you are feeling better. I will also be looking for this book. Beautiful post once more! Thank you for this teaching.

    Stacey

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  4. Here's one I've become partial to. Hope you all enjoy!

    No Mind
    With no mind, flowers lure the
    butterfly;
    With no mind, the butterfly visits
    the blossoms.
    Yet when flowers bloom, the butterfly
    comes;
    When the butterfly comes, the
    flowers bloom.

    You're just a fount of information, aren't you? You're a very good teacher, BTW. I've been thinking a lot lately about the emptiness of words. I came across this article - thought you might find it interesting.

    http://www.purifymind.com/MahayanaEmptiness.htm

    Sorry this is so long. Hope you're well!
    -K

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  5. Thanks Stacey, for the well-wishes and for enjoying the post!

    K, you are in good company. That poem is one of Rosan Yoshida roshi's favorites - at least, he quotes from it frequently - the "when flowers bloom, the butterfly comes" part.

    I like the way it plays with our commonplace ideas of cause and effect. Even before our scientific ideas of symbiotic relationships and co-evolution Ryokan could see that the butterfly and the flower are not independent. Dependent Origination is the core Buddhist teaching - the heart of the Heart Sutra, if you will. Everything arises due to causes and conditions. Thus, nothing exists independently and with fixed identity. The way Ryokan switches the order of cause and effect as we usually perceive it is something that Dogen does as well. It always serves as a gentle wakeup call - reminding me to look deeper than preconceived notions. Thanks for sharing the poem!

    I still need to check out the link...

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  6. I've added a link to Rosan Yoshida roshi's translation of the Heart Sutra as we recite it at the Missouri Zen Center.

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