Poetry and Zen, Part 2 of 3

Poetry and Zen, Part 1 left off with Ryokan sitting in a place beyond the words of even a master of poetry like himself; and yet he took the time to craft a poem that might allow us to share that view – however imperfect or incomplete words might be with respect to describing it. Why? Why did he bother? Why didn’t he simply spend the rest of his days advancing toward that buddha realm and enjoying the suchness of his mountain heaven? The Buddha himself, so the story goes, faced a similar quandary after realizing his enlightenment some 2,500 years ago. Should he simply remain where he was in that place of ultimate realization? Who was prepared to hear his teaching, after all? Who was capable of understanding it? Anyone?

Central to Mahayana Buddhism is the bodhisattva vow – the vow to forego one’s own salvation until every other being is saved. Thus, a Zen poet like Ryokan might be motivated to make the most of his skill with words and his grasp of ultimate truth in order to be of guidance to others along the Path. But is that the only reason? Might it also be the case that the very act of creation conveys its own truth? After all, each stalk of bamboo in the grove outside Ryokan’s hermitage conveyed an aspect of truth that only it could convey – in keeping with its nature. Likewise, the moon and the smoldering incense each conveyed the truth in keeping with their nature. But what is Ryokan’s truth? What is his nature? Yes, in an ultimate sense, all is emptiness. Form is shunyata, as the Heart Sutra states. But the Heart Sutra also states that shunyata is form. How do we reconcile these two aspects of truth?

Rosan Yoshida roshi speaks of two levels of truth. There is ultimate truth, the truth of emptiness, the reality that nothing has a fixed and independent existence; but there is also conventional truth, the truth that we all agree upon as we go about our everyday lives – that you are you and I am me and this is a coffee cup and don’t you dare touch my coffee! So, in this realm of conventional truth, in this place of individuation, what does Ryokan have to give the world? What aspect of truth can only he convey? This, I think, gets to the heart of the creative process and the very nature of art itself.

The key for any Zen artist (and anyone, for that matter) is to bring the reality of their “individual” existence into accord with the ultimate truth of the universe and then to express that oneness through their art and through their life. So, how is that different from just living out our life? Well, perhaps that is the koan that each of us must solve. We each must endeavor to realize ultimate truth and then, from that vantage point, take stock of “our” unique talents and circumstances in order to actualize that realization. It is the difference between merely doing something and fully living out our nature. Perhaps that is what Ryokan was hinting at when he wrote: “Who says my poems are poems? My poems are not poems. After you know my poems are not poems, then we can begin to discuss poetry!” (Stevens, 1977). This might seem on the surface like so much silly Zen wordplay, but I think it conveys the difference between one who remains ignorant of ultimate truth – whose scribbled words do nothing to take us out of the realm of conventional truth – and the true artist whose work grows out of his or her experience of ultimate truth and in turn points back to it. This is, I think, what Yoshida roshi is touching on when he describes the poetry of Dogen Zenji as follows: “It is not picturesque, but picture itself, like ‘snow on red leaves.’ It is not natural, but nature itself, like ‘the endless sky.’ It is not art, but life itself or world itself” (Yoshida, 1999, p. 53).

How is it then that some words point toward ultimate truth while others simply rearrange the furniture, so to speak, here in the living room of conventional truth? Where do those truly inspired words come from – words that are “not [merely] natural, but nature itself”? In the fascicle of the Shobogenzo titled The Time-Being, Dogen (1240) recites a quatrain that he attributes to Zen master Guixing:
            For the time being mind arrives, but words do not.
            For the time being words arrive, but mind does not.
            For the time being both mind and words arrive.
            For the time being neither mind nor words arrive. (p. 81)
Human existence is a continuous interplay of causes and conditions, an ebbing and flowing of attention and awareness, a collection of intentions and actions – some more in accord with ultimate truth, some less so. What, then, is the state of mind of the poet as those words that point to ultimate truth arise?

According to D.T. Suzuki, it is the experience of satori that is central to the creation of true art. “The artist, at the moment when his creativeness is at its height, is transformed into an agent of the creator. This supreme moment in the life of an artist, when expressed in Zen terms, is the experience of satori” (Suzuki, 1959, pp. 219-220). Satori is defined by Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) as the “Zen term for the experience of awakening [see also] enlightenment” (p. 308). In his explication of Zen and art, Suzuki goes on to introduce the concepts ki-in (spiritual rhythm), myo (mystery), and yugen (pointing to that which is eternal). He ties all of these concepts together, saying: “When satori artistically expresses itself, it produces works vibrating with ‘spiritual (or divine) rhythm’ (ki-in), exhibiting myo (or the mysterious), or giving a glimpse into the Unfathomable, which is yugen” (Suzuki, 1959, p. 221).

The entry into this discussion of such things as satori and enlightenment might make it sound as though art is the domain of enlightened Zen masters, perhaps to be enjoyed by us “mere mortals” but certainly not to be engaged in at any appreciable level of quality – not before we experience satori, anyway. Maybe, maybe not. In large part, Suzuki is writing from the perspective of the Rinzai Zen tradition wherein koan study is utilized in order to bring about the experience of kensho. [Please note that Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) state that kensho and satori have essentially the same meaning, the difference being that “it is customary to use the word satori when speaking of the enlightenment of the Buddha or the Zen patriarchs and to use the word kensho when speaking of an initial enlightenment experience that still requires to be deepened” (p. 180).] In the Rinzai tradition the arts are a means by which to communicate one’s level of spiritual attainment or understanding of the dharma. Says Iwamoto (2008), “For Soto Zen, one simply sits in meditation, stopping karma without Koan practice. In Rinzai Zen, however, monks need to express the world of their Enlightenment (Satori) or Emptiness (Mu or Ku) in some forms…. This is why the Rinzai Zen practitioners created many Zen art forms” (pp. 26-27). Even prior to the advent of Japanese Rinzai, however, the arts were used to discern the level of understanding of the artist. Stryk (1977) notes that this tendency was especially common throughout the T’ang, Sung, and Yuan dynasties in ancient China and played out with especially dramatic effect when Hui-neng, as the story goes, was selected to be the Sixth Patriarch based “on the strength of his enlightenment poem” (p. 13).

Soto Zen practitioners, practitioners of shikantaza who talk very little about such things as kensho or satori but who nonetheless are on the path of awakening – perhaps gradually over the course of disciplined practice as opposed to suddenly after having their world turned upside down with some koan – will likely relate more readily to the following passage in which Suzuki (1959) writes:
Every one of us, however ordinary he may be, has something in him, in his Unconscious [arising from individual karma], that is hidden away from the superficial level of consciousness. To awaken it, to make it work out things of great value to our human world, we must exert ourselves to the utmost and thoroughly purge ourselves of all our selfish interests. To reach the bedrock of one’s being means to have one’s Unconscious entirely cleansed of egoism, for the ego penetrates even the Unconscious so called. Not the “Collective Unconscious” [arising out of shared human karma] but the “Cosmic Unconsciousness” must be made to reveal itself unreservedly. This is why Zen so emphasizes the significance of “no-mind” (mushin) or “no-thought” (munen), where we find infinite treasures well preserved. (p. 226)
This passage seems to me to afford greater access to the artistic realm than Suzuki’s previous ‘no kensho, no admittance’ approach to thinking about the artistic process. In fact, anyone who cultivates the practice of zazen to the point of stilling their mind will likely find enhanced whatever creative urges they might have had up to that point, and perhaps even find in existence creative urges that they had previously thought were non-existent. Ah, but lest any reader begin thinking of adopting the practice of zazen in order to enhance their artistic endeavors, please be forewarned: practicing meditation with the desire for some sort of gain, even if the desire is to be a buddha, is generally considered to be an impediment to true realization. Such an approach to practice is sometimes referred to as practicing with “gaining mind.” Zen simply will not provide safe harbor to anyone who thinks they’re going to get something out of it!

Perhaps a personal story will illustrate this point: Prior to the Sanshin Zen Community building its temple in Bloomington, Indiana, Shohaku Okumura roshi traveled regularly to the area in order to lead Zen meditation retreats. Many of these meditation retreats were what Japanese Zen practitioners refer to as Rohatsu sesshin – commemorating the seven days that the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree prior to realizing enlightenment. It was after sitting my second such Rohatsu sesshin in a little cabin in the rolling hills outside of Bloomington that I was able to have a personal exchange with Okumura – a Soto Zen teacher, by the way. Somehow it came to pass that I was driving him back to Bloomington from the retreat cabin some miles away. As I recall, the drive was mostly in silence. I was still very much processing all of the places my mind had been over the course of the previous seven days and Zen teachers, in general, are not all that prone to small talk. Anyway, among the various places my mind had been was a place of great stillness during which I was able to reflect on matters that I considered of supreme spiritual and existential importance – matters of ultimate truth, if you will. I was intrigued by this state of mind in which I seemed capable of wordlessly reflecting on the deepest of matters, turning them over and examining them with clarity of mind that seemed unhindered by any worldly constraint. So, as I drove through the rolling countryside with Okumura roshi in the seat beside me, I tried to reconcile this seemingly valuable state of mind – a state of mind perhaps worthy of cultivating – with what I already knew about shikantaza and the usual admonition to simply let go of all thoughts. I don’t have perfect recall of that conversation, but it went something like this:

“So, I understand that shikantaza is about just sitting – without trying to do anything – and that when thoughts arise we’re supposed to just let them go. Of course, that makes perfect sense with respect to all those frivolous, egocentric thoughts that so commonly arise. But aren’t there times when you find yourself reflecting on matters of deep truth – perhaps its some aspect of Buddhist teaching, for instance, or some insight that’s directly related to your practice – and you find yourself thinking with such depth and clarity that it might be appropriate to make use of that time and that state of mind in order to let that insight fully manifest itself?”

Okumura roshi smiled and nodded. It was quite clear, of course, that he knew exactly what I was talking about. “Just let it all go,” he said.

What? Without even getting a poem out of it!

Dogen (1240). The time-being (K. Tanahashi & D. Welch, Trans.). In K. Tanahashi (Ed.), Moon in a dewdrop – Writings of Zen master Dogen. North Point Press
Iwamoto, H. (2008). Japanese aesthetic sense through Zen. The World Sacred Text Publishing Association
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.
Stryk, L., Ikemoto, T. (1977). The Penguin book of Zen poetry. Penguin Books
Suzuki, D. T. (1959). Zen and Japanese culture. MJF Books
Yoshida, R. (1999). Limitless life – Dogen’s world – Translation of shushogi, goroku, doei. Missouri Zen Center

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Photography Credits
Stone In The Lake photograph courtesy of Evgeni Dinev via:


  1. At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want."
    ~Lao Tzu

    That is a quote I posted on Facebook a few months back. This post brought it to mind. As an artist (of sorts), I can relate to what you're saying about creativity being enhanced by meditation; in fact, I think it can sometimes be a meditative practice. For me, anyway. Now I want to learn more about Zen art forms. Any suggestions?

  2. Hey K! I love Lao Tzu. Of course, the hard part is knowing when you've reached the "center", right? :D BTW, my understanding is that without the influence of the Taoist mystics such as Lao Tzu, Zen Buddhism would look very different today.

    I definitely agree that the creative process is meditative, but if I say any more than that I'll be writing Part 3 already! Please stay tuned!

    Regarding learning Zen art forms: Professor Iwamoto (quoted in the post) has been to St. Louis a couple of times and has taught an overview course. I'll be on the lookout for him coming again. Community college continuing education classes sometimes get into such art forms. You might also be on the lookout for information during the next Japanese Festival. Lastly, I think Tricycle Magazine online might still have the Haiku Corner going. The teacher/host of that forum gives/gave great feedback to people. Regardless, just start doing it, whatever it is. Make mistakes. You'll survive!

  3. There's a Part 3? Yay! Hopefully including some of your lovely poetry, I presume? :D Looking forward to it very much!

    Thank you for the suggestions on where/how to start learning about various art forms - I'll definitely check some things out. I know a little about Japanese music, but I really want to learn more. Thanks for the advice, too!


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