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Poetry: a Zen Sin?

“Words are not known in all the Buddha-lands.”


I know this and yet I use them – not just to survive or make a living but – of all reasons – to write poems!  I share this discursive shame with Chiao-jan, a distinguished 8th century monk-poet.  In his wise years, “he decided to give up the writing of poetry, believing that it was not proper for a practitioner of Zen.”  Po Chu-i, another 8th century Zen poet, wrote the following quatrain-confession, entitled “Idle Droning”:

Since earnestly studying the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness,

I’ve learned to still all the common states of mind.

Only the devil of poetry I have yet to conquer –

Let me come on a bit of scenery and I start my idle droning.

Poetry is documentation, narration, score-keeping, and accounting of the immeasurable.  Buddhist psychology is in a silent war with language since words keep us stuck in what just happened but no longer is…  Thoughts come, thoughts go, that’s the nature of mind.  But we aren’t our mind, we aren’t our thoughts, we are what remains after these sense-impressions evaporate like morning dew under the scorching sun of wait-for-no-one reality.

So, to pause to verbalize, let alone to take time to jot down a fleeting thought, let alone to awaken my laptop, to type in what occurred to me and to save any given state of mind is pure ego, pure attachment!  Zen sin – nothing less!

Yet: it is exactly Zen state of mind that triggers so much poetry.  Acutely present in the moment, the mind cannot help but notice the ever-unfolding perpetual motion of ordinary perfection, in conceptual surround-silence…  A dilemma, huh?  First, you drink the Zen Kool-Aid, which turns you into a poetic hound ever following the trail of passing beauty; then, you realize that to savor all this ineffable arising-and-cessation of reality is to celebrate the past, which is an existential trap of being phase-behind the rushing river of what is…

My solution: to hell with it!  I’ll keep on writing poems.  And, an argument can be made, that writing (of any kind) actually helps with the business of what I call “I-catching.”  Sure, any documentation of experience is ego-business, but, as I see it, I’d rather know what my ego is up to than not.  What I seem to be discovering through this poetical self-monitoring is that the idle droning of my mind’s chatter tends to sing odes to mind-silence…

the domino effect of your words
back to the Original Silence -
To a moment
before your Mind
created the word “mind.”

Ironic, huh?

For whatever it’s worth, I am not alone in this rebellion.  I’ve got the tautological backing of 15th century Japanese Ten’in Ryutaku who stated: “Outside of poetry there is no Zen, outside of Zen there is no poetry.”


“Zen Poetry” by Burton Watson, in Zen: Traditions and Transitions (edited By Kenneth Kraft)

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Pavel, you have so clearly

described the human dilemma and answered your own (rhetorical) question. We are forever caught in the cycle of tension between opposite points of the circumference. But I think the mind can pioneer, and not only that, it can orienteer, even without being set on a course of particular discovery as, for instance, in the sciences. All the time it stakes out new territory so that the zen condition can be better understood and appreciated. In this way our humanity is enlarged. In this way, too, the thread of our individual lives begins to acquire coherence.

Until we find Eden again, that is, perhaps, the best we can hope for!

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Thanks, Rosy

Yes, dialectics of acceptance and change move the world. Be well.

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Zen Sin? I'm in!

All that stays is dying, all that lives is getting out. If poetry is the song of leaving and arriving of the same awareness then the poem is always about the NOW, it is to call back to the pure awareness of Being as expressed perfectly by the Being this-or-that, duality as illuminating non-duality, ego as an ornament for egolessness, this is why you cut off the three heads of ego and wear it as a crown, ego becomes the slave instead of the other way round. This is too say all the three times are fair game for the liberated one, all are chains of slavery for those who still cling to the false belief that any of this is really real, instead of a flowing, melting, reevolving, resolving, and unchanging NOW which is never real, because reality cannot be real if it is mistaken to be contained by the metaphors we egoicly use to try to describe it. This is idoloty, the making of graven images, but if you break the image while making it it is just more pointing out that reality is not what we think, or experience or decribe, it is only reality,

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Samuel - thank you as always for extending the idea so skillfuly.