Poetry & paying attention

Ryokan by Koshi no Sengai

For me, one of the primary duties of the poet is to pay attention, to notice things that often get missed in the merry-go-round of life – one of the purposes of poetry is to celebrate and share these insights as concisely and memorably as possible. This aspect of poetry has an affinity with the practice of zazen or mindful meditation.

I have selected a few translations of Chinese and Japanese poems as exemplars of mindful insight.

Li Bai – who was also known as Li Bo or Li Po – lived from 701–762 in the Tang dynasty. Li was recognised in his own time, and today, as one of the brightest stars in the Chinese poetry firmament.

In Li’s poetry we find him identifying with the ‘common people’ rather than the elite and he often voices his opposition to needless wars. He was a larger-than-life character whose life took on a legendary quality. There is a strong Daoist quality to much of his writing – a veneration for nature, solitude and contemplation. This poem is titled, Questions answered:

You ask why I live
alone in the mountains

I smile and am silent
until even my heart grows quiet.

The peach trees blossom.
The water flows.

I live in a world
beyond human affairs.
(Hamill & Seaton 2007: 41)

In many Chinese poets the transience of life is an ever-present theme and Li is no exception to this preoccupation. It is evident in these lines from the same poem: ‘One quick trip between heaven and earth, / then the dust of a thousand generations.’ He sums up life with this memorable line: ‘This life is mist. What is fame? What is glory.’ (Hamill & Seaton 2007: 42)

In a poem titled, Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain, we can imagine Li sitting in meditation, observing the clouds and the mountain. As he sits, letting go of his worries and erratic thoughts, even his sense of himself as separate from the mountain evaporates. All boundaries are dissolved, and he becomes one with his surroundings. This is the poem:

Birds have vanished from the sky.
The last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
(Hamill & Seaton 2007: 42)

In their extreme brevity, precision and concentration, Japanese haiku probably come closest to encapsulating a Zen aesthetic in words – in just seventeen syllables. 

Matsuo Kinsaku, known as Bashō (1644-1694) was a poet who elevated the haiku into a major mode of artistic expression in Japan. In 1680 Kinsaku took up his new name in honour of a Basho tree, a species of banana palm, given to him by one of his admirers, who also built a small house for the poet in a relatively isolated riverside spot in Fukagawa province. Basho had a great fondness for his tree, writing a few years later, he says this: 

‘The leaves of the Basho tree are large enough to cover a harp…. The tree does bear flowers, but unlike other flowers, there is nothing gay about them. The big trunk of the tree is untouched by the axe, for it is utterly useless as building wood. I love the tree, however, for its very uselessness…. I sit underneath it, and enjoy the wind and rain that blow against it.’ (Yuasa 1966: 26)

This short note about his tree is very indicative of Basho’s approach to poetry. His range of subjects are largely about his travels through the natural world and his meetings and partings with friends, fellow poets and other travellers. He often notices things, people and events that others might walk by without noticing. He is the quiet, compassionate, clear-sighted observer – finding interest and enjoyment in mundane things that he sees in vivid and surprising moments of insight.

Basho’s approach to poetry is summed-up in this quote from Sam Hamill, one of his many translators into English:

Basho’s poems were […] a natural product of his close observation of the natural relationships of people and things, our presence in ‘nature.’ He prized sincerity and clarity and instructed [his students] “Follow nature, return to nature, be nature.” He had learned to meet each day with fresh eyes. [He used to say,] “Yesterday’s self is already worn out!”’ (Hamill 2000B: 177)

Basho’s statement that ‘Yesterday’s self is already worn out’ is redolent of Zen understanding. Opening to each moment, to each sight, sound, mood and thought, as if for the first time, is the aspiration of Zen practitioners and certainly something Basho sought in his poems. Perhaps the most memorable of these moments is evoked in his most famous haiku. In Japanese it reads like this (pardon my pronunciation):

Furuike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

There are many translations of this poem, some of them long-winded and clunky. The one I like the most is also the shortest. It is by the English Benedictine monk and concrete poet, Dom Sylvester Houedard (1967) and goes like this:




Despite, or because of, its utterly pared down brevity these three words seem best to evoke the moment when Basho hears a frog plunging into an old pond. Sometimes Basho (Hamill 2000 B: 10) simply acknowledges a sight that others tend to miss, as here:

Almost no one sees
the blossoming chestnut
under the eaves

There is no embellishment, no commentary or judgment – just as there is not in zazen practice. There is just the paying attention. The noticing and noting. That is not to say that Basho’s haiku do not also open up layers of meaning far beyond their word-length. The following example offers us an insight into solitude, impermanence and the reluctance we might encounter when bidding goodbye to a pleasant sensation:

On a bare branch
a solitary crow –
autumn evening
(ibid 115)

In my own work as a poet, I have often been drawn to the poetry of the Soto Zen monk, Ryokan (c. 1758-1831). Although he was a certified Zen teacher Ryokan is unusual in that he was never head of a temple. It seems he preferred to live very simply on his own, spending his time meditating, writing poetry and leading the life of a mendicant monk. This included the traditional practice of begging for food. Ryokan enjoyed the company of children and wrote many poems about them. By all accounts he was very popular with the villagers who lived near him. There is a lot of irony, humour, practical wisdom, as well as great poignancy in his observations of life as a somewhat gregarious hermit. Here is a short poem written one snowy evening:

After spending the day begging in town,
I now sit peacefully under a cliff in the evening cool.
Alone, with one robe and one bowl –
The life of a Zen monk is best!
(Stevens 2006: 34)

And this one is very evocative of his simple and contented life:

My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe;
When the moon comes out, I read Buddhist poems.
I have nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.
(Stevens 2006: 43)

I would like to read here my own reworkings of two of his poems. They are not translations, but variations in the spirit, as I see it, of Ryokan. I hope they convey something of his distinctive Zen wisdom: 

Reworking Ryokan

the past is already past
the future is not yet here
the present never abides
things are ever-changing
there’s nothing on which to depend

let go of names and words
let go of time-worn views
don’t chase after ideas
sit quiet and reflect on how things are
let the world and its beauty
                                                   pass by

Ryokan variation

raindrop on raindrop
leaf on leaf
- days of autumn
piled then blown away

And here are two more variations. The first is my version of a poem by Shido Bunan, otherwise known as Munan – a Rinzai Zen teacher who lived from 1603 to 1676:

The moon’s the same old moon,
The flowers exactly as they have always been,
Yet I have become both moon and flowers,
At one with all the things I see.
(Original poem by Bunan - in Takahashi 1986: 10)

And, second, my variation on a poem by a poet named, Soshi – someone who I think I first encountered in, Zen and Zen Classics – an eccentric history of Zen written by R.H. Blyth (1964). Though I have since looked many times I can no longer find the original. Maybe I dreamt it, or perhaps it is just something I wrote. It is reminiscent of the many Chinese and Japanese poems translated by Kenneth Rexroth:

in the arbour out back, I sleep all afternoon

waking up, my eyes still dim, the garden
is darkening in the fading light
my mind is at rest, without thought
or fancy          quiet and unattached
it is empty and ripe, vibrant yet still

somehow, I have slipped into the realm
of the useless - anchorless, I float free

call it meditation or forgetful sitting
it’s all the same to me

In another poem I have tried to convey the direct, no-nonsense approach to life advocated by many Zen teachers:

Eat when hungry
sleep when sleepy.
Take things as they are,
neither more nor less.

No up, no down.
No this, no that.
No eater, no sleeper,
only sleeping and eating

- one mouthful at a time.


Hamill, Sam, trans. 2000 B. Narrow Road to the Interior and other writings by Basho. Boston: Shambhala.

Hamill, Sam & Seaton, J.P. trans. & eds. 2007. The Poetry of Zen. Boston: Shambhala.

Houedard, Dom Silvester. 1967. Kinkon. London: Writers Forum Poets Number 14.

Stevens, John. Trans & ed. 2006. One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan. Boulder: Weatherhill.

Takahashi, Shinkichi. 1986. Triumph of the Sparrow: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi. New York: Grove Press.

Yuasa, Nobuyuki, trans. 1966. Basho: The Narrow Road to the Deep North and other Travel Sketches. London: Penguin.