The Zen Suite

Zen has been an interest since I was introduced to it by my college professor -- poet, translator, and friend, Lucien Stryk. I do not pretend to understand or practice Zen, but I am very interested in its approach to being, to thinking, to meaning, and to life.

In Zen literature there are countless descriptions of "enlightenment." The Rinzai Zen Master Takayama said this, in an interview with Lucien Stryk in his Encounters with Zen. It is one of the clearest expressions of the Zen experience I've found.

"Nevertheless Zen, which disowns all that has form, rejects any and all kinds of vision. According to it, a mountain is not high, nor is a pillar vertical. Emptiness in Zen is that in which being and non-being originate. It is realized, if you continue to insist on the term, when the dualism of being and non-being is done away with. The emptiness is not there as something to be seen or not seen, it is what you have become. And its realization is instantaneous, meaning timeless, without beginning or end. It is perhaps to be conceded that one can experience emptiness at a given moment, but the experience itself transcends time."

Many of these poems are based on Japanese artworks, but not all. If I've learned anything about it, Zen is where you find it.

Vimalakirti, (Painter Unknown), Sonnet #265

Even a Buddha would think that the dark is light
And all is nothing and nothing is
is bullshit.
Thunderous silence is any mind's steady state.
On every eyelash thrives a ravenous mite,
Vimalakirti would have said, had he the wit.
We cannot eat what those who came before us ate.
There's one answer to each question, which is silence.
What is red? Why is Cassiopeia that way?
What is the difference between past and future tense?
What did you say? What do you say? What will you say?
On a clear day, the horizon line on the lake
Is the turned-away cheek of a sleeping Baku,
Devourer of nightmares. He is me and you.
Hold your tongue, close your eyes, and stay awake.

Last Hike (Shitao), Sonnet # 262

If there is anything, there's no last hike.
Standing above the clouds with my old friend,
We contemplate the imminent end
Of sunlight and the scolding of the shrike,
Guarding his bugs impaled in the bramble.
The mists roil, mass, thin, darken, briefly part,
Revealing mist. Up and back, we amble
Along the precipice. It's time to start
Back, though it's harder to relinquish time
Stepping down than to find it as you climb.
So, we find we have been frozen, like rock,
Our marbled eyes fixed on the blinding glare
Of saturated and sun-glazed air --
In there, the dripping of a water clock.

Eagle (Kishi Ganku), Sonnet #258

The feathers only frame the human eye,
A master's eye, an enlightened being
Who sees the flea struggling in the sand,
Who has forgotten to forget the I,
Who sees the present in all that's fleeting,
Who wields a heavy and powerless wand.
I suspect enlightenment, when men "see,"
Is nothing much, a mere epiphany,
A moment of insight, most certainly,
But not quite a glimpse of eternity.
A piercing human eye, an eagle's soul?
The teachings of Jesus, Buddha, et al,
All come down to this. You're free. It's your call.
Do good, love all men, don't be an asshole.

The Cascade of Mingxianquan at Mt. Hutouyan (Shitao), Sonnet #256

Like arrows shattering when they strike stone,
The rivulets off Mt Hutouvan mist.
Shredded by the air, they cease to exist,
Voicing their fall in a moaned monotone.
Each trace has drifted over time, leaving
Long scars (now covered by lichen and moss),
The whole like portions of the human brain.
Now beyond the stone, the waters, weaving
In an updraft, are perpetual loss
Restored above by perpetual rain.
We stand enshrouded in moist air, blinking
And cold by a pool beneath the cascade,
Watching each other as we slowly fade,
Ideas worn thin by too much thinking.

Moebius Strip With Ants (Escher), Sonnet #255

Now is now, but then isn't then.
It was then, then it looms again,
Then. A conundrum, very Zen.
Ants follow only the given
Road, arriving where they begin,
Unaware of the moment when
What seemed a simple and open
Path becomes blind beyond reason.
The page is the time of all men,
Where the word released by the pen
Can grace the past with an amen,
Or trace loops of evil omen.
It's the same word, this very "then!" --
Old oxen and a lighting wren.

The Wave, Sonnet #253

I dove and dove into the next crest;
Then, dizzy, with my spine wrenched, I floated, 
Face down, standing when sand brushed my chest.
Each wave yearns, its will pure and devoted 
To reaching the afterlife of the shore.
As it thins to wash, there is nothing more.
I've thrashed and pummeled the waves, throwing 
Myself, breast and head first, for an hour, 
Unthinking with laughter, gulps of knowing, 
Loosing myself into the wave's power.
I know, not every one dies on the beach.
Those farthest out tip high and flatten out.
I swim well, but they're beyond my reach.
New waves will rise and peak beyond doubt.

Bodhidharma (Hakuin), Sonnet #244

For Lucien Stryk 

His eyes tell us he grasps nothing he sees.
Nothing like shock, wonder, or puzzlement
(His purpose, to see only by degrees),
His response is a dog's to a new scent.
The more he's enlightened, the more dour,
Saddened by the presumption of a flower,
Disillusioned by the barred owl's power --
Endless patience where the field mice cower.
As he stared into a cave for nine years,
Did he presume to think he saw it all,
What is, what isn't, on a granite wall,
That makes a mockery of monks and seers?
Here he's a presence more paper than ink,
All marrow, nothing more, no sense, no think.

The Shell (Odilon Redon), Sonnet #230

Found empty on beaches, a snail's life's completion,
(But for the occasional hermit crab squatting),
The record of years of unconscious secretion,
Like an old oak tree's sawed rings, without rotting.
The exterior is rough and pointed, lining
As smooth as fired glaze, lucent, roseate, shining.
Pick one up and look deeper inside than you can.
All forgotten dreams fit snugly in living shell.
Ear-worms of time sing from the conch's well
And whisper secrets of the universe's plan.
(It's only the echo of the blood in your brain,
They say, or the pounding of the bounding main.)
The conch is -- we can reach inside, attempt to seize
Its mind. We can also try to swallow the seas.

Gibbous Moon at Sunrise, Sonnet #226

Change speeds. No scales, no balances remain even;
They tip, totter, weighing innumerable me's.
A morning so cold I wonder if pupils freeze.
The waning moon runs from the invisible sun.
A bare tree passes on its light from limb to limb,
Chipping away the orb's disintegrating rim.
I stop to take this picture (though I'm late for work)
Of a moment when, through clutter of trees and murk,
The exhausted, retiring moon beckons and winks,
Before, like reversed syntax, into earth it sinks.
Two days later, at precisely the same hour,
I returned -- the sky empty, the air ancient cold.
You must, I thought, do everything in your power
To stop the need to see clearly from growing old.

Fall Night (David Mikautadze), Sonnet #225

The moon says to the maple tree,
"You owe your existence to me."
Silent, the tree decides to be.
(Its leaves ruffle the wind's smooth voice.)
The moon and tree suggest a choice.
I can wish or I can rejoice.
I can happily know the night
Or yearn for knowledge of the light.
Do pages of a closed book read
Each other? Do dimensions bleed,
With time becoming space at times?
The moon and the maple tree rhyme.
Because I am given the chance,
I choose joy, even ignorance.

The Eye of Light, Sonnet #184

The eye of light is a spectrum of irises
With two dilated pupils, like binary stars,
Slightly blind, in need of Man's eyeglasses,
Its cornea a matting of translucent scars.
Light is a god, as consciousness is a god,
Illuminations we require to survive,
And each is useless, like a cracked divining rod,
Without the bird in flight or a bee-boiling hive.
The eye-beam that threw a rainbow on my ceiling
The sun sent minutes ago to find a prism,
Like the brain turns sensation into feeling,
Near purity, a benign astigmatism.
A man is godly then, in part, without being
A god, though he can often go blind with seeing.

A Cube Made of One-Way Mirrors, Sonnet #177

Light is nature's effort to understand.
At the mote heart of mirrored repetition,
Like an ant lion in his bottomless cone of sand,
It waits, eager to devour all with cognition.
Our own consciousness, a smeared, vague copy,
Cannot conceive infinity because no seers
Have seen what's beyond the visible canopy
Or the vanishing point in this box of mirrors.
We can come closer, because the end of things
Is as hard to picture as the never-ending.
"There is not nothing," the mirrors seem to repeat,
And the omnivorous ant lion won't cease to eat.

Sea Eagle, Sonnet #174

The Japanese anthropomorphize birds
To understand flight without using words.
The soaring of the mind, or of the soul,
And the attenuation of time
Are the filling of an empty bowl
With the sound of a one word rhyme.
The eagle stands one-footed on the air,
His wings feathering balance with the wind.
He isn't hunting, but ready to plunge
Into the sea to make sure it's still there,
To purge himself and others who have sinned.
Diving a fathom he'll surface and lunge
Into the air and soar away with its prize
In clenched talons -- a thousand moons rise.

The Jikininki (Heian Period Scroll), Sonnet #169

The hungry ghosts of Japan eat rotting man's flesh
In penance for a life of greed and selfishness.
At night, all skeletal limbs and bloated bellies,
They see only what the rat or the maggot sees.
In sunlight, each takes on its once human disguise
And wanders its former haunts under clouds of flies.

They say the Jikininki don't want what they eat,
That demon guardians won't permit them to starve.
Some try, but their torturers dismember and beat
And shriek at them: "Now eat what our flaming swords carve!"

These sad, sympathetic souls can only be freed
By prayers of a human free of vice or greed.
Thus the ranks of the Jikininki grow; they feed
On what we leave behind, until we share their need.

Snow Falling on a Town (Utagawa Kuniyoshi), Sonnet #147

The painter says it's snow but I see comet tails,
Stars, and nebulae spin above the snowbound town.
It's all one element. Each flake of crystal hails
Down with blinding insistent force, without a sound,
Unconscious and mute emissaries of deep space.
Each man, woman and child must, for a little while,
Look up, forget their memories and fears, and smile.
Is there a better metaphor than snow for grace?
The town was built in a near treeless mountain's lee
In a valley where the shallow river freezes early,
So melting the snow for water to drink each day
Is a man's burden, deadly to ignore.
Though no one prays to the sky gods for more,
The world would end if snow just went away.

Hotei Watching Mouse Sumo (Hakuin), Sonnet #104

Jolly Hotei knows nothing of sumo,
Nor of mice, but of sumo wrestling mice
There is nothing he does not understand.
He blew smoke rings once of Otufuko,
A prostitute whose skin was pale as rice.
Two words he's never said are: "I demand."
He poo poos the myth that he's flown, a kite,
When it was his grinning that took that flight.
He likes a game, but doesn't play them well.
Winning seems a tiny corner of hell.
He totes his world about in a bundle --
Gifts for the needy, his bedding and socks;
Or himself, tied in with a knot, trundles,
A circle rolling over pond and rocks.

View of Fuji From the Rice Fields in Owari Province (Hokusai), Sonnet #96

The craftsman cuts the rough edges from the circle
With a curved blade and pure disregard for mistakes.
He makes none -- his ring of space rounder than the sun.
To make a thing from nothing is no miracle.
It's what his brain does each day, sleeping or awake.
He knows nothing of quantum dream stuff or neuron.
He once travelled to Mt. Fuji and walked its paths.
He admired the trees; they would make good laths.
The crater's unevenness irritated him,
And the view toward his province was nice, but dim.
Looking through a finger-thumb circle, he found
Sharpened sight. He spent hours, thus, looking around.
When he died the universe collapsed to a quark,
Even when his son took up his father's work.

Catching a Catfish with a Gourd (Josetsu), Sonnet #35

The gourd is the dry brother to the fish.
The curvature of spout and spine
Rhyme with the barrier of the riverbank.
Hard fiber, dark clay, and green flesh
Are his brain, befuddled by wine.
I must make my mind a perfect blank,
He thinks, if I'm to lure the catfish inside.
But the neck is only two inches wide!
That fat fellow is slick and fast as light,
While I would lose a race with mud.
But if I could do it, how sublime!

Clearly, there's no wrong way or right.
The answer pulses in his brain as blood,
Easy as catching an idea with rhyme.

Jittoku Laughing at the Moon (Geiami), Sonnet #31

The night is without sound.
I slowly push my broom
This way, that, around.
The world is just a room,
Impossible to clean.
I lay my broom down.
Hands behind me, I lean
Toward the moon, frown.
I do not understand.
"Why do you grin?" I ask.
No answer. "Answer and
I'll return to my task!"
His silence thereafter
Silenced by my laughter.

Hui-k'o Cutting Off His Arm (Sesshu), Sonnet #30

Just idle anthropomorphizing,
To see a blind monster about to swallow
These two men, or empty philosophizing?
It's only a water-carved cave, after all.
The master stares holes in the cave wall,
As Hui-k'o offers up his severed limb
In angry frustration at being ignored.
A Zen tradition, the teacher's whim,
A simple gesture of emptiness restored
Through which a thousand monsters roar.
Bodhidharma does not blink an eye to see
The wall is both, suffering and ecstasy.
Nothing left for Hui-k'o to know or to teach,
Everything is now beyond his arm's reach.

Shrike (Niten), Sonnet #29

The shrike is called a butcher bird.
He impales insect prey on thorns,
Pinned wriggling, eaten at leisure
(Behavior both practical and lurid),
And a pantry to which he returns
When more toxic morsels have cured.
Niten makes us see him from below.
(Is that an upturned face in the leaves?)
He is lord and maker of the universe,
And a hunched and distracted fellow.
He neither exults at death, nor grieves.
He is what is, for better or for worse.
In that face (see it?), such blindness.
A worm prefers the shrike's kindness.

Winter Landscape (Sesshu), Sonnet #9

Black and white, foreground,
Background, horizon and sky—
There is nothing to describe.
No word for it has been found.
Fingers pinch bits of glass,
Mouths blow rings of gas.
Stone spires, numberless grass,
Poise like celebrants at mass.
This is but approximation,
Sounds approaching shape,
Silhouetted imagination,
Not a poem, but its ape.
Inked paper, here, in your hand—
This is what you understand.

The Minogame (Edo Period Scroll)

Minogame live in ponds for ten thousand years,
Grow long, hairy tails, actually seaweed they wear
Like a straw raincoat to deceive the eyes of men.
To find one is believed a propitious omen.
They stand on nothing, and nothing hold up.
They just swim, on and on, in eternity's cup.
Minds are all turtles who long ago lost their shells,
Scratching for moisture in the deepest driest wells.

Enso (Hakuin)

Turn over the road
and shove the wheel
beneath the void.
Make a deep breath.
Nothing and its time
can be destroyed.

On Buson's Portrait of Basho

Old grinner,
what's under your sky blue cap?
Not haiku!

Note: Many reproductions of
this scroll show the cap as light

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