06/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Poetry: a Zen Sin?

"Words are not known in all the Buddha-lands." (Lankvatara).

I know 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 8the 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, 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 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."

For whatever it's worth, I am not alone in this rebellion. I 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: Tradition and Transition (Ed. By Kenneth Kraft)

Eating the Moment | Present Perfect | Lotus Effect