Introduction: Zen Poetics
(Sarah Webb)

What is it about Zen and poetry? There are so many Buddhist poets, enough for anthologies dedicated just to them, and—despite the warnings against reliance on words and scriptures—poetry has come to seem a Zen artistic discipline, much like archery or calligraphy or tea. The sudden flashes we call haiku are a well known part of the Zen tradition, but Zen poets write in many forms, as we learned from Norman Fischer’s recent reading at AZC. Why is poetry so natural to Zen practitioners?

In writing poetry we are mindful, not of drying cloth on the plate or door knob turning but of the movement of our minds. Yes, we are square in the world of form, just as we are when we sit on our cushions or experience our steps in kinhin. But we see our thoughts arising from nowhere. They appear, they turn into a poem.

Long or short, multi-layered or spare, personal or detached, poetry does something other words cannot. It is a bridge into the unsayable. We quieten and listen, let ourselves be the ground in which the void spills into form. How intimate.

(Vickie Schubert)

I find myself
a precisely folded,
intricate, delicate,
beautiful orgami,
shaped as dove or maybe antelope,
it really doesn’t matter,
because I also notice
I am unfolding
so what once was antelope,
is now swan,
and now snake,
and now just paper,
beautiful, blank paper,
waiting to be refolded
by the universe
into a new shape,
or maybe waiting
for a more profound transformation,
slowly through deterioration,
or quickly through flame,
into the bare elements
of interbeing.
And maybe I will become
real dove or swan or antelope
or maybe just another piece
of beautiful blank paper.
It really doesn’t matter.

Drawing by Angela Rogers

Zen Poetics of Ryokan

The following article (by Meng-hu) is reprinted from Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry, Summer 2006, vol. 4., no. 2 ( Reprinted with permission.

If the only measure of poetry were technique, then the haiku and waka of Ryokan (1758-1831) would not be models. But Ryokan scorned technique. His favorite predecessor was not a formal Japanese scholar-poet but Han-Shan, the Chinese hermit who inscribed his poems on rocks, walls and miscellaneous scraps, and boasted that his technical flaws ("wasp's waist" and "crane's knees") proved that he was neither a poet nor learned. Han-shan summed up ignorant reaction to his work:

When stupid people read my poems,
They don't understand and sneer.
When average people read my poems,
They reflect and say they are deep.
When gifted people read my poems,
They react with full-face grins.

Ryokan, too, disputed the academic version of what was proper poetry, lampooning the monk-poets of his day:

With gaudy words their lines are formed
And further adorned by novel and curious phrases.
Yet if they fail to express what is in their own minds
What is the use, no matter
How many poems they compose!

But he went further than Han-shan.

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!

If we are to learn from Ryokan, who is Japan's most famous and beloved poet, our premises about poetry must shift radically from technique to inspiration.

Notes to Self
(Isshin Glen Snyder)


notes to self on howto of zen and poetry writing
hold the ink brush loosely and near vertically and trace an invisible enso on the table top.

then collect loose papers from desk and all around apartment.

gently flatten out papers with palms of your hands and stack in a neat pile next to brush.

once stacking is completed, return brush back to storage place.

take papers out to recycle box.

(Thomas Turner)

i forgot i wrote this was in aspen. a few years ago
and i dont believe in a process. they come out. like the breath. maybe i scratch out a word. then im done with them.

the evening
I sat in wet grass
starlight dusted
my hair.

and i remember
brushing back
the mycelia
of the heavens
with my concentration.


and yet,
the twinkle


No Zen in Haiku
(Trevor Maloney)

Some folks think that haiku has everything to do with Zen; a famous Indian teacher even said that haiku are poems that Zen priests use to express their enlightenment experiences. But, fortunately for us, this isn't true. Anybody who really wants to can write a haiku. In fact, here in the States and in Japan, anybody does write haiku. Normal slobs like you and me. Sure, the religion of Zen and Japanese artistic expressions share some interplay, but you don't have to be a Zen practitioner to write a decent haiku, and you definitely don't need to have any kind of Zen-ish glimpse of enlightenment. I started studying haiku in the Fall of 2007. Why haiku? Because I'm lazy, I think. You can write three lines - or even two - and then sometimes you're done. Tah dah! The instant coffee of poetry. Almost. The more you get into it, the more you'll want to refine it. I've spent weeks refining eight to ten words, only to come back to it months later. Sometimes I get the same feeling working on a haiku as I do when I clean out an incensor, picking out the little stubs; So, this is what my life is reduced to, huh? It's all come down to this...

ice skating with friends
watching children

Around the Spring of 2008, I put 84 of my better haiku together in a little book called "Too Bright to See." I made and gave away about 300 copies to friends, family, sangha members, acquaintances, and a few strangers. This project remains one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. Knowing what I know now about haiku, I'd say there might be eight verses in "Too Bright to See" that are really within the tradition of haiku, and probably three of them are quite good. You have to start somewhere, I suppose.

went to the bay
to see some boats
alone with the fog

A young fellow at SFZC asked me, "Trevor, would you say that your practice of Zen informs your poetry?" "No," I answered, "I would never say that." He was surprised, "Really, why not?" "Because I think that would sound pretentious. Besides, I'm only getting started on the Zen thing. And I don't write poetry." Now, though, I would say that I want my Zen practice to inform my haiku writing, but no more than I want it to inform every aspect of my life.

small Texas towns
get bigger
final descent

(Visit Trevor's blog at:

Farmer, Nebula, Plow
(Sarah Webb)

Some of the poems that come to me might be called Zen in content. Others bubble up from the muddy swamp of my life, and their mucky origins show. But they all emerge from that place I can’t see into. I can only allow the poem to come, not make it.

My teacher reminds his students, “The more you chase it, the more it runs away.” But if you sit listless and dead, you’ll never escape that dark cave. You can exert your will (and your monkey ego) and wriggle hard to see the truth. Or you can turn away, say to heck with it, what’s to see.

Neither approach will lead to awakening.Writing a poem—or rather, allowing a poem to arise--hints at a way out of that dilemma. You listen inside, you let words come. You don’t know where the poem will go, what it might mean. Maybe it doesn’t even make sense to you. But you have faith that the poem will write and something emerge.

How to go forward? My teacher has asked me to write a poem without words. I get grabby, I get discouraged and dead. I try to remember writing a poem.

The farmer plows his fields,
rye grass and oat,
and beneath him,
all the deep of hillside,
lies a great whorl,

Plow scratches soil
as thin as egg shell

over snail spiral,
body of nebula

and the red nebula heart,
a sun even the farmer feels.

He looks at the day,
at the bird startling up from grass
and longs--

for what?
the earth crumbling away from the plow blade,
the bob of seedhead,
the way his hand pulls at the rein?

Oh, it is very close--
something he almost knows,
rose fire in his chest.
a tremble like earth shifting,
he can almost say it.

Q&A, Poem
(Norman Fischer)

JustThis: How do you turn your practice of poetry towards liberation?

NF: as far as i am concerned poetry is already liberation, i don't have to turn it anyhow. writing is not about me- i can't be attached to it or self centered about it, i have to let go and let the writing write itself. so writing is practice by other means. not so different from sitting, really, or anything else.

The simplest way
Is the way, the next movement
Is that moment
Without scorn
                              Into the tappet

Seal Mummy Haiku
(Isshin Glen Snyder)

No cut-words. “Oh!”, “Ah!”...not quite. No season-words to speak of. I suppose Texas redbud blossoms are more obvious than the ripple marks of a mallard landing in the still lake waters...but perhaps never subtle enough. Brushstrokes and keystrokes  will never be the same object as that of our sensations, perceptions, formations, and mind-consciousness. Our visions and words can form only letters on paper or electronic ether ASCII....symbols that will never themselves form the pictographs of our own expressions. Faced with such limitations, it's amazing we can even attempt haiku at all....or even some semblance of haiku...or even something that is not haiku at all but which we call haiku. And I wish I had the freedom of Kerouak, great unrecognized haiku patriarch of the west who, once freed of the encumbrances of 5-7-5, was able to pencil out each day's dharma pops in a small spiral notebook. But here I am again, no further along than 5-7-5. If I miss a beat, someone will surely tell me. Sitting in a circle sharing poetry of a single breath. Haiku is haiku. And haiku is not haiku. Then haiku is haiku. It is at once me...and I am not it!

between east and west
antarctic ice sheets,
martian desert walk.

talus valley walls.
thick brine of reflections bursts
forth red algal bloom.

a glacier that cares to
neither advance nor retreat:
wall unto itself.

way far upvalley
landlocked visions of wind sounds
turn like weather vanes.

seal mummy silence:
empty pharaoh visions hail
the cold continent.

flesh ablates away
the adiabatic winds
of austral summer light.

Isshin Glen Snyder lived for 6 weeks in the Antarctica during the 2005-2006 research season, where he carried out NSF-sponsored research on the Dry Valleys Lakes. When he returned, he began to study Zen.

(Brandon Lamson)

Late May in Houston: already, a fog of ninety degree heat washes over the city like a kind of primordial soup, a viscous haze we swim through. My second wedding anniversary several weeks away, I remember our elopement to the Dulcinea Chapel perched in the hills outside Austin, a view of scrub brush and the domed rooftops of an ashram unfurling below as we said our vows. The day before, walking down to the river from the San Jose Hotel, we strolled by a pond of lotuses, dozens of them opening to the sunlight, their pink and white petals absorbing the reflections of drifting clouds.

In Buddhist texts the lotus is a symbol of enlightenment: rooted in the mud of human suffering, it extends toward the light of awareness, reaching its full expression in the union of heaven and earth. This movement is not linear but cyclical; soon after it blossoms, the lotus sprays seeds that sink below the surface and are rooted in the same mud the mature flower arose from, just as Bodhisattvas vow to return through countless lives until all sentient beings are liberated. In this sense, the lotus embodies our highest aspirations to fully become ourselves for the sake of others, to reap the merit of our practice and then give it away. What a beautiful metaphor for the delicate and mysterious unfolding of marriage, a dance with one leg in Samsara and the other in Nirvana, separation and togetherness entwined.

The poem “Lotuses” begins with this image of lovers tangled in bed, in the mud of their conjugal sheets. Threads of the secular and the sensual are interwoven throughout as the speaker meditates on the futility of separating these powerful strands, of cleaving “war” from “horses.” I thought of the lotus’s lack of discrimination, what Thich Nhat Hanh refers to as the interbeing of roses and garbage, the rich compost of our practice lives. And I considered the temptation to analyze, which comes from a Greek root word that means to break apart. Since my wife and I eloped five months after we met, it would be easy to simplify my understanding of this event either through the lens of romanticism and the fate of star-crossed lovers, or the lens of personal and family history, but the truth of our marriage is a dharma greater than these reductive views. Boundless, compassionate, mysteriously co-arising, it cannot be grasped. “Lotuses” ends with an ascension, a rising movement that does not seek to attain or to possess, but to enact a moment of awakening.

photos by Linda Mosley of her St. Louis lotuses (2005)


I wake cold and happy, not caring she’s taken the sheets
from me at night and they ravel around her, the freckle below
her right breast close to my lips.

I haven’t spoken yet, though if I could and breath
was perfectly distilled vision then I could conjure
her as she is, her leg across my hip, winding around me

as though I were the length of her spine, a shaft of bamboo.
Lotus plants root in mud, the resinous, binding force
that lowers consciousness to rage and lust, siphoning

these poisons into vibrant magentas. Startling
this immersion in another’s heat and light, and these
lotuses tinged pink, each a fragrant cloud.

We may dissemble the animal and divine,
cleave war from horses, but then our source
of greatness, would diminish, our soul no longer yoked

to the dirt of human empathy where blood
worms writhe in paper cups of soil
and are threaded onto hooks cast beneath the water

where our beloved cannot follow
and we must take our time ascending
through the foundation below, into the space

beneath the bed, through scuffed floorboards
and box springs, through layers of mattress and
into troubled flesh that opens its ragged mouths.

Entering the Meditation Hall
(Brianna Walther)

I often write haiku as a warm-up exercise before working with longer written forms, and as a way of staying connected with my meditation practice.

I enter
the meditation
hall and bow

I offer
a silent prayer
and sit

a bell sounds
the roar of silence
begins now

He held a piece
of paper 'tween
his thumbs gently.
Kim Mosley

(Sherry Priest)

Like everything I write, the poem is based on actual events in my life and was "triggered" by a conversation with a young woman who was pregnant with her first child. (Sherry Priest on the writing to "Sunyata")

Last week St. Bridget’s Day,
Fire and straw woven into crosses.
Ash Wednesday coming soon,
The last rite of the Church I could receive.
Holding my baby,
Ashes on his innocent forehead,
Black dust
Across the bridge of his nose
The truth plain.
Dust thou art and to dust thou shall return
No need to attach to sin,
No need to be redeemed.
The five skandhas are sunyata.
Feeling thought volition and consciousness likewise are like this.
A wedding on Good Saturday.
I will bring a bottle of wine
And a brightly colored egg
For my friend the groom.
I will bottle my own vinegar for this day,
Whisper in his ear only that
I wish for them lots of fat babies
For me to play with
And then give back.
My babies now weave fire and straw
On their own.
So young a woman,
Carrying her first
Soon giving birth,
Says she feels too big.
Not at peace with her swollen belly
She does not yet understand
How big the work she does
She does not yet know
She is the vessel of creation.
And only the vessel.


Copyright Sherry Priest 2007

Author’s Notes

Sunyata – Sanskrit term for Buddhist concept, often translated as “emptiness” or “lack of permanence.”

St. Bridget’s Day – February first. St. Bridget is a patron Saint of Ireland, also of babies and midwifes, and linked to a Celtic goddess of fertility and fire associated with Imbolc.  St. Bridget’s crosses are woven of rushes and sometimes burned to protect homes from fire.

Dust thou art and to dust thou shall return–From the liturgy for Ash Wednesday

The five skandhas are sunyata.

Feeling thought volition and consciousness likewise are like this–From the Heart Sutra

Skandha – Sanskrit term for Buddhist concept, often translated as “aggregate” or “heap;” usually refers to the five elements of self, i.e., form, feeling, thought, volition, and consciousness.

lots of fat babies – A line from Firefly

This Love
(Phil Gable)

I wrote this poem in my head during a sitting period at sesshin. During a break I went to my car and wrote it down on a piece of scrap paper. It is the unedited, unrevised spontaneous product of my zen experience.

I’m a little reluctant to add more commentary because shikantaza isn’t about writing poems, yet when they arise, why not? I guess the poem is a rough expression or channeling of non-dual consciousness. I’ve found over the years that kensho moments defy conventional language because conventional language is intrinsically dualistic. That’s why the language of poetry and metaphor, story and art seem to serve better when the time comes that we have to say something.

This Love

The rose loves the compost
Arises from it, is nourished by it, returns to it.

But that is not this love.

This love arises from Nothing. Returns to Nothing.
This love depends on Nothing.
This love simply re-blooms, recreates, in each budding moment.

The ship loves the sea
Sails from port to port, buoyed by it, rocked by it,
Is tempered by its storms
And learns patience when the winds die away.

But that is not this love.

This love neither arises nor departs
Neither rages nor becalms
This love has no horizon
Rather, it sits steadfast like a beacon
Illuminating all who open their eyes to see.

The leaf loves the tree. Receives life from it,
Breathes life back, then dies, and in falling near the roots,
Provides the very last shred of its being
To sustain the cycle.

But that is not this love.

This love’s every breath is first and last.
This love was never born and so cannot die.

This love is a boundless field
That is not rose, nor ship, nor leaf
Yet holds them all and is held by them.

This love has no edges, no lines, no conditions.
This love is not two. Not you and me.

This love endures moment into moment
Lifetime into lifetime. Forever.

This love is just this: Love.

Last Night's Wedding
(Kim Mosley)

Forces join, wondering how 
they could ever
be separate.

Families join, once not knowing 
each other, 
and now, 
not knowing how 
they could have not.

The passed elder says,
three things are important—
health, happiness, and 
long life. 
All guaranteed to be 
curtailed, someday,
but for now,
for yesterday, and today,
we have all three,
many times over.

For today, over and
over and over again.

Introduction: Play
(Rev. Trevor Maloney)

For good reason, our Zen tradition is known for being a little serious, perhaps even harsh. The kyosaku is meant to help practitioners stay awake—and it does—but it still looks like someone getting hit with a stick. Linji was known for his deafening shout, and Te Shan for his tendency to beat his students with a staff. Our ancestors often remind us to be single-minded in our pursuit of truth. With death as our constant companion, what room is there for play, for goofing around?

You could easily focus on the dignity, majesty, and life-or-death seriousness of our tradition, if you wanted to. But, you would be forgetting Chin Niu, who would call his monks to lunch by beating a pot, laughing, dancing, and singing, "Bodhisattvas! Come and eat!" You would be forgetting the spontaneous laughter that came about at moments of awakening. You would be ignoring the Pang family's teasing each other as they sharpened their understanding together.

While buddhas and bodhisattvas are traditionally depicted with a slight smile, or at least a rather warm expression, Bodhidharma, the first Zen ancestor in China, sits there scowling. He's a scary sight. His beard is scraggly. He wears his robe over his head, which gives me the impression that he's hiding, that he doesn't want to talk to me. He probably wouldn't want to talk to me, in fact. He brought a teaching "not dependent on words and letters." Hui-Ke had to cut off his own hand just to get into his dokusan room. Bodhidharma was so dead serious and intent on practicing zazen, the legend says, that he sliced off his eyelids to keep from dozing off. (Fortunately for us, his eyelids fell to the ground and a tea plant sprung up, so we can just have some tea to stay alert.) Google image-search "Bodhidharma" and you'll see some serious-looking faces. Our way is difficult, he seems to say, demanding everything. Don't slack off.

This image is different, however. Hanging in the AZC zendo, it shows Bodhidharma playing with a chubby little kitty, and smiling. I've never seen such a depiction of the blue-eyed barbarian. Sure, practice hard, it seems to say, but know that this is all for the sake of liberation. Dogen tells us that if you realize that your mind is unlimited, "your priorities about everything change immediately." Maybe playing with the cat, or tying a pretty red ribbon around his neck, becomes the most important thing. Devote yourself wholeheartedly to this way that directly points to the absolute. Know that your mind is unlimited. Smile. Bodhidharma wants to play.

(Visit Trevor's blog at:

Remembering Play
(Kim Mosley)

We sat two periods of zazen today, during which time there were a few kids playing in the yard next to the zendo. At first I was annoyed, because I was having my private conversations with myself, and these kids were interrupting me. Then I started to sense it was me, 55 years ago, playing, not them. I moved from the cushion to the outdoors. I realized I was existing in two "time zones" at the same time. Later, after sitting, I saw the kids through the window. They had red shirts on. No, I thought. I wasn't wearing a red shirt that day!

(more of Kim Mosley's art can be found on his blog:


nine bows
for the bodhisattva
child's play
the thus come one's
true disciple
who teaches children
the games
they know
by heart.

nine bows for bodhichitta,
freeze tag
hide & seek
and the immutable law
of hop scotch
jump rope
and the fool's favorite

with closed eyes,
I see you.

play at work, work at play
(Kim Mosley)

Sometimes we mistakenly believe that kids play and adults work, but one just needs to watch a toddler and see how dedicated they are to the task at hand to realize they are learning about their universe in record time and will not (or rarely, as in Jasper's case below) be led astray by any distractions.

Adults, on the other hand, with their great understanding of the world, seem to have lots of time for play—sports, movies, and candlelight dinners.


(more of Kim Mosley's art can be found on his blog:

Daylight Savings
(Cristina Mauro)

Flung across their row of beds
my three boys fell asleep playing.

One lays diagonal across the mattress
chin propped up and arms outstretched.

A small blue airplane in one hand waits
to fly through the line of light beaming

from the flashlight in his other hand.

His twin brother has his head nested on the pillow
and arms down by his sides

but the covers are rumpled
and the headband circled twice around his upper arm

seems to suggest he has unusual powers.

The youngest sleeps upside down
with a red flip flop clinging to one foot.

His stuffed rabbit is not in the usual place
and his hand hangs over the mattress edge

holding a single sheet of blank paper.

The hour that vanished hangs over them and waits.

2005 Summer Intensive

One hot day during Summer Intensive 2005, four participants (Nancy Webber, Anita Swan, Lila Parrish, Pat Yingst), crazed by the relentless chirping of cicadas and the unceasing watching of their thoughts, unleashed their impulses on the building and grounds of the AZC. Their mayhem did not go un-recorded! See it here.

The Ballad of Bodhidharma
(John Grimes)

Bodhidharma went to China
Just to see what he could see.
When he got there all he said is:
"What will be is what will be.
But delusion mars your vision
Of what is and what has been,
So just sit right down and turn around
And start to practice zen."

"Once you're seated and you're settled
Then you focus on your breath.
In good time it will be obvious
That twixt now and certain death
There's no you, no I, no me, no thee,
He, she, her, it or him.
There's just us, right here, and us, right now.
There is no they or them."

"All appearance is delusion
There is nothing there at all.
But do not activate your mind
When that nothing comes to call.
In the mind, no coughing, sighing
When you hate or when you crave.
There's no gain or loss – don't laugh or cry –
Come join me in my cave!"

Bodhidharma barks and snaps and snarls
And bristles in your face,
Yet he'd love a kiss and cuddle
Any time, most any place.
He's a puzzle, is our Bodhi,
As we struggle to perceive
That the only dharm' of karma is
We get what we receive.

(This can also be sung to the tune of the final rondo of The Elixir of Love by Donizetti)

Showdown at the Genjo Corral
(Peg Syverson)

Austin Zen Center 2003 Summer Intensive
Cast: Dogen, Billy (the kid), Bartender, Wyatt, Shane

Scene: A West Texas saloon, Showdown at the Genjo Corral

The arrival:
[Wyatt, Shane and Billy, seated at the table with a go game between Wyatt and Shane]
[Bartender is wiping off the bar when the robed stranger, Dogen, enters, carrying a set of oryoki bowls and a fan.]
Bartender: What can I do for ye, stranger?
Dogen: Nothing.
Bartender [sets down a shot glass]: Well, what’ll it be?
Dogen: Nothing.
Bartender rolls his eyes and takes away the glass.
Bartender: I guess you’re not from around these parts. So, then, what do you think of West Texas, pardner?
Dogen: As my great granddaddy said, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”

The gamblers:
Wyatt: You got that right, stranger. Say, what’s your handle?
Dogen: Dogen
Shane: Why don’t you come along, little dogie, and set right here by me.
[Dogen moves to the table and takes a seat next to Billy]
Wyatt: We’re just having a friendly game of Go with a little wager on the side. Table stakes, nothing much.
Billy [eagerly]: What are you gonna bet, Dogen?
Dogen: Nothing.

The teachings:

On self:
Wyatt: Well, then, what have you got to say for yourself?
Dogen: To study the Buddha way is to study the self;
Billy [helpfully]: Well, if you want to know the way to Buda, it’s a five day ride due east of here.
Wyatt: Hold on, Billy, let the man say his piece. [turns with interest to Dogen]
Dogen:To study the self is to forget the self.
Shane: well, now, Dogie, would that be the ontological self or the psychological self?
Dogen: To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.
Wyatt: Hell, talkin’ about myriad things, I got a lot on my plate too. My to-do list is a mile long. But what the Sam Hill are you talking about?
Dogen: When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.
Billy [excitedly]: You mean, like a lynching?
Dogen: No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.
Wyatt: What??? Now you’re talking like a crazy man, ain’t he, Shane?

Form and emptiness:
Shane: Wait a minute, Wyatt. I think the man’s actualizing some fundamental point. Lookee here. See that corral? It’s form, and emptiness. Without the fence posts and rails, you got no corral, without the emptiness, you just got you a pile of lumber, and no place to put the herd.
Wyatt (triumphantly) : But supposin’ you was to turn them posts and rails into firewood and burn ‘em up? Then where’s your dadgummed corral, eh?
Dogen: Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again.
Shane (ruefully): He’s got you there, Wyatt.

The wind
Shane: Wind’s kickin’ up again.
Wyatt [shaking the head]: Like always. And it gets into everything. No point in even fanning yourself.
Dogen: Although you understand that the nature of the wind is permanent, you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.
Wyatt [annoyed]: Goddamned if I don’t, and I’ve got the sand in my ass to prove it.
Billy: What do you mean, Dogen?
Dogen (fans himself with his fan)

Dogen: It’s possible to illustrate this with more analogies, with birds, and fish, and boats, and so on... but I won’t. The moon is on the dewdrops, farewell, bodhisattvas-mahasattva.
Wyatt [narrowing the eyes]: What did you just call us, son?
Shane: Git along, little Dogie. I’ll enlighten this one.

[Shane and Wyatt return to their go game, murmuring and shaking their heads, Billy looks on, and the bartender wipes down the bar.]
Wyatt: Another sake, Bartender!
Dogen, leaving [thoughtfully]: When buddhas are truly buddhas they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas.

Play Full Out
(Dosho Port)

Dogen Zenji says, To listen to dharma is to cause your consciousness to play freely. This play is not a means but an end in itself. At that time you can have full commitment to play. The power to transform our life is from just playing with wholeheartedness. Naturally, you can play freely within practice. In the process of doing zazen, you can play freely with zazen and produce a new creative life. – Katagiri Roshi

I work in a school for teenagers in a large metropolitan district. Of course, like young people everywhere, they love to play. After a recent break, I asked a student how it was for him. He thought for a long moment and then said, “Well, I’d have to say good.”

“What about it was good?” I asked. After another reflective pause he said in seriousness, “Well, I didn’t get shot this time.”

This young man is not alone. I see many young people whose lives have been shaped by violence, who have gunshot or knife wounds, some of them sport several such urban battle scars with pride. Almost all of them have close relatives in prison.

These young people reflect the larger culture as it appears through popular movies to computer games, a culture increasingly permeated by violence and its glorification. Many of us have become increasingly numb or oblivious to violence, tolerating more and more of the intolerable.

The popularity of violence might be due to how easy and cheap it is to get people’s attention with violence—a lazy way that leaves us yearning for more in the hope that then we might feel alive, like potato chips and their greasy, saltiness that don’t satisfy hunger but leave us wanting more.

What’s this got to do with play?

In my view, the potential of Zen isn’t limited to giving aging boomers something to do in their upper middle years, nor is it about meeting any individual’s need for spiritual trips.

“The wind of Buddhadharma makes manifest the great earth’s gold,” said Dogen. In other words, Zen is about freshly addressing the key issues of our times and encouraging us to assertively make a Buddha out of a mud-ball life.

One of our primary issues, perhaps the challenge for our time, as Thich Nhat Han has long argued, is to make peace fun and interesting. Our survival may depend on it. Soto Zen, I suggest, is a practice of playing full out that offers one challenging way in which we can live a creative and deeply fulfilling life, doing what needs to be done with this precious opportunity of human birth.

Such a Zen has the potential to become a social movement, making playing together with all our hearts in all that we do the society's central organizing principle and our life’s most passionate engagement.

Frequently Dogen emphasizes this point. For example, in “Fukanzazengi” he says, “If you concentrate your effort single-mindedly, that in itself is wholeheartedly engaging the Way.”

And above you’ll find Katagiri Roshi’s comment on Dogen’s word, yuge, transforming through play. “This play is not a means but an end in itself. At that time you can have full commitment to play. The power to transform our life is from just playing with wholeheartedness.”

Yuge comprises the root of the name of our little practice place here in White Bear Township, Minnesota Yugeji, or Transforming Through Play Temple. Our most important guideline is to play full out.

By dropping the cowboy tendency to drift into our individual trips and our hungry ghost tendency to wallow in Zen-group-think blather, we are compelled to balance on a tight rope, on a razor’s edge of dynamic aliveness. This is the life vein of vividly hopping along together in this great life.

It certainly beats getting shot.

(Editor's note: Dosho Port is a priest in Katagiri Roshi's lineage who teaches in Minnesota, author of Keep Me in Your Heart a While. Visit his blog:

(Jeffrey Burnaugh)

Dog Friends
(Sarah Webb)

My dog Rex, a big hound dog blue heeler mix, just one year old, loves it when I take him to the lake shore in the late afternoon. The lake is down so there are acres for him to run on, and there’s water to splash through and birds to chase. He run almost out of sight, then thunders back and swerves as he gets to me, grinning with loopy joy. That’s a way to be, I think, grinning back. Not the only way but a good way—charging forward, full heartedly, feeling your joy.

Rex running on the shore

Kids can be like that too—full hearted. Sometimes with joy, sometimes screaming their rage or sorrow. They run and stumble and leap right back up so they can keep on playing.

That’s another way Rex is like a kid. He loves to play. About a month ago he met another dog along the shore, a furry-coated little beast about half Rex’s size. He reminds me of Missy, my last dog, who died last summer, but this dog is bigger and much healthier.

After a few minutes of bristling, he realized Rex wanted to play, and they started to chase each other. We meet him almost every day now, and the two of them chase and tumble and nip and wrestle.

Kids will find the possibilities in a situation. A table? They’ll sit at it, sit on it, crawl under it, tip it on its side, slide things down it, put a blanket over it, lie underneath it and look up.

That’s what these dogs do too. Each day they find a new game. One will hide down in a hollow and burst out to surprise the other. They’ll chew down sticks from the dried brush and tug-a-war with them. They’ll steal the sticks from each other and race through the open with the other one in chase.

They leap into the ponds and splash about. They take a stick and trot together.

Yesterday we went further down the shore into heavy brush and they barreled through the brush in circles, apparently just for the joy of crashing about and following the leader. When they’re exhausted—and it takes a lot to exhaust them—they’ll lie on each other in a heap and pant. Then Rex will leap up and off they go again.

There’s something about playing. Children play and dogs too, but so do many other creatures. Ravens do daredevil acrobats. Bear cubs wrestle and tumble.  Lambs leap and run. Watching the dogs I see that it’s more than delight in motion. There’s a make-believe to it, as there is in children’s play. I’ll pretend to be angry and chase you and steal from you, but we know it’s not for real. We act like we’re separate and hostile, but we know we’re not at all. Instead we are making something together, a game.

Are we one or are we two? the dogs ask, and their game says, one. One, and a one that is bursting out into creation, making not just this world but pretend worlds and painting worlds and hitting balls and catching them worlds, and for dogs, chasing and splashing and tumbling worlds. A one that has inherent in it, play.

Playing in Prison
(Lila Parrish)

Play shows up with surprising gifts sometimes. I volunteer at the state prison in Lockhart as part of Inside Meditation, the prison program that AZC is part of. The class I teach is on meditation and occasionally I share some circle dance as part of that. When the women come into the classroom and sit down they are carrying the energy of living in large “pods” or units and sharing a cell with another woman. There is no privacy and even smiling at someone can get them in trouble at times. As a result of that environment many of them have guarded faces. The circle dances are lively and the novelty of dancing brings down that guardedness. Their faces light up with laughter and the delight of moving safely and playfully together. When a dance ends I invite them to look around the circle and notice the difference in how their faces look. Next I ask them to share anything they would like. “I forgot I was in prison while I was dancing.” “I felt like a child playing.” Our dancing together can give some moments of freedom and of remembering a younger, happier self. Gifts of freedom and youthful energy for at least two women. And for me the gift of deep gratitude for their willingness to dance and play with me.

March 2010

(Sarah Weintraub)

It is not sunny. Pieces of a to-do list keep bursting into my head and making me stand there thinking, instead of moving into the next yoga pose.  I could’ve gotten up earlier today, really. And then gotten out of bed sooner, actually. We are out of milk, and everything, because my roommate didn’t go grocery shopping. And she is the easiest person in the world to live with, by the way—how will I ever live with a partner? Here I am, again, on a thought, and forgetting which pose is next.  And why don’t more people know about the boycott against Coca-Cola for killing trade unionists in Colombia? And I really do need to sweep the house before the meeting here tonight.

And then there is the sitting still for a while, with a rakusu, cross-legged. Then I put a few dollars in my pocket and pull on my red suede Medellin boots and walk a block to the 24 Liquor Grocery, which is not actually open twenty-four hours a day, but is open on Monday at seven AM, which it is. On the walk, I am surprised by the pleasure of breathing, of breath entering and leaving, and by the pleasure of walking, of my muscles moving. It is not so cold out, and the birds go on and on and on, like it’s springtime, which maybe it is.

We are not going to fail at our lives, you know.

I will lead a very interesting life. I will be very alive. I will enjoy it very much. I will keep doing my best—but my best to be kind, to all beings, starting with this one right here.

I will remember this; and I will forget it again. And I will remember and forget and remember and forget. Just like we return to our breath in zazen, I will return to this being at home in myself, to being relaxed and joyful, and to curiously relishing the unfolding of this life.

(Sarah Weintraub is the Executive Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.)

Dash in Picture Frame

Mountains and Waters

Introduction: A path to walk (Sarah Webb)

Time among leaves, rock, and water can give us a way to practice. It’s not that Zen is a religion of nature but that natural settings give us opportunities to pay attention, simplify our lives, and escape the constraints of social reality. We may sense our unity with a hillside or a fish. We may walk, recognizing the sacred everywhere we look.

In Mountains and Waters, our new issue of Just This, students share how the natural world has informed their practice. It may be an experience of water, as it is for Juniper, who finds lake voyaging becomes an inner voyage. David returns repeatedly to a place that speaks to him, the Big Bend, to explore its landscape and encounter its animals. Camping alone, Sarah also prizes encounters that reveal our unity with other beings — wildflowers and pines, snakes, flickers, and her little dog. For Kim and Glenn, a river under blossoms or a garden shaped to express Zen understanding show natural beauty in a city environment. Brandon sees a city river, too, and the lives of those who shelter under its bridges, and he experiences compassion.

It would be possible to practice in nature entirely in stillness and silence, but these practitioners have taken a further step. Part of their practice is response. Photographs, drawings, paintings, and writings are the fruits of their attention. They hope their art can say what came into their hearts.

Completeness (Dogen)

“Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient Buddha way. Each, abiding in its phenomenal expression, realizes completeness.”  —Dogen, translated by Arnold Kotler and Kazuaki Tanahashi

Tookers Island (Lauren Ross)

Outdoor exploring gives Juniper (Lauren Ross) a way to practice and create. She says, "Three of the poems were written on Tookers Island at the end of a week of solo kayaking on Lake Superior.

Zen mindfulness is the ground of my solo adventures. Mindfulness and the present moment keep me safe. Much is birthed from there, including poetry."


You were perfect on the day
that I died rather than leave you.
The seas were calm.
The barest ripple
marked hidden rocks.
The sun blazed,
half-hidden by clouds.
The air was still with possibility.


There are stones of gem quality
And views to dazzle post cards.
But nothing of any value
Is carried
Beyond these shores.


I came to know a perfect moment
when it is certain that the day will bring
No more wind
Than I can handle.
I came to remember how and when
knowing arises in the belly
I came to forget a thousand neglected necessities
So as not to be distracted from what
is unimportant
and essential.
I came to watch uncountable stars
fill the night sky;
and to remember why nights without moon
I came to watch the sunrise and sunsets
of eternity.
It is only now, in leaving,
that I've remembered why I came.


If I should die upon the water;
Set off from shore
and not return,
Do not grieve for me.
I knew a hundred stony beaches
Uncounted wave-washed shores,
And the unfiltered sun on a January afternoon.


...your mother's face. (Reb Anderson)

"Walk on the earth as if it is your mother's face."  —Reb Anderson

Big Bend Zen (David Warren)

Extreme rain falling in the Big Bend. The landscape seemed to come straight from a Chinese scroll painting.

Eye of the Rabbit

“Photography is a lie!” declared my college professor. The overall scene is edited down to what the artist selects to be viewed; therefore the whole is not revealed. But places like Big Bend can push us to try to pass those limits. Few people know the ironic experience of a flooding deluge in this desert park. That’s why I took this picture. This desert is unforgiving, hot and deadly. It is not uncommon to learn of the tragic end of a visitor who did not have enough water.

Big Bend National Park is one of the few places on earth one can actually find near absolute silence. Situated in the vast Chihuahuan desert are mountains that hide a conifer/oak forest high above. There is no commercial air traffic overhead, save for an occasional tourist plane. Whether you are up in the mountains or out in the desert, you hear only wind, wildlife, and when those are still, then you can hear the pulse in your own head. There are views of incomprehensible distances into Mexico when there is no air pollution or rain.

Nature does not respect Man’s artificial boundaries or expectations. When in Big Bend, you not only watch the sunset, you become part of the sunset. You are whatever the elements make you. Embrace the dirt. Play in rain. Melt with snow. I forget how many times I have visited Big Bend. I return over and over, yet it is never the same experience. It is and always will be, yet ever changing in its own time and its own way. This is also what Zazen is for me.  —David Warren

Maligned animals are of personal interest. Rattlesnakes and vultures are not bad critters, and rabbits can defend themselves. The “eye” painting is an autobiographical piece which attempts to defy dualistic thought about animals.

See more of David's art:

Thusness (Gary Snyder)

"This, thusness, is the nature of the nature of nature. The wild in the wild."  —Gary Snyder

Holbrook (Sarah Webb)

Sarah Webb spent the last three summers on the road (half camping alone). She wanted to see if silent presence with trees and mountains might deepen her practice. This essay is drawn from journal entries at one of her camps.

Poems (Sherry Priest)

Nature presents itself in small moments for Sherry Priest, in kinhin or sitting or walking out of doors.


I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.  —H.D. Lawrence

Crow cocks one eye
At the kinhin line
And grins

Not until winter
do we see
how many
the trees hold

You have had
some small thing,
a toy,
Or maybe an old shirt,
loved into an unsustainable fragility,
Until you knew
No longer holding was the only possibility
That is how you must let go.

Opening practice and
Just past the door of our solemn rite
A grackle altercation
Two more birds and it would have been a riot

Betting Against the House

Bargaining with God
Leveraging karma
To bank against loss
Betting against the house

Zen Poem # 2

Sitting thru zazen
cricket crawls in hakama
fucking hilarious

Notes on #2: When I first started practicing zazen with a group I found the lack of external stimulation nerve-wracking, leading to an impulse to jump up screaming and run from the room. I dealt with it in a number of very un-zen-like ways, including playing the alphabet game with myself and writing poetry in my head. This was in fact what jump-started this phase of my writing career, if you can call it that.

Our group, which practices in the Rinzai style in which people sit in lines facing each other, meets right after Wednesday night aikido class, which most of us also participate in. For that reason, many times we would still be dressed in gi and hakama. Gi are the white pants and top that one associates with martial arts. A hakama is a kind of full, pleated pants, usually black or navy, that ties on and is worn over the gi.

In late summer in central Texas there are often swarms of crickets. One evening a cricket crawled onto the mats and began steadily making its way to our lines. I became fascinated with its movements and obsessed with what I would do if it crawled up the leg of my hakama. In Rinzai one is strongly discouraged from moving even a little for anything short of sudden illness. At the last minute, the cricket veered across the mat and appeared to climb on a friend sitting across from me, who, in at least the outward appearance of perfect Zen mind, never moved. Given the way zazen messes with your brain, the whole event was one of the most entertaining things I have ever seen.

Zen Poem #3

Which is worse
zazen with caffeine
or without

Notes on #3: The first one of my flashes of insight happened while I was waiting for the coffee bartender to make me a cappuccino. I was standing in the lobby of the building where I have worked for over a decade and suddenly it looked both completely new to me and completely familiar. And I felt, not knew in my head but really felt, a sense of being a traveler in my own life. I’ve had other, similar experiences, one at the grocery store, which I lost by the time I made it through check-out. Another occurred driving on a downtown street when everything, the buildings, the road itself, the other cars, all of a sudden genuinely looked fluid, like the water in a river. Either that or it was the heat.

This poem isn’t really about that, though. It’s about whether it’s harder to deal with the dull pain of struggling to stay awake while remaining motionless in a dark room late at night or to remain at least outwardly calm while double shots of espresso course through your pounding veins.

Zen Poem #4

Dark lake
Cold rain
White swans

Zen Poem #6

How is pain not suffering?
Primroses, horsemint
Wild grass.

First There is a Mountain (Kim Mosley, Donovan)

First there is a mountain.
(Painting—Kim Mosley)

There is no mountain.
(Painting—Kim Mosley)

...dusty world of human affairs. (Gary Snyder)

“Mountains and waters’ is a way to refer to the totality of the process of nature. . . . The whole, with its rivers and valleys, obviously includes farms, fields, villages, cities and the (once comparatively small) dusty world of human affairs."  —Gary Snyder

Asian Gardens (Kim and Linda Mosley)

Suiho-en, the Japanese Garden
at the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant,
Van Nuys, California USA
Figures at Pond, St. Louis, MO
(Ceramics and garden—Linda Mosley)
Japanese rock garden, Portland, OR
(枯山水, karesansui) or "dry landscape" garden

Chinese Garden, from Street, Portland, OR

Confucius says...

Photos: Kim and Linda Mosley