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.