Ryokan, Basho and
Japanese Zen Poetry

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In Lesson 15 we looked a Zen poetry in the context of the early Chan poets such as Wang Wei and Hanshan. In Japan, as in China, Zen teachers often found poetry a natural form of communication, even if they did not consider themselves "poets". And in Japan, as in China, some poems deal directly with aspects of Zen while others resonate with the feeling and spirit of Zen.

In this lesson we look briefly at Zen poetry written by Ryokan, a Zen monk, and Basho, a poet inspired by Zen.

Looking to China

Even before the introduction of Zen, Japan had been virtually transformed by Chinese Buddhism, with politics, religion, philosophy and the arts all reflecting in one way or another the Chinese world vision. Poets (and painters) regularly looked to China, and most early Japanese Zen poets wrote strictly in classical verse forms preferred by the Chinese masters using kanji (Chinese characters). Writing in a language few Japanese knew, Zen poetry was elitist, and eventually influential teachers like Dogen began advocating the use of indigenous verse forms such as tanka (or waka).

The Japanese also wrote frequently about important events in the history of Zen, like Bodhidharma's interview with the Emperor Wu.

After the spring song, "Vast emptiness, no holiness,"
Comes the song of snow-wind along the Yangtze Rive.
Late at night I too play the noteless flute of Shorin [Shaolin],
Piercing the mountains with its sound, the river.