Zen Poetry

About Zen poetry
J.P. Seaton, The Drifting Boat)

Zen is Taoist Buddhism. Or; Zen is Buddhist Taoism: at least when talking about Ch’an, the Chinese version of Zen, the ancestor of the ]apanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and the various evolving Western versions of this branch of Buddhist practice. The association of Ch’an with the arts, from the martial arts, as in hand-to-hand combat and archery, to the powerful civil arts of poetry and painting, begins in China, from the association of these arts with the Taoist practice of meditation and the Taoist emphasis on wei-wu-wei, doing non-doing, doing without doing, or doing, through practice and concentration, with total freedom and absolute creativity.

Zen is Taoist Buddhism. Or; Zen is Buddhist Taoism: at least when talking about Ch’an, the Chinese version of Zen…

Maybe to the dismay of newcomers to American Buddhism who expect a pure and fundamentalist Zen, of one particular school or another (like the Rinzai and Soto sects of Japan, which have been arguing for several centuries over whether the koan should be central to Zen meditation practice)¢, we start our selection of Ch’an poems with excerpts from the Taoist book Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, a book  known to orthodox Ch`an men like Han Shan (now there`s a fundamentalist!) as “The Five Thousand Character Classic” or “The Five Thousand Words.” Lao Tzu`s insights and his penchant for putting them into verse are certainly two sources of the Ch’an stream.

We bow in thanks first not to poets themselves, but to the monk-translators who came to their work of translating the holy books of Buddhism from their original Indian languages into Chinese from a background in Taoist philosophy and poetic art. Our first Chan poet, Hui Yung, although he wrote nearly a thousand years after Lao Tzu, must technically also he pre-Chan, since he died more than a hundred years before the purported arrival in China of the first patriarch of Chan, the Indian monk Bodhidharma. As a translator, Hui Yung favored the practice of translating Buddhist terminology from the Sanskrit, wherever possible, with preexisting Taoist terms. Another school of translators preferred to render these in “transliteration” only. Hui Yung’s approach brought many educated laypeople immediately into contact with Buddhist thought, and began the process of making Buddhist ideas comfortably Chinese.

Hui Yung was an active and effective missionary: with his better-known brother, the monk-translator Hui Yuan, he promoted a famous association ol’ lay Buddhist practitioners called the White Lotus Society, whose members pledged to support the Buddhist ideal of universal compassion, and who met regularly to discuss philosophy sit in meditation, and probably write poetry, without formally becoming Buddhist monks. In China, where continuing the family line with male children was a nearly sacred duty, and family life, as well as sex itself, was a recognized pleasure, the vow of celibacy taken by monks was a particularly strong bar for upper-class men to formal affiliation with Buddhism. Hui Yung`s opening of practice to non-monks was a masterstroke of missionary policy.

Our first non-monk poet, T’ao Ch`ien, acknowledged as among the greatest of all classical Chinese poets, declined to join the White Lotus Society, even after a personal invitation from Hui Yuan, which came accompanied by a dispensation of the society’s rule against drinking, T’ao Ch’ien’s lifelong vice. T`ao is known as a Taoist. We agree with Hui Yuan and Hui Yung: he’s a Buddhist Taoist, or a Taoist Buddhist. What’s Zen enough for Hui Yuan is Zen enough for our anthology. Doctrinal lines are blurred in quite a few other places, too. From Tao Chien on the selection is sprinkled with lay and clerical poets.

The T’ang dynasty was in many ways a high point for Buddhism in China, and Ch`an was truly born in the eighth century as a separate school of T’ien-t’ai Buddhism. The dynasty is also known as the golden age of Chinese poetry, and many Chan monks made use of poetry both as artistic practice and as a means of teaching, “by direct pointing.” The attraction of lay poets to Chan themes, and the social and poetic interaction of even the most committedly secular of the Confucian lay poets with monks and monk-poets, make it clear that the flourishing of both traditions was certainly a mutually nourishing phenomenon. The Tang lay poets show the broad range and variety of influence of Zen among the educated elite. They shared a serious commitment to Zen

Others have greater and lesser links to Ch`an. Po Chu-i, certainly one of the greatest of the great, worried that his poems represented a karmic “attachment” that he was unable to break. He wrote about ten thousand poems. Tu Mu, a late Tang master of the quatrain, bragged at once ironically and clearly ruefully of how his lustful nature had earned him fame as a “heartless man,” and how his lust for fame and power had kept him from knowing his own children.

Direct pointing by another human was an important adjunct to “sitting,” or zazen practice. T’ang was a period in which it was expected that young Chan searchers would go from temple to temple looking for a master to match their own personalities, their own ways of learning. When Chia Tao speaks to a friend of “masterless Ch’an, our own understanding,” he is not voicing a heresy. On the other hand, the monk Hsuan Chueh was disciple and “dharma heir” of Hui Neng, who is credited with giving Chan its unique form as a separate branch of Tien-t’ai Buddhism. Our selection of Hsuan Chueh`s poems is from a longer work, Cheng Tao Ko “Canticle of the Way”), that is sometimes taken as a whole by later generations of Zennists who study it as a holy text. Among the monk-poets, the aristocratic Chiao ]an, a friend of the great lay poets of the high T’ang, was also one of the first of the Chan monks to find poetry itself an “attachment” to the world of samsara that he felt he must, in the end, also give up. He may have set the model that the layman Po Chu-i tried to follow. Chiao jan’s poems have the beauty and serenity we might cynically expect from a “well-placed” monk, but they can also be surprisingly iconoclastic.

Chia Tao entered a Ch’an monastery at an early age, probably taken in as an orphan in the turbulent times of the eighth century. He too succumbed to the poetry demon that worried both the monk Chiao ]an and the layman Po Chu-i. A large selection of the poems he wrote as a monk, under the name Wu Pen, is included in the forty volume Ching Dynasty compilation, Chuan Thug Shih (“Complete Poems of the T’ang”). When his poetry caused him to be recognized by the great anti-Buddhist Confucian official Han Yu, he gave up holy orders, grew back his hair, took up a minor office in the government, and wrote alot more great poetry. Qualifying this apostasy were the facts that the Ch’an oath is to save all sentient beings from suffering, and that people were suffering most from bad government. Moreover, his patron Han Yu was a great reformer and a gifted and inventive poet.

The monk-poet-painter Kuan Hsiu can be seen as fulfilling the prophecy of Chia Tao’s lifestyle in an even more tumultuous period of history. Like Chia Tao, he probably escaped starvation as a child when taken in by a Buddhist orphanage. During and after the collapse of the T’ang, he spent his life traveling from the territory of one petty tyrants tiny regional regime to another, much like the Confucius of the Spring and Autumn period, looking for a lord of sufficient intellectual and ethical power to absorb his political teaching: “lf you stop eating the people, and offer them security instead, you may make yourself emperor of all China.” He found no takers for his political advice, but he did manage to become proclaimed the greatest poet of his age. His poem “Bad Government” shows his political candor at its clearest. Written in popular ballad style, using colloquial language and mocking puns, it reaches for the hearts and minds of common people. Indeed, the powerful colloquial language of most of his work influenced the best of the Sung dynasty poets, clerical and lay alike. The Tang poets, monks and laymen alike, threw open the gates for those who followed. Su tung-p’o of the Sung dynasty is one of the greatest of all Chinese poets, acclaimed for, among many things, his inspired use of ordinary spoken language. Both Po Chu-i and Kuan Hsiu may have served as his models. Zennists claim him as a Ch`an man, and cite his “enlightenment poem” (To the Abbot of the Tung lin Monastery), although he remained a layman throughout his long and often difficult life, and pointedly refused Buddhist last rites.

Some might argue that Yuan Mei, the greatest lay poet of the Ching dynasty, wasn’t Zen at all, but by the Ching, all educated men with good minds were acquainted with Ch’an, and most were well-disposed to its teachings. Yuan Mei appreciated and understood Ch’an, obviously and practiced meditation. And if he said, “l Don’t Bow to Buddhas,” (the title l took for my translations of selected poems ol’ Yuan Mei) in one poem, he added, in the same poem, “but I do bow to a monks.” Yuan’s favorite “Confucian” was Wang Yang-ming, the Neo-Confucian most popular among disaffected intellectuals like Yuan, and among the anti-Manchu Chinese nationalist secret societies of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, was damned as a heretic by “orthodox” Confucians and accused specifically ol” being a “Follower of Ch’an.”

Ching An, writing a century alter Yuan Mei, was a powerful abbot who lived to fight, without much success, for the protection of the Buddhist cultural heritage alter the end of the final dynasty, the Ching, in the early years of the twentieth century. He was also esteemed by the best lay poets of his period.

The final poet represented in this anthology, Po Ching, is better known by his lay name, Su Manshu. He was the son ol a Chinese merchant and a Japanese mother and bought or stole his monies certificate. He also worked hard for the revitalization of Buddhism by writing the first Sanskrit grammar in Chinese. Interestingly, one of the last great traditional poets, Liu Ya-tzu, who commissioned his own son, Liu Wu-chi, to edit Su`s works for publication after the poet’s early death, was also Chairman Mao’s editor, or ghost writer, depending on to whom one listens.

Would any sect or church in the world but Ch’an tolerate them all, much less welcome them? And yet they teach us friendship and a clear-headedness that transcends the ages. They strengthen our character.


Though his self-mockery is clear, his “attachments” to both poetry and Ch’an are, paradoxically, clear as well.

Of the T’ang monks whose work is included here, four, Hsuan Chueh, Chiao ]an, Wu Pen (better known by his lay name, Chia Tao), and Kuan Hsiu offer examples of the wide variety of approaches to life and to poetry present even among the monk-poets. Clearly, in T’ang China, where Ch’an (and Zen) began, it was a living tradition, unbound by doctrine and dogma. This was the period when the great teachers still used wenda (Japanese mondo), face-to-face question and answer, dialogic teaching like the Socratic method. The period before these creative personal interactions had been codified into kung-an (Japanese koan), “case examples” for study and meditation, to be followed by examinations by the abbot or resident master.

meditation practice, and the influence of Zens apparently paradoxical view that enlightenment is illusion, and illusion enlightenment. (“Nirvana is samsara and samsara is nirvana)

Li Po, though a legendary drinker, was also a committed meditator. Tu Fu, a Confucian official and family man par excellance, was a devotee of Tien-t’ai Buddhism, and an open admirer of the new “sect” Wang Wei, the third in the triumvirate of the “greatest” of the High Tang poets, was an aristocrat who became a high Confucian official. He was also a patron of Ch’an monks and monasteries and one of the people in the lay world most responsible for the growth and popularity of Hui Neng’s version of Ch’an (as the “Southern school,” the progenitor, through Hui Neng’s five main disciples, ofthe major wings of Ch’an, including those that flew to ]apan to become the Soto and Rinzai sects).

Hsieh Ling-yun is, like T’ao, famous as a poet of nature. He was an aristocrat with strong Buddhist leanings. Wang Fan-chih, like the legendary pair of madmen, Han Shan and Shih Te, was a ragged wanderer. lt is quite possible that none of these three ever officially joined a monastery, even though Han Shan and Shih Te worked in the kitchen of the famous Tien-t’ai monastery and are celebrated in Ch`an as reincarnations of the Indian bodhisattvas Manjushri and Samantahhadra. lronically, the Manchu Ch’ing dynasty emperors also claimed to he Manjushri in order to outrank the then-current reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Clearly, when dealing with the history of Ch`an, we are dealing not only with enlightened men and women, hut with a human institution as well.


Poems (translations by J.P. Seaton)

People ask the way to Cold Mountain
Cold Mountain the road doesn’t go through
by summer the ice still hasn’t melted
sunrise is a blur beyond the fog
imitating me how can you get here
if your heart was like mine you’d return to the very center
  Han Shan

Your essays are pretty good
your body is big and strong
but birth provides you with a limited body
and death makes you a nameless ghost
it’s been like this since antiquity
what good will come of your present striving
if you could come here among the white clouds
I’d teach you the purple mushroom song
  Han Shan

Clouds and mountains all tangled together
up to the blue sky arough road and deep woods without any travellers
far away the lone moon a bright glistening white
nearby a flock of birds sobbing like children
one old man sitting alone perched in the green mountains
a small shack the retired life letting my hair grow white
  Han Shan

I laugh at myself, old man, with no strength left
inclined to piney peaks,
in love with lonely paths
oh well, I’ve wandered down the years to now
free in the flow; and floated home the same
  Han Shan

A dappled sunset, and the pine wind rises.
Turning to home,I notice the grass thin,spare,
Above, clouds patch like footprints
The dazzling mountain,dampening our robes.

Birds ride the currents endlessly
Against the autumn-splashed mountain.
Up and down Hua-tzu Hill they soar –
What sadness my heart bears!
  Wang Wei

Morning and night I see cold mountain
Then to be alone, an unattended guest.
Not knowing the way of pine groves,
I only follow the tracks of deer and doe.

On the empty mountain no one is seen.
There’s only the sound of voices.
Light enters dazzling the deep grove
And again the moss is brilliant green.
  Wang Wei

Visiting the Monastery at Lung-men

I explored the grounds with monks this evening,
and now the night has passed.

Heavy silence rises all around us
while late moonlight spills through the forest.

The mountain rises almost into heaven.
Sleeping in the clouds is cold.

A single stroke of the early prayer-bell awakens one,
but does it also waken the soul?

pleased with the years gone by happy with today
mindless this life is like water flowing east

  Tu Fu

Inscribed on the Wall of the Hut by the Lake

If you want to be a mountain dweller . . .
no need to trek to India to find one.
I’ve got a thousand peaks
to pick from, right here in the lake.
Fragrant grasses, white clouds,
to hold me here. Whatholdsyouthere, world-dweller?
  Chiao Jan


My Tao: at the root, there’s no me. ..
yet I don’t despise worldly men.
Just now I’ve been into the city. . .
so I know I really mean that.
   Chiao Jan

Overnight at a MountainTemple

Flock of peaks hunched up
and colored cold. Path forks
here, toward the temple.
A falling star flares behind bare trees,
and the moon breasts the current of the clouds.
To the very top, few men come;
one tall pine won’t hold a flock of cranes.
One monk here, at eighty,
has never heard tell
of the “world” down below.
   Wu Pen