Saturday, February 28, 2009

Zen and Poetry: a Brief Conversation

The following discussion on Zen and Poetry took place at Dharma Zen Center in Los Angeles on March 17, 1997. My Grand-Teacher, Zen Master Sŭngsan agreed to meet with me to answer my questions about the role poetry plays in meditation practice as well as in teaching and conveying Zen mind to the Western World. It is included here to serve as a catalyst of understanding for Zen Poetry as well as a wonderful teaching about how we all can live in this world.

Dochong: Hello sir, I’m very happy to see you again. You are looking quite well after your recent eye surgery, so I hope you are up to these many questions I have brought. I decided to write them on a list so I wouldn’t forget what it was I wanted to discuss with you. So if you are ready we’ll get started.

Zen Master Seung Sahn: (glancing at the ominous list in my hand) So, you have many questions?

DC: Yes Sir, I realize this isn’t our normal Zen style, but I felt it would be important to students, as well as readers of poetry, to understand how you, a Zen Master, might approach the subject of poetry. Along this line, if you don’t mind, the first question is; why do you, as a Zen Master, bother to compose poems?

ZMSS: For you. (the two of us laugh at this answer)

DC: Thank you very much for all your wonderful gifts! That’s a very good answer. I was wondering about when you compose a poem, do you actually reflect on the situation and then write using “beautiful language?”

ZMSS: No. Only whatever situation comes up or appears, then I will compose a poem. Not so much checking situations, and not so much making something.

DC: So, what you are saying is that only just this moment, whatever appears is usually your subject for a poem.

ZMSS: Exactly, this moment appears, then compose a poem.

DC: In your teaching I have often heard you say that people suffer from word sickness so word medicine is necessary. Along those lines would you describe how you use language in your poetry?

ZMSS: Simple! Only whatever situation comes up or appears! Any style of writing is OK. You know, Korean, Japanese, English, any kind of writing, but most importantly only what appears.

DC: As you say, “Simple.” But, this all seems much too simple to a complicated mind. I love reading your poetry because it allows me to connect to this moment, so what if I was to say to you, “I love your poems; they are so beautiful,” what would you say to me in response?

ZMSS: I don’t care! (much laughter.)

DC: Of course! I should have known you’d say that! In your teaching you often talk about candy, which can be words, or possibly artwork, or even the environment surrounding us, something that gives us a good feeling. You also use existential questions known as Kong-ans (Japanese: Koans) which have hooks in them designed to catch our conceptual mind and trap us within the labyrinth of our own thinking. Eventually out of this internal struggle with trying to understand that which cannot be conceptualized will come some opening to the world of truth. Considering all this then, a Zen Master’s words can sometimes be candy and sometimes hooks. Is there candy in your poems? Are there hooks? And would you explain what you mean?

ZMSS: Yes, sometimes candy and sometimes hooks appear in my poems, but realize that I don’t create candy or hooks in these poems. They are written, with no intention, only for all of my students.

DC: OK., so I know that you have studied the poetry of other Zen Masters and sometimes quote their poems in your talks as well as in print; an example would be in one of your recent books, The Whole World is a Single Flower. What happens in your mind when you read or hear other people’s poetry?

ZMSS: I never check other people’s poetry. The mind with which I read or comment on another’s poetry is only a practicing mind, so their meaning appears, then I only comment.

DC: So, you keep a clear mind to penetrate the meaning of other’s poetry, but I wondering what is the best way to read your poems so that I may learn your teaching?

ZMSS: Put it all down, everything! Then my mind and your mind can connect.

DC: That’s not so easy. To some extent, I suppose we all are trying to find the meaning in life, to transcend our attachment to intellectual understanding. But, I was wondering, is poetry Zen? Does true poetry manifest Zen mind?

ZMSS: Zen mind, poetry mind, writing mind, practicing mind, are all not different.

DC: So would you say it is better to write poems or to talk about poems?

ZMSS: I really don’t like to talk about poems. If you see clear, hear clear, and smell clear, then everything is clear. So, only what appears then only write that down. Not so much like poetry people getting together talking about this poem is this and that poem is something else. This is making something, like painting legs on the picture of a snake, a snake doesn’t need legs to get around. I don’t use this style so much.

DC: So, if I might paraphrase what you just said and ask it another way; only reading the poem, then (claps hands) cut off all thinking, and then only what appears in this moment is all that is necessary?

ZMSS: Yes. It’s very simple. For example, in my poetry book, Bone of Space, when I traveled around Europe, for each city I visited I wrote a poem. If you read these poems you will understand the situation, condition and relationship that existed during that trip—how I connected to this country, how I connected to this city, and how I understood these cities. Something would appear and I would only compose a poem. This is not special, in writing poetry I only see clearly, hear clearly, smell clearly, and think clearly. My thinking is also clear, not checking anything, just thinking clearly. So then, just think, just think clearly and then compose a poem. That was the poetry style I used going around to those various cities. Only what appeared I would write down.
DC: I have another question. In the west there is a rhyming poetry style, or in Japan there is Haiku which is limited to 32 syllables, these are poetic structures. These structures or forms are interesting but seem to sometime limit or control the expression. In the spirit of Zen it appears to me that Zen poetry has no structure, is this correct?

ZMSS: Yes, that is correct.

DC: So, just whatever appears we should write down?

ZMSS: Haiku poets all only follow this Japanese style. This style is very tight and everyone is attached to the form. Zen means, don’t attach to name and form. Perceive everything. Don’t attach to any country, any people, any form, any situation, any condition, only bring them together, then become one. Then, if some idea appears, or some form appears, or some speech appears, that’s all, OK.? My poetry is not making something, it is a manifestation of seeing clearly, hearing clearly and thinking clearly, then the poem appears by itself.
A long time ago in Japan there was a region known as Matsushima. Matsushima is a location near the ocean, surrounded by mountains, rivers, trees and flowers. This was a very beautiful area and attracted many poets and artists. All of the poets would travel to this place and then compose many beautiful poems. Eventually many books about Matsushima appeared. Around this same period, a very famous Zen Master and Poet named Basho read these poems and looked at the artwork and decided to visit Matsushima to see this wondrous place for himself. When Basho saw the beauty of this place he wrote the following poem, only three sentences:

ah, Matsushima!
Only three sentences. This is a very famous Zen poem. This is the heart of Zen you know. Only Matsushima is Matsushima, it is very simple.

DC: Wow, I don’t think you can get simpler than that. I suppose the poetry I have written doesn’t have the simplicity of Basho’s three lines, but I would appreciate your comments on a poem I wrote while both of us were visiting Nam Wah Sah in China in 1996. Because we shared the same experience it would be helpful to me to have your comments.

It is called All People Become One.

people have come to Hui Neng’s Temple
to celebrate
“The Whole World is a Single Flower,
All People Become One.”
Hong Kong
South Africa
the abbot Fo Yuen is happy to see us.
Dae Soen Sa Nim
has achieved the impossible again.
one man’s vision, bring Zen back to China
chanting the Heart Sutra, the main Buddha Hall
reverberates with joy.
if all people become one,
what does the one become?
So Sir, in all my humbleness I ask you, would you consider this Zen poetry?

ZMSS: Yes, this poem is OK. However, in Zen poetry, or any kind of poem, the last sentence is very important. In the end of this poem you have some question, correct? You say; ‘If all people become one, what does the one become?’ This sentence is correct, but the next line, the last line, is very important.

DC: So, what you are saying is that I haven’t quite finished this poem?

ZMSS: That is correct, one more line is necessary. I might suggest that you add this as the last line; ‘I bow to the statue of the Sixth Patriarch.” This was the Sixth Patriarch’s temple that we were visiting so some comment about our Ancestor is necessary to properly finish this poem. This last line is very important. This one sentence. This is a live sentence, in my Zen teaching we call that, just like this.

DC: Let me understand what you just said. You are saying that Zen Poetry always should end with some type of live sentence, or in Zen terminology, a just like this sentence.

ZMSS: Of course, this is a very important point. This last sentence is most important.

DC: OK. So this brings the poem full circle and gives it life.

ZMSS: Correct. These are live words. So poems are; only thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking, then some question appears, then boom! – live words!

DC: Like you always tell us “cut off all thinking,” right? Only this moment. So this style is also teaching people. When they read that, then they may say “Oh, yes this is very simple, all of this thinking, but then everything returns to this moment.”

ZMSS: Yes, in this moment, boom! – just like this! (more laughter) So, you like to make these poems. That is very wonderful, you are a great man.

DC: Now that I have my courage up may we try another poem from the same trip we shared.
Chogye Mountain

nestled into Chogye Mountain
Nam Wah Sa is the birthplace
of our current practice.
more than 1,000 years have passed
since the illiterate man
built this place.
many enlightened beings
have tread its hallways.
the energy is overwhelming
to walk in the footsteps
of the 6th Patriarch.
to see the tradition live on,
South China Temple
will emerge from
the Communist rubble
like the lotus flower
emerges from the mud.
Om nam,
Om nam........

ZMSS: Oh, this poem is very good. Om nam, Om nam… is very good to close the poem with, but again this is the Sixth Patriarch’s temple, so in this case some line or word from the Sixth Patriarch is necessary. Maybe you could say, “originally nothing” and insert it just before Om nam. Right here. So then the end of the poem reads; Originally nothing, Om nam, Om nam…. You understand? Then you give this poem some life and connection with Hui Neng.

DC: Yes I can see that. Thank you for your assistance, thank you very much. I started writing poetry after reading Cold Mountain by Han Shan and Bone of Space which is your book of poetry. I am attracted to Han Shan because of his honest simplicity and I enjoy your poems because they cut through my thinking and bring me right into the present moment.

ZMSS: What do you see now? What do you here now? Just become clear.
(Zen Master Sŭngsan actually just asked me a question and I missed it!)
DC: I began to assemble this book of poems to help with Zen practice. Only, thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking, then, as you said, – what now? Only return to this moment, what am I seeing, touching, smelling. I look at each moment, much as I do a poem I have written.

ZMSS: So, you must understand that everything is changing, changing, changing. Mountains, rivers, this earth, the sun, the stars, everything is changing. But, what is the one thing that is not changing? So, this is a very important point, the world is changing, changing, changing, but what is it that is not changing?

DC: (I had been carrying this idea for quite some time before this discussion and was happy that I was getting to express it with the founding teacher of my school, little did I know....) I would have to say, don’t know. Don’t know is never changing.

ZMSS: (he smiles a crooked smile I have seen far too often, which tells me I missed the mark again) Nooooo! Don’t know is also changing! (then breaks into much more laughter)

DC: (a little startled because the rug got pulled out again) So Sir, you won’t ever give me anything to attach to, will you?!

ZMSS: So I ask you, what is not changing? This moment is very important; but, what is not changing? Don’t know, is no problem. Why, is no problem. Questioning, is no problem. But, what is not changing? This means, your shirt is grey and your beard is brown. That’s all. Life sentence. Just like this—this moment. This moment mind is never changing, this moment is the truth. What do you see now, what do you hear now, what action is occurring right now. This moment is very important. But also, not now! This moment is very important. Buddha taught us that past, present and future are the three worlds, OK? Each of these worlds are changing. Zen teaches we have no past, we have no present and we have no future, because if you say present that is already past. Time is non stop, so we have no present. In the Diamond Sutra it says, “Past mind cannot get enlightenment, present mind cannot get enlightenment, future mind also cannot get enlightenment.” So, what kind of mind do you get. That’s a very important point. This means that everything is always changing, time is always changing, the present is always changing, the future is always changing, and space is also changing. Also, any kind of name and form is changing, and the truth is changing. If you say the truth and already it is changing. So, we don’t say truth. But if you don’t say truth, then what is truth? This means, maybe shouting, “KATZ!,” then saying; “sky is blue, tree is green,” that’s all. Your poetry should also be this style. When you compose a poem, then maybe some kind of opposites thinking will appear, like crying and laughing or coming and going, so you write this down. Then by itself a question appears – boom! Life sentence.

DC: So if I had a second chance at answering your question, I would answer; your sweater is grey.

ZMSS: Correct. Very simple. Your statement is like Basho’s trip to Matsushima where he didn’t really say anything. Many other poets wrote very special words to describe their experiences. But he only said;

ah, Matsushima!

Only Matsushima. This is number one very important point. If you want to understand poetry that is great Zen poetry.

DC: I gather then what you are saying is that if you want to understand Matsushima you must visit Matsushima on your own, then Basho’s mind and my mind become one is possible.

ZMSS: If you want to understand Matsushima you must go over there and see. Matsushima is not different.............


Jiun said...

wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!

Thank you.

NellaLou said...

Thank you for putting this up.

Barry said...

I really appreciate this dialogue, Paul. Thank you for recording it and sharing it with us!

Karen Do'on Weik said...

This is really nice, thanks for making it available! I put a link to this on our web site to share (

Algernon said...

Aaah, I remember this from your book. Very good!

sherin said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


David Clark said...

Very brave, this presenting a poem and asking for comment. Thank you for posting Master Seung Sahn's guidance for poets.

Dave Clark

Marinela said...

I have enjoyed reading !!
Thank you for sharing!

Puerhan said...

Great dialogue, great words.

Ah Sŭngsan Sunim.

VNTuongLai said...

__ You’re invited to view my latest video “684”__ a collection of some short poems. ( )