Buddhist literature has provided a rich and fertile ground for poetry, from the earliest verses written in the time of the Buddha to the verses and gathas and koans and haikus and short poems of Chan and Zen, and finally to today’s renowned poets and practitioners seeking to express their faith. Here we have collected a few and offer them for your study and contemplation, poems that have impacted our practices, from ancient to modernday.
By Matsumoto Basho
translated by Allen Ginsberg
The old pond
A frog jumped in,
By Ryokan Taigu (c. 1800)
Who calls my poems poems?
My poems are not poems.
Only when you know my poems are not poems
can we together speak about poems.
By Phillip Whalen (1965)
Soap cleans itself the way ice does,
Both disappear in the process.
The questions of “Whence” & “Wither” have no validity here.
Mud is a mixture of earth and water.
Imagine WATER as a “Heavenly” element.
Samsara and nirvana are one:
Flies in amber, sand in the soap
Dirt and red algae in the ice
Fare thee well, how very delightful to see you here again!
Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage
By Sekito Kisen (c. 1750)
I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value. After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared. Now it’s been lived in—covered by weeds.
The person in the hut lives here calmly, not stuck to inside, outside, or in-between.
Places worldly people live, he doesn’t live. Realms worldly people love, he doesn’t love.
Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten feet square, an old man illumines forms and their nature.
A Mahayana bodhisattva trusts without doubt. The middling or lowly can’t help wondering;
Will this hut perish or not?
Perishable or not, the original master is present,
Not dwelling south or north, east or west.
Firmly based on steadiness, it can’t be surpassed.
A shining window below the green pines—
jade palaces or vermilion towers can’t compare with it.
Just sitting with head covered all things are at rest. Thus, this mountain monk doesn’t understand at all.
Living here he no longer works to get free.
Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?
Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instructions, bind grasses to build a hut, and don’t give up.
Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely. Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations, are only to free you from obstructions.
If you want to know the undying person in the hut, don’t separate from this skin bag here and now.
[We recommend Inside the Grass Hut: Living Shitou’s Classic Zen Poem, a commentary on this poem by Ben Connelly, to anyone who wishes to explore and unpack this timeless poem.]