Mar 16, 2024
Martin Goodson

The Zen of Poetry

How to use poetry in Zen training.



A special transmission outside the teachings

Not dependent upon words and phrases.

Directly pointing to the human heart

Seeing into its nature and awakening

Zen and the practice of reading and writing poetry go back to the origins of Chinese Buddhism. Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of the Zen school, was said to have encapsulated the essence of Zen teaching in the above four-line verse. Since that time Zen masters and their followers have used poetry to express their own awakening and insight into the nature of the world and their own hearts. 

There is a formal practice whereby Zen students undergoing sanzen or koan training present a “capping” verse to their teacher. When the student gives an answer to a koan that is accepted by the master, he may ask the student to select a verse that expresses this new insight. There are huge volumes of such verses, distilled from Chinese and Japanese literature, which are used for this purpose. When the Western-born Master Daiyu Myokyo was training in Japan, her first teacher, Sesso Roshi, instructed her not to use Japanese poetry as it was not from her own culture. Instead, she trawled through her own inheritance of European poetry to find verses which expressed her insight. A fervent lover of poetry of all kinds, she had a wealth of such verses to draw upon. 

The Buddha upon awakening was unable to put his insight into words, so how is it that poetry can be used to express the Buddha’s teachings? It’s because poetry speaks from heart to heart, not from word to ear. Poetry points and evokes. For example, if you have ever been in love and felt both the passion and pain of it, the love poetry of Sappho, although written 2600 years ago, feels immediate and present. Poetry’s ability to evoke an emotional response transforms it from an intellectual exercise into something embodied in the heart. The power to make immanent what was previously hidden gives poetry its special place in Zen training. 

Master Daiyu Myokyo told her students that it was not enough to sit zazen and follow the precepts in daily life. It was also essential that we become cultured. Immersion into the lively stream of life informs our personal being. Once some insight is gleaned from this constant immersion, then it’s possible to look outward to other cultures and appreciate these same insights even when they have been dressed up differently. The clothes may be different, but the human heart is the same from East to West, North to South; whether from the past, in the present, or on into the future. 

With this introduction we begin a new section called Poet’s Corner in which each week we will offer a new and inspiring poem from any tradition.  We hope they lift your heart, and by so doing lead you to look more deeply into the verses and ponder the gems that lie therein.

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