“While highest principle is devoid of all words,” according to an inscription on the pedestal of an eighth century Chinese statue of Amitābha Buddha, “how, without words, would its being the principle be made known?” This line articulates a paradox of language—as both a vehicle and an obstacle to awakening—found in many Buddhist traditions. The transformative power of words enables us to read texts or listen to a teaching that can be liberating. Paradoxically, though, Buddhist thinkers often emphasize that the Dharma is beyond the reach of language and conceptuality. According to the Lalitavistara Sūtra, the Dharma is “without conceptions, non-conceptual, ineffable, soundless, wordless, without expression or demonstration.” Words may beguile and ensnare us, misleading us to think we have grasped that which is beyond the limits of language. Perhaps my favorite articulation of the paradox of language is in the Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra, attributed to Nāgārjuna: “The dharma-s are un-born, un-destroyed, absolutely empty, unsayable, unnamable, inexpressible; and yet they must be named and be identified with phenomena when we address beings whom we want to lead to deliverance: this creates an enormous difficulty…That is why the Buddha laughs; it is because of all these kinds of difficulties that the Buddha laughs with all his might.”
The paradox of language is illustrated in the following poem by Su Shi (1037-1101), the great Song Dynasty poet, calligrapher, essayist, and statesman. Su Shi is also known by his pen name, Su Dongpo, a name he took from the small farm where he lived in exile from the imperial court. During this time of exile, Su became an accomplished Buddhist practitioner. He studied with Chang-tsung, of the Linji School of Chan, more widely known in the West today by its Japanese name as the Rinzai School of Zen. One day, Su asked his teacher about the idea of insentient beings preaching the dharma, about nonsentient beings such as streams or mountains expressing the deepest truths of the Buddha. The poet then spent a night meditating by the side of a creek on Mt. Lu, one of the great sacred mountains in central China, known for its picturesque peaks hidden in mists. In the morning, Su presented this poem to his teacher:
The sounds of the valley streams are his long, broad tongue;
The forms of the mountains are his pure body.
At night I heard the myriad sūtra-verses uttered
How can I relate to others what they say?
A “long, broad tongue” is one of the thirty-two major physical characteristics of a Buddha (who speaks kindly to others and who cares for others with her speech as an animal who licks its young clean). To compare the sound of the stream to the tongue of the Buddha is to suggest that the more awakened we are, the more we hear the very teachings of the Buddha in the gurgling of the stream. In the second line, the poet reports an experience of the earth itself, of the surrounding land, as the very body of the Buddha. The poet’s awakening experience, in this poem, discloses nature as Buddha-nature. Enveloped in the darkness of the night, according to the third line, the poet hears the voice of the Buddha. And in the last line, the poet gestures to what the poem is about, namely the dharma that is beyond language. Even as he acknowledges his inability to articulate his experience, the poem offers some sense of an awakened experience of the more-than-human world.
Precisely because awakening is beyond the limits of words and concepts, it may be hard for a teacher to know a student’s level of awakening. In East Asia, poems were sometimes used to verify a student’s awakening, as we see most famously in the Platform Sūtra, where Huineng’s awakening is revealed through a verse and because of a poem he becomes the Sixth Zen Patriarch. Su’s verse belongs to the category of “awakening verse.” The poem both notes the limits of language and exemplifies the capacity of poetry to express the unsayable. And when Su Shi gave these four lines to his teacher, Chang-tsung verified Su’s awakening.
From the poems of the Pāli Canon, poetry, often sung, has been a vital element of all major Buddhist traditions. Even figures we might think of as emphasizing the importance of reason and argument on the Buddhist path—philosophers such as Nāgārjuna or Tsongkhapa, and so many others—wrote poetry. Poetry has been a vital element in part because, as is manifest with Su Shi’s poem, it can take us beyond the limits of language. Perhaps even more importantly, Buddhist poetry makes space for the devotional, deeply personal, ecstatic, and the painful moments on the path. Nāgārjuna and Tsongkhapa, even as they are committed to the necessity of rational argument to achieve liberation, both wrote devotional verses that open our hearts in ways that their analytic works may not. Much Buddhist poetry calls for an encounter that is not primarily concerned with gaining information or understanding. Rather, so many Buddhist poems are invitations: to be transformed; to connect deeply with others in our common yearnings and sufferings; to open to new forms of experience; to welcome and be attentive to the vast mystery, and wondrous beauty, and pain of our own lives and the many forms of life that surround us; and to acknowledge the passing of what we love. So many of my favorite Buddhist poems speak to the personal experience of being on the path in ways that I find inspiring.
Ryōkan (1758-1831), the Japanese Sōtō Zen monk who spent much of his life as a hermit, once wrote a poem to a friend he could not reach:
Your smoky village is not so far from here
But icy rain kept me captive all morning.
Just yesterday, it seems, we passed an evening together discussing poetry
But it’s really been twenty windblown days.
I’ve begun to copy the text you lent me,
Fretting how weak I’ve become.
This letter seals my promise to take my staff
And make my way through the steep cliffs
As soon as the sun melts the ice along the mossy paths.
Their villages are “not so far,” but the ice on the steep cliffs makes it impossible for these friends to be together. We feel Ryōkan’s commitment, “to take my staff/ and make my way” to his friend, as soon as he is able. As Ryōkan notes in another poem, “Good Friends and excellent teachers—Stick close to them!” For this Buddhist monk, it seems, good friends are excellent teachers; they support us on the Path. And these friends, according to the poem, share and discuss poetry.
I was reminded of Ryōkan’s words and the richness of sharing poems with friends on the path while leading several online Buddhist poetry programs for the Barre Center of Buddhist Studies during the pandemic. His poem expresses a yearning many of us are feeling with physical distancing, to connect with those we love and who support us on our own paths. We explored Ryōkan’s verse, along with others on friendship, nature, the limits of language, the loss of children, the beauty and love of the world, and the practice of Zen in Japanese internment camps. Engaging poetry together—both the classical Buddhist poems we read and sharing the poems we wrote—was a refuge of depth and connection, enabling an exploration of the dharma in our lived experience.
Some of the participants from these weekends have shared their poems below. First, though, here is a poem by the great contemporary Buddhist poet, Jane Hirschfield, written last month shortly after the shelter-in-place order went into effect in the San Francisco Bay Area. I am sharing this poem, and the verses above by Su Shi and Ryōkan, as inspirations. This is an invitation that you also—even if you have not written a poem since middle school—may take this time of physical distancing to write a poem, or even to make it a regular practice, perhaps one poem each week. Like the ones here, perhaps it will be a poem to someone who supports you on the path, or a poem that attends to the simple beauty of the more-than-human world, or any poem that may arise when we set aside the many distractions that compete for our attention and listen, instead, to the depths of our own experience.
Jane Hirschfield: Today, When I Could Do Nothing
Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.
It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.
A morning paper is still an essential service.
I am not an essential service.
I have coffee and books,
silence enough to fill cisterns.
It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.
Then across the laptop computer — warm —
then onto the back of a cushion.
Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.
Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?
It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.
Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.
I lifted it, took it outside.
This first day when I could do nothing,
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.
Anonymous: Spiritual Friend
We walked, discussing children, work, your Jesus and my Dharma.
We reached across the fearsome desert, astounded,
Each to the other the brother that we never had.
I watched the cancer break your energy,
But not your hope, watching with you to the end.
In the warm sunshine we walk together, still.
Marc Aronoff: In Sync
Look me in the eyes
Where you stand today
I will remember you.
You, who have known this song since birth
Since the birth of our Ancestors
When we sang together in the womb
Of a dream bigger than both of us.
Even today we sing, upon the shallow
or our depths: The day-long whisper of our DNA
A frequency Divine, even now,
The night-long whisper of our desires.
How can we forget what we long for?
The continuum is here in these words,
Empty, as ever-
In sync with heaven.
Toni Begman: Poem for Joan Wye
You said you didn’t think it would be like this
And possibly it’s not…
Just this…Just that…
One moment at a time
And even in the midst of pain
Like the gap between two stars
It’s possible, look close
The perimeter Pines are twisting and toughening with the wind
while the interior Elms are weaving and leaning with one another.
All of them trees.
All of them teachers.
Don Benoit: Snow Moon
As I gaze upon the winters moon,
how many lives have passed?
informing and enlightening
Your brilliance is unmatched,
with the exception of my heart
Dmitry Berenson: Wind Song
what can you say about wind
except, just now, I saw it sway
the thick heads of pines, dance them
to the unfinished strain of the windchime
even the naked trees, just budding,
waved hallelujah under a vaulted sky
you don’t need to stand outside
peeking in from a distance, “come in”
they say, “we’ve been waiting
to welcome you home”
Sean Caulfield: Homebound?
I’m with my friend in his backyard
We’re playing in the dirt
Digging holes, making mounds
The grime always gets under my nails
Sometimes it gets in my eyes,
then I just want to go home
Eventually I think I hear my mom call me for dinner, from across the neighborhood
Far too soon, I’ll ignore her, there’s fun to be had, work to be done
Dinner is never ready when she says it is anyways
Who knows, maybe she picked up mcDonalds?
David D’Agostino: Currents
This hour belongs to the wind
sweeping away apricot blossoms,
The Dharma bears fruit,
the tree will not.
Carol Dirga: Pandemic
How odd to feel a hesitation to interrupt my quarantine and go outdoors.
Haven’t we been ordered to shelter-in-place?
We are now so afraid of each other!
We line up six feet apart with our grocery carts, on a sure path to the cemetery.
Even my dearest friend could kill me.
I go to my garden to uncover what the brown rabbit has been investigating.
And to wash my hands, for 20 seconds, in the chilly soil.
Catherine Fabrizi: Free
We want to be free.
It is so easy, really.
Come and play
In the rain,
No need to fear time.
Let’s climb trees
And swing from branches.
We may abandon ourselves to the world
Leave our shoes behind
Run and laugh
Until day lies down.
And as darkness falls,
To take the place of stars.
Eunice Flanders: Living Through CoVID 19
Even though passing light
Is always in a set of rooms
And even though the streets
Walked are the same ones
Despite varied routes,
The choice of where
To sit or to stand,
The choice of where
The choice of direction
East, West, North, South
To those I love
Who battered my heart
Before I could talk…
Frozen buds in
When the earth warms,
will my heart open?
Kathy Forsythe: Just Another Walk
The daily walk along the trail, now new
Fresh spring growth
The smell of damp earth
The sound of wind through the trees
The solid ground beneath my feet
All invitations from Buddha, saying,
Come, walk with me
You are not alone
Trees blossom silently
Birds call noisily
With ear-noise and eye-noise
Much thunder, no wisdom
Celia Landman: The Ayya-Buddha Sutta: The Sister Buddha Teaching
Thus have I heard.
Once when the Buddha was sojourning
on the Island of Manhattan
in the land of the Lenape people,
she stopped to change her son’s diaper
in the public toilet on
the East River pier.
Having no place to lay the baby
she spread leaves of newspaper upon the gritty floor.
The Buddha placed the child upon the ground
and wiped the soft baby skin free from excrement until it shone.
While women without homes, in oily soled shoes
circumambulated the crouching Buddha chanting
“no defilement, no purity,
there is nothing made in this world which does not belong.”
This poem did not get written
There were these texts, you see
“Mum, could you send me your Indian Pudding recipe please?”
An hour later
“Mum, are you alive?”
So – I pulled books and papers out of the cabinet, found the recipe, took a picture, texted it to Rick, answered his questions, ate cantaloupe, made tea, peed, put brussel sprouts in the oven . . .
This poem did not get written
There is a pollen on the cement parking lot
0.1mm wide, 0.2 mm long
I looked up onto the tree
Unaware of pollens in the air
Acho! I sneezed
Temporarily, consciousness without object
Kate McCoy: My New Heart
My new heart
Was a gift from my son.
He hid it in my suffering.
Oh, my clever boy!
The sound of spring rain
As it patterns its drops on the roof
Has been freshly heard by the moss
Which sings back its deepening green
The forsythia watches shyly
Not ready to reveal herself
While the squirrel jumps off the fence behind her
And shakes the drops
That form worlds on the tips of cherry branches
the poets speak of the things which cannot be said
so that we know
is the one streaming in the light
when the movie stops reeling
in the silence
after the talk of love
a bird sang
On my bench
I find my mind
sometimes bad company
Meshe Mooette: Wrapping Presence
Don’t blame them, the poet-mystics.
Their job is to wrap up infinite space for you.
Certainly they’ll miss a few corners,
Here and There.
Michael Mulvihill: White Cats
The shiny grackles
Watch the cats
Crawl through the grass
Before they lift
Above the claws
Of our little Buddhas
Michael Mulvihill: Faith
Each bud opens, leaves
Darkening into summer;
You doubted when branches
Shadowed the snow, thinking
There is no end to winter.
Irene Nelson: Just This
It changes every moment
The clamor of rain on the roof
The coolness of the late afternoon air
A memory of a conversation with a dear friend
Self doubt, a hurt, kindness
A bodily pain
A hope for something that cannot be
A dream barely remembered
A warm cup of coffee so relished
Tulips that sway in all directions before dropping
Gene Parulis: Late Morning Poem
Released from judgment
oh heavy heavy hand
released from assessment
heavy words, heavy heart,
a lightness like wings
like weightlessness lifts my spirit
I need not hold back now
yet I have nothing to say,
so words, I bid you farewell
ballast tossed from the balloon.
Space is my dwelling
space fills my heart.
Patricia Savage: Nature – Cracking Open
Wet earth, thick and sticky, creekside
Waters coursing, carving paths
To the canal, canal to Great Lake
A basin full of detritus.
Unseen roots sponging up the moisture,
Now, serum rising, to open green as leaves.
Christine Shook: For Basho
I offer you a broken wing — only you can tell the story of broken things.
I offer you my ambition, a hand painted stone bound in threads of wishing
You wept tears for your mother, I offer you my tears
You can have the elements of my body dispersed now stratified in the deepest purple sand – a violet at your doorstep
I offer you who I am when I say these words let me be great
J. Skyleson: Seeing is Believing
I wanted to believe in Santa Claus
though, at 5, I had my doubts.
So I asked my mother for his photograph after
all, seeing is believing, I thought,
and I wanted proof.
That next Christmas, as I unwrapped
a framed photo of the smiling man
in a red suit,
I instantly knew:
He is not real.
I had neglected to tell my mother
the reason for my doubt:
that I had noticed her own handwriting
on the tags of Santa’s gifts.
And she had autographed the photo:
“With All My Love, Santa Claus”.
Looking up, I said to her, “I believe.”
And I did
not in Santa,
but in that love.
Loss of faith does not mean
faith is lost-
all is transformed.
In that moment
I began to see:
Believing in each other
is the way
we give our gifts to the world.
Ann Van Dyke: Property
Six years of Christmas trees decay
Alongside oak leaves and orange peels
A small patch of woods
My name on the county deed
It does not mention the community of beings
Who are also soaking in this cold spring rain.
There are more micro-organisms in a teaspoon of soil
Than there are people on Earth.
Emma Wynn: Sitting Dawn
The red sun this morning
did not rise
to throw glimmers
from the icy trees
it was only I
who kept spinning,
light to darkness,
darkness to light.
I’m the whole of it –
not merely on the skin
of the World, but
a satellite with one face
when the light comes.
John Zeisel: Dead or Alive?
Dead or alive?
Trees storms ripped up by roots.
Leafless budless bushes; branches cracked under ice.
Buds on the crabapple tree fight to free themselves.
Bright yellow forsythia blooms.
The sun’s warmth.