Thursday, 25 February 2010

Koans & Zen Poetry

(Cross posted at The Reformed Buddhist)

Master Un Mun, or perhaps better known as Master Yun Men in China, wrote a large number of Koans, many of which are still meditated on and taught with to this day. Here are my three favorite koans by Master Un Mon(Yun Men).

A monk asked Ummon, "What is Buddha?"
Ummon said, "A dry shit-stick![Kanshiketsu!]"
A monk asked Ummon, "What will happen when the leaves fall and the trees become bare?"
Ummon said, "Golden Wind!"
A monk asked Ummon, "What is the kind of talk that transcends Buddhas and Patriarchs?"
Ummon replied, "Rice cake!"
But why so blunt, so direct in these koans? Master Un Mon was very much a master at writing koans; and in his extremely direct expression of Zen practice embodied within the koans he wrote, he pointed to a bare, raw and basic interpretation, setting aside over intellectual ideals in favor of a minimalist approach to teaching. Indeed, much Zen Poetry, exemplified by the haiku, was born out of this spirit of minimal intention, and flowed very much like many of these koans. In China, and later Korea and Japan, this style of minimalist, direct poetry flourished well into the 20th century, and can still be seen and experienced in today’s modern writers and teachers. Here are a few of my favorite ones.

Ikkyū - 14th Century - The model of a Rinzai iconoclastic Japanese Zen Priest.

My Hovel

The world before my eyes is wan and wasted, just like me.
The earth is decrepit, the sky stormy, all the grass withered.
No spring breeze even at this late date,
Just winter clouds swallowing up my tiny reed hut.
A Fisherman

Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind.
A solitary tune by a fisherman, though, can be an invaluable treasure.
Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking in and out of the clouds;
Elegant beyond words, he chants his songs night after night.

Matsuo Bashō - 17th Century Japanese master of the Haiku style of poetry.
Summer grasses:
all that remains of great soldiers’
imperial dreams

Nothing in the cry
of cicadas suggests they
are about to die

Ryōkan Taigu - 19th Century Japanese Soto monk who is famous for both his poems and calligraphy.
When all thoughts
Are exhausted
I slip into the woods
And gather
A pile of shepherd’s purse.
Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent.
The wind has settled, the blossoms have fallen;
Birds sing, the mountains grow dark --
This is the wondrous power of Buddhism.
It is truly amazing the power that a few words, placed so skillfully together, can have to a reader or a student. Keeping alive that magnificent spirit of raw minimalist expression, that the patriarchs perfected over 1,500 years ago, these poems and koans do indeed speak directly to the heart of Zen practice.


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  2. Besides the obvious shit stick koan, (how can you not like that one?) my favorite is this one:

    A monk asked Ummon, "What is the kind of talk that transcends Buddhas and Patriarchs?"
    Ummon replied, "Rice cake!"

    I know I'd certainly rather eat rice cake than listen to incessant talking. There is more nirvana in eating a rice cake than in all the talking in the world!!

  3. Amen to that James. PS Congrats on your article mention in Bodhidharma!!