These are a few of my favorite poems by three of Japan’s greatest Zen monk-poets, Ikkyu (1394-1481), Basho (1644-1694), and Ryokan (1758-1831).
I Hate Incense
A master’s handiwork cannot be measured
But still priests wag their tongues explaining the “Way” and babbling about “Zen.”
This old monk has never cared for false piety
And my nose wrinkles at the dark smell of incense before the Buddha.
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.
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 Meal of Fresh Octopus
Lots of arms, just like Kannon the Goddess;
Sacrificed for me, garnished with citron, I revere it so!
The taste of the sea, just divine!
Sorry, Buddha, this is another precept I just cannot keep.
Exhausted with gay pleasures, I embrace my wife.
The narrow path of asceticism is not for me:
My mind runs in the opposite direction.
It is easy to be glib about Zen -- I’ll just keep my mouth shut
And rely on love play all the day long.
It is nice to get a glimpse of a lady bathing --
You scrubbed your flower face and cleansed your lovely body
While this old monk sat in the hot water,
Feeling more blessed than even the emperor of China!
To Lady Mori with Deepest Gratitude and Thanks
The tree was barren of leaves but you brought a new spring.
Long green sprouts, verdant flowers, fresh promise.
Mori, if I ever forget my profound gratitude to you,
Let me burn in hell forever.
(Mori was a blind minstrel, and Ikkyu’s young mistress)
From Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu, translated by John Stevens. Published by Shambala in Boston, 1995.
all that remains of great soldiers’
Eaten alive by
lice and fleas -- now the horse
beside my pillow pees
Along the roadside,
blossoming wild roses
in my horse’s mouth
Even that old horse
is something to see this
On the white poppy,
a butterfly’s torn wing
is a keepsake
The bee emerging
from deep within the peony
Crossing long fields,
frozen in its saddle,
my shadow creeps by
A mountain pheasant cry
fills me with fond longing for
father and mother
Slender, so slender
its stalk bends under dew --
little yellow flower
New Year’s first snow -- ah --
just barely enough to tilt
In this warm spring rain,
tiny leaves are sprouting
from the eggplant seed
O bush warblers!
Now you’ve shit all over
my rice cake on the porch
For those who proclaim
they’ve grown weary of children,
there are no flowers
Nothing in the cry
of cicadas suggests they
are about to die
From The Essential Basho, Translated by Sam Hamill. Published by Shambala in Boston, 1999.
When I was a lad,
I sauntered about town as a gay blade,
Sporting a cloak of the softest down,
And mounted on a splendid chestnut-colored horse.
During the day, I galloped to the city;
At night, I got drunk on peach blossoms by the river.
I never cared about returning home,
Usually ending up, with a big smile on my face, at a pleasure pavilion!
Returning to my native village after many years’ absence:
Ill, I put up at a country inn and listen to the rain.
One robe, one bowl is all I have.
I light incense and strain to sit in meditation;
All night a steady drizzle outside the dark window --
Inside, poignant memories of these long years of pilgrimage.
To My Teacher
An old grave hidden away at the foot of a deserted hill,
Overrun with rank weeks growing unchecked year after year;
There is no one left to tend the tomb,
And only an occasional woodcutter passes by.
Once I was his pupil, a youth with shaggy hair,
Learning deeply from him by the Narrow River.
One morning I set off on my solitary journey
And the years passed between us in silence.
Now I have returned to find him at rest here;
How can I honor his departed spirit?
I pour a dipper of pure water over his tombstone
And offer a silent prayer.
The sun suddenly disappears behind the hill
And I’m enveloped by the roar of the wind in the pines.
I try to pull myself away but cannot;
A flood of tears soaks my sleeves.
In my youth I put aside my studies
And I aspired to be a saint.
Living austerely as a mendicant monk,
I wandered here and there for many springs.
Finally I returned home to settle under a craggy peak.
I live peacefully in a grass hut,
Listening to the birds for music.
Clouds are my best neighbors.
Below a pure spring where I refresh body and mind;
Above, towering pines and oaks that provide shade and brushwood.
Free, so free, day after day --
I never want to leave!
Yes, I’m truly a dunce
Living among trees and plants.
Please don’t question me about illusion and enlightenment --
This old fellow just likes to smile to himself.
I wade across streams with bony legs,
And carry a bag about in fine spring weather.
That’s my life,
And the world owes me nothing.
When all thoughts
I slip into the woods
A pile of shepherd’s purse.
Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent.
I often climb
To the peak of Kugami.
Soaked up by
Piles of maple leaves
Lying undisturbed at
The foot of the mountain.
Blending with the wind,
Blending with the snow,
The wind blows.
By the hearth
I stretch out my legs,
Idling my time away
Confined in this hut.
Counting the days,
I find that February, too,
Has come and gone
Like a dream.
No luck today on my mendicant rounds;
From village to village I dragged myself.
At sunset I find myself with miles of mountains between me and my hut.
The wind tears at my frail body,
And my little bowl looks so forlorn --
Yes this is my chosen path that guides me
Through disappointment and pain, cold and hunger.
My Cracked Wooden Bowl
This treasure was discovered in a bamboo thicket --
I washed the bowl in a spring and then mended it.
After morning meditation, I take my gruel in it;
At night, it serves me soup or rice.
Cracked, worn, weather-beaten, and misshapen
But still of noble stock!
I walk about with my staff.
Old farmers spot me
And call me over for a drink.
We sit in the fields
using leaves for plates.
Pleasantly drunk and so happy
I drift off peacefully
Sprawled out on a paddy bank.
How can I possibly sleep
This moonlit evening?
Come, my friends,
Let’s sing and dance
All night long.
Under the vast sky:
Beneath the cherry blossoms.
Plucked from fields
Full of croaking frogs:
Float them in your wine
And enjoy every minute!
For Children Killed in a Smallpox Epidemic
When spring arrives
From every tree tip
Flowers will bloom,
But those children
Who fell with last autumn’s leaves
Will never return.
I watch people in the world
Throw away their lives lusting after things,
Never able to satisfy their desires,
Falling into deeper despair
And torturing themselves.
Even if they get what they want
How long will they be able to enjoy it?
For one heavenly pleasure
They suffer ten torments of hell,
Binding themselves more firmly to the grindstone.
Such people are like monkeys
Frantically grasping for the moon in the water
And then falling into a whirlpool.
How endlessly those caught up in the floating world suffer.
Despite myself, I fret over them all night
And cannot staunch my flow of tears.
The wind has settled, the blossoms have fallen;
Birds sing, the mountains grow dark --
This is the wondrous power of Buddhism.
In a dilapidated three-room hut
I’ve grown old and tired;
This winter cold is the
Worst I’ve ever suffered through.
I sip thin gruel, waiting for the
Freezing night to pass.
Can I last until spring finally arrives?
Unable to beg for rice,
How will I survive the chill?
Even meditation helps no longer;
Nothing left to do but compose poems
In memory of deceased friends.
“When, when?” I sighed.
The one I longed for
Has finally come;
With her now,
I have all that I need.
(Written to the nun Teishin, his young mistress.)
My legacy --
What will it be?
Flowers in spring,
The cuckoo in summer,
And the crimson maples
From Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan, translated by John Stevens. Published by Shambala in Boston, 1996.
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