Good poems, for me, are often potent teachings on how to live this precious life we are given. Over the years I have been moved to tears reading poems.
There is one poet in particular I keep coming back to, the Japanese poet Ryōkan Taigu, who lived from 1758–1831.
Ryokan, as a Google search tells me, was a quiet and eccentric Sōtō Zen Buddhist monk who lived much of his life as a hermit. He is remembered for his poetry and calligraphy, which present the essence of Zen life.
Here is Ryokan musing about the premise of true poetry:
Who says my poems are poems? My poems are not poems. When you know that my poems are not poems, Then we can speak of poetry!
Perhaps the most famous story about this eccentric and beloved Zen Master is recounted in the book Great Fool: Zen Master Ryōkan: Poems, Letters, and Other Writings.
One night a thief entered into Ryokan’s small hut. Ryokan had only one blanket which he used day and night to cover his body. That was his only possession. He felt great compassion for the thief because he knew there was nothing in the house.
If the poor fellow had informed me before, I could have begged something from the neighbors and kept it here for him to steal. But now what can I do? Seeing that there was nothing, that he had entered into a monk’s hut, the thief went out.
Ryokan could not resist. He gave his blanket to the thief. When the thief left, he wrote the famous haiku in his diary:
The thief left it behind — The moon at the window.
To which is often added the final line from another diary entry, a line which haunts me to this day:
Poor fellow, I wish I could have given him the moon!
Whew! I would be hard-pressed to find a single line, in all of Buddhist literature or in the many commentarial traditions, that more succinctly describes the path of the bodhissatva than this one!
The implications of this line boggle the rational mind, which, perhaps, is Ryokan’s intention–to shake us up, to wake us up to the only reality there is, the here and now. And to act in the interest of “mother sentient beings.”
To borrow an observation by the English Romantic era poet John Keats, who died at the age of 25, leaving us fifty-four poems to savor; writing in a letter to Fanny Braun, Keats wrote:
A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.
This is really what our simple and profound mindfulness practice is all about. Rather than trying to understand, interpret or otherwise wrangle with our present moment’s experience, if we allow ourselves to luxuriate in it and accept its mysteries, we are taken straight to the mystery of our own existence here on this fragile planet.
This is after all, what our practice is all about.
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