This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Japanese poetry


In imagination,

An old woman and I

Sat together in tears

Admiring the moon.

Matsuo Basho The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches London: Penguin Books, 1966. (Translated from the Japanese with an introduction by Noboyuki Yuasa.) The strongly Zen influenced Basho lived from 1644 – 1694 and is considered one of the greatest figures in Japanese literature.


Without a brush

The willow paints the wind


Zen Haiku, selected and translated by Jonathan Clements

London: Frances Lincoln, 2000



According to Thich Nhat Hahn’s Community of Interbeing (1) “mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply.” This approach turns mindfulness from a set of practices into a way of life, and this view of mindfulness has helped to draw me in to the local sangha of the COI as a fellow traveler.

That said, we have five formal practice arenas: mindfulness of breath, mindfulness of eating, mindfulness of walking, mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of bells. A lot of this is familiar to me. For the last seven years my daily practice has included some form of sitting meditation, walking meditation and body/energy work. I already include outside walking meditation and exercise. I use bells in my dedicated sacred space at home, and love the liminal after echo as they pass out of hearing. But bringing things together within this community encourages me to refine and deepen this work.

Checking in with myself, I notice that I have been only half-conscious about eating. In this community, eating mindfulness is not just about slow and appreciative eating. It is also about the global context, “reflecting deeply on what we buy and what we eat”. The COI gold standard is to be vegan. This is a hot button topic in Druidry and Paganism too. It’s an area that I feel nudged to look at again.

I also notice that I’ve done less conscious relaxation than I would like. Yet I know its softening, opening, and enabling effects – a balance to rectify there, I feel. Mindfulness may sound like an effortful regimen, but it doesn’t have to be that way. On sitting meditation specifically, the COI website approvingly quotes Matsuo Basho, the seventeenth century Japanese poet, when he writes:

Sitting quietly

Doing nothing

Spring comes

And the grass


By itself.






This world of dew

is only the world of dew –

and yet … oh and yet.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), translated from the Japanese by Robert Hess. From The poetry of impermanence, mindfulness and joy edited by John Brem. (Wisdom, kindle edition, undated.)



Simplicity and complexity, elegance and wisdom combined in the poetry of Japanese Zen. I notice that I respond more strongly to such poetry than I do to didactic texts about meditation and philosophy.


To what shall

I liken the world?

Moonlight, reflected

In dewdrops,

Shaken from a crane’s bill.


I particularly love this poem. The apparent naturalism of the imagery makes it powerful and accessible to anyone. Yet for me, this poem also brings up wider issues about reading and interpretation. The poet’s location in place, time and culture do make a difference. Ehei Dogen (1200-1253) was one of the first to transmit Zen Buddhism from China to Japan and was founder of the Soto School. His poem is a waka – a 31 syllable form predating the invention of haiku. Dogen is a key figure in both Japanese Buddhism and Japanese literature.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhism of all Japanese schools including Zen, the moon stands for Buddha-nature. So the poem teaches a familiar Mahayana truth that the moon (Buddha-nature) is completely reflected in every one of the countless dew drops (all things) without discrimination, namely one in all, all in one. This understanding is accompanied by a sense of fragility and impermanence within nature – strongly present in Japanese culture independently of Buddhism and reinforced by Buddhist teaching. Dogen gives us elegance and complexity in a 31 syllable form.

Hee-Jin Kim*, a modern Zen scholar, takes this further, bringing out Dogen’s sensitivity to history as well as to nature. He draws attention to the word ‘shaken’: each dew drop holds a full yet shaken reflection of the moon. Dogen lived in what was seen as a dark and ill-starred time in Japanese history. Many Buddhists thought that even their path was compromised and talked of degenerate dharma (mappo). Kim understands Dogen as resisting this ideology of despair whilst fully aware of the collective turmoil. On this reading, the poem asserts that timelessness is experienced within, and only within, momentariness, even when the times are stressed.


To what shall

I liken the world?

Moonlight, reflected

In dewdrops,

Shaken from a crane’s bill.


* Hee-Jin Kim Dogen on meditation and thinking: a reflection on his view of Zen Albany, New York: State University, 2007 (At the time of publication Hee-Jin Kim was Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon. He is also the author of Dogen-Kigen: Mystical Realist).


A Summer Haiku by the 18th century Japanese poet Buson from the collection Zen Haiku, selected and translated by Jonathan Clements. London: Frances Lincoln, 2000

Across the summer stream

With such joy

My sandals in my hand


Without my journey

And without the spring

I would have missed this dawn.

Zen Haiku, selected and translated by Jonathan Clements

London: Frances Lincoln, 2000

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