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The Poetry of Zen

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A Zen poem is nothing other than an expression of the enlightened mind, a handful of simple words that disappear beneath the moment of insight to which it bears witness. Poetry has been an essential aid to Zen Buddhist practice from the dawn of Zen—and Zen has also had a profound influence on the secular poetry of the countries in which it has flourished. Here, two of Amer A Zen poem is nothing other than an expression of the enlightened mind, a handful of simple words that disappear beneath the moment of insight to which it bears witness. Poetry has been an essential aid to Zen Buddhist practice from the dawn of Zen—and Zen has also had a profound influence on the secular poetry of the countries in which it has flourished. Here, two of America’s most renowned poets and translators provide an overview of Zen poetry from China and Japan in all its rich variety, from the earliest days to the twentieth century. Included are works by Lao Tzu, Han Shan, Li Po, Dogen Kigen, Saigyo, Basho, Chiao Jan, Yuan Mei, Ryokan, and many others. Hamill and Seaton provide illuminating introductions to the Chinese and Japanese sections that set the poets and their work in historical and philosophical context. Short biographies of the poets are also included.


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A Zen poem is nothing other than an expression of the enlightened mind, a handful of simple words that disappear beneath the moment of insight to which it bears witness. Poetry has been an essential aid to Zen Buddhist practice from the dawn of Zen—and Zen has also had a profound influence on the secular poetry of the countries in which it has flourished. Here, two of Amer A Zen poem is nothing other than an expression of the enlightened mind, a handful of simple words that disappear beneath the moment of insight to which it bears witness. Poetry has been an essential aid to Zen Buddhist practice from the dawn of Zen—and Zen has also had a profound influence on the secular poetry of the countries in which it has flourished. Here, two of America’s most renowned poets and translators provide an overview of Zen poetry from China and Japan in all its rich variety, from the earliest days to the twentieth century. Included are works by Lao Tzu, Han Shan, Li Po, Dogen Kigen, Saigyo, Basho, Chiao Jan, Yuan Mei, Ryokan, and many others. Hamill and Seaton provide illuminating introductions to the Chinese and Japanese sections that set the poets and their work in historical and philosophical context. Short biographies of the poets are also included.

30 review for The Poetry of Zen

  1. 5 out of 5

    Kimber

    Hamill, "Poetry often says what cannot be said in prose. It was used for argument, description, ceremony, memorialization, and some were even koans...Poetry is most capable of capturing the essence of a moment's experience. 99% accuracy in poetry is not as good as silence. A good poem says more than the sum of its words, leading the reader into the practice of understanding the great unsaid that is contained, framed in a poem's rhythms, words and silences. In these ways, poetry opens the mind."

  2. 4 out of 5

    Robert Sherman

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

  3. 4 out of 5

    David

    Great book. Swallowed what I could chew. Another continuous read.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Dorothy Hermary

    While I started this book as a meditative practice and was reading it prior to sleeping, I found much of the poetry, whether Chinese or Japanese, thought-provoking rather than calming. Therefore I started reading it during the day to reflect on when awake. I appreciated the short histories of each poet and read whatever was written about a single poet prior to reading his or her work. The poets' information is at the back of the book. One Chinese poem written by Kuan Hsiu (832-912) is called "Bad While I started this book as a meditative practice and was reading it prior to sleeping, I found much of the poetry, whether Chinese or Japanese, thought-provoking rather than calming. Therefore I started reading it during the day to reflect on when awake. I appreciated the short histories of each poet and read whatever was written about a single poet prior to reading his or her work. The poets' information is at the back of the book. One Chinese poem written by Kuan Hsiu (832-912) is called "Bad Government" and a segment of it states: These rulers so cruel. Why, tell me why they must steal till we starve, then slice the skin from our bones? A Japanese poem by Kikaku (1661-1707)says: In the Emperor's bed, the smell of burnt mosquitoes, and erotic whispers This little book of poetry is historical and yet reflects current issues. A good read.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Randy

    I carried this little book in my backpack for years, occasionally pulling it out to read old Chinese and Japanese poems (in translation, of course). Basho, Tu Fu, and other masterful poets seem as fresh as they must have hundreds of years ago.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Erik Akre

    Perhaps this would be best read on a backpacking trip in the Bitterroot Mountains, or amidst clouds of mosquitoes, sitting on tangled old cedar roots, on the bank of the Manitou River, by the shore of Lake Superior. Chinese, Japanese, Wilderness Anywhere. Anywhere the cherry blossom falls. So many mountains; so many clouds--and wandering wandering, to temples, away from temples. I liked especially the Japanese poems, again the cherry blossoms, and the autumn crows. Worth the read even if only for Perhaps this would be best read on a backpacking trip in the Bitterroot Mountains, or amidst clouds of mosquitoes, sitting on tangled old cedar roots, on the bank of the Manitou River, by the shore of Lake Superior. Chinese, Japanese, Wilderness Anywhere. Anywhere the cherry blossom falls. So many mountains; so many clouds--and wandering wandering, to temples, away from temples. I liked especially the Japanese poems, again the cherry blossoms, and the autumn crows. Worth the read even if only for the numerous haiku, deliciously surprising. Put the concept of "Zen" aside, and just be the poet as you are able. (Advice, I see now, for the reading of any poem.) I found that my experience in these pages mirrored the relative clarity of the mind. Muddy mind, mosquito-cloud-mind, muddy mosquito poems. Clear mind, mountain-mist-over-high-resevoir-lake mind, reflection of high rock water poems. As a student of clarity, one might enjoy this book. The poems are short--the many many poems. Each is experience--as poems are--each attempts communication of directness. A fine resource for the resonance of comings and passings away.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    This book gets five stars just for existing as an aesthetic object. Reading it cover-to-cover may be a necessary part of the process, but the best use is probably just keeping it close at hand and opening it at random whenever you have a few minutes, to get an insight like this one from Buson: With no underrobes, bare butt suddenly exposed- a gust of spring wind

  8. 5 out of 5

    Kristyn

    Many thoughts struck me in this collection, and I have marked many pages to return to. As it neared the end, one haiku stayed with me: In the midst of the world we stroll along the roof of hell gawking at flowers -Issa, trans. By Sam Hamill

  9. 5 out of 5

    Gabe Wilberscheid

    The best way to understand many of the principles of zen. A collection of a handful of eastern teachers, each with unique insights on how to handle the mystery that unfolds before us. "Only one who makes no attempt to possess it cannot lose it."

  10. 5 out of 5

    Matt Tooley

    3.5 stars is more like it

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jerry Peace

    I enjoyed the Chinese poems more than the Japanese, except for the incomparable Basho.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Cynthia Mauck

    The best book of Buddhist poetry I've come across so far. I also like the compact size of the book -easy to take in a purse or small bag to read wherever and whenever.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    An anthology of both Chinese and Japanese poems. Some with only the loosest connection to Zen.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Naessens

    This book is divided in two parts : first Chinese poems, then Japanese poems. Each part has the same structure : an introduction, mostly historical, to the Chinese or Japanese style, the most re-known and famous authors, followed by a selection of poems. I liked the introductions the most, I found them informative. On the other hand, I was neither moved nor touched by the poems, except a few of them. I don't know if it is due to the translation losing the spirit of the poems or on account of my we This book is divided in two parts : first Chinese poems, then Japanese poems. Each part has the same structure : an introduction, mostly historical, to the Chinese or Japanese style, the most re-known and famous authors, followed by a selection of poems. I liked the introductions the most, I found them informative. On the other hand, I was neither moved nor touched by the poems, except a few of them. I don't know if it is due to the translation losing the spirit of the poems or on account of my western mind not accustomed to the poetry of zen. Below are the 6 poems I enjoyed the most. By Po Chu-Li : One who speaks does not know ; one who knows does not speak. Thus I have been instructed by the Old Master* If you tell me the Old Master was one who knew, I ask, Why did he write five thousand words to explain it ? * : Lao Tzu By the Priest Mansei : If pressed to compare this brief life, I might declare : It's like the boat that crossed this morning harbor, leaving no mark in the world. By Ikkyu Sojun : Essentially, all previous lives and selves are gone from nature- without destination, without place, without value. Like vanishing dew, a passing apparition or the sudden flash of lightning - already gone - thus should one regard one's self. By Basho : Drinking Sake brings on insomnia it snowed all night. By Issa : The winter fly I caught and finally freed the cat quickly ate

  15. 5 out of 5

    Michael Arnett

    Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton's anthology of Zen poetry is a brief (less than two-hundred pages) but comprehensive anthology of the East-Asian Buddhist poetic tradition. The anthology is divided into two parts: the Chinese Buddhist poetic tradition, and the Japanese Buddhist poetic tradition. Each part begins with an introduction elucidating the names and roles of the various poets and their relationship to both the practice of Zen and the practice of poetry. However, Hamill and Seaton do not limit Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton's anthology of Zen poetry is a brief (less than two-hundred pages) but comprehensive anthology of the East-Asian Buddhist poetic tradition. The anthology is divided into two parts: the Chinese Buddhist poetic tradition, and the Japanese Buddhist poetic tradition. Each part begins with an introduction elucidating the names and roles of the various poets and their relationship to both the practice of Zen and the practice of poetry. However, Hamill and Seaton do not limit themselves to a narrow definition of Zen or Zen poetry. Zen is an essence, a characteristic, not a dogma or creed: “There is nothing intrinsically Chinese, Japanese, Indian, or Korean about Zen beyond its Chinese roots. Its institutions sometimes wear the cultural accoutrements of their countries, but the practice transcends any such distinctions.” Among the many influences throughout 20th century English poetry, the influence of the Eastern poetic tradition is one of the most palpable, especially the Zen poetic tradition. Ezra Pound was one of its first and most vocal admirers. One of his most influential poems, the two=line “In A Station On The Metro”, is haiku-like in its brevity and juxtaposition of imagery: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet black bough.” But the tradition of Zen poetry doesn't come into full conscious fruition until around the middle of the century, with the Beat poets and the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance: “Monks and lay poets together are the heart and mind of the Zen poetic tradition. Their influence can be seen in the work of many contemporary writers, from renowned poets such as Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, W.S Merwin, and Jane Hirshfield, to poets not generally associated with Buddhism, like Denise Levertov, Robert Hass, Jim Harrison, and Hayden Carruth. In America, Zen and Zen Poetry is as American as apple pie.”

  16. 4 out of 5

    Solomon

    This is a limited but fantastic sampling of poetry from ancient China and Japan up to the twentieth century...everything from Lao Tzu, Hui Neng, and Li Po to Basho, Issa, and more. Really fantastic. It's published by Shambhala so there's an ostensible focus on Ch'an and, later, on Zen, but there is plenty of Taoist and Confucian material, and lots of beautiful nature poetry that each sect would probably want to lay claim to. Change is the pervasive theme...sometimes handled with stoic Buddhist n This is a limited but fantastic sampling of poetry from ancient China and Japan up to the twentieth century...everything from Lao Tzu, Hui Neng, and Li Po to Basho, Issa, and more. Really fantastic. It's published by Shambhala so there's an ostensible focus on Ch'an and, later, on Zen, but there is plenty of Taoist and Confucian material, and lots of beautiful nature poetry that each sect would probably want to lay claim to. Change is the pervasive theme...sometimes handled with stoic Buddhist non-attachment, more often with a wistful acknowledgment of human frailty and the impossible ideal of the Buddha's perfect enlightenment. Some are funny, many are poignant, lots are both, some are so sad that you'll cry. This world of dew is only a world of dew- and yet... -Kobayashi Issa

  17. 5 out of 5

    Paige Signs

    Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton put together a novel of short Chinese and Japanese poems that range from the start of Zen through the twentieth century. The first part of this book contains Chinese poems, with the second half being Japanese poems. Many of the entries in this novel had a reoccurring setting of nature. It combines various Chinese and Japanese authors that all contribute to the overall theme of reflection, and self-transformation. I do recommend this book for readers who like to find th Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton put together a novel of short Chinese and Japanese poems that range from the start of Zen through the twentieth century. The first part of this book contains Chinese poems, with the second half being Japanese poems. Many of the entries in this novel had a reoccurring setting of nature. It combines various Chinese and Japanese authors that all contribute to the overall theme of reflection, and self-transformation. I do recommend this book for readers who like to find themselves intellectually challenged in finding the meaning of these poems individually. I liked this novel myself as I got to comprehend more and more of the poems as I continued reading. Being someone who doesn’t often read about poetry, this was a nice book to read.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    Calming, with most of the focus on nature, transience, the contemplative. The Japanese poems seem more spare and elegant. The Chinese contain more struggle (for lack of a better word). They seem to grapple with the thought of Zen rather than float through the world. One passage I really like (Chinese): snowmelt crashes down on boulders, The sun grows cold in the pines before It drowns in the lake. Keep your karma In good working order: many dragons lie in wait. --Wang Wei And this (Japanese): Like v Calming, with most of the focus on nature, transience, the contemplative. The Japanese poems seem more spare and elegant. The Chinese contain more struggle (for lack of a better word). They seem to grapple with the thought of Zen rather than float through the world. One passage I really like (Chinese): snowmelt crashes down on boulders, The sun grows cold in the pines before It drowns in the lake. Keep your karma In good working order: many dragons lie in wait. --Wang Wei And this (Japanese): Like vanishing dew, A passing apparition Or the sudden flash Of lightning -already gone- Thus should one regard one's self. -- Ikkyu Sojun They seem to illustrate the emphasis a bit.

  19. 4 out of 5

    NicAlba

    During a stressful time, this is the book to read if you need to get in a calm and relaxed state of mind. The poetry itself is very good. It definitely uses the white space and punctuation to emphasize contemplation and lingering on the beautiful images. The poetry is transporting and really good. It is not something to rush through--that defeats the purpose of zen poetry. The poetry helps you to remember to take a pause and think and notice the beauty of the world around you. I really recommend During a stressful time, this is the book to read if you need to get in a calm and relaxed state of mind. The poetry itself is very good. It definitely uses the white space and punctuation to emphasize contemplation and lingering on the beautiful images. The poetry is transporting and really good. It is not something to rush through--that defeats the purpose of zen poetry. The poetry helps you to remember to take a pause and think and notice the beauty of the world around you. I really recommend this book if someone wants a relaxing and de-stresser read and anyone interested in zen poetry. This is a good book to read.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Darcy Petersen

    I really enjoyed the Chinese poems but I found the Japanese translations trying.... as someone who has studied some translation, and done my own translations of Japanese, I favor the literal rather than those preserving the form of the poetry. The poems of this book were mostly waka and haiku, with rigid forms in Japanese that were reproduced in English preserving the syllabic count. I would have personally enjoyed them more if they preserved the exact meaning rather than the exact form.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Suzy

    Beautiful. I put a few of the poems in the "my quotes" section (how I love this site!), but this is my favorite: "I'd like to divide myself in order to see, among these mountains, each and every flower of every cherry tree." — Saigyo Most of the poems I really liked were about cherry blossoms, actually, so you can see what speaks to me!

  22. 5 out of 5

    Karl Nehring

    A nice collection of poetry from China and Japan, along with some helpful introductory material. The authors explain how not all the poets were actually Zen devotees although they wrote poetry in the Zen tradition.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ivan Granger

    A very nice sampler of Japanese and Chinese Zen poetry. Han Shan, Li Po, Wang Wei, Basho, Soseki, Ryokan, Issa… The book fits well in your hand when you’re walking to the riverside or the local coffee shop.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ray Zimmerman

    I found the portion on Japanese Zen poets interesting. The text runs from The Priest Mansei to Kobayashi Issa, with extensive selections of work by Issa, Ryokan, Buson, and especially Basho. The section on Chinese poets runs from Lao Tzu to Po Ching, and introduced me to several new works.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Kurt Anderson

    Poetry isn't really my thing, and the alienation is a bit compounded when it's a form and aesthetic that I'm not fully acquainted with. Still, it's a nice little collection. In case you're wondering: - Favorite Poet: Saigyō - Honorable Mention: Ikkyū Sōjun (for pure snark)

  26. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Christopher

    I would not read this book without first having a good knowledge base in Zen or Buddhism in general. It is an enjoyable but sometimes trying read, best taken in small spurts of decided interest.

  27. 4 out of 5

    R.K. Byers

    a couple of really good poems, some crap by Basho and a few things written by people whose names I wouldn't remember if they were tattooed on me.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Dana Jerman

    The forewords and intros to the poems illuminating the period seem to be longer than the works chosen! Still good tho.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Lysergius

    There is something about Japanese and Chinese poetry that survives the translation process and reaches into the heart. This is a compact collection of some of the best poets in the Zen tradition.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Carl Macki

    Very brief though helpful anthology includes Chinese Taoist and Japanese Zen haiku. Translators -- Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton

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