Stories and Poems of the Zen Masters (& me)

Zen Buddhism is a Japanese blend of traditional Buddhism and Taoism which takes the “religion of no-religion” to a new extreme.  Rebelling against all traditional symbols, rituals, and texts of the Buddhists, Zen shares its wisdom through stories and poems, the famous koan or Zen riddle, and above all direct heart to heart revelation.  To the Zen masters, the esoteric paraphernalia of their father religions was extra baggage which further confused humanity’s quest for liberation by seeding dogma in their adherents.  These rebels saw enlightenment latent in the nature of life and thus pointed to it directly.  (Thus the old Zen axiom, “Don’t look at my finger, look at the moon!”)

They would laugh at the idea of learning about a forest in a text book, for example.  “You learn about trees by making them into pulp and defacing them?” they would say.  “Go and marvel at the willows!”  By enveloping the subject into the object, the Zen masters solved a very distressing epistemological problem: how do you know that which is other than you?  “By dancing with it,” they would say, for with participation comes unity, and with unity comes understanding. Thus the common phrase of “being in zen”: when acting without prejudice or distracting thoughts, totally enraptured by your surroundings, amazing grace and precision can go into any task.  I think this philosophy sheds a brilliant new light on modern alienation, and transcends all esoterica.  Throwing out the tradition of using symbolic mediums to teach about the spirit was the true revolution of these great thinkers.

Statues and crosses, after all, are merely fabrications.  They are products imposed on matter by the human mind, and too often they spur the decay of religions into arbitrary, systematic traditions that confound seekers of truth.  What truly satiates the soul are revelations felt to the depths of one’s being, free of dogma and idolatry.  The stone and wood from which crosses and statues are carved is far more God-like in its original, unaltered state.  Each raw stone holds more religious insight than any pentagram or crucifix.  Like the ancient waters it has followed its path without complaint or resistance since the earth was conceived, and its adherence to the laws of nature is perfect.  It tells no lies, it knows no corruption, and it is a flawless mirror of the whole cosmos.  Rugged yet gentle.  Firm and yet yielding to the elements.  Its contours aligning with all its surroundings, since it has been in unbroken concert with them since the beginning of time–the whole of the universe conspiring in its formation, and in its formation the whole of the universe.  So it is throughout nature.    The wind throwing about apple blossoms, a herd of teeny white bugs leaping through the grass, spring water trickling down a cracked rock face… all communicate their totality perfectly and genuinely.

The medium of religious symbols takes years to master, thus necessitating the “inner circle” mentality which creates religious (and ultimately social) hierarchy.  But Zen is truly medicine for the people.  Inherent in its philosophy is the belief that all living things are at once free and interdependent.  This is a paradox resolved by realizing that we are all manifestations of the same energy.  While freedom from something means lack of attachment something, you can’t detach yourself from that-which-detaches, your most essential self, which is spirit.  So by embracing the all-pervasive life force you attain both essential freedom of utilizing that energy and knowledge of your ultimate dependence upon its breath.  This is why Zen stresses anarchistic equality, and holds the heart of any being as the ultimate moral compass: if all is one and one is all, how could one stand above another?  By far it is the most appropriate method of enlightenment for those interested in primitivism, and quite possibly the most succinct way of expounding on the spirit ever devised on this earth.  That is, apart from silence and bird songs.

This short anthology will begin with two famous Zen stories.  These stories are meant to be meditated on, and their significance will blossom and bloom through your every-day experience.  If you hold them in your mind, their gifts will reveal themselves again and again in your life.  Just trust me.  After those, a collection of some timeless Zen poems with brief biographies of their authors.  As for these, don’t chew them too hard or you won’t get the juice.  And finally, a few stories and poems which I wrote myself.  Enjoy them, and enjoy the day for chris’sake.

The Last Poem of Hoshin

The Zen Master Hoshin lived in China many years. Then he returned to the northeastern part of Japan, where he taught his disciples. When he was getting very old, he told them a story he had heard in China. This is the story:

One year on the twenty-fifth of December, Tokufu, who was very old, said to his disciples: “I am not going to be alive next year so you fellows should treat me well this year.”
The pupils thought he was joking, but since he was a great-hearted teacher each of them in turn treated him to a feast on succeeding days of the departing year.
On the eve of the new year, Tokufu concluded: “You have been good to me. I shall leave tomorrow afternoon when the snow has stopped.”
The disciples laughed, thinking he was aging and talking nonsense since the night was clear and without snow. But at midnight snow began to fall, and the next day they did not find their teacher about. They went to the meditation hall. There he had passed on.

Hoshin, who related this story, told his disciples: “It is not necessary for a Zen master to predict his passing, but if he really wishes to do so, he can.”
“Can you?” someone asked.
“Yes,” answered Hoshin. “I will show you what I can do seven days from now.”
None of the disciples believed him, and most of them had even forgotten the conversation when Hoshin called them together.
“Seven days ago,” he remarked, “I said I was going to leave you. It is customary to write a farewell poem, but I am neither a poet or a calligrapher. Let one of you inscribe my last words.”
His followers thought he was joking, but one of them started to write.
“Are you ready?” Hoshin asked.
“Yes sir,” replied the writer.
Then Hoshin dictated:

I came from brillancy
And return to brillancy.
What is this?

This line was one line short of the customary four, so the disciple said: “Master, we are one line short.”
Hoshin, with the roar of a conquering lion, shouted “Kaa!” and was gone.

No Water, No Moon!

When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free! In commemoration, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about
to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!

Classic Zen Poems


This seventeenth century Edo poet was a master of the haiku.  Although praised among Japan’s poetry elite, towards the end of his life he grew withdrawn and reclusive until adopting the practice of karumi, or lightness, in which you meet the mundane world with open arms.  His poetry reflects the many moods of nature, from the silly to the poignant.  The first poem below is considered his farewell poem, expressing the continuing journey of his spirit after death, and the common bond of passing on which all living things share.

Falling sick on a journey
my dream goes wandering
over a field of dried grass.


Summer grasses:
all that remains of great soldiers’
imperial dreams


Along the roadside,
blossoming wild roses
in my horse’s mouth


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


Ikkyu was the original beatnik.  He worked to live Zen outside of any organized institution, believing that life itself is the great tradition and teacher instead of any idol dedicated to it, as reflected in the poem below.  In his later years he was a vagabond, often drinking in excess and appalling the intelligencia with his brash attitude.  Bless him.

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.


Ryokan is my favorite Zen poet.  He lived most of his life as a hermit and wrote some of the most magnificent verse ever about simple pleasures and natural beauty.  Like all the best Zen poems, these speak for themselves, directly to the heart.

The thief
left it behind–
the moon at the window


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
Are exhausted
I slip into the woods
And gather
A pile of shepherd’s purse.


Stretched out,
Under the vast sky:
Splendid dreams
Beneath the cherry blossoms.


My legacy —
What will it be?
Flowers in spring,
The cuckoo in summer,
And the crimson maples
Of autumn…

Dayang Jingxuan

A 10th century poet.  I think this poem expresses wonderfully the full circle of enlightenment.  The Druids held the oak tree sacred, in part because it can withstand lightning strikes.  This metaphor for withstanding the blast of spiritual enlightenment while staying firmly rooted in the world is the essence of this poem.  At the end of the day, although we may fly on the eternal wings of spirit, we always must land here and now, in the home of our bodies, in our home of the beautiful earth.

In the past, when I began to study Zen,
it was all a mistake.

Wandering through numberless
mountains and rivers,
I wanted to find
something to know.

(It’s all clear in hindsight.)

It is hard to understand it
because talk about “no-mind”
just brings more confusion.

The teacher has pointed out
the ancient mirror
and I see in it
the time before I was born of my parents.

Having learned this,
what do I have?

Release a crow into the night
and it flies
flecked with snow.


Founder of the Soto school of Zen, he was often critical of the dogmatic teaches he found both in China and his homeland of Japan.

To what shall
I liken the world?
Moonlight, reflected
In dewdrops.
Shaken from a crane’s bill.


Treading along in this dreamlike, illusory realm,
Without looking for the traces I may have left;
A cuckoo’s song beckons me to return home;
Hearing this, I tilt my head to see
Who has told me to turn back;
But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.

My Zen Stories and Poems

The Butterfly Catcher

The Butterfly Catcher set out one spring to catch a legendary butterfly, each wing as big as your hands and a blue so pure that you can’t even see it when it flies against the sky.
After days of silent waiting, the Butterfly Catcher spotted his target.  He chased it for many weeks more, across furious rapids, up treacherous mountainsides, through dense, tangled forests.  But he was always a step behind.  Every life-threatening peril that he had to navigate with the utmost courage and care, the butterfly merely sailed over serenely like a flute’s song riding the wind.
Finally he caught up to it in a meadow.  He tried to creep up on it but grew impatient and lunged forward.  The butterfly flew up immediately and burst into a swift, spasmodic flutter.  Swinging his net after it wildly, trying to out-maneuver its aerial acrobatics, he wasn’t watching where he was going and ran right into a fencepost.
When he recomposed himself and caught his wind, he saw that the butterfly was just out of reach on the other side of the fence.  A sign on the fencepost read, “Trespassers Beware,” and he could see smoke rising from a nearby chimney.
The Butterfly Catcher was befuddled.  He had risked life and limb crossing uncrossable rivers and climbing unclimbable mountains but now one rickety fence was holding him back from his prize.  He sat before the barrier for many hours, contemplating its magic until the moon rose high above them.  The butterfly shone in its light just out of his reach, lifting its wings suddenly and then lowering them, as if surprised and then at ease, the way that butterflies do.
Finally the Butterfly Catcher let out a great big laugh at which the butterfly whisked off in a clumsy whirlwind.  He danced to his feet gracefully and set his net across the fence.  “You,” he said to it, “are the true Butterfly Catcher.”
“And I,” he said aloud to himself, walking back across the meadow into the settling mist, “am an octopus climbing up a mountain.”

How Big is the Ocean?

A wise man and his friend came to the coastline of the Pacific.

“My god,” said one of them, “I’ve stood atop a lonely mountain and seen the ends of the earth fade into the sky.  I’ve stood on a hilltop in the plains and seen grasslands that stretch to the stars.  I’ve watched clouds live their lives in the endless heavens where the sun and moon dwell.  But of all these sights nothing fills me with wonder like the tremendous breadth of the ocean.  I hear it wraps around the whole world and has no beginning or end, and its depths could swallow every mountain.  How big do you think it is?”

The other walked down to the shore and scooped up a little pool of water in his palm.  He smeared it across his hand with his fingers until it disappeared.  “How big do you think it is?” he asked.

My Zen Pomes

I go to the store
people say, what are you doing?
I say,
Being incognito.

I go to the river
a toad croaks,
Hey, who are you?  I say,
I am incognito.

My parents fawned over newborn me
and wrapped me in a blanket named Jasper,
all the while knowing my cries
came from old man Incognito.

I sat on a moss-covered stump
and gave it a wink that let me know:
I, too, was Incognito.

On my grandson’s death bed
I’ll peak from behind the mountain ranges
underneath his sheets and say…

Psst, incognito!
I hope he laughs.


A grain of sand
cannot be torn
from the ocean.

A root
cannot be ripped
from the earth.


Ever sip of tea
reflects me
and the moon above
until it is gone.


Sun and moon, everything
returns.  My heart is clear as night
and warm as the day.


I am like dust
in the ocean.
Dust, darling.

Hazel eyes,
and sunlit hands,
my love.


Self Portrait

Squirrel on a fallen
log fresh with snow.  “Yip!” he calls
into the forest—



Pepe hurt his back.
Hunched over so low, he could
always smell the flowers.


Nothing but nothing never changes.


Fallen leaves
feed the roots.

What is death,
an acorn?


Every drop of dew
reflects the whole horizon


Mulling o’r the wind,
I come to no conclusions.
Mountains, dust, pining…


I declare the whole
world a church!  The changing sky
its stained glass, the rivers

its frescos.  Bearded
tree steeples, sermons of thunder
and laughter!


When I became immortal
I saw wild horses.
It was like realizing
the sun is not extinguished
when it sets into the sea.


Scattering the Dandelion Downy

The seeds find their way,
searching with the gentle wind.
I turn and walk away.


The Moon

The moon was kind,
that lit softly my pathway
through the fields.

The moon was cruel.
It was full again.

I spoke to it in coughs.


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