The Life of Itinerant Zen Poet Taneda Santoka

This is the stone, drenched with rain,
that points the way.

~ Taneda Santoka, For All My Walking, 1926-8

Shitodo ni nurete is the expression used in the above poem to convey the image of being completely soaked.

This mortal life is a messy one, it is soiled and wet with fluids of the body, the emotions, and the environment. We often expect awakening to be about the clean and dry part, the holy and sacred part. But awakening is not about some idea of purity, some idea of clean. “Don’t love the sacred,” said Linji, “’Sacred’ itself is an empty name.”

For me, the above verse is about the soiled wetness of life, rich with the awakening that happens in that shitodo ni nurete. The very stone sign that points the way is the one soaked in the muck of existence.

This beautiful poem, free-verse haiku, was written by Taneda Santoka (“Mountain-Peak Fire”; d. 1940), a ne’er-do-well monk-poet, who spent the last two decades of his life wandering Japan, begging for food and money to buy sake. His early life was steeped in tragedy: he lost his father to bankruptcy and his mother and brother to suicide. He was such a worthless drunk that his wife’s family asked him for a divorce, though allowed him to continue working in her small picture-frame shop afterward. After a besotted attempt to end his own life at 44, he ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk, and spent the next 15 years travelling on foot, sleeping in fields, cheap inns, and abandoned sheds.

Even in
my iron begging bowl


There is a sweet and deep sadness to Santoka’s poems. But the monk, like Matsuo Basho nearly three centuries before him, demonstrated that both the observed and the observer in this mortal life cannot be separated in two. That understanding seemed to bring him, at times, some native happiness.

Live alone
and the grasses
are green so green


A few nights ago, I dreamed I was sitting in an old library, the kind of which has wood paneling, high ceilings and green-shaded reading lamps. I was at a wooden table and to my right was an elderly gentleman, who I knew to be a professor, like an Oxford don. He asked me about my views on life, and I responded, “Well, there are two parts.” I went on to explain the first part, which I recall little about, and then the second part, for which I was more animated. I finished the explanation with: “That is called Rationalism.”

He looked quizzically at me, as if to say that is not Rationalism at all. I then realized I had misspoken, and said, “What I meant was, it is Radical Individualism!”

With that, he got up and left. As he was leaving, a warm feeling came over my whole body, in a kind of three-dimensional way. I had a deep sense of native happiness. There was no need to change anything. I was whole and complete, just as I was. I looked at a couple of other people in the library, and I realized that not only did I not want to be like them, I could not be like them. Because they were whole and complete in themselves, and had to be themselves, as well. With that I woke from the dream.

In a sense, even writing the words “native happiness” adds too much of the sacred to the description. Perhaps it is enough to accept, to feel, and to know, just for a moment, that this very life is the stone, drenched in rain, that points the way.