A monk asked Dalong, “The physical body rots away: what is the hard and fast body of reality?” Long said, “Mountain flowers bloom like brocade, Mountain streams are deep as indigo.”
~ The Blue Cliff Record, Case 82

For many thousands of years, humans have used art ~ music, dance, story-telling, ritual ~ to express the most powerful forces of the universe, felt moving through their bodies, hearts and minds. Poetry certainly is one of those expressions. Since it’s earliest days, Chan (Zen) folk have relied heavily on poetry to show the Nature, that which cannot be explained in words. A few evocative phrases, like Dalong’s above, stripped of meaning but electrified with life, may serve as a conduit for the people to more clearly realize that Nature. As such, poetry holds the same power as a stroke of the staff, the sound of a temple bell, or the “who! who!” of an owl in dark night.

Both Chinese and Japanese cultures have long elevated poetry to a spiritual status. In the original Chinese characters, the word itself is woven and interwoven with threads of Zen: The character for poetry 詩 (shi in Japanese) is a compound of the character for word or speaking 言 (iu) and temple 寺 (tera). Ideographically, poem is a “temple of words.”

For me, that temple has taken on greater meaning during the cloistering of this pandemic: poem reading, previously occasional for me, is now frequent. The poetry section of my bookshelf has spilled down onto and spread horizontally along the floor below. With friends, I daily share the well-known Chinese ancients: “The Way that can be grasped is not the true Way/The Word that can be spoken is not the true Word” (Laozu’s Tao Te Ching); the early Chan poets “Who dares to accept not falling into ‘has’ or ‘has not’?/Everyone fully desires to leave the constant changes/When we’ve finished bending and fitting our lives/We return to sit by the charcoal fire.”(Dongshan’s Five Ranks); and later Chan teachers (“The golden duck vanishes into the golden brocade/With a country song the drunk comes home from the woods/Only the young beauty knows of her love affair.” (Yuanwu’s enlightenment poem).

Then there are the Japanese greats: “My dying teacher could not wipe himself/Unlike you disciples who use bamboo/I cleaned his lovely ass with my bare hands.” (Ikkyu Sojun); and “This road!/Where no one is passing/An autumn evening.”(Basho)

Finally, we read together the contemporary New World masters, many of whom are implicitly, if not explicitly, Zen poets: Whitman, Rilke, Machado, Szymborska, Carver. Did I forget a few dozen favorites?

But poetry has no value unless we make it our own. On drinking water, we ourselves must know “whether it is hot or cold.” We must realize our original face; we must bring forth our own heart and mind. In a poem.

So on Monday we will share poems, self and other. We may bring to the campfire our own poems, or a poem that deeply resonates with us. It is in the fire where mountain flowers bloom like brocade and the valley streams brim with indigo. Here the Temple of Words calls to us.