The Poetry of Stonehouse
I don't understand koans and I'm sure I won't reach
satori, but I sure do love the poetry written by Zen
masters and monks. Lately, I've been reading the poetry of a Zen
monk named Stonehouse (translated by Red Pine).
I thought I would just share some of my favorites.
Before I ramble on about Stonehouse's poetry, let me introduce
my background to Zen poetry.
I have often thought a "Zen poem" would be a description of natural
scenes, haunting and beautiful, but perhaps
purposeless, even pointless.
Perhaps that is the actual point of Zen poetry. An attempt to break
a person out of their conventional views. To wake them from their
sleep of illusions into the true reality.
Not one care in mind all year
I find enough joy every day in my hut
and after a meal and a pot of strong tea
I sit on a rock by a pond and count fish
Regardless, in contrast to such lofty goals, the poems of Stonehouse are
quite unpretentious. He abandoned life at the Zen temples in China
to live at the tops of a mountain in a secluded world. Some fellow
monks gave him some paper and asked him to write down his "thoughts."
His "Mountain Poems" are the result.
In reading these poems, I've felt like I was transported to an
unfamiliar world of the life of a monk.
A simple life of solitude and work to survive. Some of his poems are downright
cute and others you'll hear him complain. Many of them even have some point.
The stream is clear enough to see pebbles
my ungabled hut sits among vines
gibbons howl late at night when the moon
few guests get past the moss below the cliffs
bamboos in the yard bend with spring snow
plum trees on the ridge are gnarled by winter nights
the solitude of this path isn't old or new
grinding a brick on a rock is a waste
For example, Poem #15, like many poems from the world of Zen
monks, it begins with an apt description of a natural scene, but
ends with poem-provoking thought. The problem in this example,
is that people in America are unfamiliar with the background.
So allow me to paraphrase the translator's footnote:
A Zen master saw a monk meditating and asked him what he was doing.
He replied that he was trying to become a Buddha. The zen master
then picked up a rock and started rubbing it against a bolder.
The monk asked him what he was doing. The master replied that he
was trying to grind a mirror.
A clean patch of ground after it rains
an ancient pine half-covered with moss
such scenes appear before us all
but how we use them isn't the same
In other words, Buddhism teach that a person needs to end his
suffering by ending desire … a life of "detachment," but isn't a
goal, even the goal of detachment, a desire?
And so, the goal of solitude to become enlightened can't be a
desire. But still he stands like a plum tree on a cliff to be
gnarled by the winter winds.
However, in another of his poems, Stonehouse complains that in trying
to get rid of all thoughts, he struggles with that last thought of
having no thoughts.
My home is secluded far from the world
the moss and woods are thick and the plants perfumed
I can see mountains rain or shine
all day I hear no market noise
I light a few leaves to make tea on my stove
to patch my robe I cut a cloud whisp
lifetimes seldom fill a hundred years
why bother chasing profit or fame
So, let's be honest here. I often read for the joy of escape.
And I guess I just love to read these poems … almost stories
as you can guess as the events or thoughts that provoked
the poem. But I like to read the poems and pretend that I am a
monk living out my days in quiet solitude with little to disturb
my peace. I like to think that my retirement, after I've made
my millions, will be like the poems in his book.
Perhaps I need to stop my desire for millions and
start my retirement earlier.
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