Zen and poetry

Art and religion have always been close companions. My own Zen lineage comes through Japan where Zen and art seem nearly inseparable. I’m personally interested in the relationship between art and religion because I’ve been writing a lot – mostly poetry. This has gotten me thinking about how writing and Zen feel both similar and different.

For example, Zen and writing feel very different when it comes to working with feelings. Zen teaches how to release feelings, not stick or cling to them. Poetry sets up housekeeping in feelings. There’s tension between these two practices, but also complementarity. Zen practice gets one-sided and leans in the direction of dodging difficult feelings and writing can get bogged down in them. I think the two practices help balance each other.

Sometimes in meditation retreats, my mind enters a creative zone where unusually rich images and connections surface. It’s like taking an elevator through states of consciousness: “First floor, random thoughts. Second floor, to-do lists. Third floor, things I’m upset about. Fourth floor, poetry.” The challenge is to keep moving, not linger there – that’s not what the meditation retreat’s for. But that domain remains available, a place to explore, understand, resolve, and finally express important material in writing.

From another perspective, there’s no separation at all between writing and practice. Because practice affects my life completely, every poem I write is a Zen poem even though I don’t write about “Buddhist” topics or in “Zen” style. I write about my life: about my grandchildren, about my mother’s death, about marriage, about a dream, about a small moment or thing that sparks something deep.

In this context, I especially appreciate poems that offer a taste of Zen without trying to sound Zen-like. Zen students have a tendency to write in an abbreviated, cryptic style, or to stick to haiku. I’m always delighted when I find poetry with a Zen heart written in idiomatic English. A poem that expresses what it’s like to be a human being in a way that nourishes and expands my own practice and understanding.

One of my favorites is a poem by Billy Collins, which happens to be titled “Japan” and happens to be about appreciating a haiku.

by Billy Collins

Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.

It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again.

I walk through the house reciting it
and leave its letters falling
through the air of every room.

I stand by the big silence of the piano and say it.
I say it in front of a painting of the sea.
I tap out its rhythm on an empty shelf.

I listen to myself saying it,
then I say it without listening,
then I hear it without saying it.

And when the dog looks up at me,
I kneel down on the floor
and whisper it into each of his long white ears.

It’s the one about the one-ton
temple bell
with the moth sleeping on its surface,

and every time I say it, I feel the excruciating
pressure of the moth
on the surface of the iron bell.

When I say it at the window,
the bell is the world
and I am the moth resting there.

When I say it into the mirror,
I am the heavy bell
and the moth is life with its papery wings.

And later, when I say it to you in the dark,
you are the bell,
and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you,

and the moth has flown
from its line
and moves like a hinge in the air above our bed.