Lines of Light—The Poetry of Zen

This article explores some of the teachings of Zen, through examining a few short examples of the poetry of Zen, or poems inspired by the Zen spirit.

Zen is a development of Buddhism that flourished in China from about the seventh century CE and later spread to Japan where it has become a potent influence in the religious, aesthetic and ethical life. It is one of the great paths to enlightenment, because its practice leads to our awakening to a deeper reality which transcends the limitations of this world.

These limitations are not just the material boundaries and the fact that our stay in this world is temporary, and that we all have to leave it one day. The limitations are also, perhaps chiefly, in the inner world of our mind. It is our ordinary way of thinking, driven by likes and dislikes, desires and fears, that closes us in, and prevents us from realising the freedom and peace of ultimate reality. The seeker in Zen, as in the Yoga of Self-knowledge, seeks a way that is free from suffering, that brings expansion of consciousness and leads to bliss.

The methods of Zen are essentially introvertive. They involve meditation. Zen sanctions and encourages long periods of meditation, and one kind of meditation unique to Zen is the meditation on prescribed themes known as ‘koans’. In Yoga, texts are used that point to the deeper reality as our true Self, and the statements prescribed have the support of the philosophical system known as Advaita Vedanta, and can be logically explained—to some extent—in the light of the tenets of that philosophy. The koans of Zen have a different character. They are also in the form of sentences, sometimes questions, sometimes short accounts of interchanges between teacher and pupil or brief exchanges between Zen masters. But such themes for reflection are more like riddles and most of them appear initially baffling and illogical.

What does the teacher who prescribes the koan expect from the pupil? An interpretation based on the intellect? Not at all. What is sought is a sign that the candidate or student has grasped the inner meaning of the koan. Alternatively—or simultaneously—the koan is intended to lead the meditator into such a mental state of intensified awareness that we forget the koan completely and grasp something of our own depth and meaning. The koans are offered not to generate more thoughts, but that thought itself may be silenced and reveal what underlies it.

Possibly the most well-known koan is the one given by the eighteenth century master, Hakuin:

You have heard the sound of two hands clapping. Now show me the sound of one hand.

Is this related to silence? Facile deductions are of no use. Light comes when the koan becomes one’s main concern, when our mind cannot leave it alone—when we live it. Another koan is:

Show me your original face—the face you had before your parents were born.

Is this related to our true Self? The koan is not to be explained by evoking a philosophical idea. It has to be ‘gone into’ as if nothing else matters in life.

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This article is from the Spring 2018 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.