An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again. – Basho (17th c.)
Like every artistic device of Zen, poetry is a finger pointing to here-and-now. It serves to reclaim our wandering minds centered on our egoic importance and challenges, to startle us into the immediacy of life in the present moment. Likewise, it is meant to awaken our intuitive knowing that here-and-now is not only personal and immediate – the range of our senses – it is also transcendent. Here-and-now is eternal, pointing us to the reality that boundaries in time and space are fictional creations of the human mind. We are always both at an intersection of time and space that is the limit of our senses along with the linear computing processor that is the cognitive mind, and we are a center of consciousness in an infinite universe – a circle that has no circumference.
While intuiting infinite time and space is a very advanced meditation, the connectedness of earthly and human experience across time and space only requires a suspension of our immediate ego-centeredness. When we open awareness – some might call it imagination – to realize experiences in the immediate are also universally human, we transcend ourselves. This is a most important dimension to visit with some frequency, to open our compassion and to diminish our small egocentric perspective. It could be said that enlightenment is living in this simultaneity.
In Basho’s poem, written four centuries ago in a land on the other side of the planet, what is not familiar? What is not available to us in our immediate here and now? It opens us to a universal human experience and feeling. It also points us to the larger Universal (cosmological and spiritual) experience, as it resonates for us the eternal silence punctuated by sound returning to silence that is like the bell of the meditation hall. Sound, like all form, is transitory. It initiates, has duration, and disappears. This, in Buddhism is the meaning of emptiness. All form in all the Universe is empty of permanence. And so, as the ancient teaching instructs, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” Basho’s poem points us to what is – always. It points us to the eternal and infinite silence that is the Universe of potential beneath all sound. This simultaneity of form and emptiness is the great awakening that liberates humans from the prison of form-only mentality that is the scaffolding upon which ego-identity is built. We are, in awakened truth, both form and emptiness, our lives are both limited and infinite. “Splash!”
While Basho’s poem is completely immediate, a moment experienced by a human attending to a natural occurrence, it also points us to a deeper contextual insight into life. Likewise, Zen poetry can begin with a deeper abstract lesson and point us to an immediate example that is experience-able through our senses. “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”
Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.
Although its light is wide and great,
The moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.
– Dogen (13th c.)
Eight centuries ago, in that far-off land of Japan, Dogen too captured the Universal in an immediate experience written into poetry. Once again, he speaks to us from a cultural time so foreign we have little we can superficially find in common, yet, when we bring mindfulness, the moon is the moon, the sky is the sky, the dewdrop on a leaf of grass is the dewdrop on a leaf of grass, everywhere and throughout time. A human directing awareness into this moment and finding awakened truth knows no time or place. In a typically Zen fashion, as if answering the esoteric question of a puzzled seeker asking “What is Enlightenment?”, Dogen points to an everyday occurrence that most pay little if any attention to, and if they do it is unlikely that they see the Universe, where micro and macro dimensions reflect each other. Here again, form and emptiness, form having its particular qualities and duration of existence, yet the essence of all form is found in every instance of form, universally. Moon and water, sky and dewdrop intersect reflectively, cosmic and earthly dimensions; water in any quantity holds its universally reflective capacity. The great sea, the lowly puddle, the almost unnoticed dew-drop, all reflect the same vastness. So too, we intersect, earthly and limited, yet reflecting the cosmos in the mystery that is awareness, whether one dewdrop’s worth of humanity or all of sentient life, it matters not. There is only one eternity – within which the many pass. Emptiness is form and form is emptiness. This is enlightenment in any place and time.
We need not be only passive observers and intellectual tourists into these truths. If we are, the point of this poetry is missed. It is meant to awaken us, to resonate like “splash.” The one Universe is you and me every bit as much as Basho and Dogen, as “splash,” as “the moon reflected on the water.” Zen calls us to participate and notice, to stop time and space as dualistic prisons, and open us to time and space as doorways to infinity. All mystics from all cultures knew this. I could just as well have shared poetry from Islam’s Rumi (13th c.)
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.
Or Christianity’s Mechtild of Magdeburg (13th c.)
The day of my spiritual awakening
was the day I saw–and knew I saw–
all things in God, and God in all things.
Without pretense, you too can be a Zen poet. Just take an everyday moment and look deeply into it to see beyond the immediate and what you are accustomed to, beyond and deeper than just you, and time, and place, and people, and nature, just hurrying past, life slipping away. See into it the eternal, the sacred. See Form as emptiness and emptiness as form. You too can be a Zen poet.
Sitting on a bench, shaded by trees.
Air currents circle the world making this breeze.
Sun and blue sky, clouds, grass around.
Beneath my feet
the earth is worn from sitters past.
I breathe Dogen’s breath –
carrying a bird’s song.
The Universe opens; we are not alone and small. All time, space and sentient life is here-and-now.