John Martone, USA


The Way of Poetry

—for Jeremy Seligson

A talk given June 2nd 2007 at vincent tripi’s haiku circle gathering in Northfield, MA. Members of the audience were given copies of a commonplace book, which provided the quotations upon which I commented.—John Martone


When vince asked me to talk about poetry and meditation, my first thought was, how natural. After all, in my experience, the two have been inseparably linked, as they are in the lives of many poets I know. Meditation is important to almost all of those I think of as my poetic ancestors and teachers—Saigyo, Basho, Issa, and Cid Corman.

As I thought more about the subject, it seemed to me that when we talk about meditation we often have in mind a technique of one sort or another— vipassana, or Zen, for example, but apart from the context of Buddha’s eight-fold path, technique is finally something shallow and not very interesting. You can say the same about the writing of poetry. As a technique for using language—parsing syllables into units of 5/7/5—it is very shallow and uninteresting, a diversion for distracted lives. But, as Cid Corman said, poetry is life, and you cannot find poetry outside of our constant living-dying.

In time I came to see that the connection of poetry to meditation is the connection of both to our living/dying. Together they comprise a path, kado, the Way of poetry, as Basho understood. Today I would like to explore with you this harmony of the Buddhist eight-fold path and the way of the poet.

The eight steps of the Buddhist path are: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation. As in so much Buddhist thinking, the steps make a circle: we begin with right views, but we only fully grasp them at the end, as the goal. Similarly the final steps, right mindfulness and right meditation, are also a starting point. In fact we can say that each step of the path is implicated in all the others. For this reason, my own discussion of the eightfold-path and the Way of Poetry, sometimes conflates several steps or may jump now and then from one to another.



So, let us begin with outlook: What does Right View mean for the poet?

Poetry is not just “something we do,” something we take up and set aside as we wish, the practice of a technique. Again, as Cid Corman said, it is Life, and one cannot work at poetry apart from working at life. As Basho said, “To make a poem about the pine, study the pine. Become the pine.” In his letters, Cid stressed that if one worked at one’s life, the poem would come of its own. Here is a great secret: the poem comes of its own, only after you’ve thrown yourself away. Throwing yourself away sounds a bit crazy; after all, we’ve be taught to regard and prize ourselves as individuals with important feelings to express. But in poetry, such self-regard is what Olson famously called the “interference of the lyrical ego.” You could also call it the vanity of self-expression; and that vanity is a great obstacle to seeing the world. You have to throw it away; and when you do you realize the truth of what Buddhism calls anatta—the absence of any permanent, abiding self. Right view for the poet coincides with this important Buddhist insight.

As soon as we throw away our vanity we make ourselves “outsiders” in the eyes of the respectable world. It’s no coincidence that poets of the Way are often seen as crazy—for after all they’ve thrown themselves away, into life without compromise, and there’s no room left for tidy and false masks. The history of Chinese poetry is full of strange characters such as Han Shan and Shih Te, and Japanese poetry has been populated by odd wanderers from the time of Saigyo, such as Basho, Ryokan, Hosai Ozaki, Santoka Taneda, and in our own time Nanao Sakaki, who has walked around the world! American poetry boasts hobo Whitman as its greatest master, but we also have tricksters and haiku dharma bums like Bob Kaufman, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg (think especially of his cross-country trip The Fall of America) and outright crooks like Gregory Corso and Ray Bremser. The Way of Poetry is not a weekend pursuit. It is not a hobby! Following this Way makes a much deeper mark upon the individual poet than she or he will likely make upon the Way. And in the end (here’s another Buddhist truth important for poets) there’s impermanence. For all that schoolbook illusory nonsense about poetic “immortality” (and poets are responsible for their share of this nonsense) the fact is that poetry, especially in America today, is the express lane to oblivion.

Oblivion, though, has at least two sides. By giving up the illusion of an abiding self, we come to see, to experience that interdependence we read about in the Avatamsaka sutra, or in the biologist E.O. Wilson’s books. Instead of seeing ourselves as atomized individuals, we enter a web of relation catching up every moment. Wilson writes: Organisms are all the more remarkable in combination. Pull out the flower from its crannied retreat, shake the soil from the roots into the cupped hand, magnify it for close examination. The black earth is alive with a riot of algae, fungi nematodes, mites, springtails, enchytraeid worms, thousands of species of bacteria. The handful may be only a tiny fragment of one ecosystem, but because of the genetic codes of its residents it holds more order than can be found on the surfaces of all the planets combined. It is a sample of the living force that runs the earth—and will continue to do so with or without us (345).

This view of nature replaces our former self-regard and vanity. In China and Japan, there are deep affinities between Buddhist practice and indigenous nature religions, Daoism and Shinto. One thinks right away of the Tang dynasty poets Wang Wei and Han Shan, among many others, for whom the pursuit of the Way meant a harmonious fusion of Dharma and Dao:

I see Tientai summit
rising high above the crowd
the rhyme of pines and bamboo in the wind
the rhythm of the tide in the moonlight
I see the mountain’s green reach below
white clouds discussing the unseen
wilderness means mountains and water
I’ve always loved friends of the Way
(Red Pine 191)

Nature’s “discussion” is no simple figure of speech for Han Shan, nor is language an exclusively human prerogative. If we are interconnected, then in some fashion we communicate. DNA and Mendeleevian periodic table are dialects of this language, but there is more. Here are the insights of two writers who have listened to other creatures: Humans, animals, snakes, birds, insects—all shared a common language. By means of this language all were able to express their thoughts and feelings freely on matters of mutual interest. From out of divinely bestowed wisdom, they could reason together for the common good, the common happiness, and the common fun. Evidently this was so simple and natural a part of everyday life as not to need explaining any more than breathing. However one may regard this ancient relationship phenomena, there is evidence that at one time on earth every living thing was able to be in rational correspondence with everything else. Human and animals moved in full accord not only with one another but with the cosmic Plan as well.” —John Allen Boone (9)

“Thus it appears that the psyche of man, however complicated—our perception, thoughts, memory—all this is only a specialized development of an information system that already exists on a rudimentary level in plant cells.” —Marta Williams quoting Venyamin Pushkin (28)

With its Cartesian outlook, Western insights such as these have until recently come almost exclusively from poets, or from 19th Century Natural Theology. Still we have the occasional scientist such as George Washington Carver. You have the habit of talking to a little flower or to a peanut and making it give up its secrets to you,” remarked Jim. “How do you do it?” “You have to love it enough,” said Dr. Carver. “Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough . . . ( Clark 22)

The countries of the Pacific Rim have always been more sensitive to this kind of communication, and in Japan the term Shugendo refers specifically to the fusion of Buddhism and Shinto. We find many places where nature speaks the dharma. We might begin with the George Tanabe’s description of the medieval Japanese monk Myoe: The sight of birds and dogs made him [Myoe] wonder if they might not be his parents reborn; and once, having stepped over a puppy and feeling as if he had crossed over his mother or father, he stepped back over it to undo the insult and prayed for its forgiveness. The sobriety of the boy dominated his every reasoning about his parents: if they were reborn in hell, how could he laugh or play in good conscience? And if they were reborn in better paths, it would be embarrassing if they saw him cavorting with abandon. Therefore, “he did not laugh or play.” (51-52).

In the 19th century we have Issa’s Year of My Life (72): Frogs are reputed to have taught an ancient Chinese Hermit how to fly, and here in Japan they say that frogs once fought a brave battle at Tem’noji, but these are tales of long ago, and it would seem that today, at least, the frogs have patched up their differences with mankind and settled down to live at peace with the world. For instance, all I need do is spread my mat on the ground of a summer evening and say, “Come out, Happy! Come out, my dear!” and out of the bush crawls a large frog and sits down with me to enjoy the cool evening air. Now there shines the soul of a true poet! I consider it the crowning glory of their race that it was a frog who was chosen judge in Mushi Awase (Poetry competition of the Insects) as related by Choshoshi.

Today we have the insights of two Korean teachers. The first of these, DaeHaeng Sunim, founder of the HanMaUm order, led a remarkable life. During the Japanese occupation, she was forced as ten-year-old to flee her home and live for some five years in the wilderness, at the mercy of an often harsh Korean nature for both food and companionship. It was in this radical experience of nature that she discovered the dharma de novo, outside of the pagoda, without sutra study or even literacy. I never attempted to choose any particular person for my teacher. All beings and things were my unforgettable teachers. Wild animals, birds, a clump of grass, and even a stone kicked underfoot were all my teachers, and they gave me innumerable teachings. I have gained a comprehension of truth from minute matters rather than from Buddhist texts or sitting meditation. I learned the laws of cause and effect while picking a frost covered pepper in a field, and I realized how Mind works through my conversations with trees and grass as well as with tiny insects. Above all the supreme leaders who led me was my inner foundation, Juingong [Buddha nature.] And all the sentient beings, who laugh when they are happy and cry when they are sad and who are blind with their eyes open, were also my teachers. Had it not been for them, how could I have realized the principle that the Buddha and all sentient beings are not separate? —(DaeHaeng 33)

Here is SongChol:

The Buddha Sakyamuni isn’t the only one to have given Dharma talks. Everything throughout the universes always speaks the Dharma. Even the huge boulders atop the mountains give Dharma talks hundreds of times greater than the Buddhas in their temples. You’re probably asking how rocks, boulders and clumps of mud could give Dharma talks. But if you come to understand Buddhism, you’ll realise that you should listen to the Dharma talks that the boulders are always giving, albeit not in what we know as spoken language. And the boulders aren’t the only ones giving Dharma talks. Even the formless, shapeless invisible void gives an eternal Dharma talk. Once you understand this, you’ll realise that here isn’t a thing anywhere that isn’t giving dharma talks or performing Buddhist rituals. Really, once you open up the eye of the heart, you’re not just opening the eye—you’re opening the ear of the heart. And then you can hear the Dharma talks that the boulders are giving. That is what we call Dharma talks by the inanimate.

A striking feature of Korean Buddhism in the twentieth century is this pattern of discovering the dharma in a radical encounter with nature. Like DaeHaeng, the founder of a popular “new religion” Won Buddhism, discovered Buddhism not through the sutras but through an encounter with the natural world.

I should also mention here two radical twentieth century Japanese poets, Hosai Ozaki and Santoka Taneda—both wanderers, for both of whom the dharma can be found in ordinary natural things:

Being poor with a row of potted plants (118)

in the mountains
all day long the ants also
coming along (57)

What are the boundaries of the human organism? Do they include the gut’s bacteria and eyebrow’s mites? The milk that gives the calcium that thickens the bones? The air that is a tree’s bequest? Wherever we look there are portals, requiring passaporti and translation; and if nucleic acids and periodic table provide the Ur-grammar, it can only be out of vanity that we privilege human language, instead of seeing it as a marvelous dialect, but dialect nevertheless.

Poetry is human language at the portal, in communion with Language. That other humans read our words is fine, but coincidental and almost beside the point. Soon enough, a poem written in stone erodes until its letters reveal no more than random scratches, but one can say here is where they are the most meaningful. The scratches reveal a stone rising to speech and speech fading to stone. These were the scratches that oracle bone seers of Shang dynasty China read. It is the language of charm, spell, and mantram, all seed syllable.



These steps of the poet’s Way show us how the dharma is put into everyday practice. By right speech, I mean an understanding of the nature of language (which I’ll call kotodama), by right action, an understanding of craft, and by right livelihood just that: our lives as we live them.



“In Japan, it is said that words of the soul reside in a spirit called kotodama or the spirit of words, and the act of speaking words has the power to change the world.” –Masaru Emoto, The Hidden Messages in Water (xxvi)

As poets, we know that words are powerful. Words can move people; words can persuade people to act and think differently. Words can change people and thereby the world. We have political poetry. We call all of these rhetorical uses of language, and they kin to most language of everyday life. Emoto, though, means something quite different by kotodama. Here, we have language at its roots, where it is closest to exclamation, cry, music and medicine. In Shinto and Buddhist contexts, as Motohisa Yamakage notes: [T]he power of kotodama is more than simply that of physical matter. This mysterious power cleanses the bad vibrations of malice and poison (magatsuhi) in the body. It is the source of spiritual energy, and sometimes even the inspiration that unleashes the power of spiritual healing (140).

This is language as spell and charm. Although for Motohisa Yamakage, it is bound up with esoteric (Shinto) Buddhism’s use of bija or seed-syllables, we are all familiar with Western counterparts, beginning with the Bible’s conception of naming as making, as we see in Genesis. George Tanabe finds something very similar at work in Myoe’s thinking: Language. . . is an “object” that can be seen, heard, and more significantly, can form the very basis of thought itself. As a perceivable object, language is like other objects and can be found in nature, which can itself therefore be “read.” Having established the correspondence between language and the natural world, Myoe goes on to link language with the metaphysical world of truth and the Buddha’s reality. Language can describe the ordinary world as well as extraordinary truth because there is an organic, almost physical, correspondence not only between things and words, but between words and ultimate reality (139).

In his classic book on Shinto, J.W.T. Mason made the point I want to stress here about the power of language and its connection to poetry: The Hokku . . . and Tanka[‘s] . . . brevity of versification makes analytical efforts by the writers impossible. No similar forms of poetry exist in other cultures, just as no other culture has the spiritual concepts (148).

Buddhists who follow the Pure Land teachings (Jodo Shinshu in Japan), believe that calling on Amida Buddha’s name brings escape from the endless round of birth and death and rebirth in the Buddha’s realm of enlightenment. Thanks to David Lanoue (whose translations of Issa I use throughout this talk), we can now appreciate the depth Shin Buddhism and its understanding of language informs Issa’s poetry. Issa’s image of this world is a revelation of the Pure Land. The nembutsu or prayer to Amida Buddha is the primal poem, and he hears it all around him. (His joy in this is proverbial. As Harold Stewart pointed out: “The Nembutsu is so perfectly simple that a child can memorize it in a few moments, and according to the Japanese, a baby’s first words are: “Dabu, Dabu,” or Amida’s Name!”) Many who relish Issa’s innocent delight in the natural world don’t know that he is actually singing of Buddhist heaven!

namu namu to kuchi wo aketaru kawazu kana

praising Buddha
mouths gaping wide . . .

oku ezo ya buppô wataru hana mo saku

spreading as far
as Hokkaido . . .
Buddha’s law and blossoms

To use language in this way is hardly just to put words on the page; it is to enter a different world of language. For Cid Corman, as for Basho and Issa, it means the Way of poetry is a faith in the religious sense.

It comes to this sense, which may be a non-sense – in the sense of any meaning that can be stated as such, that poetry is the last faith. Stevens might have chimed in “the supreme fiction” (implying “reality”) but we have undergone too much of the notion of “supremacy” to accept this. And faith as “fiction” merely tells us that any faith we abide by is and has to be of our own making/doing.

Poetry then–as always–is religion. And if religion is anything– it is poetry. Unequivocally so. “In the beginning was the Word” (Logos – Memra). And poetry – as anyone knows who tastes of it – is the Word made flesh – as the prophets were, as Chuang-chou was, a Jesus and Gautama, as Tu Fu and Li Po, as Dante, as Shakespeare, as Leopardi, as Holderlin, as Kafka, and others were an – more to the point of us – are.

“A man can receive nothing but what is given him.” “He must increase, but I decrease.” “I am the bread of life.”

It isn’t a church or dogma, yet it recognizes how a structure can stand in and house faith; it recognizes the imperatives of community founded in the disciplines of an aware conjunction – meaning dance or song or music or any other work felt as work of the spirit – which the word “art” doesn’t fully render.

This is where we are now at and it is incumbent on us to realize where we are (1).



It is hard for us Americans to talk about craft in the absence of a deep craft tradition, such as we find in countries like Japan. America grew up with and is very much a product of the industrial revolution, and with builders and makers like Sam Colt and Henry Ford, who gave us replaceable parts and assembly lines. Mass production, templates, and the conformism they instill, are so deeply ingrained in American culture that we scarcely notice them. Still, their influence is everywhere: in the worst of American poetry it is the formulaic poem, the imitation of British Romanticism or, for that matter, this week’s top ten hit songs, pop or country.

What needs to be recognized is that there can be no craft without a corresponding notion of LIFE. Finally, we practice our craft upon ourselves. As Bob Lax said, “Heartwork and artwork take a whole lifetime” (Georgioux, 248). Here we have, then, the poetics of Nanao Sakaki and Frank Samperi’s outlook—

If you have time to chatter
Read books
If you have time to read
Walk into mountain, desert and ocean
If you have time to walk
Sing songs and dance
If you have time to dance
Sit quietly, You Happy Lucky Idiot

It is true that my withdrawal from the literary world is complete, but withdrawal can only mean desire of fame (vanity)—writing is not pride: to write for Humanity God the Subject alters every sense of the writer as personality: therefore, it is not the writer’s job to seek out the latest innovation of the day—the principles of craft are perennial; he has ancient teachers, and with them he silently converses (104).

Asked to define “haiku” most people start with a formula—”a three-line poem of 5,7,5 syllables.” That might be music to Henry Ford’s ears, but we’d all agree that this “definition” really tells us nothing very much about haiku.

First of all, “syllable” means something quite different in Japanese (which has both long and short syllables) than English, a language which an accentual metrics, the basis of which is the two syllable foot. Unfortunately, much of what passes for haiku is often mechanical, mass produced in this way–pale imitation of verse formulas instead of the pursuit of the Way (of Poetry).

Our preoccupation with formulas makes it hard for us to see what is clearly more important – the encounter with nature; and I emphasize the terms equally – an encounter with nature. We find nature in the kigo or season word, of course, but the encounter, is harder to articulate–“haiku moment” is a common and inadequate term. Haiku matters not because of its arrangement of syllables but because it is the catalyst–or better enzyme–of a momentary experience. It is the first and last trace of life. We could do much for poetry by beginning our descriptions of haiku this way.

Here I anticipate myself, but craft, whether of poetry or daily life, has much to do with mindfulness, another step on the path. The Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, has given us a wonderful collection of gathas that his teacher used for teaching mindfulness to novices. In the world of the Vietnamese pagoda, the moment is a poem to be read and written in its passing. Each day’s every breath can be a poem, but here are four that Nhat Hanh offers:

Taking the First Steps of the Day

Walking on the Earth
is a miracle!
Each mindful step
reveals the wondrous Dharmakaya!


Washing Your Hands

Water flows over these hands.
May I use them skillfully
to preserve our precious planet.


Brushing Your Teeth

Brushing my teeth and rinsing my mouth,
I vow to speak purely and lovingly.
When my mouth is fragrant with right speech,
a flower blooms in the garden of my heart.


Serving Food

In this food,
I see clearly
the entire universe
supporting my existence.
(Nhat Hanh 4, 5, 10)

We live in a world that more and more devalues our doing things for ourselves. Perhaps we are most struck by this when we realize we do not understand our own tools, that we are “creatures of our creations,” as Goethe wrote in Faust. Once we made pens. Once we were at least able to replace typewriter spools and fix springs; but now, when our computer crashes we are lost. You could argue that our consumer economy wants it so.

Let me suggest that poetry matters at every step of its making. The materials and tools we use make a difference. There was (and still is) the work done by hand, the manu (from manus, hand) script (from scriptus, writing). There is, as Pound observed, “the verse that print bred.” There’s also McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.” My argument here, when we are as bombarded with new media as with new content, is that we be conscious of how we choose our materials, and that new does not mean necessary or compulsory.

One can display or advertise ceramics on line, but one can’t hold them in hand there. No one would argue that Cezanne online is not Cezanne in the flesh. I think a similar argument can be made for poetry. As we enter an age in which hand-held, hand-made page of poetry read by natural light becomes rarer and rarer. Only a few years ago, many had only enthusiasm for the Internet. Today it is a glut, a morass, of bad writing. and for commercial “mass market” reasons that drive all American civilization; it will turn books into objects d’art.

A world without books–without hand/writing or manu/script would be a world without poets and in any important sense an inhuman one; but the new world offers new opportunities that only we outsiders can appreciate. This is time not for haiku to go online, but for it to become handicraft. Poets such as Greg Joly have seen this possibility for renewal. I expect that the printed word, i.e. the book, will begin to go into decline with the aging of our generation. Already we’ve lost the card catalogue in most libraries. Next will be the thinning of the stacks (look what they did to the San Francisco Public Library when they moved it to its new digs, or even closer to home, the Forbes in Northampton). Since the margin of profit on book publishing is so slim, as the reading public diminishes, so will the publishing houses. I don’t think the printed book will go out of existence completely, but it will most likely go the way of illuminated manuscripts and calligraphy.

Taking up handwriting once again is another form of right action for us, another way of re-MINDING ourselves of what we are about. I can think of no better example than Lew Welch’s poem. It begins with an enso, which I can’t reproduce here:

Step out onto the Planet
Draw a circle a hundred feet round.

Inside the circle are
300 things nobody understands, and, maybe
nobody’s ever really seen.

How many can you find?
(Welch 74)

The best-known American master of the hand-written poem, though, is “Kenneth Patchen.” His poems–poem-paintings, they are properly called–like Blake’s or like Japanese haiga offer a complex experience in which word and image interact. San Francisco poet James Shevill comments: Patchen’s distinctive handwriting adds to the effect of his work. A round, rolling scrawl, it is a kind of American anticalligraphy, calling attention to its demerits as classical penmanship, voicing its humorous desire to wander around in words and encounter the laughing mysteries. It is the handwriting of a man who has endured a lifetime of pain, who has transformed that pain into a singular joy . . . after closer inspection what may seem to be crude penmanship becomes a large, wide-eyed scroll of wonder. Beware again of calling it naïve. The shape of a painful will, doggedly enduing, searching, is everywhere evident. (Patchen np)

Many of us will be more familiar with his poems “War is not healthy . . .” and—

can only be
if it is won.

Frank Samperi offers a different version of the “argument for innocence” but one we should also bear in mind, as we conclude our discussion of right craft.

so I don’t know the practical world
I write
for angels
(Samperi 92)



We come now to the most basic question: “How are we to live?” According to the dharma, we want to live harmlessly, without causing injury to other creatures. Traditionally, this has meant lay persons eats vegetarian food several days a month and does not practice professions such as hunting, fishing, soldiering, or trading in arms. Monastics go several steps farther, practicing vegetarianism, and not running or riding in vehicles (which could cause injury to insects or small animals.)

If we understand livelihood in a broader sense, we see that it embraces simplicity and austerity. The Tang poets retire form the material world of the court to the rural hut.

Han Shan is only one of many:

My home is below green cliffs
I don’t cut weeds anymore
new vines spiral down
ancient rocks stand straight
monkeys pick the wild fruit
egrets spear the fish
one or two books by immortals
I chant beneath the trees
(Red Pine 51)

Japan elevates such simplicity to an aesthetic of wabi, with which any haiku poet is familiar. Although we may know Basho first of all as a wanderer, it is well to remember that he lived very much as a homeless person even at home.

The man who used to live here had most refined tastes, and did not clutter up the hut even with objects of art. Apart from the household shrine there is just the little alcove for hanging nightclothes. Once, when he heard that the High Priest of Mount Kora was in the capital, he asked him for a plaque to decorate the alcove. The priest nonchalantly took his brush in hand and wrote the words “Unreal Dwelling.” On the back he inscribed his name to serve as a memento to later people who might see it. ( Keene 375)

And there is Issa, famous for his poverty:

waga io no bimbô ume no saki ni keri

my hut’s
down-and-out plum tree
has bloomed!

io no kagi matsu ni azukete tsukimi kana

guard my hut’s key
pine tree!
going moon gazing
(Issa/ Lanoue)

What on earth do these foreign and largely ancient ways have to do with postmodern us, one might ask—not very much, perhaps, if poetry were just a matter of putting words on a page and had nothing to do with life. I think all of us know that poetry is much more than that—that a poet’s words must be lived. If that is the case, then right livelihood enters into poetic practices very directly—we must walk the walk. As the contemporary tea-master Sho Shitsu Sen reminds us, it is a matter of honesty:

In the time of Buddha, a man was walking deep in the mountains in search of a place where he could discipline himself to understand his spirit. While searching he chanced to meet one of Buddha’s disciples.

“Sir, from where do you come?” he asked. The disciple answered directly, “I’ve come form my place of practice.” Thinking that this man knew of the very place for which he had been searching, he asked the disciple, “Sir, I am looking for that place. Please take me there.” The disciple answered, “The place of practice lies in the pure and honest spirit where there is no false vanity.” Startled, the man saw that a place of practice and disciple is not only seen with the eyes. The place of practice is the spirit. The spirit searches to enlighten itself. It does not matter whether it is a room where one practices tea or meditates; any place that is peaceful is the place where you can find your own spirit. (Soshitsu 53)

Is what we might call the mainstream American lifestyle compatible with the life of poetry, the life of haiku that we have been describing here? The suburban McMansion with its three-car garage and fast food lifestyle shows no mercy to humanity or the natural world upon which it encroaches; and our mindless consumerism—a redundancy, as consumerism is by nature mindless—the opposite of a mindful life.

America does not want for saints of the mindful life. We have Thoreau, for example, and John Muir. More recently, we have Helen and Scott Nearing. Among others such as Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder today, we have Greg Joly, the Vermont poet and student of the Nearings who operates a small press and tries to live a life outside of our economy. In all of these cases, we can speak of considerable right effort and a lifelong commitment. The Nearings, for example, gave up homesteaded in Vermont and Maine, teaching themselves how to be self sufficient, gardening, making maple syrup and publishing close to a hundred books. Wendell Berry, known for his Unsettling of America, still farms without a tractor and writes without a computer. Greg Joly lives “off the grid” but connected to other people:

The anarchist side is concerned with the daily life in a locality. Mutual aid plays a significant role here. What you do for and with your neighbors and how they give things back to you outside the stratifying cash economy—that’s of great interest to me. Hours spent trading gardening knowledge or wood-splitting or labor trades or simply knowing that someone is there when you’re ill and will help get groceries. Perhaps this can function only on a small scale and that’s why I’ve chosen to live here. It goes back to the difference between the old rural (mutual aid) lifeway and the new country cash economy. That’s what is lost when money becomes the vehicle of all exchange and interchange. A mode of life based on need succumbs to the drive for acquisition.

Of recent American poets, I can think of no better exemplars of right livelihood than Cid Corman and Lorine Niedecker, for whose prominence today we have him to thank. Although no Buddhist, Lorine lived according to what we today would call “voluntary simplicity.” The lake cottage in Fort Atkinson, WI, where she and her husband Al made their life, was about the same size as the screened room (about 20’-square) in which we’re sitting now. Al was a handyman and great drinker. Lorine made her living first as book-keeper at a grain elevator and later as a nursing home custodian. At a time when “poetry was king” and she could have been one of its queens, but she consciously and deliberately declined such a role. Instead, she left us poems such as these:

clean-smelling house
sweet cedar pink
flesh tint
I love you

Popcorn-can cover
screwed to the wall
over a hole
so the cold
can’t mouse in

Now in one year
a book published
and plumbing—

took a lifetime
to weep
a deep
(Niedecker 30, 31, 42 )



Finally, let me give you a few passages to meditate or reflect on before we practice a short mindfulness meditation together. I think they will illustrate the relationship between meditation and poetic practice very clearly. The first is from Makoto Ueda’s great essay on Basho’s poetry and reiterates many of the points I have been making today.

Basho’s idea that poetry is a product of man’s close communion with nature inevitably leads to a “transpersonal” theory of poetry, since such a communion presupposes the dissolution of the poet’s ego. For a haiku poet, to learn from nature should mean: to submerge himself within a natural object to perceive its delicate life and feel its feelings out of which a poem forms itself. A poem may skillfully delineate an object; but unless it embodies feelings which have naturally emerged out of the object, the poem will fall short of the true poetic sentiment; since it presents the object and the poet as two separate things. […]

In composing haiku. there are (two) ways: “becoming” and “making.” When a poet who has always been assiduous in pursuit of his aim applies himself to an external object, the color of his mind naturally becomes a poem. In the case of a poet who has not done so, nothing in him becomes a poem; consequently he has to make out a poem through the act of his personal will. (Ueda 424)

Cid Corman, who more than any other poet is the bridge between Basho and us, and writing a decade before Ueda, uses a similar language about the need for mindful transparency and a simplicity of means (echoing his own love of Ryokan and Issa.)

Poetry, as long as it is poetry, must be the vehicle, the transparent medium, whereby the individual finds himself revealed at home in the unknown, with “each other” and with “all.”

I myself tend to work out of a most obvious and simple formality of syllables that even a child can grasp—precisely so that it may be “seen through” and used. Not to count syllables, but to see, hear that the syllables count. That every sound and pause confer meaning upon the moment in the making. This leaves “form” wide open, in the making. The poet’s ear, breath, voice, must carry the specifics and in such a way as to invite others to share the breath, the voice, the uniqueness—each in his own way. (Word 21)

Meditation on the breath is the most basic meditative practice in Buddhism, and is the one that Shakyamuni advocated above all others. At its simplest, the meditant focuses the mind on either the tip of the nose or the belly’s rise and fall, and lets the attention rest there. Notice your breath. If distractions arise, notice them, too, but call your mind back to your breathing. [There was a 10 minute meditation at this point.]

For words to end with, let me turn to the beginning of Basho’s classic: Moon & sun are passing figures of countless generations, and years coming or going wanderers too. Drifting life away on a boat or meeting age leading a horse by the mouth, each day is a journey and the journey itself home. Amongst those of old were many that perished upon the journey. So—when was it—I, drawn like blown cloud, couldn’t stop dreaming of roaming, roving the coast up and down, back at the hut last fall by the river side, sweeping cobwebs off, a year gone and misty skies of spring returning, yearning to go over the Shirakawa Barrier, possessed by the wanderlust, at wits’ end, beckoned by Dosojin, hardly able to keep my hand to any thing, mending a rip in my momohiki, replacing the cords in my kasa, shins no sooner burnt with moxa that the moon at Matsushima rose to mind and how, my former dwelling passed on to someone else on moving to Sampu’s summer house:

the grass door also
turning and turning into
a doll’s household
(from the eight omote set on a post of the hut)



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First printed in moonset, The Newspaper, autumn/winter 2007 (p. 16-17) & spring/summer 2008 (p. 22-23)

Reprinted by permission of the author and by moonset, The Newspaper’s editor