CASE #51: Soen’s One World
Soen Roshi wrote the following haiku:
With Fuji in sight
I pick young herbs
that world and this world
Soen Roshi Soen Nakagawa (1907-1984) was the tenth abbot of Ryutaku-ji monastery. A figure of seminal importance in the early days of American Buddhism, he was known for his eccentric behavior and his flair for spontaneous teaching. In Japan he was also well-known as a haiku poet, having studied the art under Dakotsu Iida, one of the most influential poets of 20th century Japan. As a young monk in the 1930s, Soen divided his time between the monastery and a hermitage near Mt. Fuji, where many of his haiku were written.
With Fuji in sight… The haiku, a masterpiece of Zen poetry, was written in 1973 and selected by Soen for inclusion in a monograph called “Ten Haiku of My Choice,” published that year and distributed to his friends. About the poem, Soen wrote:
Fuji is represented by two characters that signify “wealthy person,” but in the ancient Japanese text Anthology of Ten Thousand Leaves it was represented by the ideograms “not two.” It has also been written fujin, meaning inexhaustible; also as fushi, meaning no death. This world is no other than that world; that world is no other than this world.
Young herbs In haiku poetry, the expression refers to the first edible greens of the year and is therefore a season word indicating that the poem was composed in early springtime. Soen may have been recalling his days as a young hermit on Dai Bosatsu Mountain, where he lived on whatever nuts, greens, and berries he could forage nearby.
That world and this world Along with its other cultural and philosophical associations, Mt. Fuji (12,389 ft) symbolizes the realm of the eternal. Like other centrally-located high mountains in cultures around the world, it is sometimes thought of as the abode of the gods. In Japanese literature the expression “that world” often refers to the Pure Land. In ecological terms, we could say that Fuji represents the life of the planetary system as a whole, to which ultimately nothing can be added, and from which nothing can be taken away.
NOTE: Soen’s haiku, including the one offered above, have been collected in a book, Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Soen Nakagawa, compiled and translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Roko Sherry Chayat.
If there is only one world, how come the haiku tells us there are two? The roshi says one thing, the poet another. Won’t they get their story straight!
We can’t be in two places at one time, but sometimes we have to be two people. One climbs Fuji, another picks greens. How else to embrace the true face of this world?
Our teachers give us
One half of the True Dharma
Life the other half.
There is wisdom in oneness,
But don’t let it write your poem.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.