A few years ago I fell into the lovely habit of sitting on my fire escape every morning with a pot of black coffee and The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader. Edited by Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker, each chapter in the anthology introduces a famous Buddhist figure from China or Japan and provides excerpts from his most significant writings and lectures. In order to deepen my reading, not to mention have some caffeinated fun, I began jotting poems in response to the ideas and images that I encountered—one poem per chapter, one chapter per morning. Eight of these poems appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Tricycle, and others have been published in Kyoto Journal and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. After a hiatus, I completed the project in the fall of 2017: 46 poems spanning 1,300 years, Bodhidharma to Hui-neng to Dogen to Ryokan. Below is a selection from the manuscript I’ve taken to playfully calling “Eddies in the Roaring Stream.” Four more will be released over the following weeks.

Pai-chang (720–814)

A dharma heir to the master Ma-tsu, Pai-chang apparently achieved deep insight following an encounter with ducks and a sharp pinch on the nose. His famous dictum—“A day without work is a day without eating”—exemplifies one of the more significant contributions he made to the developing Ch’an tradition: pu-ch’ing, or general labor. Prior to Pai-chang, monks didn’t labor in the fields themselves.


Names, names, names.

You’ve not got one,
then your mother screams,
then you do.

Then a friend pinches your nose
and it’s a new name.

Then you live beneath a cliff,
steep rock, some mountain wall,
and it’s another.

This one sticks, or at least you turn
your head when called.

But something doesn’t feel quite right.

Lonely quiet hours in the night,
you remember ducks,
how they flew
from somewhere to somewhere.

At last, age takes
what was never yours to keep.

In ages to come,
when eager young folks come calling,
your head won’t turn.


Read more poems in this series:

What’s There to Do?

Ten Minutes Alone in Thickets

Waking from a Crazy Dream

Sleeping in an Old Friend’s Room

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