Every once in a while I read a book that insists on being taken on its own terms—a book that teaches you how to read it. When I first picked up the Zen monk Seido Ray Ronci’s seventh book of poetry, The Skeleton of the Crow: New & Selected Poems, 1980–2008, I found that it expressed the clarity, simplicity, and profundity of Zen in language that spoke to me as a practitioner. As I read more of his work, I came to appreciate the range of his subjects (from childrearing to painting to the austere solitude of his time as a monastic), as well as his humor, and perhaps most of all, his sensibility for the everyday. Like other writers working in the centuries-old tradition of Zen poetry developed by Ikkyu, Basho, and Ryokan, Seido Ray Ronci is concerned less with the words on the page than with the reality they point to.
Seido, who teaches in the English Department at the University of Missouri, is the director of Hokoku-an Zendo, in Columbia, Missouri. During recent email exchanges, we discussed some of the unique qualities of Zen poetry: its use of silence, the teachings it conveys, and its emphasis on the thing “as is.”
You’ve said that you were once a poet who practiced Zen but over the years became a monk who practices poetry. Could you say more about this? My interest in Zen started in high school, but it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I learned how to meditate. It was then that I met my teacher, Joshu Sasaki Roshi. I vividly remember my first sanzen [private interview] with him. He asked me, “What do you do?” I stupidly replied, “I’m a poet.” He laughed, rang his bell to dismiss me, and said, “You’ll never be a poet.” Soon after this exchange, Sasaki Roshi gave me a koan that took me several months to answer. When I did finally answer it—without the use of any words—he said, “Now you become poet!”
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