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.”

—Chase Twichell

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!”

For me, poetry has always been a practice in and of itself. It’s not only the practice of using language—it’s also the practice of being aware: of using all the senses and being absorbed by each moment. Zen practice is always about returning to that place where there are no words. Early on, I realized that to use words, you have to live life beyond words, before words, without words. Only then do you have the right to speak.

This is why I say that I used to be a poet who practiced sitting meditation and then became a monk who practiced poetry—poetry is that initial step away from the deep absorption that comes from sitting for long periods of meditation. It’s only when you realize that language is secondary, a step removed, that you begin to make poems.

It seems to me that there’s a profound paradox in the idea of a Zen poem. In “The Zen of Creativity,” John Daido Loori says that the Zen arts were created “to communicate the essential wordlessness of Zen.” Poetry, then, becomes a very strange enterprise for a practitioner. Just recently I was in training with Sasaki Roshi. During sanzen, I answered my koan by quoting one of my poems. The line was, “Not two. Not one. Not many.” Roshi went ballistic! He started whacking the arm of his chair with his stick. He said, “Now you make Roshi really mad!” I took this as a good sign. While he was yelling at me I asked him, “Where does a poem come from?” He whacked his chair again and said, in a deep voice, “Booooooooom!” I responded, “Booooooooom!” He rang his bell to dismiss me. As I bowed on the way out, he said, “Wonderful poem!” “Booooooooom!” That’s before language, before thinking.

As I see it, the main issue is getting out of the way. When I paint, and even when I play piano, I try to remove myself completely and let the painting paint itself, the song play itself, the poem write itself. With language, it then becomes what the words want to say, not what I want to say. As I indicated before, I believe that comes from silence. Without an intimate knowledge of silence, Zen poems—or any poems—are really just words that invite the imagination to ruminate; you could even say that they propel the ego into self-consciousness.

Sitting zazen, you really become intimate with the limitations of language, of narrative, of thought itself. With every thought there’s a “Yes, but….” With every idea comes another idea. This is the labyrinth of thought. Ultimately, you realize that “truth” is not to be found in words. I think it’s from this realization, this awareness, that the Zen poet speaks.

Image 2: “Three Bowls,” 1997 ©James Henkel, www.jameshenkel.com
“Three Bowls,” 1997 ©James Henkel, www.jameshenkel.com

Why is metaphor, part of the bedrock of Western poetry, absent in most Zen poems? I think metaphor is the bedrock of Western poetry because we’re never satisfied by what just is. This is why nonpractitioners often regard Zen poetry as trivial or overly simplistic. We love to complicate things, and we take delight in our imaginations and our creativity. Metaphor carries us over to another understanding; but that suggests that our present understanding is insufficient, doesn’t it? This is why people have such difficulty with koans. In the search for “understanding,” the mind grapples with ideas. And yet it’s only when ideas are exhausted that any breakthrough can occur. I’m a great fan of metaphors, as any poet or reader of poetry is bound to be. But from a Zen point of view, I think it helps to remember that metaphor can also be like putting a head on top of your head. Isn’t one enough?

I’m reluctant to say that Zen poetry doesn’t rely on metaphor—that seems too broad a statement. But usually the thing itself is sufficient, and it resonates in a profound way. There is a Buson poem that goes something like this: “The piercing chill I feel / my dead wife’s comb / under my heel.” What more do you need? The roaring resonance of such a poem occurs in the belly, not in the brain. Don’t misunderstand me—I’m not putting down metaphor. But where do metaphors come from? In a word: thinking.  

I want to go back to the problem of nonpractitioners finding Zen poetry “trivial or overly simplistic.” Do you believe that only a zazen-trained mind can fully apprehend a Zen poem? People often mistake profound subtlety for simplicity, and often equate simplicity with triviality. So a poem like the early-nineteenth-century poet Issa’s “Farmer / pointing the Way / with a radish” tends to get glossed over or ignored. I guess it’s not imperative that a person need be a practitioner to appreciate a Zen poem, but it sure helps. Why? Because one learns through zazen that enough is enough. The untrained mind starts to ruminate: What farmer? An old farmer, a young farmer? What does he farm? What “Way” is he pointing out? To whom?  

Are Zen poems written for a different purpose than other poems? I’m inclined to think that Zen poetry does indeed have a unique function. The Zen poem, as I see it, functions much like the koan—it is just a point of departure. The reader is eliminated, the ego drops, and what’s left is just the farmer pointing the way with a radish. For most readers, this is not enough.

How do you regard the presence of an identifiable speaker in your own poems? In much contemporary American poetry, the “I” is seen as a persona, a character invented by the poet to function as a stand-in. In a poem, who are you? That’s funny! I just heard Roshi ask, “Who are you?”—a very difficult koan! The truth is that I really don’t know. The short answer is that “I” is me; but the ongoing question is still, “Who am I?” And I can’t tell you.

When asked, “What time is it?” Yogi Berra said, “You mean now?” I think that’s a pretty good response to the question “Who am I?” “You mean now?” I’m not trying to be evasive. Small self appears and disappears. There is no fixed self. The “I” in one poem is not necessarily the “I” in a different one. Strictly speaking, the “I”—any “I”—is an invention, a fiction, a narrative in response to innumerable conditions and circumstances.  

In the introduction to Seung Sahn’s collection of poems, “Bone of Space,” he’s quoted as saying, “When the situation appears, then I make a poem.” What do you think he means by “situation”? Whether this is what he meant or not, this is what I think: the “situation” is the moment after the small self disappears and then reappears. It is what comes from being born. When a student goes in for sanzen, he or she must be willing to die—in other words, to give up all attachment to “my self.” If you hold onto this self, you cannot pass your koan. It is often said that Zen practice begins on the cushion, but if it remains on the cushion, it is not Zen practice. We train in a monastery, or we train at a Zen center or zendo, but our practice is right here in the world as it is.

Let’s talk about the similarity of Zen poems and koans— how both are “points of departure,” as you have said. You’ve been a Zen teacher for many years—are writing and teaching the same activity? Many Zen poems begin with the absence of the poet and the presence of the perception—in other words, what prompts a poet to write is an after-the-fact realization of “things as they are.” The poet is moved beyond self by something quite ordinary and natural—something common, mundane. In this realization, there is no subject and no object, just the thing itself. The poet then presents the thing “as is,” in the most simple and direct way. Then, often, but not always, the poet reappears, so to speak, and raises a question or enters the realm of duality, the realm of thinking. This is merely a manifestation of what consciousness does—it expands and contracts. Self disappears and reappears. This is Tathagata [Buddha-nature] as I understand it—appearing, disappearing, reappearing: suchness. But after the great question comes no great answer. There is just the thing “as is.”

For example, consider the koan “Where does the wind come from?” I suppose if you’re a meteorologist you can come up with all kinds of answers. But for the Zen student, an appropriate response might be: “The tall grass lies down; a crow hovers mid-air.” (At which point, a good Zen master might take the stick and beat you!) The poem begins in silence, makes a little noise, and then ends in silence because there is nothing else to say.

I agree that Zen poems do teach, but what do they teach? They teach nothing. I’ve heard people who have practiced Zen meditation for a while say that they “got nothing out of it” and stopped. The problem is, we already have too much. What more do you want? Stop wanting. Get nothing.

Six Poems by Seido Ray Ronci

A Death in Summer
A hot breath
That sucks everyone back
Into the family.

Ringing the Bell At the End of Meditation
There’s a bee in the rose
with a rosy smell

and there is no heaven
and there is no hell.

Another Reason to Live
To hold the hand, to kiss the forehead,
To wipe the face, to clean the soiled
Sheets of the dying.

My Mother and the Zen Master

You remember too much,
    my mother said,
You better learn to forget.

On his hundredth birthday
    A reporter asked the old man,
What’s the secret to a long life?

The Master said,
    Without hesitation:
Forget everything immediately.

In Memoriam
Wine and water, lots of both.
An iguana leaps into the canal: Splash!
Midnight on my dead brother’s porch.

April Dharma Talk

Spring speaks for itself.
Better to go outside
And enjoy the day
Than to sit here
Listening to me.

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