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, I began jotting poems in response to the ideas and images that I encountered—one poem per chapter, one chapter per morning. 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.” This poem is part of that series. Find more here.

Nan-ch’uan (747–834)

At the age of 48, Nan-ch’uan moved to the top of a mountain in order to deepen his realization and—I suspect—enjoy the view. Three decades later, he returned to the lowlands at the request of a provincial governor who wanted personal instruction. As was the style of many famous Ch’an masters, Nan-ch’uan’s teaching methods involved all kinds of wild stuff. For instance, once he offered to sell his body to an assembly of monks, but nobody could make heads or tails of his price: “He does not ask for a high price, nor does he ask for a low one.”


Ten minutes alone in thickets
at the edge of town

quickens attention,
so many

silver filaments, green trembles,
small living details.

What was it like in the forest
of those three decades,

his mountain

How can we even begin
to imagine?