Poetry of Zen: Wang Wei

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Zen poetry

Although our stories primarily follow the lives of the Zen masters who most affected the history of Zen, we will occasionally pause to appreciate artists, poets and laymen whose lives and works were influenced by Zen and who in many cases profoundly influenced the times they lived in.

There is no Bodhi-tree
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void
Where can the dust alight?

We have seen many instances of masters and monks such as Huineng for whom verse and painting were natural forms of communication, even if they did not consider themselves "poets." Rather we might say that they found poems an ideal medium for conveying their experiences of awakening as well as for inspiring their students.

We can distinguish two flavors of "Zen poems." Some poems deal directly with aspects of Zen, as a philosophy and as a practice, for example escape from the constraints of space-time:

Twenty years a pilgrim,
Footing east, west.
Back in Seiken,
l've not moved an inch.

Seiken Chiju

Earth, river, mountain:
Snowflakes melt in air.
How could I have doubted?
Where's north? south? east? west?


Or sudden freedom from conventional attachments:

Searching Him took
My strength.
One night I bent
My pointing finger -
Never such a moon!


Other poems do not reference Zen directly but nevertheless resonate with the feeling and spirit of Zen, as we will see below in Wang Wei's finest poems.

Although much Zen poetry was written by Zen monks, we will consider as well poets who were inspired by Zen, were strongly drawn to Zen ideas, or wrote a good deal of poetry in a Zen mode, regardless of whether they thought of themselves as "Zen poets."

Not only did Zen ideas influence the verse of poets such as Wang Wei, who we meet below, but as well Zen impacted Chinese (and we'll see in Module 33 Japanese) poetry and the way poets thought about writing poetry. And so we see aspects that we associate with the sudden enlightenment experience in poetry that has no clear association with Zen — for example, the paradoxical and unorthodox use of language, as well as a Zen-like use of words to express the ambiguities of perception.

On the rocky slope, blossoming
Plums-from where?
Once he saw them, Reiun
Danced all the way to Sandai.


The context of Tang and, later, Sung Dynasty China can be difficult for those of us of the 21st Century to properly appreciate. In this world:

. . . men perfected their lives and arts certain that they gave meaning to something higher than themselves. To artists of the time, numerous and skilled, poetry and painting were Ways—two among many, to be sure, but glorious Ways—to realization of Truth, whose unfolding made possible not only fulfilled life but calm acceptance of its limitations. They saw in the world a process of becoming, yet each of its particulars, at any moment of existence, partook of the absolute. This meant that no distinction was drawn between the details of a landscape—lifts, slopes, estuaries, waterfalls-shaped by the artist's emotions. Foreground, background, each was part of the process, in poetry as in painting, the spirit discovering itself among the things of this world.

Art played an essential role in community life as well, influencing the development of Zen, whose monks and masters were themselves poets and painters. Recall the poetry contest with Huineng and Shenxiu's poems.