The Poetry of Zen in China

J.P. Seaton [tooltip content= “Poetry of Zen, Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton, Shambhala 2007”] [source][/tooltip] [green_message]

Zen is Taoist Buddhism. Or; Zen is Buddhist Taoism: at least when talking about Ch’an, the Chinese version of Zen, the ancestor of the ]apanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and the various evolving Western versions of this branch of Buddhist practice. The association of Ch’an with the arts, from the martial arts, as in hand-to-hand combat and archery, to the powerful civil arts of poetry and painting, begins in China, from the association of these arts with the Taoist practice of meditation and the Taoist emphasis on wei-wu-wei, doing non-doing, doing without doing, or doing, through practice and concentration, with total freedom and absolute creativity.

Zen is Taoist Buddhism. Or; Zen is Buddhist Taoism: at least when talking about Ch’an, the Chinese version of Zen…

Maybe to the dismay of newcomers to American Buddhism who expect a pure and fundamentalist Zen, of one particular school or another (like the Rinzai and Soto sects of Japan, which have been arguing for several centuries over whether the koan should be central to Zen meditation practice)¢, we start our selection of Ch’an poems with excerpts from the Taoist book Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, a book  known to orthodox Ch`an men like Han Shan (now there`s a fundamentalist!) as “The Five Thousand Character Classic” or “The Five Thousand Words.” Lao Tzu`s insights and his penchant for putting them into verse are certainly two sources of the Ch’an stream.

We bow in thanks first not to poets themselves, but to the monk-translators who came to their work of translating the holy books of Buddhism from their original Indian languages into Chinese from a background in Taoist philosophy and poetic art. Our first Chan poet, Hui Yung, although he wrote nearly a thousand years after Lao Tzu, must technically also he pre-Chan, since he died more than a hundred years before the purported arrival in China of the first patriarch of Chan, the Indian monk Bodhidharma. As a translator, Hui Yung favored the practice of translating Buddhist terminology from the Sanskrit, wherever possible, with preexisting Taoist terms. Another school of translators preferred to render these in “transliteration” only. Hui Yung’s approach brought many educated laypeople immediately into contact with Buddhist thought, and began the process of making Buddhist ideas comfortably Chinese.


The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.