Today is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. He was born in 1809. American author, poet, editor and literary critic, inventor of the detective story. He really needs no introduction.

If you are familiar with Poe’s legacy, then perhaps you are aware that to mark the anniversary of the writer’s birth, each January 19th since the 1940s a mysterious man dressed in black with a white scarf and wide-brimmed hat has come in the dark of night to leave three roses and a bottle of cognac on Poe’s grave. He is called the “Poe Toaster.”

On occasion, this anonymous man has left notes. A few indicated that the torch had been passed on to a new person after the death of the original “Poe Toaster” in the late 1990s. Over the years, crowds have gathered outside the gates of the Westminster Burial Ground for a vigil, waiting for the mysterious stranger to lay down his tribute. However, this year, he had been a no-show for two years in a row and Poe fans were saying they would hold one last vigil before ending the tradition.

Early this morning the visitor once again failed to appear and thus ends a rather sweet story, one so befitting Poe, whose name alone conjures up images mysterious women, madmen and murderers, premature burials, tell-tale hearts that beat on after death, and ravens croaking upon midnights dreary.

In my small tribute to Poe, here is a poem first published in 1849, some six months before the author’s death. In it, Poe muses about the state of his existence, apparently feeling that so many important elements of life were slipping away from him, falling through his fingers like grains of sand. What should be obvious to Buddhists here is how he mirrors the famous passage from the Diamond Sutra: “All conditioned things are like illusions, bubbles, shadows or dreams; Like drops of dew, or flashes of lightning, this is how they should be seen.” Although, it is highly unlikely that Poe had ever heard of the sutra.

A Dream Within A Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

The first evening of Autumn: beautiful twilight but I missed seeing the satellite flash across the southern sky. This view is Northwest, toward Malibu and the Pacific Ocean.

Surprised By Evening

There is unknown dust that is near us,
Waves breaking on shores just over the hill,
Trees full of birds that we have never seen,
Nets drawn down with dark fish.

The evening arrives; we look up and it is there,
It has come through the nets of the stars,
Through the tissues of the grasses,
Walking quietly over the asylums of the waters.

The day shall never end we think;
We have hair that seems born for the daylight;
But, at last, the quiet waters of the night will rise,
And our skin shall see far off, as it does under water.

Robert Bly

I woke up yesterday morning and noticed a Peregrine Falcon perched on the utility pole outside one of my windows. They come and sit there from time to time. So do some of the Red-Tail Hawks around the neighborhood. Rarely do they linger long enough for me to grab my camera and snap a pic. This one yesterday did, though. You’ll see it below. Not the greatest photo of a Peregrine Falcon that’s ever been shot, but the best one I’ve taken. So far.

It’s interesting, here I am in the middle of a megalopolis and yet, there is a plenitude of wildlife around. I saw a raccoon for the first time in a long while the other night. Sometimes around 5 or 6 in the morning, I’ll see coyotes trotting up and down the street. And we have skunks, rabbits, possums, along with the usual assortment of squirrels, crows, hummingbirds, sparrows, and of course, the hawks and falcons. A few rats here and there.

Yesterday’s falcon put me in mind of a poem by St. John of the Cross. He was a Spanish priest who lived in the 16th century. I guess he was also considered a mystic. I don’t know a lot about him, other than that he’s been a Catholic saint for several hundred years and he wrote some pretty good poetry.

This one is called “Of Falconry.” I cut it out of the L.A. Times Sunday Book Review section about 15 years ago. Kathleen Jones, whose book, The Poems of St. John of the Cross, I found at Google Books, says,

Falconry was a popular sport among the Spanish nobility, and the imagery of the loved one was frequently used in secular love songs of the period . . . St. John was putting a gloss on a secular poem, and turning it into an analogy of the soul’s search for God.

Searching for God is obviously not my cup of tea, nevertheless, it’s a fine poem and translated by John Frederick Nims:

Of Falconry

Upon a quest of love,
hope sturdy and steadfast,
I flew so high, so high,
I caught the prey at last.

In this divine affair,
to triumph–if I might–
I had to soar so high
I vanished out of sight.
Yet in the same ascent
my wings were failing fast–
but love arose so high
I caught the prey at last.

Just when this flight of mine
had reached its highest mark,
my eyes were dazzled so
I conquered in the dark.
I gave a blind black surge
for love–myself surpassed!
and went so high, so high
I caught the prey at last.

The higher up I went
there, in this dizzy game,
the lower I appeared,
more humble, weak, and lame.
I cried, But none can win!
and sinking fast oh fast
yet went so high, so high,
I caught the prey at last.

Then–marvelous!–I made
a thousand flights in one,
for hope of heaven will see
all it can wish, be done.
I hoped for this alone;
I hoped; was not downcast.
And went so high, so high,
I caught the prey at last.

If you’re interested, you’ll find a vastly different translation by Sims of this poem that appeared in the August 1958 issue of Poetry Magazine here.

Conrad Aiken, a poet I admire very much, was born on this day in 1899. You can get some details on his life here at his Wikipedia page if you like. One of my favorite Aiken facts, not mentioned there, is that he got out of military service during World War I by claiming that as a poet he was part of an “essential industry.” The men on his draft board must have been really dumb to fall for that. Although, to me, it sounds perfectly reasonable.

Conrad Aiken wrote short stories, plays and novels, but it is for his contributions to poetry that he is best remembered. He was instrumental in bringing much deserved attention to the work of Emily Dickinson. Conrad himself was honored with an appointment as Named Poetry Consultant of the Library of Congress from 1950–1952, a position now known as Poet Laureate of the United States.

Aiken’s grandfather, William J. Potter, was a Unitarian minister who co-founded the Free Religious Association, which Potter described as “spiritual anti-slavery society” with a mission to “emancipate religion from the dogmatic traditions it had been previously bound to.” The first person to join the association was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Hayden Carruth in his introduction to Aiken’s poems in The Voice That Is Great Within Us notes that Aiken “has said that his work as a writer has been a continuation of his grandfather’s search for evolving forms of consciousness under the impact of modern science, especially psychoanalysis.”

While the imprint of Freud and late 19th century Symbolism on Aiken’s writing is frequently noted, what often seems overlooked is the influence of Eastern philosophy and poetry, which I think was considerable, as evidence by this excerpt from “A Letter to Li Po”, Aiken’s meditation on the great Chinese poet and the true nature of the self, that I first read in Carruth’s anthology so long ago:


The winds of doctrine blow both ways at once.
The wetted finger feels the wind each way,
presaging plums from north, and snow from south.
The dust-wind whistles from the eastern sea
to dry the nectarine and parch the mouth.
The west wind from the desert wreathes the rain
too late to fill our wells, but soon enough,
the four-day rain that bears the leaves away.
Song with the wind will change, but is still song
and pierces to the rightness in the wrong
or makes the wrong a rightness, a delight.
Where are the eager guests that yesterday
thronged at the gate? Like leaves, they could not stay,
the winds of doctrine blew their minds away,
and we shall have no loving-cup tonight.
No loving-cup: for not ourselves are here
to entertain us in that outer year,
where, so they say, we see the Greater Earth.
The winds of doctrine blow our minds away,
and we are absent till another birth.

Today is the birthday of Carl Gustav Jung, who if still alive would be 136 and no doubt one of the oldest people in the world. The famed psychologist is, as you may know, the subject of a famous song by Bob Dylan, in which the singer expresses the sentiment, “May you stay forever Jung.”

Which has no connection whatsoever to the Mott the Hoople song, “All The Jung Dudes.”

There is, however, a connection between Jung’s work and Buddhism. Jung himself once said, “The goal in psychotherapy is exactly the same as in Buddhism.” There are those who feel that Jung misunderstood Buddhist philosophy, but it is certainly clear, as Polly Young-Eisendrath writes in The Cambridge Companion to Jung: Second Edition, that

C. G. Jung was the first psychoanalyst to pay close and serious attention to Buddhism and to write commentary on his own careful readings of Buddhist texts . . .beginning with Jung’s 1939 “Foreword” to Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism . . . Jung wrote about and commented on writings from Japanese, Tibetan, and Chinese sources. Bringing in both original insights and important questions, Jung’s essays formed an early backdrop for various conversations to develop between Western psychology and Buddhist practices.

The correlations between Jung’s work and Eastern philosophy (he was interested in Hindu Yoga, particularly Vendanta, both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and Taoism, especially the I Ching) is too vast a subject to handle in a blog post. My own feeling is that while he was occasionally off the mark, in general Jung’s interpretation of Eastern philosophy was, if nothing else, interesting. For example, his take on several core concepts, such as karma, that he saw as archetypes. In “Psychological Commentary on Kundalini Yoga,” Jung wrote,

There is a rich world of archetypal images in the unconscious mind, and the archetypes are conditions, laws or categories of creative fantasy, and therefore might be called the psychological equivalent of the samskara.”

Samskaras are generally regarded as “karmic formations” or karma-formed states. In Buddhism, samskara is the the fourth skandha (aggregate) and the second link in the twelve Nidanas (links), the chain of dependent arising.

Today is quite a day for birthdays: Mick Jagger (68!), Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Dorothy Hamill, Susan George, Helen Mirren (unforgettable as Jane Tennison in the “Prime Suspect” series), Dobie Gray (song “Drift Away”), Bobby Hebb (song “Sunny”), Brenton Wood (song “Gimme Little Sign”), Darlene Love (song “He’s a Rebel”), film director Stanley Kubrick (“Dr. Strangelove”, “2001″, “A Clockwork Orange”), director Blake Edwards (“The Pink Panther”), comedian Gracie Allen (Burns and Allen), author Robert Graves (“I, Claudius”), Irish English novelist Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”), Pearl Buck (“The Good Earth”), George Bernard Shaw (“Pygmalion”) and Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, who wrote the following, entitled Cantares or “Songs [Machado’s Testament]“:

All goes, and all remains,

but our task is to go,
to go creating roads
roads through the sea.

My songs never chased
after glory to remain
in human memory.
I love the subtle worlds
weightless and charming,
worlds like soap-bubbles.

I like to see them, daubed
with sunlight and scarlet,
quiver, under a blue sky,
suddenly and burst…

I never chased glory.

Traveller, the road is only
your footprint, and no more;
traveller, there’s no road,
the road is your travelling.

Going becomes the road
and if you look back
you will see a path
none can tread again.

Traveller, every track
leaves its wake on the sea…

Once in this place
where bushes now have thorns
the sound of a poet’s cry was heard
‘Traveller there’s no road
the road is your travelling…’

Step by step, line by line…

The poet died far from home.
Shrouded by dust of a neighbouring land.
At his parting they heard him cry:
‘Traveller there’s no road
the road is your travelling…’

Step by step, line by line…

When the goldfinch can’t sing,
when the poet’s a wanderer,
when nothing aids our prayer.
‘Traveller there’s no road
the road is your travelling…’

Step by step, line by line.

Basho's drawing while on the road.

I’m an unabashed Basho fan. As some of you may know, Basho (1644-1694) is the most famous of all Japanese poets. On this date in 1689, he set off on a 150 day journey around Honshu. His travels during this time were the basis for his travel dairy Oku no Hosomichi, or “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, considered one of the major works of Japanese literature.

You can read about the book and Basho’s journey here at Wikipedia.

Basho, a Zen Buddhist, journeyed often during his life. He approached both his poetry and his wayfaring (always dressed in Zen robes) as spiritual pursuits.

One of his best known haiku, and one of my favorites, reads:

Old pond,
frog jumps in
- splash!

D.T. Suzuki, another famous Zen Buddhist, said of the haiku:

This sound coming out of the old pond was heard by Basho as filling the whole universe. Not only was the totality of the environment absorbed in the sound and vanished into it, but Basho himself was altogether effaced from his consciousness.”

“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” is written in a form called haibum, a combination of prose and haiku which Basho was the first to develop. The link between the haiku and the prose section is not always clear. Often it is left up to the reader to discover. However, in this selection, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa, the connection is rather obvious. Yamagata is a prefecture of Japan located in the Tohoku region on Honshu island.

from Oku no Hosomichi:


There was a temple called Ryushakuji in the province of Yamagata. Founded by the great priest Jikaku, this temple was known for the absolute tranquility of its holy compound. Since everybody advised me to see it, I changed my course at Obanazawa and went there, though it meant walking an extra seven miles or so. When I reached it, the late afternoon sun was still lingering over the scene. After arranging to stay with the priests at the foot of the mountain, I climbed to the temple situated near the summit. The whole mountain was made of massive rocks thrown together and covered with age-old pines and oaks. The stony ground itself bore the color of eternity, paved with velvety moss. The doors of the shrines built on the rocks were firmly barred and there was no sound to be heard. As I moved on all fours from rock to rock, bowing reverently at each shrine, I felt the purifying power of this holy environment pervading my whole being.

In the utter silence
Of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.

April is coming to end, and as well, National Poetry Month. I hope you enjoyed the poetry posts. Since this will probably be the last one for a while and because it’s no fun having your own blog if you don’t showcase your own stuff, a couple of poems from yours truly today.

On this date 19 years ago “not guilty” verdicts in the trial of the policemen involved in Rodney King’s videotaped beating set off six days of riots here in Los Angeles. The largest in U.S. history. I remember the following morning going up on the roof of my apartment building, which has a spectacular view, and seeing the fires burning all across the Los Angeles basin. The sky to the east was a solid wall of black smoke, as if hell’s darkest storm was moving in.

Here is the poem I wrote some time later, after things had cooled down and the National Guard was no longer patrolling the neighborhood and life had gotten back to something approaching normal:

in the city of angels

el pueblo grande
boils and bubbles
like a brea pit
fear and anger
rise from the pitch
like hungry spirits

incendiary questions:
why’d the cops beat him?
how come they got off?

sacrificial fires are lit
on asphalt altars
the hungry spirits are fed

the night cries
no justice no peace

and when the smoke clears
in the char of morning days later
what is revealed?

only mammoth humanity
stuck in the tar

© 1992-2011 dmriley

By the time you read this, the Royal Wedding should be over, and I say thank goodness for that. Now we can get back to obsessing about Charlie Sheen, or someone equally psychedelic. Needless to say, I did not watch the wedding, nor did I watch the last one with Charles and Diana. Unimpressed as I am with the Royal Family, at first I was equally blasé about Princess Di. Over the years, though, she did come to grow on me, for purely lecherous reasons (after all, she was an attractive woman), and partly because I felt sorry for her. Yet, in spite of any empathy I had, I couldn’t help but also feel that she was essentially a victim of her own desire. It’s an old story. Musicians and actors and other would-be celebrities longing for fame and fortune and when they get it, they can’t handle the pressure. There had to be some part of her that wanted to be a princess, that fantasized about one day becoming the Queen. As the famous Chinese saying goes, be careful what you wish for . . .

I did get up early and watch her funeral. By that time, I had something invested in her story and the part she played in her own tragedy aside, it seemed clear to me that the Royal Family had abused her horribly. And I’m not embarrassed to say that I shed a few tears.

I wrote this poem that same day, and rereading it now, I think I must have been influenced by the song Elton John sang, a reworking of “Candle in the Wind”:


a rose
is cut

no more petals
in a grail
of eyes

shall we kiss
the hand of immortality
that plucked her up
& set her upon devotion’s throne

shall we bow
to all the mornings
she tried to save herself
from the life
that devoured her

princess dreams put her
back against the wall
which is perhaps preferable
to the silence of empty bedrooms

shall we cut some roses
to see
how exquisitely
they fall
our fascinations

how achingly
they wither
in the mad dog sun

© 1997-2011 dmriley

It’s still National Poetry Month, which is sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, so that means more poetry. Today, the quintessential Chinese poet,  Po Chu-i

Po Chu-i (772-846) was a government official who was a popular poet during the Chinese Tang dynasty. And a rather prolific one – he supposedly wrote over 2800 poems. He was also a member of the Hanlin Academy (“brush wood court”), an elite scholarly institution founded in the 8th century that lasted until 1911.

However, Po Chu-i himself was not elitist. He wrote deceptively simple poetry that was often sympathetic to the troubles and concerns of common people. He wanted to make his work accessible and it is said that if any of his servants could not understand one of his poems, he would immediately rewrite it.

A serious student of Ch’an, Po, like most Chinese Buddhists, also studied Taoism. The Taoist influence is evident in his poetry’s realistic quality and how it reflects the theme of harmony with nature and between people. However, the Ch’an influence was the greater of the two.

In his introduction to The Selected Poems of Po Chu-I, David Hinton writes, “Po’s poems often include the explicit use of Ch’an ideas, indeed he is the poet who really opened mainstream poetry to Buddhist experience, his work becoming a major source of information on Buddhist practice in his time.” (Which should tell you how little we know about Buddhism then.)

Burton Watson, translator of Chinese and Japanese literature, in his book Po Chu-i: Selected Poems, says that Po was most famous for his “simplicity of language” and for “an abiding desire to portray himself, whatever he may have been in real life, as a connoisseur of everyday delights, a man confronting the world, particular in the years of old age, with an air of humor and philosophical acceptance.”

Here is a poem that Hinton chose to translate almost verbatim, without any additional words, capturing Po’s simple poetic style:

Flower No Flower

Flower no flower
mist no mist

arrives at midnight
and leaves at dawn

arrives like a spring dream – how many times
leaves like a morning cloud – nowhere to find

Po also wrote poems of social protest. Early in his career, his politically flavored poetry caused him to be exiled to Hsun-yang where he served as Chief Magistrate. This poem from the Hsun-yang years was translated by Arthur Waley:

Visiting the Hsi-Lin Temple

I dismount from my horse at the Hsi-Lin Temple;
I hurry forward, speeding with light cane.
In the morning I work at a Govermnment office-desk;
In the evening I become a dweller in the Sacred Hills.
In the second month to the north of K’uang-lu
The ice breaks and the snow begins to melt.
On the southern plantation the tea-plant trusts its sprouts;
Through the northern crevice the view of the spring ooze.

This year there is war in An-hui,
In every place soldiers are rushing to arms.
Men of learning have been summoned to the Council Board;
Men of action are marching to the battle-line.
Only I, who have no talents at all,
Am left in the mountains to play with the pebbles of the stream.

Here are two poems that I translated myself:

Rain on Autumn Night

Cold, cold this third night of autumn
Rain makes me sleepy
Alone, this old man is contented and idle
It’s late when I extinguish the lamp and lie down
To sleep, listening to the beautiful sound of rain
Incense ashes still glowing in the burner
My only heat in this lodging
At daybreak, I will stay under the quilt to stay warm
And the steps will be covered by frosty red leaves

Lao Tzu

“Those who speak don’t know,
Those who know don’t speak.”
It is said that these words
Were written by Lao Tzu.
Now, if we are to accept
That Lao Tzu was one who knew,
Then why did he compose a book
Of five thousand words?

This poem, inspired by Po, was written by the great American poet William Carlos Williams, circa 1920:

To the shade of Po Chu-I

The work is heavy. I see
bare branches laden with snow.
I try to comfort myself
with thought of your old age.
A girl passes, in a red tam,
the coat above her quick ankles
snow smeared from running and falling –
Of what shall I think now
save of death the bright dancer?

W. S. Merwin, also a serious student of Buddhism, whom I wrote about in this post, composed this poem just last March:

A Message to Po Chu-I

In that tenth winter of your exile
the cold never letting go of you
and your hunger aching inside you
day and night while you heard the voices
out of the starving mouths around you
old ones and infants and animals
those curtains of bones swaying on stilts
and you heard the faint cries of the birds
searching in the frozen mud for something
to swallow and you watched the migrants
trapped in the cold the great geese growing
weaker by the day until their wings
could barely lift them above the ground
so that a gang of boys could catch one
in a net and drag him to market
to be cooked and it was then that you
saw him in his own exile and you
paid for him and kept him until he
could fly again and you let him go
but then where could he go in the world
of your time with its wars everywhere
and the soldiers hungry the fires lit
the knives out twelve hundred years ago

I have been wanting to let you know
the goose is well he is here with me
you would recognize the old migrant
he has been with me for a long time
and is in no hurry to leave here
the wars are bigger now than ever
greed has reached numbers that you would not
believe and I will not tell you what
is done to geese before they kill them
now we are melting the very poles
of the earth but I have never known
where he would go after he leaves me

Taking a break from some of the serious, and perhaps dry, material of the past week (not that today’s piece has a lot of yucks), with another post commemorating National Poetry Month.

“Greatest” is a highly subjective term (and I am assuming that most are unfamiliar with this poet) but I am taking my cue here from Lawrence Durrell, a great writer himself, known for the Alexandria Quartet, who once said,

I have read “The Black Angel” and would give five years of my life to have written it. If Thompson wrote other poems as explosive and majestic as this one, he would rank amongst the greatest spiritual poets in English. And not just in this god-forsaken century, either.

Well, the poet in question did write other poems as good as “Black Angel”, a long piece which begins with these lines:

One day that black and shining angel who
Haunted my nights in Arles and at Ajmeer,
Monster of beauty loud with cruel gems,
I shall encounter in some lane at noon
Where painted demons have struck dumb the walls.

Lewis Thompson was born in 1909 in England. Early in his life he was introduced to Buddhism and began to read Eastern scriptures. He did not attend a university, instead he schooled himself, with a particular focus on anthropology and psychoanalysis. According to Richard Lannoy, who edited Thompson’s lone collection of poetry,

Thompson believed that in the West all was distorted and fragmentary, while in the East he could find what was clear, classical, and complete. He wished to travel to the East and was given money for the fare to Ceylon by Sir Arnold Wilson, a Persian explorer, who took pity on Thompson.

He left England in 1932 and traveled to India where he lived for the remainder of his life. Lannoy says that he “wandered the country living off of what others would give him in the form of food and lodging.” In 1936 Thompson entered into an intimate relationship with a guru named Jnani, or “Man of Knowledge”, which lasted for seven years. Following that, Thompson lived at the Rajghat School in Benares where he was writer-in-residence and employed as a librarian.

In Thompsons final years he battled a number of chronic health problems. For a while, he received some financial support from G. D. Birla, a businessman who was also a friend of Mahatma Gandhi’s. In fact, Gandhi was staying at Birla’s home when he was assassinated in 1948.

Thompson’s died alone in his room on June 23, 1949 from the effects sunstroke. He was 40. In addition to poetry, he also wrote a prose book, however none of his work was published during his lifetime.

As a poet, Lewis Thompson has been compared to Blake and Rimbaud. The latter was a considerable influence on not only his style but also his entire approach to writing. I was completely awe-struck when I first encountered Thompson’s poetry in the late ‘90s. It was an experience similar to the one I had reading Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, one of the greatest novels of the last century, some twenty years before, and then later, the work of Cormac McCarthy. In each case, I thought, this guy is so good, how can I or anyone possibly write anything after this? Truly powerful writing can make everything else seem like the work of rank amateurs.

Thompson’s poetry may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It can be dark, the imagery shattered and shifting, arcane. Yet he produced frequently lyrical and exquisitely beautiful works.

Here are several poems from the collection, Black Sun, edited by Richard Lannoy:

The Myth is Killed

The daylight burns itself away –
But endlessly – in a pure void;
The lusty leaves put forth in it
Live less than withered, more than dead.

All purposes, shrunk to a point
And vanished, leave nobody here –
Only a burnt-out thread of dream,
Not snapped, not binding, ripe and sere.

None ever crossed the phantom bridge,
The rainbow, or the razor-edge:
They fell who though it real, or reached
A heaven of new bewilderments.

The trammel snaps, the rainbow melts,
The dour edge sharps itself away:
None travelled there: the myth is killed –
The dream of nights, the dream of day.


All night the meteors fall –
Blossoms of future music . . .
In ships becalmed
By sleeping birds.

My memories haunt the moment of my birth
And leave me nude:
Like bees in honey they forget themselves.
I walk the world in which I do not die –
Tombless, with no authentic name.


Pure winter sun the deft and lyric light . . .
River-boats idle on the dancing wave
Laced with a ripple net of swarming fire.
Sheathed in incessant lightnings as he bathes
A jasper boy echoes the sparkling air,
The laughing mirror of water and of wind.

And as more northerly cold hardens in sheaves
Of crystal creaking like hyacinth, the bright
Fathomless atmosphere, tuned about sound
By countless sparking facet’s interplay,
Builds like the centre of a gem a spire
Crisper than frost and richer than a crown,
A carven pinnacle to house a god.

Giant causeways bear his immeasurable gait:
The implacable dancer lighted in all eyes. –
Dark with excess of splendor, like a flame
Transparent in the sun; bull-dense, adroit
With adamantine joy; his drenching gaze
Chilling with rapture whom it lights upon;
Pure calm and pure caprice – brute meteor
Blinding at noon the still, ethereal blaze.


It’s National Poetry Month and I’m celebrating with posts featuring spiritually oriented poetry and today it’s the poetry of Kukai.

Kukai  (774–835 CE), also known a Kobo Daishi, was a pivotal figure in Japanese Buddhism, founder of the Shingon or “True Word” school, a form of tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism.  He was a priest, an engineer, a scholar, a calligrapher, and he is thought to have invented kana, a syllabic Japanese script. As a matter of fact, Kukai is said to have composed one of the most famous of all Japanese poems in kana. It’s called Iroha and here is an English translation by Professor Ryuichi Abe:

Although its scent still lingers on
the form of a flower has scattered away
For whom will the glory
of this world remain unchanged?
Arriving today at the yonder side
of the deep mountains of evanescent existence
We shall never allow ourselves to drift away
intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams.

Kukai not only wrote poetry, he wrote about poetry, and these two aspects of his life have been largely ignored by modern scholars. His literary criticism was appreciated by renowned poets such as Fujiwara no Sadaie (1162-1241) and Matsuo Basho (1644-94), and during his life Kukai’s poetic ability was recognized by the literati at court, and by the emperor.

Words were important to Kukai, as indeed much of Shingon Buddhist practice is the recitation of words – seed-syllables, mantras. His theories on language were influenced considerably by the Mahavairocana Sutra, which maintains that all speech contains the ultimate reality and the source of speech is the eternal spirit of the universe. A Shingon manual I have states,

The doctrines of Shingon Buddhism and the teachings of Kobo Daishi can be said to begin and end with the aspiration for the realization of enlightenment. The Mahavairocana Sutra is a stura that explains the virtues of Mahavairocana Buddha, who is the source of life, and those virtues of the Buddha are expressed in the Sanskrit letter “A”, which is pronounced “Ah”. This letter A is the mind that aspires to be enlightened, and knowing that one’s own mind is to know one’s own aspiration for the realization of enlightenment.

In The Weaving of Mantra, Abe writes, “Kukai argues that the letter A, the first syllable of the Sanskrit alphabet, is the mother of all letters, words and languages.” A is called the Body of Truth. Meditation on the letter A is called ajikan. Practitioners meditate on the sound and meaning of A, as well as its form:







Kukai’s poems are “dharmic” in the sense that he used poetry to express dharma or truth, more than to appreciate beauty or to ponder his feelings.

Here are three poems, translated by Morgan Gibson and Hiroshi Murakami, taken from Kukai’s work Poems That Sing Ten Images:

Singing Image of Heat Waves

Sunlight streams on the spring landscape.
Heat waves shimmer in the meadow.
Their essence is entirely empty and not existing.
In it the astray are distressed, forgetting their home.
Heat waves far off look real, but close up are nothing.
Heat waves look like running horse or a stream, but are nothing.
Fantasies arise from wrong thinking.
Beautiful men and women fill a fortress;
But it is wrong to think that men and women have essential being.
Sages and wise men are only assumed to be so.
The all-voidness of the five functions of body and mind is the real truth.
The Four Devils and Buddha are also inconceivable.
Yoga-mind is uniquely enlightened.
A flame of the World of Truth is self-illuminating.
Do not be conceited or self-satisfied. Even yoga-mind is temporary.
Bliss of the Great Void Only is my true Empress.

[The five functions of body and mind refer to the five skandhas – form, sensation, conception, volition and consciousness. The Four Devils are defilements, skandhas, death, and lust. The Great Void Only refers to supreme enlightenment.]

Singing Image of Foam

A fine rain falls from heaven.
Many kinds of foam spreading on water
Are born then perish as water changes.
They are not born from self or other, but from the chain of causation.
Things arising in visions are mystifying.
Buddhas in the mind make them. Never suspect or doubt them.
Fundamentally, Truth and Mind are one.
Not to know this is extremely pitiful.

Singing Image Of A Whirling Ring of Fire

Whirling fire becomes a square and a circle as the hand moves.
Many changes are made according to our will.
One eternal word, “Ah!” turns into many other
Expressing innumerable Buddha-truths.