Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Poetics of Ryōkan in Eight Poems

Shaving my head, becoming a monk
I spent years on the road
            pushing aside wild grasses
            peering hard into the wind
Now, everywhere I go
            people just hand me paper and brush:
“Do some calligraphy!” “Write me a poem!”

Who says my poems are poems?
My poems are not poems.
When you know that my poems are not poems,
Then we can speak of poetry!

How pitiful, those virtuous fellows!
Moving into the recesses, they immerse
             themselves in composing poetry
For Ancient Style, their models
            are the poems of Han and Wei
For Recent Form,
            the T'ang poets are their guide
With gaudy words their lines are formed
And further adorned by
            novel and curious phrases
Yet if they fail to express
            what's in their own minds
What's the use, no matter
            how many poems they compose! 

Even if you consume as many books
As the sands of the Ganges
It is not as good as really catching
One verse of Zen.
If you want the secret of Buddhism,
Here it is: Everything is in the Heart!

I sat facing you for hours but you didn't speak;
Then I finally understood the unspoken meaning.
Removed from their covers, books lay scattered about;
Outside the bamboo screen, rain beats against the plum tree.

Weaving the countless
Varying tinges of texture
Are the forty-eight phonetic letters
Weaving them with their voices
And echoes the warp and woof

Who was it said, "names are the guests of reality"?
These words have come down to us from ancient times
But even if people know that names aren't real
They don't see that reality itself has no root
Name, reality—both are beside the point
Just naturally find joy in the ever-changing flow!

My legacy --
What will it be?
Flowers in spring,
The cuckoo in summer,
And the crimson maples
Of autumn...

~Ryōkan (tr. Ryuichi Abe & Peter Haskel: 1,6,7); (tr. John Stevens: 2,3,4,5,8)

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