Poets Online Archive
Zen Mind

In the poem Nantucket from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, we see a kind of quiet observation that is unusual in Western poems. In the now out of print set, A Box of Zen (collected by Manuela Dunn Mascetti ) there are three volumes that guide readers through the principles of Zen through poetry, parables, koans, haiku and challenges.

A parable such as:
Before a person studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are not waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.

Or one of those seemingly paradoxical koans, such as the too-often quoted What is the sound of one hand clapping? or this lesser known one - One day Chao-chou fell down in the snow, and called out, "Help me up! Help me up!" A monk came and lay down beside him. Chao-chou got up and went away.

Williams' poem is close to that Zen spirit * And a poem that is close to the Zen spirit by William Carlos Williams. Notice that in his poem "Nantucket" there is close observation without judgment, without the voice of the poet or personae. you sit and you observe, and you watch your thoughts.

Watch your thoughts. So your mind is watching your mind, and the subject is mind and the object is mind. And then you see the mind is thinking and perhaps you reach the emptiness of the mind; the actual pure awareness of the mind. (Confused? try this link )

Your poetry challenge: following Williams' form ( 5 stanzas each with 2 short lines), describe a scene in detail while avoiding any judgment or language which presents a point of view. It's harder than it might appear. Empty your mind of everything but the moment you are describing.

* We say this at the risk of trivializing the Zen practice which has been used at times to explain business, fishing, tennis, food and Winnie the Pooh.

Some additional links you might find enlightening :
read about the haiku form

The Essential Haiku

Haiku Moment: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Haiku

Seeds from a Birch Tree : Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey by Clark Strand

What is Zen? some beginning information

Everyday Mind

Coin in my closed hand.
Arm extended, palm to ground.

Relax or let go and
I will lose what I cling to.

Palm turned to sky and
I can let go, yet keep hold.

Room dark but for a passage light.
Figure sleeping on the bed.

I sit on the edge looking at the light.
I stand in the passage watching them.

Pam Milne

Distant Light

A light from
beyond the trees --

the yellow glow
of silent flames

Platforms and piping
in silhouette

shadows cast
upon the ground --

workers beneath
petrochemical flares.

James M. Thompson

False Dawn

Pale yellow light
in the eastern sky

two hours before sunrise.
Tiny silicate debris left

from the creation of the universe,
cast off from comets

the rising light bounces off,
rays in perfect alignment.

Black, moonless sky of October.
A city just over the horizon.

Lianna Wright


Street crossing street crossing street,
Crossing over-under InterStates—

Parking lots & traffic jams
Trains & articulated busses—

TV/radio traffic checks with
Helicopters, mobile & fixed cameras—

Reporting to you & to me,
Reporting congestion-accident-construction delays & detours,

Reporting 5 days-a-week, am & pm,
Year upon year upon year upon year.

Steven Bizel


the parting of lips just before a kiss that is wanted; soft anticipation taking in just enough air understanding already the warmth of another

the tug of awake and lure of asleep balancing until the opening of eyes to meet the morning sun
filtered through lace curtains with the smell of dew on lilac

the hands finding their cleverness and opening so the plans can tumble in; color or syllables
suddenly posing just so in the mind in their thumbnails of potential

the step inside to smiles and arms that hold tenderly in safety after a long journey or absence
and there are no questions

the dance of small birds on the sidewalk, the call of the crow on telephone wire, the pump of
the wings of the geese getting home.

Cheryl Soback

Zen Garden

small river stones
raked smooth

shadowless at noon
three large boulders

each within a ring
of its own shadow

no paths visible
a spider moving

west, stone
by stone.

Ken Ronkowitz

Printed Poison Ivy

A silk-screened wall-to-wall hanging
Of five three-foot poison ivy plants,

whose cut-stems look like a horse’s hoof
and nearby clump of pattern

could be a bucking bronco’s head
(or a cluster of ivy berries),

reveals the varied strokes deposited in wax
upon the silk to resist the squeegee's force

to play the black against the beige silhouette
of leaves and turquoise field beyond.

Catherine LeGault

sweet fields of green
and summer scents

carry away all

like birds on the wing
soaring high

past the low demons
that scream

if only
it were true




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