japanese death poems

Four-and-fifty years
I’ve hung the sky with stars.
Now I leap through—
What shattering!

—Dogen Zenji, 1253

Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going—
Two simple happenings
that got tangled.

—Kozan Ichikyo, 1360

Spitting blood
Clears up reality
And dreams alike.

—Sunao, 1926

Showing its back
And showing its front,
A maple leaf falling.

—Zen Master Ryokan, 1831

What legacy shall I
leave behind?
Flowers in spring.
Cuckoos in summer.
Maple leaves in autumn.

—Zen Master Ryokan, 1831

More on death poems here and here.

(Thank you: Dendo @ Baltimore Dharma Group)

respect everything

The other night in the zendo I felt movement on my leg. At first I thought it was just the fan blowing on me, but then the movement continued in a path up my leg. I tried to let it go from my mind, as I usually try to do with minor sensations that arise while sitting. Eventually the crawling stopped. But then about five or ten minutes later I felt it again on my arm, heading down toward my hand. Whatever it was must have circumnavigated my body. It reached my wrist, hesitated, turned around and began crawling back up my arm before finally moving off my skin, probably onto my clothes. I did not feel it again for the duration of the sitting period.

Afterwards we talked about sensations that arise during zazen and what to do about them, specifically what qualifies as something worth moving your body for, at the risk of becoming a distraction for the people sitting next to you. As someone pointed out, meditation is a good time to experiment with reactions one might not default to in everyday life.

In this case, clearly there was some type of insect crawling on my body and my first instinct in daily life would be to (a) look at it and/or (b) brush it off. The outcome of (a) would most likely determine whether reaction (b) manifests itself. If I saw that it was a mosquito or a large spider, I would no doubt immediately brush it off. I might even brush whatever it was off without first looking at it. The mere feeling of something crawling on me could provoke an action designed for instantaneous removal, at the risk of potential injury or even death to a living organism.

If last night I had jerked my arm when I felt the crawling sensation I would likely have disturbed the people sitting to my left and right. Knowing this I sat with the sensation and in turn experienced a curious response within myself. I felt connected to this insect of which I did not even have a visual image. All I had was the feeling of its legs as it moved in zigzag motions along my skin. I felt its uncertainty as it paused and turned back the way it had come. I felt a friendliness toward it growing as we momentarily shared the same space.

As Shunryu Suzuki once said:

When our life is based on respect and complete trust, it will be completely peaceful. Our relationship with nature should also be like this. We should respect everything, and we can practice respecting things in the way we relate with them.¹

¹Suzuki, Shunryu. Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen. Edited by Edward Espe Brown. New York: HarperCollins; 2003.

remora as object lesson

At 3 PM each day a digest of quarantined spam arrives. Fred Pryor continues to implore me to register for one year of unlimited training. Only $199. Also I continue to spam myself, which is always vaguely unsettling to see.

Listening to trigger music when of course the pin strikes the primer and sets off the charge. On the back side of today what builds upwhere does it gothis effluvia of life. Not dissolving like powdered lemonade. Sitting herebeing hereand not going there. A simple concept in theory.

Eschew the habits of the remora and be free of suffering. Enjoy without attachment. Sit.

These moments continue to pass by regardless of our presence in them.


I’m tired…allergy season is upon me and it seems like this year it’s gonna be particularly rough. I feel like I’m sorta falling apart at the seams and simultaneously sewing them back up. A little stuffing drops out each time. My dreams have broadened, become richer and more verdant, but I still struggle to recall them. This distresses me. I don’t think I’m prepared for another summer in the city. It seems different now…the violence more palpable, the callousness in the streets hardened to an impermeable crust. I seek open fields with endless skies and not a building in site. I just keep blundering along, not really knowing what I’m doing at all. I miss writing…it’s like an old friend I keep meaning to call up on the phone. It’s a challenge for me to prioritize.  I shouldn’t have to prioritize that. But there’s no forcing it, either. I feel like I should know a few more things than I do at this point in my life. Other people’s lives fascinate me…do they also doubt themselves on a near-daily basis? Do they also feel like proto-adults? And by proto- I mean primitive. Ah well…another epic zen fail for the day.

the dark place

I woke up last night from a dream where I was lying in bed and couldn’t breathe. There was nothing I could do or say…I just lay there silently choking to death. Sometimes things come along that can’t be shrugged off. And when they do, they trigger a flare from a deep well of banished thoughts and feelings. The urge to sabotage all that is good and pure rises up from the long-cold ashes of the last flare that burned short but fiery. Sometimes, crouching in the dim light of that flare, I want to stab the past in the eye with a pencil. But it’s eyeless and hard to pin down. And then when I stumble into the dark place I’m always still surprised to find such easily corroded materials. Is it the new air that circulates around them, setting off a new round of oxidization? Even now, so many years later, when I’ve struggled so hard to reach the center and stay there, I still have to face these rusted thoughts. Sometimes things come along and heft their weight onto your chest, pressing down on your rib cage until you finally react. And hopefully somewhere within the cracked and and bruised ribs, the wheezing breaths, the bloody foam filling your throat, there is a tiny ghost bird fighting to make it to the surface, to fix its beady black eyes on you and flap its miniature wings in disapproval. It is this…this simple gesture from the wild, apart from the ugliness and flawed brokenheartedness of humanity, that will snap you to attention, will drive you to stand and clear the blood from your throat and speak again out from behind the dirty shroud of inner weakness we all share.


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