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Burton Watson has written, “produced no Pearl or Paradise Lost, no Dante or Donne.” In all the languages of traditional Buddhism there has been a quantity of versified teaching but few people who we would think of—or read voluntarily—as poets. There are exceptions, however, available in graceful translations.

Han-shan is the Zen vagabond of T’ang China and endless story, the archetype of the wise madman, and his poetry comes encased in myth, as with Dickinson or Rimbaud, and, as with them, it’s difficult not to read the verse biographically; nonetheless, it moves from an earthbound mood to something thoroughly moonstruck, both teasing and convincing. Han-shan has been singularly fortunate in translators: Arthur Waley, Gary Snyder, Burton Watson, Red Pine, J.P. Seaton. The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, by Red Pine (Copper Canyon Press) is complete, very well translated, with texts and excellent notes. Burton Watson’s edition, Cold Mountain: 101 Chinese Poems, originally from Columbia, also exists in Shambhala Pocket Classic: an edition that really will fit in your pocket, and no one is better company for the road than Han-shan.

In the poetry of Saigyo, the sense of impermanence is less lacerating, more in tune with the melancholy of so much traditional Japanese verse; the sky, the moon, the trees, the hills have their companionable, sharply observed pleasures. Read Awesome Nightfall: The Life, Times and Poetry of Saigyo (Wisdom), by William R. LaFleur, and Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home, by Burton Watson (Columbia). There is also an excellent selection of Saigyo in Sam Hamill’s collection Dumb Luck (Boa Editions, 2002).

Muso Soseki, also known as Muso Kokushi, was a thirteenth-century Zen roshi, the first great designer of the Japanese rock garden, and a poet of startling immediacy and attractive spirit. His work mixes the paradoxical directness of Zen convention with a great expansiveness of feeling: the poems manage to be both wise and delightful. He too has been fortunate in his translator: W.S. Merwin, working with Soiku Shigematsu, has cast Muso’s verse in Williams-inspired triadic stanzas, and it works beautifully. Read Sun at Midnight: Poems and Sermons by Muso Soseki (North Point Press). For Muso’s prose, Thomas Cleary’s selection Dream Conversations: On Buddhism and Zen (Shambhala) has now been superseded by a splendid complete translation, Dialogues in a Dream: The Life and Zen Teachings of Muso Soseki, translated by Thomas Yuho Kirchner (Wisdom, 2015). Muso’s poems are included in East Window (Copper Canyon Press), a collection of W. S. Merwin’s Asian translations, which is full of good things. A rather dry but informative essay on Muso is in Heinrich Dumoulin’s (rather dry but informative) Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume 2: Japan (Macmillan, 1990).

By the fifteenth century, the Zen establishment of Japan had petrified sufficiently to bring on itself the iconoclasm and freshness of Ikkyu. Zen always had a knack for paradox, but Ikkyu’s best poems were written in terms of a nomadic life, mockery of the religious establishment, and sexual love. (When he was invested as abbot of Daikoku-ji, he described himself as “mortified”.) Stephen Berg’s translation, Crow with No Mouth (Copper Canyon Press), strives always for maximum starkness and compression; it’s a daring, individual translation. John Stevens’s edition, aptly titled Wild Ways, is a fuller selection, very well translated, and is back in print from White Pine Press.

Gensei was a seventeenth-century Japanese monk whose work combines Buddhism with the influences of Confucianism; he wrote mostly in Chinese, and his mood, meters and emotional temperature are very like his Chinese models. He is intimate, occasional and charming; an everyday poet in the best sense. Grass Hill: Poems and Prose by the Japanese Monk Gensei, a first-rate translation by Burton Watson, is from Columbia University Press.

Like Han-shan, the nineteenth-century monk-poet Ryokan has been singularly fortunate in his translators. Probably the largest and most varied representation of his work in English is Great Fool: Zen Master Ryokan: Poems, Letters and Other Writings, edited and translated by Ryuichi Abe and Peter Haskel (University of Hawaii, 1996); but he seems to be eminently translatable, and the other English-language selections are all good. Sky Above, Great Wind (Shambhala, 2012) has a short biography, a generous selection of excellent translations by Kazuaki Tanahashi, and a lovely sheaf of anecdotes. One Robe, One Bowl (Weatherhill) and Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf (Shambhala) are both selections translated by John Stevens, with very little overlap; the Shambhala pocket volume has lovely illustrations by Kashi no Sengai. Burton Watson’s selection, The Zen Monk Ryokan (Columbia) is very much up to Watson’s best standards. “Like the little stream / Making its way / Through the mossy crevices / I too, quietly / Turn clear and transparent.” So true is this, so gentled is the emotion in Ryokan’s poems, that he can make all but the sweetest-natured of western poets—Keats, say, or Francis Jammes—seem like ruffians. Like Jizo, the Buddhist protector of animals and children, to whom he wrote many poems, Ryokan seems moonstruck, but in full daylight.

Arguably the greatest of the poets discussed here, Wang Wei is invariably cited as one of the half-dozen masters of the T’ang Dynasty, itself the great period in Chinese verse. He was a devout Buddhist, but this is expressed in his work in the purest poetic terms, brought out through dramatic situation and emotional stance, with little of the technical vocabulary of Buddhism intruding. He has been called a perfect artist, and he is certainly one of the masters of the poetic quietude that is the dominant mood of his work. The simplest vocabulary, the tightest perfection of form: these can impose almost insuperable problems for the translator, and though there are several good translations of Wang Wei I don’t know of a great one. The most generous selection of his work is in Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei, translated by Tony Barnstone, Willis Barnstone and Xu Haixin (University Press of New England, 1991). This gives you not just the flavor of his work but the shape of his life and career; the introduction and notes are good, the translations are graceful and without any mannerisms. The recent complete translation by Paul Rouzer in the Library of Chinese Humanities—happily available for free download from the De Gruyter website—strikes me more as careful and scholarly than inspired or exciting. A very instructive work, not just on Wang Wei and Chinese poetry but on the issues of translation, is Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz (Moyer Bell, 1987). A single four-line poem—“Deer Park,” from the Wang River Sequence—is given in text and transliteration and a variety of English translations, with comment on each; an opportunity for a kind of literary triangulation. (See also J. P. Seaton’s superb essay “Once More, on the Empty Mountain,” another essay on “Deer Park”—it’s in The Poem Behind the Poem: Translating Asian Poetry, edited by Frank Stewart, and published by Copper Canyon.)

“Don’t tell me how difficult the Way. / The bird’s path, winding far, is right /

before you.. Waters of the Dokei Gorge, / You return to the stream, I to the mountain.” (Hofuki Seikatsu) For the poetry of Zen, Zen Poems, selected by Peter Harris (Knopf, 1999) is a lovely pocket-sized anthology; the verse and translation are good throughout, though the flavor is often more generally Buddhist than precisely Zen. For an anthology more specific to the Zen tradition (satori poems, death poems, etc.) go to Lucien Stryk’s Zen Poems of China and Japan: The Crane's Bill (Anchor Books, 1973). The subtitle is taken from Dogen’s poem: “The world? Moonlit/ Drops shaken/ From the crane’s bill.” Zen Harvest: Japanese Folk Zen Sayings, translated by Soiku Shigematsu (North Point, 1988) is a translation of the Zenrin Segosu, an anthology of haiku, dodoitsu and waka compiled for use by Japanese Zen students: it’s also one of the most interesting anthologies of Japanese verse available.

And last, coming into the modern period, Santoka Taneda. The late master Masaoka Shiki had brought the sights and emotions of the contemporary world into the traditional form of haiku; after his death in 1902, a second school of practice broke off, the shinkeiko, varying the syllabic pattern and jettisoning the worn-out requirement of the season word. This became the perfect form for Santoka’s gifts. He lived as a mendicant Zen priest, without home or much in the way of possessions, and had a devouring taste for sake. His emblematic poem was: “Days I don’t enjoy: / Any day I don’t walk / Any day I don’t drink sake / Any day I don’t compose haiku.” Surely here the biography is the work: Santoka’s mendicancy gave him to experience and to commemorate those moments of vision that are peculiarly the domain of the way of haiku. But remember, he was walking through the period of Brian Victoria’s Zen at War as well as the eternal landscape of Japan—the unease of modernity is in them, the darkened background of Santoka’s travels. John Stevens has translated a wonderful selection, Mountain Tasting: Haiku and Journals of Santoka Taneda (White Pine Press, 2009, in their splendid series Companions for the Journey). Beware of it. It may be, in its quiet, implicit way, as thorough a gauntlet thrown in the path of modern life as poetry may leave for you to find.


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