An Abbreviated History of Zen Verse

by Glen Snyder

During the 5th century B.C.
Ananda would rest in the woodland grove.
The 500 assembled arhat-monks would place
in their midst one vacant seat.
Released from the struggle for personal arhatship,
he would unite with them and joyfully recite in verse
all of the 82,000 dhamma from memory
beginning with the words
Thus I have heard....

During the 6th century
Boddhidharma would step between
the eminent gathering of scholarly scribes
and the luminous jewel throne of Emperor Wu holy.
There is no frost to gather on the clear autumn moon.

During the 7th century
Hui-neng would observe all as void
so closely that his verse would carry him
on a 16-year journey
through mountains of seclusion
carrying the Patriarch's robe closely guarded.
It is neither wind nor banner
but your own mind that flaps.

During the 8th century
Han Shan would leave his cave,
descend the mountain paths
to the monastery to visit his friend Shih-Te
and along the way would paint and carve poems
on bamboo, wood, stones, cliffs, and farmhouse walls.
When ten thousand reasons disappear,
we will finally see who we are.

In the 9th century
Tung-shan Liang-chieh
would present his student
the silver bowl of snow
and the heron in flight,
it's open wings spread
against the full moon
of a cloudless sky
and would explain that the meaning is not
in the words.
White duckweeds, breeze gentle.

In the 13th century
one evening Eihei Dōgen Zenji
would advise the monks
to avoid popular literature and
write down what is thought
in the mind, even though unpolished,
when sharing words of the dharma-gate.
Before his death he would proclaim
the quivering leap that smashes
a thousand worlds.

In the 14th century
Shuho Myocho would step from the monastery
and go to live amongst peasants for 20 years
under a bridge outside of Kyoto.
Only a melon and the Emperor's
clever words would lure him out.
Evenings I rest,
mornings I play
with each step a pure breeze rises.

In the 17th century
Matsuo Basho would admire
the cherry blossoms of Ueno
and set out on the long and narrow road.
A frog in the water's sound.

In the 18th century
Sengai would retire from his abbotship
at Shokufuji temple, in order to
attend to brush and ink
buddhas, bodhisattvas, sutras, and short verse.
If only there were a pond around here
for me to jump in
and let him hear the splash!

During the 19th century
Nantembō would cut his dragon-quelling stick
from a nandina bush.
He would wander the countryside
challenging resident priests to
dharma battles and chasing those who lacked
true understanding from their temples.
His bold calligraphy
like the plum tree slow to bear fruit
would not ripen until after age 50.
The dragon cries at dusk
the tiger roars at dawn.

In the mid-20th century
seated beneath a solitary North Carolina
farmland pine in the frost
Kerouac would word the dharma of allrightness
and the essence of reality
forever and forever as it had always been.
For the 50 years that followed
the unpublished notes would rest askance.
The verses of a sihibhuto, cooled.

Towards the end of the 20th century
and near the end of Ginsberg himself
he would see even
the sky the day the night god consciousness
the mind life and death words lovers murderers
spies governments army money secret police starvation
tyrant radio and hell's televised
covered with words.
A sunflower now a locomotive,
a locomotive a sunflower.

— Glen Snyder, from the Houston Zen Center, is a poet and translator of Spanish poetry.

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