Classic Zen Poems

These Zen poems were translated from the Mandarin by JianYing FaShih of Chung Tai Zen Center of Sunnyvale CA and were edited by myself. I include here the original translations and my edits (which are in italics). Many of these poems have never before appeared in English. The poems are used in the Zen Buddhism classes at our monastery. You will recognize some in the “Ox-Herder” series. All beautifully represent the breadth and depth of Zen writing: some are clearly didactic, some whimsical, some are little riddles, and some have arisen in the flush of immediate illumination or the warm peace of old age. All are brief, and many are very old, and yet they remain immediate, fresh and pure, as they manifest the light of True Mind.    ~ SK

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Empty Gate is still and serene; It simplifies me.
The water in brooks and rain is light and gentle; It washes away dust.
Resting in clouds, I still care for all sentient beings,
While freely enjoying the chirping of yellow birds and the Spring blossoms.

The Empty Gate is still and serene;
It simplifies me.
The gentle rain, the flowing brook,
The water rinsing away dust from the mind.
And resting amongst the clouds,
I still cherish all sentient beings
While freely enjoying the Spring blossoms
And the songs of the yellow birds.
———————————————————————————–
One who practices the Way should not crave or seek;
For non-seeking after anything tunes one with the Way.
No Mind initiates the realization of the Way that seeks nothing;
After the complete realization of No Mind the Way rests as well.

If you practice the Way, don’t crave or seek.
Non-seeking and non-craving puts you in tune with the Way:
No-Mind, for those who seek nothing, initiates realization
And when No-Mind completely realizes itself
Then the Way rests as well.
——————————————————————————————-

Diligent farming and some kindling are a good cause;
When the Fall arrives every house smells the aroma of evening rice.
If unable to let go, then pick it up;
So that an enriched field is ready for the next spring.

Diligent farming and gathering kindling are worthy tasks.
When Fall arrives, from each house you pass
Issues the aroma of evening rice.
If unable to let go, then pick it up
So that the enriched field is ready for the next Spring.
—————————————————————————

Zen practitioners can quiet themselves;
Their dwellings are the secluded mountains.
Although the things outside the doors can be disturbing,
The practitioners in sitting are tranquil as usual.
Fishermen’s songs are heard from the other shore;
Wild ducks fly down to the front river bend.
This is it and nothing else.
So why not (be in)/amidst this metropolitan city of Hong?

Zen practitioners can quiet themselves;
They dwell in the secluded mountains.
Although things right outside the door can be disturbing
They tranquilly cultivate, sitting as usual.
Fishermen’s songs can be heard from the other shore;
Wild ducks swoop down to the river bend.
This is it and nothing else.
So why not sit in peace amidst this noisy city of Hong Kong?
[or: San Jose, or Taipei]
———————————————————————————–

Returning to the source one arrives at home;
This has nothing mysterious to speak about.
Completely clear is the nature of one’s mind as such;
Its loss is just due to a thought of confusion.

Returning to the source, one arrives at home,
And there’s nothing mysterious to speak about–
Such is the nature of the mind: completely clear.
Losing sight of that is just due to one confused thought
———————————————————————————–

The complete realization of one point brings about the realization of all,
Like the wind breezing through the trees and the moon traversing the sky.
A fillip from the holes, and through the fibers, of lotus roots
Pushes out Mount Sumeru, the highest peak of the world.

The complete realization of one point brings about the realization of all, 
As the wind penetrates the forest and the moon traverses the sky. 
A mere flick of the fingers, and out through the fibrous holes of the lotus root
Pushes Mount Sumeru, the highest peak of the world. 
—————————————————————————————
There was an idle field at the foot of the mountains.
Pointing at it I eagerly asked Grandpa, [Who replied,]
It had been sold numerous times and just bought back by myself,
for the sympathy of pines and bamboos
tenderly drawing refreshing breezes.

There was a field left fallow at the foot of the mountains.
Pointing at it, I eagerly asked Grandpa about it, who replied
“It’s been sold numerous times and I just bought it back myself,
For the sympathy of pines and bamboos
Tenderly drawing refreshing breezes.”
————————————————————————-

Cultivating the Way is like guarding a city;
Look out for the six thieves at daytime while being alert at night.
When the commander in chief is in complete control,
There will be no fights needed to bring peace everywhere.

Meditation practice is like guarding a city;
Watch out for the Six Thieves during daytime
And remain alert at night.
When the commander-in-chief is in complete control,
There will be no need for strong-arm tactics
To keep the peace everywhere.
———————————————————————————
Want to get a place to rest:
Cold Mountain can provide lasting peace.
Light wind sways a hidden pine,
Listen closely and the sound is better.
Under it a gray-haired person,
Mumblingly reads the scriptures.
For 10 years he has been unable to return and,
Even forgotten the way he came.

Want to get a place to rest?
Cold Mountain can provide lasting peace.
Light wind sways a hidden pine,
Listen closely and you will hear it.
Under it’s branches is a gray-haired fellow,
Mumbling the scriptures.
For 10 years he has been unable to return,
And has even forgotten the way he came in.
—————————————————————————-
Made of the Four Elements with a skill comparable to the Creator,
It can produce sound solely due to its inside being empty.
Don’t complain that it doesn’t speak with ordinary people;
It is just because the tune is very much different.

Made of the Four Elements with a skill comparable to the Creator,
It can produce sound solely because the space inside is empty.
Don’t complain that it doesn’t speak with ordinary people;
That’s just because the tune they hear is so different!
———————————————————————————
Sowing needs rain but reaping needs sun;
Sailing needs downwind whereas flowers need dew,
To satisfy everyone’s wishes,
The Creator, if there is one, must change thousands of times a day!

Sowing needs rain but reaping needs sun;
Sailing needs a down-wind, but flowers need dew,
To satisfy everyone’s wishes,
The Creator, if there is one,
Must switch things around thousands of times a day!
———————————————————————————–
Daily activities are not different from it,
If one is always in accord with it.
Neither grasp nor reject anything,
Nor is there any contradiction.
Who labels it red or purple?
Mountains are absolutely free of impurities/defilements.
What are transcendental and wondrous manifestations?
Carrying water and gathering firewood!

Daily activities are not different from it,
If one is always in accord with it.
When neither grasping nor rejecting anything,
There is no contradiction.
Who labels it red or purple?
When mountains are seen as pure,
And absolutely free of defilements,
What are my transcendental and wondrous deeds?
Carrying water and gathering firewood!
———————————————————————————–

[No original provided]
Old bamboos bring forth new shoots;
New flowers grow from old branches.
Rain hurries travelers on the road;
Wind sends the sail-boat back to shore.
Bamboo forests, no matter how dense,
Don’t stop water from flowing through,
Mountains, no matter how high,
Don’t interfere with clouds flying by.
———————————————————————————
Once I met Master Yuan in front of the forest;
Quietly listening to his true/Dharma words,
All my mundane thoughts were dissolved.
‘Till now that serene Zen mind is still here,
Freely enjoying the winds of peach blossoms and willow catkins.

Once I met Master Yuan at the entrance to the forest;
And while quietly listening to his Dharma words,
All my mundane thoughts dissolved.
Even now that serene Zen mind is still here,
Freely enjoying the showers of peach blossoms and willow catkins.
—————————————————————————————
Dressing up to watch the blossoms,
Everyone gets a different understanding.
Hair starts to turn gray only today;
Flowers are more beautiful last year.
Seductive colors are gone with the morning dew;
Pervasive fragrance chases the evening wind.
There is no need to wait for the time of withering decay,
For one to know the empty nature of everything!

We’ve dressed up in our best to watch the blossoms!
And everyone understands it differently:
“Why, my hair started to turn gray only today!”
“The flowers were more beautiful last year…”
Those seductive colors depart with the morning dew;
A pervasive fragrance chases the evening wind.
And there’s no need to wait for the time of withering decay,
For one to know the empty nature of everything!
————————————————————————————————
Quiet night, a lone boat ride the wide waves;
Rush flowers on the banks face the round moon.
Golden scales dive themselves deep into the water,
For naught will the old fisherman ply his bamboo pole

Quiet night…a lone boat rides the wide waves;
On the riverbank rush flowers turn to face the round moon.
Golden scales flash, disappearing into deep water,
For naught will the old fisherman ply his bamboo pole.
————————————————————————————————-

A pond of lotus leaves, limitless clothing,
Pine flowers fall on the ground, abundant food.
When the abode is just known by people,
He moves the thatch hut deeper in the seclusion.

A pond full of lotus leaves is his limitless clothing,
Pine flowers fall on the ground…there’s abundant food.
When the abode is just discovered by people,
He moves the thatched hut deeper into seclusion.
———————————————————————————————-
I must never let go of the whip and rein,
Lest he strides down the dusty trail.
By patiently taming and subduing the ox,
He’ll freely follow me without the reins.
(Taming the Ox)

“Taming the Ox”
I must never loosen up on the reins or neglect the whip,
Lest the ox amble off down some dusty trail.
By my patiently taming and subduing the ox,
He’ll learn to freely follow me without the reins.
—————————————————————————————–
It is relatively easy to explain the Dharma than to practice it.
If one does not remove one’s wandering thoughts, all will be just in vain.
When one’s mind is always entangled with worldly phenomena and thoughts,
It is useless to even sit quietly in the deep mountain.

It’s easier to explain the Dharma to oneself or others than to practice it.
If one does not release one’s wandering thoughts, all effort will be in vain.
When one’s mind is always entangled with worldly thoughts and things
It’s even useless to sit quietly deep in the mountains.
———————————————————————————————-
Common birds love to chatter where men live quiet lives.
Peaceful clouds seem jealous that the moon is bright.
In the world, the ten thousand affairs are not my affairs.
My only shame is that it’s autumn and I have no poem.

Common birds love to chatter where men live quiet lives.
Peaceful clouds seem jealous of the brightness of the moon.
In the world, the ten thousand affairs are not my affairs.
My only shame is that it’s Autumn and I still have no poem.
———————————————————————————————
After a thousand miles of rugged road,
I no longer love this old body.
My footsteps: utterly without strength;
Before my eyes: only clouds.
I’ve seen many birds come home to roost, but
Met few people to ask about the ford.
Don’t blame plum blossoms for laughing at me.
I stumble along through yet another spring!

After a thousand miles of rugged road,
I no longer love this old body.
My footsteps: utterly without strength;
Before my eyes: only clouds.
I’ve seen many birds come home to roost,
But met few people to ask about fording the river…
So don’t blame the plum blossoms for laughing at me.
As I stumble along through yet another spring!
—————————————————————————————-
There is this ox herder,
Who rides his ox into the market place.
Not spending a penny,
He buys out all of the lands (between heaven and earth).
When sowing he farms not,
Nor does he prepare a bit at the time of reaping.
Cracking the whip in the market,
He brings all the closed stores to open simultaneously.

Here is this ox-herder
Riding his ox into the market place
He purchases all the lands between heaven and earth
Without spending a single penny.
After sowing he doesn’t bother to farm,
Nor does he set aside a bit of time for reaping.
With a crack of his whip in the market,
All the closed stores fling open their doors.
——————————————————————————————
There is this ox herder,
Who wears a rain cape and a bamboo hat.
Wind and rain cannot encroach upon him, but
Misty fog embraces to wet his clothes.
In spring, he listens to the flourishing of the flowers,
While looking at the weeping of the trees in autumn.
This ox herder is just this ordinary mind,
That is not a fortress separate from the world.

There is this ox-herder,
Wrapped up in a cape with a bamboo hat.
Wind and rain don’t bother him–
But misty fog swirls round him, wetting his clothing.
In Spring, he hears the flower buds popping open
While looking at the drooping trees of Autumn.
This ox-herder is just ordinary mind.
That isn’t a fortress separate from the world.
————————————————————————————–
There is this ox herder,
To whom no one can do anything.
At once it gives rise to the world,
While it destroys/breaks all the heavens and earth at another.
Its appearance remains to be young,
Whereas its heart is as vast as the sea.
If you ask the old sage,
Who can really give birth to me?

Now there is this ox-herder, become impenetrable
At times destroying all…at times it giving birth to all
It always appears young, yet its heart is as vast as the sea.
Shall you ask the old sage “Who can really give birth to Me?
—————————————————————————————–
There is this ox herder,
Who does nothing all year long.
When the sun rises,
He walks into the deep valley.
River water washes the head of the ox;
Lush grass covers the ox’s feet.
Even though all things fade to twilight,
My mind is always serene and open.

It seems that there is this ox-herder
Who does nothing all year long:
When the sun rises, he walks into the deep valley,
And the river washes the ox’s head
And its hooves sink into lush grass,
And even as all things fade into twilight
The mind is always serene and open.

——————————————————————

Do not search for him outside,
Lest he move further away from me.
Now when I go on alone,
I meet him everywhere I go!
He is exactly me now,
But I am not him completely now.
Understanding should be this way,
To accord with true suchness!

Do not search for him outside,
Lest he move further away from me.
Now when I go on alone,
I meet him everywhere I go!
He is exactly me now,
But I am not him completely now.
One’s understanding should be in this way,
To accord with true Suchness!

———————————————————————

In the mountains is a river;
No one seems to know its name.
At times it reflects the colors of the sky on the ground;
At other times it splashes to make the sound of rain.
Having made a turn to fill up deep gorges,
It also branches out to even small pounds,
Completely tranquil with no one seeing,
It stays clear all year round.

In the mountains there is a river;
No one seems to know its name.
At times it reflects the colors of the sky onto the ground;
At other times it splashes, making the sound of rain.
Having turned to fill up deep gorges,
It also branches out, even filling small pounds,
Completely tranquil with no one seeing,
It stays clear all year ‘round.

———————————————————————————

Objective conditions do not have the idea of beauty or ugliness in themselves.
The thought of beauty or ugliness arises from our mind.
If the mind does not impose any discrimination,
How can one’s false thinking come about?
When one’s false thinking does not arise,
One’s true mind will spontaneously embrace all.

There is no objective condition of beauty or ugliness..
The thought of beauty or ugliness arises from our mind.
If the mind imposes no discrimination,
How can false thinking come about?
And when one’s false thinking does not arise,
One’s true mind will spontaneously embrace all.

——————————————————————————–

Countless practitioners attempt to awakening in vain,
For they mistake to seek on the path of others’ tongues.
If one wishes/strives to transcend forms and clear traces,
One has to diligently and attentively walk in emptiness.

Countless practitioners make vain attempts to awaken,
For they mistakenly seek the path in the words of others.
When one’s aim is to to transcend forms and clear traces,
One must oneself diligently and attentively walk in emptiness.

————————————————————————————

In the mountains is a river;
No one seems to know its name.
At times it reflects the colors of the sky on the ground;
At other times it splashes to make the sound of rain.
Having made a turn to fill up deep gorges,
It also branches out to even small pounds,
Completely tranquil with no one seeing,
It stays clear all year round.

In the mountains there is a river;
No one seems to know its name.
At times it reflects the colors of the sky onto the ground;
At other times it splashes, making the sound of rain.
Having turned to fill up deep gorges,
It also branches out, even filling small pounds,
Completely tranquil with no one there to see,
It stays clear all year ‘round.

————————————————————————————-

And this, perfect just as it is:

The fishing line drops a thousand feet into the water;
One mere ripple stirs up ten thousand ripples.
Quiet night, cold water, no fish takes the bait;
The entire boat, completely empty, returns with the moonlight.

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