December morning –
only the sound of rain
on temple tiles
and scarlet maples
swirling in the gutter



as the pale light of dawn
bleeds through the shōji
we eat a thin gruel
of rice with a pickled plum
from black lacquered bowls

the rain beat down
during the night
the moss garden
is nearly covered
with scarlet maples

a cold wind blows
we hear the lonesome cries
of wintering gulls
as a temple bell resounds
and a train rattles by

a monk in an indigo robe
strikes a meditator’s shoulders
with a stick of cherry wood
fiercely repeatedly
until it snaps!



round midnight
we take our zafus
from the meditation hall
and go out onto the verandah
for night sitting

five of us in a line
an immaculately raked
gravel garden
backed by tall cedars

we sit in zazen
and breathe in
and out
the cold
night air

I see the silhouette
of the temple gate
against the starlit sky
the shadow of the eaves
on the white sand

the priest today
talked about non-duality
no separation
but I hear you out there
by the willow weeping






it is soft
and furry
she holds it
and gently caresses it
in her bosom
she loves her rabbit
am I not soft? not furry?



the coffee cup that you broke
I mended it with black lacquer and
and on that beer tumbler
I tried red and silver

I look out the window
at last night’s puddles
and the grey skies
as the pane begins
to steam

this day long rain
I empty a bucket
from the kitchen floor
and turn on the radio
the kettle starts to whistle

endless winter



here in the twilight zendo
things are not what they seem
once false move can send you
plummeting through the thin ice

here in this frozen landscape
three monks in rags
feet bound with straw
are crossing over

we must be vigilant at all times
there are fissures that are perilous
I drop a stone into a bottomless well
a ruined house leaks moonlight

all signs read no way out
there are shackles of every form and no form
on the frozen dune
we climb to see no one

I stare at a black tile
and see the ten thousand arms of Kannon
we walk the thin ice
with great trepidation

we are nearly over
to the other shore
when I hear a crack
in the ice

here in this twilight zendo
no sound
no river
no ice



Gao Xinjian

well over thirteen hundred celsius
when we opened the portal
our faces were protected by a visor
from the searing heat
we peered into the kiln

he was firing for a week
with total attentiveness
it was the fifth day
and time for hikidashi
pulling out pots at high temperature

as I watched the flames glide over
the pinkish white pots
there was a fearful beauty
a serenity that could be
heaven or hell

with an iron rod he spread
some ashes over the pots
he reached in and
lifted one up over the glowing embers
then out of the mouth of the kiln

the ash glaze ran rivulets
as the molten piece tingled and cooled
a chawan with a dragonfly carving
it glistened there in a sea
of emerald green



the first bullet
only grazed the bear’s ear
but the other two
tore completely
through the bear’s heart

a clearing in the forest
just by the Treasure River
a pool of blood
stains the crimson maples
and snow was falling

across the river
there was an iron cage
where another bear
had been kept
but it was empty

the wrought-iron bars
had corroded and loosened
over years of captivity
and in the night
the bear had escaped

as the snow began to fall
a mysterious light
shone through the clouds
the dying bear

it didn’t take long
for snow to bury
by the next morning
there was hardly a trace
under the bending pines

the bear’s paw-prints …
just a drop of blood
on deep snow



there were scarlet stains
and a sharp pain
as the brigand cut off a finger
from the victim with a knife

the murderer wore a garland
under his coat
only one more finger was needed
to complete the garland of a thousand fingers

it was dawn in the kingdom of Sakya
when the saffron robed Blessed One was
walking down the highway
approaching Angulimala

Angulimala had decided that the Buddha
would be his final victim
he asked the Blessed One to stop
but he continued walking

‘I have stopped, but you haven’t ?’
struck by the words and its meaning
Angulimala instantly became a disciple of the Blessed One
he stopped his violence and did meritous deeds

due to his bad karma
people would sometimes throw stones
at the monk Angulimala
as blood dripped into his begging bowl


written during rohatsu sesshin,
December 2014,  Tofuku-ji

ink paintings by kind permission of Gao Xingjian

for H. & Plum

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