In The World Of Zen, an excellent anthology of universal Zen motifs, Nancy Wilson Ross has brought together a collection of quotes and poems from various authors. These illuminate the points of the Zen mode: non-attachment, “is-ness,” “one-ness,” “now-ness,” etc. Some of these are as subtle as a straw at one’s feet. Others are more to it: patches of verse that declaim in the quiet. But whether they are haiku or passages of an English Romantic poem or the observations of Meister Eckhart, they all have one thing in common: the illumination of the present. In the grain is the universe, in the moment is the all. What follows are some of these poems and pieces, arranged not in any order, which would be counter to the mode, but randomly, like birds.

Richard Williams


The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection
The water has no mind to receive their image.

— Zenrin Kushu

The poppy flowers;
How calmly
They fall.

— Etsujin
(translated by R.H. Blyth)

Let us open our leaves like a flower, and be passive and receptive.

— John Keats,
(from a letter)

Monk: “All these mountains and rivers and the great earth — where do they come from?”

Master: “Where does this question of yours come from?”


The falling leaves
fall and pile up; the rain
beats on the rain.

— Gyodai
(translated by Harold Henderson)

God is so omnipresent . . . that God is an angel in an angel, and a stone in a stone, and a straw in a straw.

— John Donne,
Sermon VII

Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. “Child-likeness” has to be restored with long years of training in the art of self-forgetfulness. When this is attained, man thinks yet he does not think. He thinks like the showers coming down from the sky; he thinks like the waves rolling on the ocean; he thinks like the stars illuminating the nightly heavens; he thinks like the green foliage shooting forth in the relaxing spring breeze. Indeed, he is the showers, the ocean, the stars, the foliage.

— D.T. Suzuki,
Introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery,
by Eugen Herrigel

Nothing exists; all things are becoming.

— Reiho Masunaga,
The Soto Approach to Zen

He that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.

— Matthew X:39

Dispassion is called the Way. It is said “Through dispassion is one freed.”

Visuddhimagga, quoted in
Buddhist Texts Through the Ages

Sometimes contemplatives think that the whole end and essence of their life is to be found in recollection and interior peace and the sense of the presence of God. They become attached to these things. But recollection is just as much a creature as an automobile. The sense of interior peace is no less created than a bottle of wine. The experimental “awareness” of the presence of God is just as truly a created thing as a glass of beer. The only difference is that recollection and interior peace and the sense of the presence of God are spiritual pleasures and the others are material. Attachment to spiritual things is therefore just as much an attachment as inordinate love of anything else. The imperfection may be more hidden and more subtle: but from a certain point of view that only makes it all the more harmful because it is not so easy to recognize.

— Thomas Merton,
Seeds of Contemplation

Perfect detachment is without regard, without either lowliness or loftiness to creatures; it has no mind to be below nor yet to be above; it is minded to be master of itself, loving none and hating none, having neither likeness nor unlikeness, neither this nor that, to any creature; the only thing it desires to be is to be one and the same. For to be either this or that is to want something. He who is this or that is somebody; but detachment wants altogether nothing. It leaves all things unmolested.

— Meister Eckhart,
About Disinterest

Thinking about sense-objects
Will attach you to sense-objects;
Grow attached, and you become addicted;
Thwart your addiction, it turns to anger;
Be angry, and you confuse your mind;
Confuse your mind, you forget the lesson of experience;
Forget experience, you lose discrimination;
Lose discrimination, and you miss life’s only purpose.

(translated by Swami Prabhavananda
and Christopher Isherwood)

Our claim to own our bodies and our world
Is our catastrophe . . .

— W.H. Auden,

On how to sing
the frog school and the skylark school
are arguing.

— Shiki
(translated by Harold Henderson)

Zen like a distant star which is seen most clearly (if at all) when we do not look straight at it, is best glimpsed when we are talking and thinking about something else — and are moving right along.

— Harold E. McCarthy,
“Poetry, Metaphysics and Zen,”
Philosophy East and West

Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.

— Zenrin Kushu

Look, children,
Let’s rush out!

— Basho
(translated by R.H. Blyth)

Do not permit the events of your daily lives to bind you, but never withdraw yourselves from them. Only by acting thus can you earn the title of “A Liberated One.”

Wan Ling Record of the Zen Master Huang Po
(translated by John Blofeld)

Do not, I beg of you, look for anything behind phenomena. They are themselves their own lesson.

— Goethe

If you work on your mind with your mind
How can you avoid an immense confusion?

— Seng-Ts’an

A man must become truly poor and as free from his own creaturely will as he was when be was born. And I tell you, by the eternal truth, that so long as you desire to fulfill the will of God and have any hankering after eternity and God, for just so long you are not truly poor. He alone has true spiritual poverty who wills nothing, knows nothing, desires nothing.

— Meister Eckhart

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

— Matthew V:3,5

My storehouse having been burnt down,
Nothing obstructs the view of the bright moon.

— Masahide
(translated by Miyamori)

The thief
Left it behind —
The moon at the window.

— Ryokan
(translated by R.H. Blyth)

A rose is a rose is a rose.

— Gertrude Stein

The poetical nature has no self — it is everything and nothing; it has no character. . . . A poet has no identity — he is continually . . . filling some other body.

— John Keats
(from a letter)

I celebrate myself
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

— Walt Whitman,
Leaves of Grass

Now I hung the moon
On the pine
Now took it off again.

— Hokushi
(translated by Miyamori)

A poem should be equal to:
Not true

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights
above the sea —

A poem should not mean
But be.

— Archibald MacLeish,
“Ars Poetica”

. . . the poet is he who never ceases to have confidence precisely because he does not attach himself to any port, does not fasten himself by any anchor, but pursues this one form that flies through the storm and is lost unceasingly in the eternal becoming.

— Elie Faure,
The Spirit of the Forms

My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.

— Albert Einstein

Wind on the lagoon, the south wind breaking roses.

— Ezra Pound,
“Canto XXVI”

The desolation of winter;
Passing through a small hamlet,
A dog barks.

— Shiki
(translated by R.H. Blyth)

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

— William Carlos Williams,
“The Red Wheelbarrow”