Here’s Why You Don’t Understand Zen Poetry

zen painting

Much of Zen Buddhism is purposely paradoxical and riddled with absurdities.

Its purpose is not to get you to think, but to get you to NOT THINK. The ludicrous language that often characterizes Zen poetry is designed to shatter your egoic, conceited notions of knowing, well, anything. This leaves you in a state of what Zen Master Seung Sahn calls “don’t know mind,” or a mind that is still, clear and free of preconceived ideas.

Just as you cannot see your eyes or bite your teeth, you cannot use your mind to examine your mind. Many Zen teachings are crafted (often in hilarious ways) to bring your perspective beyond your mind, so it’s not meant to be understood in the rigid, logical sense.

Seung Sahn, whose teachings are featured in the phenomenal book Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, has some of my favorite Zen poetry. Here’s a taste…

Zen Poetry

What is Buddha?
“Three pounds of flax”
“Dry shit on a stick”
I don’t understand these words
The infant is sucking on his toes


I traced the steps of the cow that has been long forgotten
Having caught the harness
I hope you will ride on the cow
Playing the flute with no holes
And enter your home village
Where flowers bloom in the spring


Good and evil have no self nature
Holy and unholy are empty names
In front of the door is the land of stillness and quiet
Spring comes, grass grows by itself

And here’s some of my own zen-style poetry (from my book Primordial Reflections)…

An autumn day
A walk outside
Smile, golden retriever


A zippery tandem
A tippery zife
Yeah that was random
But so is life


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Stevie P