All a Mistake: Poems of Soto Zen Masters

All a Mistake: Poems of Soto Zen Masters

translated by Yasuda Joshu roshi
and Anzan Hoshin roshi
(excerpted from the forthcoming book, "The Treasury of Luminosity")

Shitou Xiqien (700-790)

Caoan-ko, Soanka:
A Song About My Grass-Thatch Hut

Here, where nothing is worth anything,
I’ve set up a grass-thatched hut.

After eating,
I just stretch out for a nap.

As soon as it was built,
weeds were already growing back.

Now I’ve been here awhile
its covered in vines.

So the one in this hut just lives on,
not inside, out, in between.

The places where usual folk live,
I don’t.
What they want,
I don’t.

This tiny hut holds the total world,
an old man and
the radiance of forms and their nature,
all in ten feet square.

Bodhisattvas of the Vast Path
know about this but
the mediocre and marginal wonder,
"Isn’t such a place too fragile to live in?"

Fragile or not,
the true master dwells here
where there is no
south or north, east or west.

Just sitting here,
it can’t be surpassed:

below the green pines
a lit window.

Palaces and towers
of jade and vermillion
can’t compare.

Just sitting,
my head covered,
all things rest.

So this mountain monk
has no understanding at all,
just lives on
without struggling to get loose.

Not going to
set out seats
and wait for guests.

Turning the light
to shine within,
turn it around again.

you can’t face it
or turn away from it.

The root of it.

Meet the Awakened Ancestors,
become intimate with the teachings,
lash grass into thatch for a hut
and don’t tire so easily.

Let it go,
and your life of a hundred years

Open your hands.

Walk around.


The swarm of words,
and little stories
are just to loosen you
from where you are stuck.

If you want to know
the one in the hermitage
who never dies,

you can’t avoid this skin-bag
right here.

Dongshan Liangjie (807-869)

Amazing! Amazing!
The teaching of the insentient
is inconceivable.

It can’t be heard with your ears.

Hear it
with your eyes,
then you’ll know.

Don’t look for it outside
or you put it away from you.

Although I walk alone
I meet it

It is all that I am
but I am not what
it is.

Know it like this
and you will merge
with Suchness.

Longya Judun (Ryuge Koton, 835-923)

A rag-robed chewer of vegetables,
my heart is like the clear autumn moon
through and through.

Ask me where I’m from,
all I can say is
blue waters, blue mountains.

One room,
one quilt,
one jar,
one bowl.

The path
winds down
to the village but
I don’t even know
what the houses look like.

Tungan Daobi (c. 9th C.)

A golden bird embraces its young
and mounts into the sky.
The jade rabbit,
heavy with child,
enters the purple dusk.

Monkeys pick golden fruit in the mornings.
At night,
phoenixes bring jade flowers.

Dayang Jingxuan (n. d.)

In the past, when I began to study Zen,
it was all a mistake.

Wandering through numberless
mountains and rivers,
I wanted to find
something to know.

(It’s all clear in hindsight.)

It is hard to understand it
because talk about "no-mind"
just brings more confusion.

The teacher has pointed out
the ancient mirror
and I see in it
the time before I was born of my parents.

Having learned this,
what do I have?

Release a crow into the night
and it flies
flecked with snow.

Zhenxie Qingliao (1089-1151)

The sun brightens
the solitary peak,

The moon’s face
in the valley stream,

The intimate vastness of the Buddhas
cannot fit into
a small mind.

Tiantong Zongjue (n.d.)

White clouds end at
the frozen cliff’s

The essential luminosity
cuts through the darkness as
the bright moon follows
the floating boat.

Koun Ejo (1198-1280)

I’m just a festering mass,
a beast amongst humans.

For years I minced barefoot,
adopting some "Continental" style.

monk’s straw sandals on my feet,

I touch my nose.

Tettsu Gikai (1219-1309)

Everyone bound by karma,
speaking of a Buddha-mind "within".

Tied up by this
I couldn’t find it.

Finally tracked it down,
showing itself as me.

Keizan Jokin (1268-1325)

the lone boat sails
through the moonlight.

Looking around,
the reeds on the bank
have never
(Denkoroku 39)

This field I’ve plowed and sown
has been bought and sold
but it’s always new:
look at the young sprouts.

I wander into the Buddha Hall
tiller and hoe in hand.
(death poem)

Gesshu Soko (1618-1696)

There is nothing I can say
about what is between
mother and child.

Hearing of her death,
my life is darkened.

Like a reed basket,
the years wove us together.

In the blank air
the smoke from a single incense stick
is my last word with her.

(written when he was sixteen, on pilgrimage,
hearing of his mother’s death)

Searching for fame and gain
keeps everyone restlessly busy
but in the sun’s warmth
and a peaceful breeze
everything is naturally new.

Without help from anyone
the spring’s brightness
is both pale and deep.

In the mountains
of boundless peace
someone sits, alone.

(at Takugen-ji, Settsu)

Under the trees,
welcoming spring.
Things take care of themselves.

A monk looks weird
to the common folk.

The Teaching of this New Year
is not outside the mind.

Filling the eye,
blue, blue mountains
in all directions.

Sucking up the boundless sea
exposes the dragon below.

The stream of Soto Zen
flows uphill.

Awake at last,
I can breathe.

Breathing in, out,
forward, back,
living, dying.

Two arrows meet in mid air,
slice and sail on through
into open space.

I turn around.
(death poem, Jan. 10, 1696)

Manzan Dohaku (1635-1714)

One minute of zazen,
one inch Buddha.

Like a lightning flash,
thoughts just
come and go.

Look once
into the ground of mind
and nothing else
has ever been.

Anzan Daiko (1690-1754)

Eyes shut,
mouth open.
Eyes open,
mouth shut,

Eyes and mouth
open and open.
They say,

"Shivering of plum blossoms
on black branch
shakes loose spring
in bright snow."

Anzan Hoshin

smoke waved from
an incense stick
a thousand years ago
brings tears to the eye