When all thoughts

by Ryokan

English version by John Stevens
Original Language Japanese

When all thoughts
Are exhausted
I slip into the woods
And gather
A pile of shepherd's purse.

Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent.

-- from Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan, Translated by John Stevens

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

I really like the way this poem opens...

When all thoughts
Are exhausted
I slip into the woods
And gather
A pile of shepherd's purse.


Ryokan gives us a sense of thoughts finally tiring of themselves and falling silent. And only then does it occur to him to enter the woods -- a monk, in his quiet, moving slowly among the trees in search of his simple meal of shepherd's purse (an edible wild herb).

But it's that second verse that really awakens:

Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent.


He has movement, yes, but it is effortless flow. His entire life at that moment is transparent, completely clear, free from self and the silting of mind. The question lingers: Shall we too slip into the woods?



Recommended Books: Ryokan

The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library) Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan Haiku: The Gentle Art of Disappearing Between the Floating Mist: Poems of Ryokan
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When all thoughts