Jan 18 2017

Muso Soseki – Satori Poem

Published by at 9:20 am under Poetry

Toki-no-Ge (Satori Poem)
by Muso Soseki

English version by W. S. Merwin

Year after year
      I dug in the earth
            looking for the blue of heaven
only to feel
      the pile of dirt
            choking me
until once in the dead of night
      I tripped on a broken brick
            and kicked it into the air
and saw that without a thought
      I had smashed the bones
            of the empty sky

— from Sun at Midnight: Muso Soseki – Poems and Sermons, Translated by W. S. Merwin / Translated by Soiku Shigematsu


/ Image by Questavia /

Don’t you like the way this short Zen poem says so much?

Year after year
      I dug in the earth
            looking for the blue of heaven

The spiritual quest is first seen as some sort of construction project, but he doesn’t really know what to build or what he’s doing so he just digs deeper.

He is digging into the earth searching for heaven. We might take this to mean that he is delving into worldly, material existence. Or perhaps it is merely to suggest the heavy effort of spiritual striving. Either way, the effort, rather than freeing him is choking him.

only to feel
      the pile of dirt
            choking me

It is as if he has been digging his own grave. Even then he doesn’t know what else to do.

But insight, that moment of satori or enlightenment, comes almost by accident.

until once in the dead of night
      I tripped on a broken brick
            and kicked it into the air

Though it may be an accident, it is not random. If he hadn’t been digging in the first place, he never would have stumbled. So, in an ironic way, the effort has served its purpose, but not in the purposeful cause-and-effect manner he imagined.

Significantly, it is “in the dead of night” when he stumbles and falls, what we might interpret as the dark night of the soul when he feels most hopeless and drained.

and saw that without a thought
      I had smashed the bones
            of the empty sky

Yet in falling on his back he is face up and finally sees the sky. He’s stunned into silence (“without a thought”). The sky itself shatters. He pierces through the false sky, which is a construction of his mind — his thoughts about the sky and the heavenly realms, his concepts and assumptions of all that encompasses his world. He finally sees clearly sky, as it is, the living, empty spaciousness that overarches and permeates everything.

A reminder to us that earnest seekers labor hard, but the masters know how to fall back — and so see the sky.

=

Big energies are circulating because of the inauguration this week in the US. It’s okay to not go along with the pretense that things are okay.

The challenge going forward — cultivating a peaceful heart in coordination with a strong voice and a willing hand.


Recommended Books: Muso Soseki

Sun at Midnight: Muso Soseki – Poems and Sermons East Window: Poems from Asia Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader


Muso Soseki, Muso Soseki poetry, Buddhist poetry Muso Soseki

Japan (1275 – 1351) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan

Muso Soseki first practiced Zen under the guidance of a Chinese teacher but he “failed miserably.” He later studied with the Japanese Zen master Koho Kennichi and soon began to unfold into profound awakening, receiving certification of enlightenment in 1339.

Muso Soseki went on to teach large numbers of students and, like many Zen practitioners, write poetry. He also became an advisor to the Shogun and helped to re-establish trade and communications between Japan and China.

Soseki is perhaps most famous, however, for his profound influence in the art of Zen gardening as spaces to cultivate awareness.

More poetry by Muso Soseki

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Muso Soseki – Satori Poem”

  1. jim carlinon 18 Jan 2017 at 1:19 pm

    “the only organism on earth that doesn’t stumble–
    is an earthworm” 🙂

  2. Rauf Sheikhon 18 Jan 2017 at 4:51 pm

    Love your commentary Ivan

    You are gifted and your insights resonate…Stay Blessed

  3. Alice Whooleyon 19 Jan 2017 at 12:56 pm

    I have found that healing moments of insight have been preceded by periods of depression, of darkness, and come unannounced, unsought.

    I am a “seeker” who meditates daily and I have come to see depression, however painful, as a period of spiritual growth. Not unlike Nature…spring following winter etc. I like to think of the daffodil bulb, for example: all the work is done in darkness, then is followed by a beautiful blossoming.

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