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It's all in the poems!
on June 4, 2001
THE CRANE'S BILL : Zen Poems of China and Japan. Translated by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto with the assistance of Taigan Takayama, Zen Master. 143 pp. New York : Grove Press, 1973 and Reprinted.
Zen poetry is one of the glories of Zen, and yet few in the West seem to care or even know about it. Though undoubtedly sincere in their efforts to understand Zen, most readers seem drawn to prose treatises or explications or analyses of one sort or another, while overlooking the fact that, as Taigan Takayama expresses it : "Zen detests conceptualization" (page xi). Tenzan Yasuda has expressed the same idea this way : "What expresses cosmic truth in the most direct and concise way - that is the heart of Zen art" (page xxxvii).
The poetry of Zen ranges all the way from the tiny seventeen-syllable haiku of a stupendous poet such as Santoka, which have been beautifully translated by John Stevens (in 'Mountain Tasting : Zen Haiku by Santoka Taneda'), through to the Zen verse treatise, of which the finest example is the Third Patriarch Seng-ts'an's 'Hsin-hsin-ming.' This poem brilliantly captures the essence of Zen in its thirty-one verses, and is a text that deserves to be far better known. Although the present book is devoted to shorter poems, an easily accessible translation of the 'Hsin-hsin-ming' will be found in D. T. Suzuki's 'Manual of Zen Buddhism' ('On Believing in Mind,' pages 76-82).
'Crane's Bill' is a collaborative effort which falls into three parts. First we are given, in a Foreword, Preface, and Introduction, 42 pages of interesting and informative material in which a very persuasive case is made for the fact that we should be reading these poems. Then follow 151 poems on enlightenment, death, and general subjects, drawn from a wide range of Chinese and Japanese writers. The book is rounded out with 48 pages of notes on the poems, though it unfortunately lacks both an index and a conversion table of the Japanized Chinese names
The translations, as might have been expected from the present team, read very well. Here is Poem 1, with my slash marks to indicate line breaks:
"The mountain slopes crawl with lumberjacks, / Axing everything in sight - / Yet crimson flowers / Burn along the stream" (page 5).
Here to provide a comment on Poem 1 is Poem 14:
"Iron will's demanded of / the student of the Way - / It's always on the mind. / Forget all - good, bad. / Suddenly it's yours" (page 10).
Compare this with first verse of the Hsin-hsin-ming, the original Chinese of which may be read as follows:
"To realize the Way is not difficult / If you'd only stop choosing; / Just let go of all of your hate, and love, / And everything will be brilliantly clear."
Do we really need to know more? If you don't believe me, here is Poem 97 from the great Japanese Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253):
"Four and fifty years / I've hung the sky with stars. / Now I leap through - / What shattering!" (page 63).
'Crane's Bill' is an extremely interesting and highly successful collaborative effort which no-one who is seriously interested in Zen can afford to overlook. Because it really is all in the poems!