The Stories We Tell Ourselves: A Look Through the Lenses of Zen Buddhism and Poetry – By Michael G. Smith



In his poem Can Palat W.S. Merwin reminisces about an abandoned, hillside farmstead he encountered as a young man. On a terrace he finds

an ancient pomegranate tree

gnarled and twisted and the bark shredded
the rings inside it holding its story

and the sap still climbing to make
another life…1

Taking particular note of the tree rings and their circularity, what grasps and perpetuates the stories we tell ourselves? And what does the ­still climbing sap reveal about how we conduct our lives with their endless hopes and expectations? What might understanding such things reveal about who we can become? More than two thousand years ago Gautama Buddha provided answers to these questions. Since then, Zen poets, and those of other persuasions, day dreamers and conjurers of images that that they are, have been exploring the terrain the Buddha exposed and the maps he drew.

The received wisdom of the Buddha’s is that mind is composed of eight modes of consciousness: the five senses, the conscious mind (conceptual consciousness) that concretizes information received from the senses into concepts and projections, the will (self-conscious mind) fixated on the self, and the repository consciousness storing the thoughts and projections produced by the sixth and seventh modes. The repository consciousness is also envisioned as a seedbed from which succeeding projections arise. In a nutshell, according to the Buddha, all is mind. In a sense we live our lives in a dream. Of course, the concrete world exists, but it is our conceptualization and projections of it that mold the stories constantly retold and revised. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard says, “We cover the universe with drawings we have lived. These drawings need not be exact.”2 Nor can they ever be unless the mind that projects is transformed.

Many instructive texts arose from the Buddha’s ministry and teachings, including those that are the direct words of the Buddha. In understanding and working on my mind in my Zen Buddhist practice I focus on three: The Heart Sutra, The Diamond Sutra, and The Lankavatara Sutra. I liken them to the three legs of a stool. For my needs, The Lankavatara leg is a little thicker and, hence, a sturdier place to rest my weight upon. I’m not alone in this. When transmitting his teachings to disciple and successor Hui-k’o, Bodhidharma, who introduced Buddhism to China and was the First Patriarch of Zen, gave him a copy of The Lanka (as it is affectionately referred to by Zen Buddhists) telling him it was all he needed.3

Exploring projections our minds fabricate, such as delusions, speech and the types of reality, The Lanka stresses “self-realization” of one’s true nature. Aware that his followers had various needs and learned by different methods, the Buddha taught in many ways, including speaking in verse. Using a beautiful metaphor in a series4 from the Lanka he likens the repository mind and forms of consciousness to ocean and waves:

Like the ocean and its waves
are neither separate nor not separate
seven forms of consciousness
rise together with the mind

This poet would say our experience of experience and their recollection are spectral. Furthermore, as poetry often calls attention to ambiguity, the above stanza suggests that a practitioner may try to discriminate the layers of mind much like a geologist differentiates strata as he pokes and sifts through rubble.In good poetic tradition, the Buddha provides the crux of the dilemma three stanzas later5. He exposes the fact that the perpetual winds of externality are always blowing and the practitioner is wasting his time in attempting to turn them off:

As the ocean and its waves
cannot be divided
the mind and the forms of consciousness
cannot be separated

Winds blowing and blowing, pushing us around, the mind is fluid and changeable as the sea. What to do now, the poet asks, words and lines tumbling every which way? The Buddha encourages practitioners to be attentive to all five senses, how and why thoughts arise from their input, and what to do when they arise. He says6:

When the mind is tied to external realms
knowledge is tied to speculation
where freedom from projection prevails
impartial wisdom rises

The key is not to grasp at things that are nothing but the mind. The early Zen masters saw the wisdom in awakening from the bird cage of concepts and projections (my emphasis) and developed practices to hone in on experiencing the experience. As they say, taste the tea. I might add, savor it and be astonished at being. Sounds familiar? Poets of all traditions sip or gulp the tea of experience, elucidate it and wake us up with overwhelming force akin to the Zen master huffing out of the room or hitting meditating students on the back with his stick insisting that they pay attention.

Impartial wisdom is the awakening we seek. It takes work, practice and discipline to develop impartiality and remain so in our interactions with the world. Can we love ourselves, others and all the things of the world unconditionally? How do we know it is possible? I begin with recalling a quote of Walter Pater’s from my earlier essay on science and poetry – life itself is conceived as a sort of listening.To listen, the mind has to first stop striving and allow the world to enter unadulterated. Li Po, one of China’s most famous poets, knew how to do this, and by doing so understood its implications and the benefits of its practice8:

Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain

The birds have vanished from the sky.
Now the last clouds drain away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.

The important word in Pater’s statement is conceived, and implicit in the word is an agent promoting its potential. What makes the sap climb to nourish the life that is a tree, a growth continually forming rings that are measures of the tree’s years, and the wet and dry seasons experienced? A hint to Zen students was given by Tenkei and recorded in the Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record9, commentaries on the collection of the 100 koans used by Zen masters to teach their students and lead them to awakening. Tenkei’s teaching could easily have been given in verse:

Everyone has a natural essence
that has no teacher.
This is where you express yourself.

This natural essence has, I believe, a significant component of impartiality, much like the way a bird may react to air or a fish to water. Of course, it is up to the student with the help of a teacher to uncover what is in plain sight. A number of years ago my Zen teacher gave me the Dharma name One Sandal when I took refuge vows. The name is based on a legend surrounding Bodhidharma. Three years after he died, Ambassador Sòngyún of northern Wei saw him walking in the Pamir Mountains holding one shoe. Bodhidharma told him he was heading home. After returning to China Ambassador Sòngyún told the emperor what he saw. The emperor knew that Bodhidharma was deceased. When the monks opened Bodhidharma’s grave the only thing they found was one shoe. It’s clear to me what my teacher was aiming at.

As with all human beings, I have had episodes in my life, some forced upon me, others self-inflicted, where I had to learn to wholeheartedly and non-biasedly love myself in order to transform. These included a major illness and subsequent divorce. The former opened my eyes to what gratitude truly means, the latter to my stubborn, arrogant, deaf and selfish self. These experiences felt as if I had only one foot on solid earth. The other was waiting for me elsewhere. Continuing to do so at times, I take refuge in an expressive and comforting line penned by French poet Jean Caubère10:

Oh, my roads and their cadence

The roads have been good, the echoes of my paths sure. And, I must add, writing poetry is like wearing one sandal – the poem is never complete, but leads to new insights and poems. For example, one day while watching my mind roll from one thought to another it occurred to me that much of my “thinking” was mediated by words. I asked myself, “How and what did my early ancestors think before the invention of words?’ Before there were words for bee or flower, what did early homo sapiens think when a bee probed a flower for nectar? How did they communicate a snake was poisonous or the smell of rain? I do not have answers, but I work with the questions by remaining aware for those briefest of moments when thinking disappears and I am not separate from the experience.

But always, words re-emerge from the horizon into my landscape of thought. For what is a poet without words? Thus, in the spirit of the Quran I ask, “What is a good word?”.  A good wood reaches deep into the roots of the tree of consciousness and leaps into the air like a bird from a branch. The poetic image that forms from it is a manifestation of the shimmering consciousness.11 Its worth noting that Zen masters also speak of the shimmering consciousness.

Every time a thought is recalled it is from a different vantage point in one’s life. New and different sap climbs, and new rings encircle old. The old-new thought is like a light filtering out of a window calling us inside. As I write this in the library I gaze upon a painting of golden aspens ripening in autumn, and I recall from many hikes in the mountains their odor and that of many other species of trees stretching back to childhood.The wind of externality has blown, my sensations incapable of repose, and radiating mind wanders.

Awakening occurs when we wake from the dream state (which is not necessarily a bad place to be) and thoughts are transformed to no-thought, no projection. This does not mean that the eighth form of consciousness has ceased. Rather, it has been transformed and sees things as they truly are. Poets describe the experience well. Again, here is Merwin from his poem Voice of Summer12:

it calls again
in its summer
and from the summer of memory
but in the moment when it calls
there is no memory

The seeds of memory have been transformed in the moment the cuckoo calls, the listener hearing the melody without attachment to it. And then, words trickle into my mind again for I am struck how often birds are the vehicle for awakening. A well-known awakening event in Zen history is that of master Ikkyū’s, an eccentric and passionate man known for his drinking, whoring and poetry who achieved enlightenment when a crow cawed as he was meditating on a boat in a lake.Given the Buddha’s teaching on ocean, waves and mind, isn’t it poetic that it took a crow cawing while Ikkyū meditated on a lake to finally transform his habitual thought patterns?

And yet, it is unsurprising birds trigger awakening. Vanishing as soon as it is created, birdsong tugs on the senses. Doesn’t their flight and migratory behavior elicit similar longings in us? Their building of nests symbolize an instinctual faith in the world, a faith that spiritual teachers remind us of. Here is a poem of mine, Nests, written early in my Buddhist practice expressing this theme13:


Three green plastic baskets,
the kind stuffed with strawberries and
covering tables at farmer’s markets,
hang from a ponderosa’s head-high boughs,
their bottoms lined with
randomly shaped strips of
violet cloth and
wads of surgical cotton.
I think children had faith
searching birds would
ferret out their location like
the robins that found a vee in
my backyard poplar before
knitting a cradle of twigs and
suspect materials indiscernible
from my perch on the ground,
or the hummingbird that wove
her nursery from
amber twine, cinnamon grass, black
thread, mint-green dental floss,
white tufts of rabbit fur, blue sponge and
red felt. A wild wind drove
it down from the yellowing maple
shedding on the driveway before my
cupped hands carried it to a bookcase shelf,
the shards of white shell surviving
the journey wedged between the fibers of
the apricot-size hollow.
Keen to fragilities,
like those of the surprise egg laid by
a friend’s conure at the bottom of
a cage of steel,
and children’s dreams,
I place a sparrow’s discarded feather in
each of the swaying baskets and
walk away.

Moments such as those experienced by Merwin and Ikkyū are fleeting. In fact, they are immeasurable and cannot be adequately described in words or by any other form that engenders knowing. Thus, knowing must be accompanied by an equal capacity to forget knowing. Non-knowing is not a form of ignorance but a difficult transcendence of knowledge 14. Note the word difficult! To soften the difficulties the Zennists might say, I am not certain. As a scientist-I have found it easier to negotiate life when I remain open. My transformation is as if the birdcage of my mind has sprouted wings!

So, let it sprout wings. What does poetry do for the Zen experience? What does Zen do for poetry? Are they the same or different? My sense is that they are two sides of the one coin of awareness, hence the same and different, or as the Buddha would say, they are neither separate nor not separate. Each existed before the other. And I note poets bring right perception, a Buddhist concept pertinent to awakening,to ambiguous or alarming issues such as climate change, the death penalty or inequality. Of course, individual readers will have different reactions and interpretations to a particular poem.The Buddha’s teachings on mind illustrate why – each one of us comes to a poem, a painting, a political statement, a restaurant menu, or a traffic jam and projects a story based on a unique repository of experience and bias. The formed images we get when reading a poem, for that is what they are, invite us to step our imagined self aside. Lovers of poetry and writers alike know this to be true when a poem is revisited, either in the reading or the writing. Revise, revise, revise, goes the poet’s adage, until the line is as true as the experience. Thus, new images probing deeper into the kernel of experience arise and, as Zennists know, the world is made freshly anew.


  1. W. S. Merwin, The Moon Before Rising (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press,2015),51.
  2. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 12.
  3. The Lankavatara Sutra, translation and commentary by Red Pine (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2012), 1. Copyright © 2012 by Red Pine (Bill Porter). Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press. My comments on mind and its layers are informed by Red Pine’s translation and commentary. In gratitude to Bill. 
  4. Ibid, p. 75
  5. Loc. cit.
  6. Ibid.,p. 159.
  7. Walter Pater, as quoted by Kenneth Clark, Landscape into Art (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 59.
  8. The Poetry of Zen, translated and edited by Sam Hamill and J. P. Seaton (Boston: Shambhala, 2004), 42.
  9. Li Po, ”Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain” from Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, translated by Sam Hamill. Copyright © 2000 by Sam Hamill. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Tiger Bark Press,
  10. Bachelard,op. cit., p.11.
  11. Ibid,,p. xxvii.
  12. Merwin, op. cit., p.106.
  13. Michael G. Smith, Nimrod, Fall/Winter 2005, Volume 49, Number 1, 43.
  14. Bachelard, op. cit., p.xxxii.

About the author:

Michael G. Smith is a Chemist. His poetry has been published in many literary journals and anthologies. He has authored three books No Small Things, The Dippers Do Their Part (haibun and katagami co-authored with artist Laura Young) and Flip Flop (haiku co-authored with Miriam Sagan). The Oregon Poetry Association selected his poem Disturbance Theory for the fall 2017 New Poets Award.