The Poetry Lesson

Roshi Cagamucho was rough on poets. He thought poets were a
complicated, effeminate bunch, and very poor material from which to carve an enlightened monk.

Seasoned monks advised the novices, “If you’re a poet, don’t show it, or you’ll be put in charge of the honey buckets until the day you leave.”

I disregarded that advice due to my addiction to haiku, waka, renga, and even haiga. I wrote poems at every opportunity. And, of course, tried to push my poems on the monks. They were terrified that Cagamucho would catch them reading my poetry. At first they declined politely, but I was relentless, I forced my poems on them. The ignorant lot didn’t realize how spiritual my poetry was. I had no doubt it would speed up their progress. So It was for their own good that I accosted them in the aisles, or placed poems under their pillows, or crumpled them into little balls, and dropped them in their rice bowls.

Finally, in desperation, several monks went to the head monk.

Next day, the head monk marched me to the Roshi’s room, where I found him dressed in full regalia, and looking as aloof, cold, and imposing as a mountain peak.

“I have invited you for some tea, come up and sit with me,” he said.

After I sat, I noticed my feet felt like ice, yet the palms of my hands were sweating.

“Show me one of those poems you have been serving with the rice.”

” I don’t have any with me, but I could recite one.”

“Oh, you commit them to memory? Your mind must be very cluttered .”

“Well, I only remember the best ones.”

“I don’t remember any of mine,” he said.

“I’ll be honored if you show me some.”

“I don’t write them down, I forget them as soon as they come up.”

That’s terrible, Sir, you must write them for the good of others.”

“I can’t, my poetry has no words.”

“No words? That’s impossible!”

“Oh, it’s possible. How many words do your poems have?”

” I’m not sure, eight, or ten on average.”

“Too many! Write poems with only one word. That’ll be a nice start for now.”

“That’s is impossible. A poem needs beauty, meaning, sensation,
emotion, one word can’t convey all that.”

“Butterflies,” he said.

“Pardon me! What about them?”

“Butterflies have beauty, meaning, they convey sensations and
emotions. So, just write, “Butterflies.”

“No Sir, a single word cannot be a poem.”

“How many words are needed then? Would red butterflies do?”

” No!”

“Red butterflies gone?”

” No.”

“Red butterflies gone, Night?”

“No, that won’t do either.”

“Red butterflies gone— Night falls?”

“Yes, maybe.”


“Because now with those five words, poetic meaning has been
created and the words convey certain emotion.”

“Which particular word carries the emotion?

“No one in particular, we need them all.”

“Are you sure? Suppose I say, ‘gone, falls, red, butterflies, night. Would that be the same?”

“No, sir, certain order is needed, the proper syntax is needed for emotion to be there.”

“But each word retains its own meaning regardless of their order, do they not?”

“Yes, sir, they do!”

“And yet the meaning of the poem is different than that of all the words added together. So do you know how those words gain new meaning when placed in a particular order, and how that meaning creates emotion?”

“No sir!”

He stared at me with his slanted eyes like a wolf stalking a hare.

“You are nothing but a milker of emotions. You have a cow’s
udder for a brain. And you just milk it and stuff yourself with
emotions and pride. You will collect excrement every
week in the village to fertilize the garden, and you’ll scrub the
floors every day, and since your brain is a cow’s tit repeat Mu
constantly while doing it. Get out!”

After the lecture on poetry, I stayed at the zendo for another
three years, but Cagamucho and I never spoke again until the
day I left. I repeated Mu, I sat for two hours in the morning,
and two in the evening, I attended lectures and sermons, and
did my chores, but my main practice was Cagamucho watching.

He walked like an elephant, and sat like a great ape. He had all
the unconcerned confidence of a huge beast. His movements
were like a deliberate, ponderous dance. At times he had the stare of a wolf, and at times his eyes would look at things like a puppy, with that irresistible, innocent charm. He was uncomplicated, single, all of one piece, but his simplicity was mysterious, dark, empty, and as scary as a bottomless pit.

I stalked and studied him like an entomologist pursuing a rare
butterfly. Sometimes, when meditating I felt I was him, and sat
on the mat like a huge rock. And then, one day it happened, I
was him. The mind became an endless pit, a chasm which had
no needs, fears, or goals, empty and self-sufficient, it contained
all things.

I marched to his room like a rogue elephant in its prime ready
to confront an aging bull. Sliding the paper screen door open, I
saw him sitting by his window gazing at the Zen garden, the
wisteria, and the blue hills beyond. He stared with brown puppy
eyes. He seemed soft, open, receptive, like a woman in love.

As I sat down, he turned, looking at me now as a cat sizing up
the strength of a rat. We confronted each other in silence for a
few seconds, then I touched the mat with my forehead.

“I’m leaving you now.”

He nodded with a faint smile, “You have done well!”

I jumped to my feet, “I’ll be forever grateful.” I vowed again.

“Do you still write poems?”


“How many words?”

“Eight, or ten.”

“Good!” he smiled. Come and see us if you pass this way again.

Many years later, I did pass that way, and as I was straightening
up from a deep bow, miracle of miracles, a red and black butterfly alighted on his grave.



3 Responses to “The Poetry Lesson”

  1. Pete was always rough on poets…
    it was in his nature…

    winks and hugs,

  2. Tom McFerran Says:

    How did I get here ?

    I just read about the red and black butterfly, it made me weep, a 78 year old

    widowed lonely old Englishman crying over a butterfly . . . what next ?


  3. Tom, thanks for your reply, but
    really, a 78 year old story crying
    about another story? What next?


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