Awareness: Inner Landscape / Module 02 / Session 04

Reading time: 6.5 mins.

Before reading or writing, begin with a few moments or minutes of silent sitting or meditation. Close with the same.

Today, two poems from Zen master Sodō Yokoyama, a quiet fellow, also known as The Grass Flute Zen Master.

For Sodō, poetry was his religion, and he was a passionate preacher, in silence as much as through words.

Too shy to preach on street corners or at temples, Sodō set up his Temple Under the Sky in the corner of a park and began to preach his silent sermon. When someone asked him to play his music or sing his songs, he accommodated, but his main message was always zazen.

One of his epiphanies was when he sat in zazen in the mountains, and a pheasant appeared to join him. He later expressed it in the form of a waka poem (note: the possessive pronoun “my” is absent in the Japanese, this is significant, and in Chinese Zen poetry, there was a preference to not use the word “I” or “my”, as this one should be absent in one who has gained realisation):

years ago 
meditating in the mountains 
a pheasant appeared 
and stared at 
(my) zazen

The second poem I share with you today, is Sodō-sama’s death verse.

Three days before his death, Sodō-sama said “I am grateful to have been able to study Buddhism, I am grateful to have been able to obtain great peace. I was saved by the sunset,” writing the following verse:

the sunset 
unaware of the sunset 
is still the sunset

Poet: Sodō Yokoyama (1907—1980).
Source: The Grass Flute Zen Master: Sodō Yokoyama.
Author: Sodō Yokoyama, Arthur Braverman.

Today’s poems are by Sodō Yokoyama, Sōtō Zen master.

He sent the first poem to Okina, who commented that animals feel unthreatened when one’s attention is not on them. For Sodo-san the pheasant incident had an even deeper meaning than that of his mentor’s interpretation. Yes, the pheasant felt unthreatened by the zazen posture, but not because the attention was not on the bird. He believed that the zazen posture was an expression of a Universal consciousness, and hence unthreatening to the pheasant.

— Arthur Braverman, The Grass Flute Zen Master: Sodō Yokoyama.

Interestingly, he composed mostly waka, not haiku, although many of his contemporaries studied and wrote haiku. For Sodō, it seemed, he needed the additional space to express his teaching, and yet he said:

In “The Woods Where I Stand”, he stated that one who didn’t study Bashō, the famed haiku poet, could never create true poetry. He added that the tradition handed down by Bashō allowed one to see the beauty in Japan, in the world, and in the universe.

— Arthur Braverman, The Grass Flute Zen Master: Sodō Yokoyama.

The term waka originally encompassed a number of differing forms, principally tanka ("short poem") and chōka (“long poem"), but also including bussokusekika, sedōka (“memorized poem") and katauta ("poem fragment"). These last three forms, however, fell into disuse at the beginning of the Heian period, and chōka vanished soon afterwards. Thus, the term waka came in time to refer only to tanka. [Wikipedia.]

But let’s not get caught up to much by form right now, as it is the aspect of awareness and the inner landscape that we’re paying attention to in this module. It’s sufficient to note that whilst haiku wasn’t his main form, Sodō highly ranked the writings and teachings of Bashō, whom is a quiet guiding force in my own poetic life.

Reading and contemplating these two verses, we can see how Sodō-sama used words to express the wordless. Silence speaking through his brief poems. Silence, zazen (Zen silent sitting meditation) was the author of the first poem. Truth, another word for the Great Silence, spoke through him in the second poem, his death verse.

Consider it for a moment. Is he describing a sunset? Or using it as a metaphor for the Self, also know as our Original Face in Zen. In this aspect, the poem becomes:

the self 
unaware of the self 
is still the self

Using the language of the sunset, it equates to the wordless, becoming a wordless teaching.

Poetry has a long tradition as a teaching tool in Zen. It was one of the first surprises to me when I began to study Zen teaching. My first haiku teacher was Zen Master Daizan Rōshi. It was the sweetest surprise.

Don’t read the first poem now, and take it at face value, nor the second. Listen to and read the commentary, and a little of Sōdō-sama’s biography. Take his words into your silent sitting or contemplation today. See if you too will disappear. Perhaps you have already experienced such a split second of your own non-existence in your own practice, recently, or in the past. In such a moment, it is as if we see through the glass ceiling of the universe, the glass floor and walls too.

Sodō Yokoyama was a Japanese Sōtō Zen teacher of the 20th century. Also known as the Leaf Flute Zen Master, he was famous for residing in a public park in Komoro in Nagano Prefecture where he practiced zazen and played songs for travelers by whistling on a leaf. He had resided at the Zen temple, Antai-ji for eight years from 1949 to 1957 as a student of Kōdō Sawaki before moving to Komoro in 1959. He continued his life in the park until his death in 1980.

His poetry was his religion and he was passionate about spreading the word.

Sōdo-san, too shy to preach on street corners or at temples, set up his Temple Under the Sky in a corner of the park and preached his silent sermon. When someone asked him to play his music or sing his songs, he accommodated, but his main message was zazen.

— Arthur Braverman, The Grass Flute Zen Master: Sodō Yokoyama.

Sodō would sit every day in the park, serving people with tea, writing calligraphy (poetry) and playing the leaf flute.

He sat in the park under a self-constructed plastic awning with a little charcoal stove, a teapot, a pan, a cup, a bowl, and some bamboo sticks for eating utensils. He also had some freshly picked leaves in a bowl of water and his writing implements—brushes, paper, ink sticks, and an ink block. The leaves he would “play” as a flute, by taking one of them, placing it between his fingers, and blowing. With practice in leaf blowing, one can produce a range of notes, like any reed instrument, and Yokoyama learned the leaf so well that he could play many tunes. 

— Arthur Braverman, The Classical Monk.

Listen to the leaf whistling monk, a recording of Sodō Yokoyama playing the grass leaf flute he was renowned for.

Final words: “If people come to visit me,” he said on his deathbed, “tell them I said thank you.”


Today, once again, we turn to the Great Silence as our guide.

Sodō-sama shows us time and time again, through his silence, actions and words, that there is no greater teacher than to be silent and still. This is at the heart of his Zen teaching of zazen.

Finally, remember these words of Yang Wan-Li:

A man doesn’t go in search of a poem; 
the poem comes in search of him. 

Yang Wan-Li

Create space and the poetry will find you. Stay busy and full of nonsense, and you will have little possibility to hear the poems that are already seeking you out.

Sit first, be silent and still. Pay no attention to movement of the mind, other than the recognition that it is there. Do nothing with it, give it no fuel for its fire, or before you know it, you’ll be spinning shopping lists and travel plans and poetry careers from your seat of silent stillness.

When the poem finds you, let it speak through you. You stay as the empty bamboo flute. The blade of grass held in Sodō-sama’s hand. Let the wind of poetry do its work, the song will appear if it wills to appear.

Song and poem are often synonymous in the spiritual teachings of Buddhism. This song, is the song of silence.

Close your session with a few minutes of silence, remembering the silence and words of Sodō Yokoyama, allowing his silence to echo within you, absorb you, if only for a moment, if only for a split-second, let go and let the silence have you. You will not disappear. The world will not go up in puff of smoke. It will be there to return to. Soon enough.

Module 02 / Awareness: inner landscape.

Session 01 / 02 / 03 / 04 / 05 / 06 / 07

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