Zen Poems – Taneda Santōka

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Santoka is considered a unique proponent of “free-style” haiku poetry, a mode that abandoned much of the customary form and subject matter of traditional haiku in favor of a direct and unadorned depiction of human experience.

A wandering poet and ascetic Zen priest for the last fifteen years of his life, Santoka emphasized many of the essential qualities of Zen Buddhism in his verse, including mujo (impermanence), the necessity of sabi (solitude), the importance of simplicity in life, and the pervasive sadness that accompanies all human affairs. Many of his poems point toward the Zen goal of overcoming this ubiquitous melancholy by achieving spiritual enlightenment and serenity. To this view Santoka added his concern with what James Abrams called “the vital necessity of movement and the partial release it brings to the anguish of the soul.”

Simple in form, Santoka’s poems dispense with the seasonal imagery and constraining five-seven-five syllable pattern of their traditional predecessors. In them Santoka confronts manifold subjects, making observations on the natural world, Zen philosophy, the loneliness and isolation of his wanderings, art, death, and the joys of drinking sake.

He lived much of his life as a wandering hermit, taking to the road, visiting pilgrimage spots, begging, and composing haiku. He wrote, “Days I don’t enjoy: Any day I don’t walk, drink sake, and compose haiku.”

His haiku whittle down each moment to the observed bare essentials, witnessing the splendor in each mundane moment as it is.

Flowing With Water

flowing with water
I walked down to the village
the sunlight freely reflects off
my freshly shaven head
within life and death
snow falls ceaselessly
I walk in the winds
brightness and darkness


I put on
today’s straw sandals

If there are mountains, I look at the mountains 

If there are mountains, I look at the mountains;
On rainy days I listen to the rain.
Spring, summer, autumn, winter.
Tomorrow too will be good.
Tonight too will be good.

Just as it is

Just as it is —
It rains, I get wet, I walk.

The Morning Sky Is Perfectly Clear

The morning sky is perfectly clear
A gently flowing cloud is in a straight line
The color of sunset is very beautiful
I have just spent modestly my times of today

Alone, I watch the moon 

Alone, I watch the moon
Sink behind the mountains.

the deeper I go

the deeper I go
the deeper I go
green mountains

Begging: I accept 

Begging: I accept
The blazing sun.

My begging bowl 

My begging bowl
Accepts the fallen leaves.

No path but this one 

No path but this one —
I walk alone.

The bucket full of rain

The bucket full of rain:
It’s enough for today.


* Poems from  from the book Mountain Tasting: The Haiku and Journals of Santoka Taneda, by Santoka Taneda / Translated by John Stevens.




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