Beyond Words

(Note: this was written for a sangha study group on chapter twelve of John Daido Loori’s book The Zen of Creativity)

A monk asked Yunmen, “What are the words that transcend the Buddha and the Patriarchs?”

Yunmen said, “Rice cake.”

“clouds endless clouds climbing beyond
ask nothing from words on a page”
Ikkyū Sōjun


One of the first things that many people learn about Zen is that it is “a special transmission outside the teachings not depending on written words”.*  This may be followed by the surprise that the history of Zen is filled with so many writings from numerous teachers!

This is one of the paradoxes that sits at the heart of Zen.  As soon as we name something, we miss its essence in trying to fix it into one form.  Yet, as Dainin Katagiri Roshi said, you have to say something!  And where would we be without all the words by Dōgen and the masters who came before or after him?  How would our teachers communicate with us?  Of course, we can learn much by following their example, but words are also quite useful at times!

The answer to this paradox is the notion of the finger pointing at the moon.  While words can never fully capture the true essence of Zen which is ‘just this’ in every moment, they can point us towards it just as the finger is not the moon but can show where it is in the sky.  This is what the poets and priests have been trying to do since the beginning of Zen, and their words express the essence of their understanding and their practice.  It is not for nothing that it remains a common practice for Zen teachers to write a death poem that pierces the great matter of life and death.

It has often been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a few well-chosen phrases can also point the way beyond form.  As Zen artists, or would-be Zen artists, we look to capture a moment of suchness, and share that with others.  This is the same with words or images.

Just as in sumi-e paintings (the black and white paintings usually drawn in a single breath) what is presented is the bare essence of what is seen.  Similarly, in haiku poetry and other Zen writing, each word counts and we do not try to completely flesh out the image but rather leave space for the writing to breathe.  Zen teacher and writer Natalie Goldberg calls this writing down the bones.

When we write from a Zen perspective, we often do this from personal experience, and based on our sense experience rather than phrase after phrase of conceptual ideas.  Even when ideas need to be communicated, this is usually done in the form of metaphor, such as Dōgen’s heron poem in the examples below which has echoes of Dongshan Lianje’s lines in The Song of Precious Mirror Samadhi:

The dharma of thusness is intimately transmitted by buddhas and ancestors.
Now you have it; preserve it well.
A silver bowl filled with snow, a heron hidden in the moon.

Daido Loori Roshi gives a number of wonderful examples of Zen writings in The Zen of Creativity, and I wish to share one or two of my favourites with you in the hope it might provide further inspiration:

Rahai (Bowing)

A snowy heron
on the snowfield
where winter grass is unseen
hides itself
in its own figure.

— Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253)


My huts lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe;
When the moon comes out I read Buddhist poems.
I have nothing to report my friends.
If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.

— Ryōkan (1758-1831)


I came to this mountain
looking for enlightenment.
There was no enlightenment
on the mountain.
Whether laughing or crying
all I hear is an echo
from the other side of the mountain.

— Soen Nakagawa (1907-1984)


Three pencils arranged
Three minutes
Sambhogakaya, Nirmanakaya,  Dharmakaya

— Jack Kerouac (1922-1967)


*this has often been attribute to Bodhidharma but in modern times is thought to have originated as separate phrases in Tang era China (8th and 9th centuries CE), and first appeared as a quatrain in the Song period (960–1279):

教外別傳    A special [separate] transmission outside the teachings,
不立文字    not depending on written words
直指人心    īndirectly point to the human mind,
見性成佛    see one‘s nature and become Buddha



For anyone who wishes to learn how to write haiku or refine their skills, I have a list of resources here:

This is an article I wrote on Zen and Haiku:


Published by Kokuu

Novice Zen priest and haiku poet. I am a tea drinking father to three teenagers living in Kent, UK. I have a chronic illness and far too many books. Sometimes I grow plants.

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