Poetry is a practice of wakeful animism.
When I first encountered poetry in my early school-age years, it wasn't a subject that interested me much. I thought of poetry merely as something I had to memorize to get a good grade. In other words, poetry hadn't been brought alive for me yet.
That would all change in my teen years, 35 years ago now, when I stumbled upon the poems, prose-poems (haibun), and travel writings of Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), an innovator of the poetic form known as 'hokku' (called 'haiku' today). I immediately felt a deep kinship with Bashō's spirit. His descriptions of wandering, his love of history, his bonding with the spirit of place, his blend of Zen meditation, Shinto cosmology, and study of old Chinese poets, along with his contemplative Nature observation, all served to demonstrate a very different kind of poetry.
It would be one particular phrase of his that really set me on my journey, however:
Seek not the paths of the ancients;
seek that which the ancients sought.
Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)
My exploration of Nature-oriented creative spirituality experienced a quantum leap when I encountered my root teacher in "seeking that which the ancients sought" — a woman named Darion Kuma Gracen, a mentor and guide who embodied a mountains-and-forests-oriented form of contemplative practice.
She also felt a deep bond with Bashō, along with other hermit-poets whom she would introduce me to over the years such as Saigyō, T'ao Yuanming (Master Five Willows), Bai Juyi, Stonehouse, Lotus Moon (Otagaki Rengetsu), Kago no Chiyo (Chiyo-ni), Santōka, Buson, and many others.
For these poets, and a long line of other artist-meditators, the journey of poetry wasn't about "literature." Their poems and paintings are a visible manifestation of something that preceded the writing — a contemplative way of life rooted in Nature and the mystery of being; one path of many for 'realizing the Way' (道).
My auspicious path-crossing with my late teacher began a decade-long conversation and a unique experiential training-exploration of the writings and spiritual practices of a down-to-earth "lineage-stream" of tea-and-saké-sipping poets. Unlike lineages of Dharma heirs in traditional Buddhism, wherein direct transmissions occur from teacher to disciple, the lineage stream of poet-practitioners to whom I am referring was called to a creative-spiritual life outside religious orthodoxy by a deeper pulse and -- though deeply practiced each in their own way -- they also took their inspiration directly from Nature and the life example of poet-practitioners who preceded them by hundreds of years.
Bashō, for example, considered Saigyō (1118-1190) his spiritual guide, so much so that he made repeated pilgrimages around Japan following in Saigyō's footsteps. Four hundred and fifty years separated them. Meanwhile, the Japanese Zen hermit-poet Ryōkan (1758-1831) looked to the life and works of 9th-century Chinese Daoist-Buddhist poet Hanshan (Cold Mountain) for part of his inspiration, even going so far as to brush Cold Mountain poems to hang up around his hut to meditate upon.
These contemplative arts practitioners wandered forests and took to the mountains to ponder the mysteries of kami and Nature, heart-mind, buddha-nature, the impermanence of life, and the Tao (Dao, The Way, The Path). Intensive meditation practice, hillwalking, and the arts were their way-within-the-Way, and it became mine through my teacher's influence — a confluence where the tributaries of wilderness, creativity, inner work, and spirituality merged.
Kuma-sensei called our practice-path by a specific term: "Wayfaring." Unlike a pilgrimage where there are set and known locations, Wayfaring is, in many respects, a journey of no-arrival. Whether drawing inspiration from Daishizen (Great Nature) and kami, "The Valley Spirit" of the Tao (Dao), hillwalking/forest-bathing, moon-viewing, Dao-Chan-Zen-sitting, or other examples of mountain-practice, Wayfaring is an ever-deepening process of self-cultivation, inner transformation, communion with Nature, and creative expression that continues to dwell at the heart of my life today.
Return to Nature.
Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)