Mudlark No. 11 (1999)

Blue Cliff Verses

by Richard von Sturmer

RICHARD VON STURMER is a New Zealand writer who lives and works in upstate New York. Two collections of his prose-poetry have been published in New Zealand: WE XEROX YOUR ZEBRAS (Modern House, 1989), and NETWORK OF DISSOLVING THREAD (Auckland University Press, 1991). More recently his work has appeared in AN ANTHOLOGY OF NEW ZEALAND POETRY IN ENGLISH (Oxford University Press, 1997), and HAIKU WORLD: AN INTERNATIONAL POETRY ALMANAC (Kodansha International, 1997). Blue were written between 1996 and 1998. E-mail:


"Baso is Unwell," "Haryo's Snow in a Silver Bowl," "The National Teacher's Seamless Monument," "Joshu's Big Radishes," "Manjusri's Threes and Threes," "Joshu and the Great Death," "Dogo's 'I Won't Say,'" "Ummon's Staff Turns into a Dragon," and "Ummon's One Treasure" have been previously published in JAAM 9, a New Zealand literary review. "The Hands and Eyes of Kannon," "Ummon's Staff Turns into a Dragon," and "Ummon's One Treasure" have appeared in ZEN BOW, the Rochester Zen Center's quarterly publication.


These "Blue Cliff Verses" are appreciative, and arose in response to particular koans in The Blue Cliff Record, one of the major koan collections in the Zen tradition. For Zen students, koans have often inspired poetry as they direct the mind beyond the rational, and toward the intuitive and the spontaneous. I am grateful for having been able to work on these koans formally with my teacher at the Rochester Zen Center, Sensei Bodhin Kjolhede.


Baso is Unwell
Joshu's Four Gates
Haryo's Snow in a Silver Bowl
The National Teacher's Seamless Monument
Seppo's Turtle-Nosed Snake
Daizui's "It Goes Along with Everything Else"
Joshu's Big Radishes
Manjusri's Threes and Threes
Joshu and the Great Death
Sansho's Golden Carp Out of the Net
Joshu's Stone Bridge
Dogo's "I Won't Say"
Ummon's Staff Turns into a Dragon
Ummon's One Treasure
Kingyu's Rice Pail
Sixteen Bodhisattvas Enter the Bath
Ummon's "Everyone has his own Light"
The Hands and Eyes of Kannon
Joshu's Three Turning Words
Haryo and a Blown Hair Against a Sword

Baso is Unwell

Sun-faced Buddha:

Moon-faced Buddha:

While on the bedside table
a glass of water holds
the early-morning light.

Joshu's Four Gates

Through the east gate
you'll find a desert.
Through the west gate
there's a field of wheat.
Through the north gate
rise jagged mountains.
Through the south gate
lies the deep blue sea.

Who knows for sure
where Joshu has gone.
In the abandoned courtyard
hens and chickens scratch the earth.

Haryo's Snow in a Silver Bowl

My left hand
lies beside me on the pillow.

Snowflakes drift
through the open window.

In this dream of winter
embers and cinders

A discarded glove
gathers dust
at the bottom of the stairs.

The National Teacher's Seamless Monument

Ah, those old masters,
they can extract your heart
with a single phrase.

And everything appears
cars, houses, streets,
all covered by a fine mist.

And your own heart beating
in the wing-beats of a sparrow.

Seppo's Turtle-Nosed Snake

While seated in zazen
small wings grow
from the tips of your elbows
lifting you high into the air,
setting you down on South Mountain
before the serpent.

A string of saliva
hangs from its jaws.
You wrap it around your finger
as if it were candy floss.

Daizui's "It Goes Along with Everything Else"

It's like a blind man and his dog,
the dog leads,
and the blind man follows.

It could also be said
that people who descend
into volcanoes
are not necessarily

One blast from the furnace
strips away
skin from flesh
and flesh from bone.

Joshu's Big Radishes

Joshu holds up his radishes
for everyone to see.
But look at the earth—
How it encrusts the white skin!
How it clings to the wispy roots!

This gritty, crumbling,
uncompromising earth.

I thought that I entered Zen
to attain the pure sky,
but each day I find myself
buried deeper underground.

Manjusri's Threes and Threes

It's like trying to use
a dirty eraser:
the more you rub out
the more you smudge the page.

It's like looking through
a diamond window:
each facet reveals
ten thousand details.

Joshu and the Great Death

Night will turn into day.
The tin cans will gleam
in their recycling bins
and the crows
torn away from the darkness
will begin to caw.

If death were then
to make an appearance
he would be somewhat insignificant:
a piece of broken tile
a frayed doormat
the handle of a broom.

Sansho's Golden Carp Out of the Net

At the mud-splattered window
for less than a second
the face of a fish.

Under the swaying trees
a shifting pattern
of shadows and light.

All you can tell me
is that the midday heat
has left you exhausted.

In the distance
someone plays a violin.

Joshu's Stone Bridge

In the middle of a long journey
I stand on Joshu's stone bridge
with sore legs and an aching back.

The points of light overhead
are almost too faint to be called stars.
And you would have difficulty
describing the water below.
Is it sluggish or simply meandering?
Is it tar-black, or does it retain
a trace of purple?

Near the opposite bank
where the reeds are brushed together
a pair of ducks glides downstream.

Dogo's "I Won't Say"

I won't say
if the sperm fertilizes the egg
although the moon is above
and the earth is below.

I won't say
where the crow sleeps at night
although the wind is cold
and the snow is wet.

I won't say
I won't say
I won't say.

Ummon's Staff Turns into a Dragon

Ummon's staff
is no less than
a magic wand.

With a single tap
a toaster
turns into a toaster
and a teacup
becomes a teacup.

Through the power of the staff
you can see
in broad daylight
and receive the sounds
of insects
and small birds.

Ummon's One Treasure

The Eiffel Tower
bounces on a trampoline.
The Sphinx comes inside
for her bowl of milk.

Ummon says,
"Take the temple gate
and place it on the lamp."

The earth trembles,
the sky vibrates...

And on the washing-line
it's still Saturday
with the clothes hanging
from their wooden pegs.

Kingyu's Rice Pail

Leaves fall
– the bell is rung –
more leaves fall.

Some are ashamed
when they eat the rice.
Others just eat the rice.
Others eat the bowl as well.

Leaves fall
– the bell is rung –
more leaves fall.

Sixteen Bodhisattvas Enter the Bath

Right down
"full fathoms five"
a deep joy resides
with crustaceans
and anemones
and rocks collected
from early childhood.

Water bodhisattvas.

On the bath-mat
a wet footprint
slowly evaporates.

Ummon's "Everyone has his own Light"

The shortest day:
dark in the morning
dark in the afternoon.

Outside some skeletons
are playing in the snow.
Their bones must be cold,
so very cold – and yet
they're eager for us
to join their game.

"Come out of the shadows!
Come down to the gate!
Everyone is welcome here.
Everyone has his own light."

The Hands and Eyes of Kannon

The eye smells the incense.
The eye tastes the persimmon.
The eye hears the voices
of children in a courtyard
and the barking of a dog.

Overhead geese are flying
in the late autumn sky.
The hand touches
their soft feathers, feels
the beating of their hearts.

And when a film of ice
covers the bare branches
the one who has been attending
adjusts the weight of her pack
and descends into the valley.

Joshu's Three Turning Words

A clay Buddha
cannot pass through water.

Clouds of mud
and inside the clouds
atoms of mud.

A wooden Buddha
cannot pass through fire.

The hiss of resin
a red crevasse—
everything splits apart.

A metal Buddha
cannot pass through a furnace.

Dented moonlight
melting down
to the last sliver.

Haryo and a Blown Hair Against a Sword

In this dream world
of trucks and pigeons
and income tax,
reality becomes
the beeping of a horn
the fluttering of wings
the adding up of figures.

In this dream world
of endless desires
we drift through the stillness
of a vast ocean
among swords and sponges
starfish and feathers.

William Slaughter, Editor
Department of Language & Literature
University of North Florida
Jacksonville, Florida 32224-2645


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Contents | Mudlark No. 11