To a parched man
sitting along the roadside
a picture of the ocean
will provide him nothing
to quench his thirst
and even if he jumps in
the salt will lead
to his imminent death.

But give him
the idea of a pond
fed by a pure stream
and he will be
a content salmon
swimming upstream.

A reflection on Case 86 of the Iron Flute Koans.


There was nothing he liked more
than wandering along the shore
early in the morning, before the rakes
and people arrived, just to see
what the night had washed in
on the now departed high tide.
There would be shells of course,
but rarely one he didn’t have
already in profusion, and the occasional
jellyfish which he would flag
for the lifeguards to remove later.
He always hoped for a bottle
with a message in it, from some
far off place, or containing a cry
for help, but all he had found
were plastic soda bottles, a few
he was surprised to see, with labels
in Portuguese, from Brazil, he
imagined, until it became clear
from the other trash, that they
were from a ship jettisoning garbage
into the ocean he called mother.


He feels like a rock
cast into a river
partially rising above
the water now forced
to flow around him.
It pulls at him, seems
to say you belong
in the sea, let us
carry you there, but he
can no longer move
and knows he will meet
the ocean in bits pulled off
by the jetsam of other
people’s lives as it flows
past him on this leg
of its endless journey.


He believes he would like the ocean,
imagines standing on the shore watching
as the waves wash up to his feet,
and as quickly retreat, smoothing the sand.
He has never seen the ocean, only
ponds and on large lake, but he
imagines the ocean is just
a giant lake with bigger waves.
He would like to see the fog
roll in erasing the horizon,
shrouding the seas in a deeper mystery.
He recalls standing in the bar
of the Grand Hyatt in Tokyo
late one night as the fog settled
over the city, and only the lights
of the tallest buildings
seemed afloat on endless sea.


If you walk into the room
and many are meditating,
how will you know which
is the teacher, which the students?

If one sits on a higher platform
will you assume him teacher
and ask the depth of his Zen?
If he comes down to you
and says he has no depth to offer
do not think him a fool.
When you sit at the bottom
of the ocean and look down
the water beneath you is shallow
but the surface of the sea
cannot be seen.

Reflecting on Case 66 of the Iron Flute (Tetteki Tosui)



droplets torn from cloud bed
cling to edges of windows
wanting to grasp,
torn free by wind
they are pulled
clawing backward.


over Osaka pillars of light
rise up through holes
in the cloudbank, it is gray
rain puddling on tarmac
built into the bay.


container ships draw
fading wake lines
on a blue gray canvass,
a solitary sailboat
stares longingly
at the seawall
as rain dances on deck.


in the next stall
an in-transit army sergeant
vomits repeatedly
then washes his face
and military demeanor.


round eyes
half shut
doze in neat rows
of seats
staring at planes
and rain.


The ocean wind swept through the city
a sudden rain washed sidewalk, shop and street,
carried both dreams and sins back to the sea.

For the young child, time slid by easily,
life a campaign that allowed no retreat.
The ocean wind swept through the city,

rattled church windows, so that all could see
the priest stripped of dogma.  Christ on pierced feet
carried both dreams and sins back to the sea,

cast them to the waves, as if once set free
both dreamer, sinner would avoid hell’s heat.
The ocean wind sweeps through the city,

whispers to the rich man, “what will you be
at the end of this life, when bitter sleep
carries both dreams and sins back to the sea.

When you are buried deeply in the peat
will we see your face in the turf fire’s heat?”
The ocean wind sweeps through the city,
carries both dreams and sins back to the sea.


She claims to see the future
in a glass orb,
in the palm of a hand,
in the cards spread
out on a small table.

He knows all history
is written in books
is retold in stories
is buried in successive
layers of soil beneath the city.

Neither walks along the shore
see this wave
lapping the sand
and this, and this.
Neither stoops to pick
up the shell,
to watch the crab
scutter, to feel
the pull
of the ocean.

The wave has no future,
has no history,
and caresses the whelk,
crab and foot, uncaring.


A young man sits
on a large flat rock
jutting out into a river.
He slowly tells the river
the story of his life,
places he has been,
people seen and known.
Each drop of water flowing by
hears a small bit
of his story, none hear
whole thoughts, for perhaps
he has told none.
Some time later I sit
on the flat rock
and stare into the roiling water.
I listen for the river’s story
but each drop of water
tells small bits of its life,
or maybe it is
the lives of others
who stood along its banks
upstream, and let their lives
trickle into its flow.
A fish swims slowly by,
it’s silvered scales
flashing gold
in the late afternoon sun.
It pauses near the rock,
purses its mouth
and swims off downstream.
We both understand
it is only the ocean
that hears us fully.