Toki-no-Ge (Satori Poem)

by Muso Soseki

English version by W. S. Merwin
Original Language Japanese

Year after year
     I dug in the earth
          looking for the blue of heaven
only to feel
     the pile of dirt
          choking me
until once in the dead of night
     I tripped on a broken brick
          and kicked it into the air
and saw that without a thought
     I had smashed the bones
          of the empty sky

-- from Sun at Midnight: Muso Soseki - Poems and Sermons, Translated by W. S. Merwin / Translated by Soiku Shigematsu

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

Don't you like the way this short Zen poem says so much? The spiritual quest is first seen as some sort of construction project, but he doesn't really know what to build or what he's doing so he just digs deeper into the earth -- worldly, material existence -- until he's choked by the experience. It's as if he begins to recognize he's only been digging his own grave, yet even then he doesn't know what else to do.

But insight, that moment of satori or enlightenment, comes almost by accident. "In the dead of night" -- the dark night of the soul when he feels most hopeless and drained, he stumbles and falls. Yet in falling on his back for the first time he is face up and sees the sky. He's stunned and even thought falls away. The sky itself shatters. He pierces through the false sky, which is a construction of his mind -- his thoughts about sky, his concepts and assumptions of all that encompasses his world -- and finally sees clearly sky as it is -- the living, empty spaciousness that overarches and permeates everything.

Earnest seekers labor hard, but the masters seek that strategic stumbling and so see the sky.

Recommended Books: Muso Soseki

Sun at Midnight: Muso Soseki - Poems and Sermons East Window: Poems from Asia Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader

Toki-no-Ge (Satori