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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/ Image by Questavia /


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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

Don't you like the way this short Zen poem says so much?

Year after year
     I dug in the earth
          looking for the blue of heaven


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.

He is digging into the earth searching for heaven. We might take this to mean that he is delving into worldly, material existence. Or perhaps it is merely to suggest the heavy effort of spiritual striving. Either way, the effort, rather than freeing him is choking him.

only to feel
     the pile of dirt
          choking me


It is as if he has been digging his own grave. Even then he doesn't know what else to do.

But insight, that moment of satori or enlightenment, comes almost by accident.

until once in the dead of night
     I tripped on a broken brick
          and kicked it into the air


Though it may be an accident, it is not random. If he hadn't been digging in the first place, he never would have stumbled. So, in an ironic way, the effort has served its purpose, but not in the purposeful cause-and-effect manner he imagined.

Significantly, it is "in the dead of night" when he stumbles and falls, what we might interpret as the dark night of the soul when he feels most hopeless and drained.

and saw that without a thought
     I had smashed the bones
          of the empty sky


Yet in falling on his back he is face up and finally sees the sky. He's stunned into silence ("without a thought"). The sky itself shatters. He pierces through the false sky, which is a construction of his mind -- his thoughts about the sky and the heavenly realms, his concepts and assumptions of all that encompasses his world. He finally sees clearly sky, as it is, the living, empty spaciousness that overarches and permeates everything.

A reminder to us that earnest seekers labor hard, but the masters know how to fall back -- and so see the sky.

=

Big energies are circulating because of the inauguration this week in the US. It's okay to not go along with the pretense that things are okay.

The challenge going forward -- cultivating a peaceful heart in coordination with a strong voice and a willing hand.



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