At this silver pavilion
a shogun
once put away his robes of state,
and while embers fell with snow
on the elegant little ways
of old Kyoto,
he whittled his country
into this breath taking
and gaudy masterpiece.
How many millions became shavings
for Yoshimasa’s
detached and graceful poems
from a floating world?

Temple Garden (Konchi’in)

The dry sand garden
swirls here in tense circles
that come back upon each other,
tangled confusion.
The meaning that you once wore
unravels from you here,
but so too those faces you kept
that had grown too much like a skin,
and you had concealed behind them
every intention, every glance,
every rush of blood.
Where should you go from here,
stripped bare and raw
as that stone lantern
assaulted by the flying seasons?
But up there on that rock plateau,
the knarled pine, twisting now
into its final fall,
reveals itself without artifice,
in the way that its body has bent
to the kind and cruel years,
in the way that its heart is held tight
within the contorted trunk.

Ryoanji Temple

At Ryoanji temple
the people filing through,
balls of a thousand pairs of feet
rubbing the ancient wood
smooth as a Buddha’s head.
Some talk, crack jokes,
others stick noses deep in brochures,
or finger through guide books
looking for the next site to plunder
in this ancient capital
of wood and moss.
Do they know,
these ten thousand
who will bring to this place today
their noise, their hunger,
their barely grasped understanding,
and their lives
as brief as cicadas?
Do they know the meaning
of these countless raked stones
that flow and flow
around the summer-eaten rocks,
that flow to the edge of the clay wall
and out beyond to the recieving sky?
The people and the sand
filing past
under the ebbing of the cicadas’ croak.

Tenryuji Temple

This temple was reduced to ashes
eight times in seven centuries,
the precious shoji screens,
done by the Kano masters,
and the relics
scattered over the mountains
of Arashiyama.
But the old pond,
its moss, its rocks
lodged deep in their moist seasons,
were only burned darker
by the fire.
In these waters,
where the greens become
a thousand layers
of shadow and speech,
the carps flash suddenly
to the surface,
like bright orange sparks,
distilled conflagrations.


You must let go of the rock
to swim in this garden.
Its deep red is like a clot
that holds back the rush
of your heart’s calling.
Nothing here would mind, it seems,
if you just stayed
like the stagnant moss,
with your hurt and your wreckage
of dreams and memory,
but for the rock,
which beats now
like an animal necessity.
There is nowhere else to go,
and you plunge your determined eyes
into the onrushing flow
of the raked white sand.
Looking back you see
those things you left behind
to dry on the red rock,
hollow after all.

Zen Garden (Tofukuji)

The hard rocks jutting up
at their implacable angles.
Contrast of the five smooth mounds
caressed by the moss.
And passing between,
this flow of sand,
sometimes straight flying lines
or confused passions.
If this garden teaches you anything,
it is to be
both hard and yielding
in the wild stream of being.
There is a kind of balance,
an erasing of opposites
for those who, giving nothing,
fling their lives from the open windows
into such a garden.
And when at last
you are shattered on those stones,
there, the heart open, singing,
the way the summer’s heart is.

Moss Garden (Gioji)

Perhaps this moss
still harbours something of her
intoxicating fullness.
The temple garden
seems made for sweeter tones
than the monks’ severe austerities.

Spurned and jaded
she drifted here
to this mountain hermitage,
where the sharp call
of the cicadas’ seasons
and the stream’s song
might erase her vexed beauty,
her courtly grace
that brought her only exile.

But her voluptuousness stayed in this place,
just as it had clung to Kiyomori,
who died a restless man.
How many other beauties
had gone to their mountain convents
after Gio?
And when he held her,
that old man,
did he dream in her deep breast
the way the purple violas
float in this moss?

* Gio was a famous beauty of Heian period Japan.
She was mistress to the warlord Taira no Kiyomori,
but when he became infatuated with another,
he banished her from his court. She became a nun
and entered the temple which later took her name,

The Phoenix Temple

Did the young monk guess
the fate to come
for this beautiful gilded bird,
the hordes who would trudge and sweat
through the stifling Kyoto heat
to stand and gawk and smile,
take their pictures and leave?
Because that’s what you do
in the presence of such awful beauty,
seen now
as a strange and precious animal is seen
behind the tawdry bars
of its menagerie
in an occidental zoo.
Perhaps the young monk knew
and decided to give the gorgeous firebird
one last rebirth in the licking flames.
How beautiful she was that night
as her gold became
heat, sparks, constellations
under the charred sky.
That vision,
the marauding tour guides
and their flocks
will never know.

The Monk Shonen

And when the hermit felt sure
this was the place,
he had his temple built
deep behind these mountains of Ohara,

where the ancient pines spoke sometimes
their words on the wind,
or became a thousand silent ears
listening to the void’s toll.

From the madness of his age to here,
where the stillness gathered
in the hollow of the stones,
in the palms of the leaves,

where he could feel
the world’s hurt, more pure,
and the sharp pine needles
that pierced him when he took
the mountain trails deep into himself.

For his diet now was only
pain beyond his own.
He’d seen how the trees
could take the exhaled sighs of life
and give back crystalline breath,
so many million beginnings.

And so he fasted
and inhaled the dark nights of the living
and slowly withered to a
black and twisted branch.
Then, when hunger’s gnawing mouth

became a roar,
he bid his followers
lead him to the cave at Amidaji
and seal it,
where he succumbed at last
to all the lids that closed
with a whimper in the forest.

Perhaps one man,
as a fool who loved too wildly,
could never stem the ache of this life.
But here the tall pines
at least understood,

and washed over the husk of the hermit,
purifying pain into birdsong
and new breath
and thunder deep within
the waterfall’s bright music.

The Command

I am busy deciphering your
blood, a language of
wild rose gardens; of laughing
sunflowers, mad ones like

Van Gogh’s; of pink water
lilies, sprawling in their
luxurious vines, seducing the
sun’s obsessive gaze.

I find myself here, alone at your
edges, always at the edge; the
clamour of bird-songs scattering from
gunshots into your un-answering fields.

But the deep center of my body is
something outside of me calling to you,
more certain than me
striding into your pain.

Older than both of us, it
closes in like a thousand burning
nights, filling your cheeks with its
command: break him.