ARC (NetGalley) Review: Zen Master Poems



A tour-de-force work by one of America’s most celebrated contemporary poets.

Frisbees, Johnny Cash, and lonely railroad crossings: All coexist with Zen Buddhism’s traditional imagery of cherry blossoms and mountain landscapes in Zen Master Poems. This collection of one-page readings, meditations, admonitions and observations evokes calm, reflection and humor for readers and seekers on every path.

Zen Master Poems is from Dick Allen, author of eight acclaimed poetry volumes — and the 2010-2015 Connecticut Poet Laureate. Allen gives full expression to his lifetime interest in Zen Buddhism for the first time here.

Although accessible for readers of all traditions, Zen Master Poems also contains elements that will challenge those already familiar with Buddhist literature. The poems are alternately serious and whimsical, seamlessly blending East with West.

Featuring titles like a “Cat Named Zen” and images like Jack Kerouac watching lightning strike, these lovely and mysterious poems are sure to stick with you. While it pays tribute to Han-Shan’s famous Cold Mountain Poems, the voice here is truly Allen’s own.

Product Details (Amazon):

  • Series: New Wisdom Poems (Book 1)
  • Paperback: 152 pages
  • Publisher: Wisdom Publications (August 23, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 161429299X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1614292999
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds



First and foremost, the reader ought to take note of the ensō on the cover of the anthology. In Zen Buddhism it represents the beauty of imperfection which can be conflated with the concept of  wabi-sabi.

Equally important is “The obstacle is the path” which is a Zen proverb that potential readers may have come across. So for those that may at first be unsure of how to proceed with interpreting the Zen Master Poems, worry not, for the beauty of Zen lies in its simplicity which becomes clear when the mind stops forming overt connections between unconnected dots.

“Simply, Simply, Simply.”, Henry David Thoreau was known to say. Declutter your thoughts. Think not of yourself as a “bag of skin and bones”, or that you were “born into this world”, see yourself as an entity that is a reflection of its environment and in the words of Dick Allen a “beautiful disguise”. Allow this shift in mindset to take place and it is possible to live simply and think deeply.

With that being said, there are allusions in the poems which open the door to further exploration of the subject matter. For instance Alan Watts who remarked “Reality is a rorschach ink blot”, and a man known to spread eastern ideas to an western audience was mentioned in a poem.

Furthermore, Hanshan too was alluded to. Note that the master of the cold mountain himself said that Zen is not in the poems but in the mind.

“the ten thousand things are all reflections
the moon originally has no light”

In a way one particular poem “The Secret Is To Leap” reminded me of Keat’s ‘Negative Capability’ which is the key ingredient to success of many acclaimed poets. According to Keats: Negative Capability is the state of mind when man is capable of being in uncertainties, delving into mysteries, weighing doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

Zen teaches us to ask good questions, but it also extols the importance of realizing that it’s not about “because” but that it “just is”… that we should focus on the “what” rather than on the “why”…

Keeping all of this under close consideration, Dick Allen has done a phenomenal job of noting down his observations and turning them into food for thought for a mind starved of simplicity. Whether or not the reader will find the bird making calligraphy in the sky or Zen Master Kyong Ho’s “the tree with no shadow” remains yet to be seen, but not knowing something is what makes the act of discovery all the more fulfilling and that is to say nothing of the power of the idea that everything we require is rooted in the present and we need not wait any longer to partake in its splendor which may be simpler than it appears if the way of the zen cat is to be believed.





The Astrologer Who Fell Into A Wishing Well

This story is number 40 on the Perry Index.

“An Astronomer used to walk out every night to gaze upon the stars. It happened one night that, with his whole thoughts rapt up in the skies, he fell into a well. One who heard his cries ran up to him, and said:

“While you are trying to pry into the mysteries of heaven, you overlook the common objects under your feet.”

Morale: We should never look so high as to miss seeing the things that are around us. (Aesop’s fables)

Morale: ‘Mind your own business’ – Samuel Croxall

Morale:  ‘How can you understand the world without knowing yourself first?’- Gabriele Faerno

Morale:  ‘Let the astrologer beware of predicting anything. For the imposter will fall headlong, so long as he flies above the stars.’- Andrea Alciato

Morale: ‘Let, for want of due repair,A real house fall down,To build a castle in the air?’ – Charles Denis

Morale: “To an astrologer who fell
Plump to the bottom of a well,
‘Poor blockhead!’ cried a passer-by,
‘Not see your feet, and read the sky?'”- Fontaine

The unfortunate man who fell into the well was none other than Thales of Miletus, who was said to have entertained the idea that

The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.’  

He is not by far the only person to have voiced this concern!

“The greatest explorer on this earth never takes voyages as long as those of the man who descends to the depth of his heart.”– Julien Green

“‘Know thyself?’ If I knew myself, I’d run away.”– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“I can teach anybody how to get what they want out of life. The problem is that I can’t find anybody who can tell me what they want.”– Mark Twain

“One’s own self is well hidden from one’s own self; of all mines of treasure, one’s own is the last to be dug up.”– Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.”– Henry David Thoreau

So why do human beings prefer to spend countless hours attempting to understand the world around them and not themselves?

I am of the opinion it is because we are always changing and our personalities are in flux adapting to each scenario based on who we want to become, whereas certain truths about the world do remain constant… such as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

Also, the motivation for wanting to become a certain type of person could be owing to the values taught to us by society.

“A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.”– George Moore

“Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.”– St. Augustine

“All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.”– James Thurber

If we’re too preoccupied by trying to find out who we are and understand the world around us, we’ll forget what it’s like to enjoy the simple things in life. To take it all in one step at a time, and to find joy in the things we do comprehend. That is not to say that we should not get out of our comfort zones, rather life is not a jigsaw puzzle meant to be put together, it is an abstract painting and the beauty of it lies in its incomprehensibility.