I sit at a window overlooking snow-heavy pines in DeKalb, Illinois. Juncos, sparrows, bluejays dart to and from the bird-feeder on this bitterly cold day, a new year begun. It seems only yesterday I sailed to Japan for the fourth time. Before boarding the freighter in Seattle, I visited the Art Museum's superb collection of Oriental art. Two Chinese works of the Yuan Dynasty ( 1279-1368) were particularly impressive: a supremely delicate scroll of flowering plum by Yang Hui, and an anonymous piece which seemed almost prophetic, a nearly life-size representation in polychromed wood called "Monk at Moment of Enlightenment." Overwhelmed, I thought of the Japanese master Daito's awakening poem, written in the same period:
At last I've broken Unmon's barrier! There's exit everywhere -- east, west; north, south. In at morning, out at evening; neither host nor guest. My every step stirs up a little breeze.
Often when translating Zen poems, I had touched such an experience; yet, though poems of enlightenment like Daito's gave its essence, this work shuddered with release. I stood before the figure for some time, then grasped the source of my fascination: the monk's face was familiar, that of a Zen priest in the mountains near Niigata, the first enlightened Zennist I had met, so many years before.
Now I was going back to question how life and art of such men are affected by the philosophy, the quest intriguing. Since having tried, as they, to shape my life and poetry according to Zen principles, having translated and commented on some of its great literature, I sometimes wondered whether insights gained might be substantiated through encounters with serious practitioners, whether Zen's truth still lived. To know seemed necessary. My plan to collaborate once again with Professor Takashi Ikemoto of Japan,