“Like a fish hidden in a spring:” How Daoist is Zen?

Laozi at the Western gate with Yin Xi 001


zen had two parents, buddhism and daoism. buddhism gave it the theoretical foundation. daoism gave it a paradoxical chinese character, the subtle attitude of Laozi.

“Like a fish hidden in a spring:” The Dao De Jing*of Laozi and its influence on Chan

*(We should all be using the pinyin system of transliteration now, so, though the Dao De Jing is better known in English speaking countries as the Tao Te Ching and Laozi is better known as Lao Tsu, I shall spell in pinyin, though translations will be quoted accurately as originally spelled).

Daoist ideas permeated all aspects of Chinese life before Buddhism arrived in China: philosophy, science, medicine, arts, physical fitness, cooking, agriculture and governance were all seen in terms of Daoist principles of constant change, the balance of yin and yang, and flow. When Buddhism arrived in China in the first century BCE, it was interpreted in the light of Laozi’s Dao De Jing.

The sutras of the Buddha’s teachings are much studied and much admired in Chan, but let me also make a case for marvelling at the teachings of Laozi, which give Chan its distinctively playful style, quite different from the language of the Pali canon which can be dry and repetitive, as Hugh Carroll says. Laozi lived in China at more or less the same period as the Buddha lived in India, and each of them had vivid experience of the mystical vision. The Buddha was a brilliant intellectual and theorised his insight. Laozi was anti-intellectual and only reluctantly put his wisdom into words; words which were enigmatic and allusive. There is a much-illustrated story that he was leaving China through one of the Western gates and the gate-keeper, Yin Xi, refused to let him go until he had written down his wisdom for the Chinese to keep. The two of them are shown above. Laozi wrote the eighty one short chapters of the Dao De Jing, now the most translated book in the world.

The Dao 

Laozi describes the Dao in Chapter 34:

The great Tao flows everywhere, both to the left and to the right.

The ten thousand things depend upon it; it holds nothing back.

It fulfils its purpose silently and makes no claim.

[Quotation from the Feng and English translation]

The Dao is nature’s flow. The word means ‘way,’ or ‘path,’ or ‘guidance,’ and seems to be used for the way of nature, the way nature is, and also the source of nature’s creativity. More prosaically it is just the way things are and the way they function. There is a way to fry a small fish, for example, and you’ll make a mess of it if you don’t have some care. Laozi scales this up.

Govern big countries

Like you cook little fish [Chapter 60, Addiss and Lombardo] 

It is ultimately a mystery. The universe is there, life teems, everything changes – what is the mysterious way it works?

It is like the mother of all under heaven,

                        But I don’t know its name –

                                    Better call it Tao.

                                    Better call it great. [Chapter 25] 

Laozi is careful not to define it as a philosopher would. He says that it cannot be known, and that the word Dao does not capture it. The closest he can get is a tautology:

Tao follows what is natural. 

‘What is natural’ is the Chinese word for nature, ziran, which David Hinton tells us is made of symbols meaning ‘self-generating’ or, more vividly, since the ideogram for fire is part of it, ‘self-ablaze.’ 

The Dao is the underlying self-generating order of the universe and the original creative source of all things. This Chinese view is an energetic, unified, harmonious, temperate, continuously changing vision of nature (unlike the angry thunder and lightning gods of the Greeks or the merciless sun gods of the Middle East); and Laozi goes on to say that our attitude should be to follow its lead, to accept it as it is, to harmonise with it, and not to try and control or dominate nature.

The universe is sacred.

You cannot improve it.

If you try to change it, you will ruin it.

If you try to hold it, you will lose it. [Chapter 29]. 

And his images for the way to harmonise with nature start with water:

                        Best to be like water,

Which benefits the ten thousand things

And does not contend.

It pools where humans disdain to dwell,

Close to the Dao…

Only do not contend,

And you will not go wrong.

[Chapter 8 in the Addiss and Lombardo translation] 

In Chapter 28 Laozi commends feminine and childlike qualities:

…keep a woman’s care!

                        Be the stream of the universe!

Being the stream of the universe,

Ever true and unswerving,

Become as a little child once more. [Feng and English translation] 

The Dao will nourish one and have a good curative effect if one respects its subtle workings.

Tao is empty ­­–

                                    Its use never exhausted .


The origin of all things.

                        It blunts sharp edges,

                                    Unties knots,

                                    Softens glare,

                                    Becomes one with the dusty world. [Chapter 4, Addiss and Lombardo] 

Adam, a member of the Portsmouth Chan group, explained this perfectly: “The practice of meditation has blunted my sharp edges, untied my knots and softened my glare,” he said.

Everything changes. Language tries to subdivide the flow and freeze the movement. Laozi is sceptical, wary of naming the parts. He contrasts the Dao with things that can be defined by naming, in the very first words of Chapter 1:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named is not the eternal name. [Feng and English]

And he goes on to elaborate an argument that associates the naming of things with a separation from the source, a distancing from reality’s mobile suchness. Naming, and all the labelling and discriminating that language use implies, is a kind of possessiveness, a control mechanism, leading to the human desire to own, to cling (a theme that exactly matches the Buddha’s insights, and the Buddha’s emphasis on how things are perceived or misperceived):

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.

The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.

Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.

But he avoids making this contrast into a great universal dualism:

These two spring from the same source but differ in name…

                        The gate to all mystery. 

There is a health warning with the Dao. Laozi seems to write of it as an ultimately unknowable ineffable mystery. Or does he? Perhaps he is making the more limited point, not that it is ineffable, but that language cannot capture it. He is laconic, and sometimes obscure in writing about it. But he implicitly gives it some attributes: integrity, wisdom and healing power. Is it an active agent in the world?

Tao hides, no name.

            Yet Tao alone gets things done. [Chapter 41 Addiss and Lombardo] 

Is it nearly a god? At one point he tells us,

The Tao begot one.

One begot two.

Two begot three.

And three begot the ten thousand things.[Chapter 42] 

but never says any more about this, and changes the subject immediately:

                        What others teach, I also teach; that is:

“A violent man will die a violent death!”

This will be the essence of my teaching.[Chapter 42] 

so it is difficult to see what he means by one, two, three and the ten thousand things. It is wide open to wild interpretations. Some have founded a religion on this and worshipped the Dao. There are superstitious Daoist cults in China today. Some have seen it as a philosophical origin myth like Plato’s Timaeus, with a Creator, a Demiurge, and junior gods. But judging by all the rest of the Dao De Jing, most interpreters see it as another way of saying that the Dao is a word pointing to the phenomenon of self-generating growth and change in all things: the ten thousand things are manifestations of nature’s way, arising mysteriously out of what a mystic perceives as a unity. Laozi specifically cautions against worshipping it.

The Chan teachers of the Golden Age of Zen, a thousand years after Laozi, often use the word Dao for the spiritual path or the way of practicing. They use other terms for the indefinable mystery at the core of things and absolutely refuse to turn it into an idea by defining it. Bodhidharma uses ‘mind’ (“This mind has no form or characteristics, no cause or effect, no tendons or bones. It’s like space”). Huineng uses ‘Essence of Mind’ (“Our Essence of Mind is intrinsically pure; all things are only its manifestations”). Huang Po, Linji’s teacher, uses ‘One Mind’ (“All the buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but One Mind, beside which nothing exists. This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible.”)  Linji warns against naming, “…the mind ground. If you can get it, use it, without putting any more labels on it”. He also, like Laozi, warns against treating it as sacred. Many of the protagonists of the koans collected by Hongzhi and Mumon use the term ‘Buddha nature,’ as in the famous first koan in The Gateless Gate, “Does a dog have  Buddha nature or not?”  The answer “No,” is the health warning: do not interpret the Dao or the Buddha nature as an idea, as something sacred, or as anything distinguishable from all that is in nature.

The greatest Chan teachers sound very like followers of Laozi when attempting to articulate a response to the mystery of ziran: “If you try to grasp Zen in movement, it goes into stillness. If you try to grasp Zen in stillness, it goes into movement. It is like a fish hidden in a spring, drumming up waves and dancing independently.” (Linji)  It is impossible to say anything at all more than the tautology of Laozi: it is a mystery; nature is nature. “There is something in the world that is neither in the sphere of the ordinary nor in the sphere of the holy. It is neither in the realm of the false nor in the realm of the true.” (Wuzu)

Chan literature, following in the wake of the Prajna Paramita sutras, is philosophically sceptical about what can be known, or proved, in logic: there is nothing that can be asserted about the mysterious reality of nature. You cannot characterise it or list its attributes. The Chan adepts are more muted and cautious than Laozi when writing about what he called the Dao, and they call Mind or Buddha nature, but they have not jettisoned the Dao. 

The Ethics of the Dao de Jing

Laozi is sceptical about those who trust words for fixing the ten thousand things in their place. Equally, he is sceptical about theory; he distrusts scholars and intellectuals. And he is very sceptical about public preachers and political moralisers:

                        When the great Tao is forgotten,

Kindness and morality arise.

When wisdom and intelligence are born,

The great pretence begins. [Chapter 18]

Laozi’s jaundiced view of most moralising reveals a much more nuanced sensitivity to the complexities of moral behaviour than, “Do not steal.” He tells us not to collect treasure and stealing will cease. Not to glorify heroes and people won’t be so quick to fight.  It is a morality grounded in a feeling for what is natural, and not too clever (he does not trust cleverness), and a deep distrust of claims to virtue, of spiritual pride. Things have gone wrong if you need to point out the virtues, thinks Laozi. More than that, he sees that rule-bound morality and categorising actions into good and bad may do more to exacerbate problems than to solve them. In Chapter 38 he writes that benevolence is the next best thing if Dao is lost, but that after that there is a decline into righteousness and once that is lost there is only propriety.

Chan master Dahui later wrote in similar style, “Good and bad come from your own mind… When your mind is clean and clear, all entanglements cease… Both substance and function are in their natural state… your own mind’s marvellous function of change and creation… enters into both purity and defilement without being affected by or attached to either.” This is a morality that tiptoes through the world, accepting nature’s way, not trying to control anything and suspicious of category labels such as bad and good. It sees the system, with multiple causes and conditions, all interrelated. It is very different from the rule-bound ethics, proscribing a wide range of human behaviours, that came out of Indian monasticism, or, for that matter, the rule-bound commandments of Christianity, marinated in punitive notions of sin and evil. In ethics, the Chinese Chan teachers like Dahui follow Laozi more naturally than they follow Indian Buddhist monastic rules.

Wu wei and the De of the Sage 

            For people to harmonise with the flow of nature and act with authentic good feeling they must not strive too hard, or try to wrest control with energetic power. The ideal is wu wei, effortless action that goes with the flow, “nothing acting,” and it is another of the great themes of the Dao De Jing.

Non-doing – and nothing not done…

Make the least effort

And the world escapes you. [Chapter 48, Addiss and Lombardo] 

Act and you ruin it.

Grasp and you lose it. [Chapter 64]

Simon Child teaches that, “Enlightenment is being out of the way.” Wu Wei is being out of the way, in the sense of not making the least effort to force the result, not acting with an ulterior purpose, an agenda, not grasping.

For Laozi, ‘the Sage’ is a major literary theme, as it is centuries later in the writings of the Chan masters of the Golden Age of Zen. The characteristic way of being of the enlightened person is described: Laozi tells us in the beginning, in Chapter 2, that,

…the Sage is devoted to non-action…

Lives but does not own,

Acts but does not presume,

Accomplishes without taking credit. [Addiss and Lombardo] 

The Buddha made the same point: ‘My practice,’ the Buddha said, ‘is the nonpractice, the attainment of nonattainment.’

            In the far East, Laozi himself has always been recognised as the archetypal Sage, the model of the enlightened man.

I take no action and people are reformed.

I enjoy peace and people become honest. [Chapter 57, Feng and English] 

…the Sage is sharp but not cutting,

Pointed but not piercing,

Straightforward but not unrestrained,

Brilliant but not blinding.[Chapter 58] 

‘The Sage’ is a Daoist subject which the early Chan literature dwells on at length. All the writers give accounts of how enlightenment transforms a person, and use fulsome imagery for the great skills of the sage. “Zen adepts just remain free, and are imperceptible to anyone… They walk on the bottom of the deepest ocean, uncontaminated, with free minds…” writes Yuanwu. In a beautiful passage, Hongzhi writes, “The worldly life of people who have mastered Zen is buoyant and unbridled, like clouds making rain, like the moon in a stream, like an orchid in a recondite spot, like spring in living beings. Their action is not self-conscious, yet their responses have order.” ‘Action that is not self-conscious’ would be a perfect definition of wu wei. Hongzhi is heir to Laozi and Dogen is heir to Hongzhi. Dogen studied with Hongzhi’s  successors at Hongzhi’s Tiantong monastery.

Dao De Jing means the classic of Dao and of De (Te, in the Wade-Giles transliteration). “De” is the Dao as a guide to action; how to respect the subtlety of the way things are and harness the integrity, the wholeness, of Dao. De is “virtue” in the sense of a quality, and also somewhat in the Greek sense of power or inner energy. It is acting like a sage, guided by Dao, wu wei style, without presuming, without desire, without a personal stake in the game. The model is a good parent:

Tao bears them and Te nurses them…

Bears them without owning them

Helps them without coddling them,

Rears them without ruling them.

This is called original Te. [Chapter 51, Addiss and Lombardo]           

In Chapter 49 Laozi says,

People who are not good

                                    I also treat well:

                                                Te as goodness. 

            Untrustworthy people             

                                    I also trust:

                                                Te as trust. [Addiss and Lombardo] 

In Chapter 68 he outlines the “Te of not contending:”

The accomplished person is not aggressive.

The good soldier is not hot-tempered.

The best conqueror does not engage the enemy.

The most effective leader takes the lowest place.

This is all of a piece with Laozi’s way of appreciating the power of water to wear down stone, the strong grip of a baby, the usefulness of the empty space in a bowl, the effectiveness of feminine qualities. Go with the grain. Respect the nature of things. There is a way to clean and fry a small fish without charging like a bull at a gate. And don’t be clever:

Ruling through cleverness

                        Leads to rebellion.[Chapter 65].

The Daoist inheritance in Chan Buddhism

The teachers who founded Chan, from Bodhidharma in the fifth century to Hongzhi in the twelfth century, took from the traditions of both sages, Laozi and Sakyamuni Buddha, and from Mahayana philosophers of the first and second century, to blend a Daoist Buddhism. The theorising and moralising of early Indian Buddhism were dropped. Meditation, as an individual’s inner path, or Dao, to discover truth for him or herself, became the central and only practice. ‘Mind’, or ‘Essence of Mind’, or ‘Buddhanature’ was the focus of their writings, as ‘Dao’ had been the focus of the Dao De Jing. Chan masters express hardly any interest in mainstream Buddhist ideas like suffering, rebirth, karma, meritorious deeds, ritual, scriptural knowledge and fussy ethical rules. Impermanence, on the other hand, which had always been at the heart of the Daoist account of nature, a continuous flow of changes seen in terms of yin and yang qualities in a dance of sixty four hexagrams symbolising decay and regeneration, was a strong theme in Chan. “The murderous demon of impermanence is instantaneous,” wrote Linji. “It does not choose between the upper and lower classes, or between the old and the young.”

The Buddha’s teaching of anatta, no permanent self, now deepened and extended by the Mahayana debates on sunyatta, the emptying of self, and the absence of self-essence, was at the very centre of the Chan vision. Bodhidharma’s, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy!” set the  tone for China.

Chan is a distillation of Buddhist theory into practice and paradox. Philosophical Indian Buddhism gave Daoism a much firmer foundation in a theory of perception and a theory of conditioned causation. From that solid base, Chan could afford to indulge the subtle watery spirit of the Dao. Laozi’s Daoism had several features which were retained in Chan. And as we have seen, there are Chan themes that were present in different proportions in both the Buddha’s and Laozi’s teachings.

The stripping out of inherited conditioning in order to clear the mind is a great theme of the Buddha’s teaching. “Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements,” he said. How to drop the defilements clouding the mind remained absolutely central to Chan teachings of the Tang dynasty. But Laozi also touched on this aspect of mind.  The Dao De Jing tells us in Chapter 33 that:

Knowing others is intelligent.

Knowing yourself is enlightened.

and in Chapter 48 that wu wei is the process:

Pursue knowledge, gain daily.

Pursue Tao, lose daily.

Lose and again lose,

Arrive at non-doing.

Non-doing – and nothing not done 

Letting go. Unlearning. Losing. These were Daoist themes but the Dao De Jing did not spell out what one must unlearn. In the Buddha’s teaching it was explicit: conditioned responses of attraction and aversion; all judgements and conditioned ideas. Clearing the mind is the topic that dominates the writings of the Tang and Song dynasty Chan masters. They develop what are only hints in the Dao De Jing, but much more substantial analysis in the Pali Buddhist sutras, into the core of their teaching. One or two quotations from any number will be sufficient to make the point, starting with Seng Tsan’s, “Simply avoid picking and choosing,” through Huang Po’s, “If you students of the Way desire knowledge of this great mystery, only avoid attachment to any single thing beyond Mind,” and coming to Yuanwu’s, “Shed views and interpretations that are based on concepts such as victory and defeat, self and others, right and wrong. Thus you pass through all that and reach a realm of great rest and tranquillity.”

Hui Neng was the founding father who preached it: “The mind should be framed in such a way that it will be independent of external or internal objects, at liberty to come or go, free from attachment and thoroughly enlightened without the least beclouding.” He summed up: “…so far as we get rid of all delusive ‘idea’ there will be nothing but purity in our nature.”


Chinese Daoist anti-philosophy was the mother of Chan; Indian Buddhist philosophy was its father. The child of these two inevitably has a sense of subtlety, a sense of humour and a sense of paradox. Chan is a Daoist form of Buddhism with Chinese characteristics. The Dao De Jing is more mystical, mysterious, poetic and enigmatic than the Pali sutras. It is a foundation text for my Zen.



Tao Te Ching trans. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, London, Wildwood House, first published 1973.

Tao Te Ching trans. Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo, Boston, Shambhala, first published 1993.

The Lyricist

Stephen Sondheim tells us in Finishing the Hat that there are three rules and three sins in writing lyrics.

The Rules:

  1. Content dictates form.
  2. Less is more.
  3. God is in the details.


The Sins:

  1. Verbosity.
  2. Redundant adjectival padding.
  3. Strained jokes.

Poetry is an art of concision, lyric an art of of expansion, he tells us. I think he must mean that poetry has to say it all, but the lyric can allow the music to expand a simple theme and give it colour and tone. And even profundity.

Sondheim writes

His lyrics are written for the theatre, of course, and often in comedy, so he lays a lot of emphasis upon the voice of the character. The lyric must be written in character, and in the dialect of the character. It can use the three sins above, but only if the character is verbose, or the character makes pathetically strained jokes, and then only sparingly, just enough to establish the character. He is proud of his Brooklyn rhymes: ‘stickler’ with ‘partic’ler’, and likes to take advantage of the idiosyncracies of his character’s language. This is what is meant by Rule Three, ‘God is in the detail.’ My own Mrs Bride lyric uses prisoners’ rhyming slang (bird-lime for time) for the refrain, and common prison slang for the last line:

“I breathe out….  I breathe in…. That’s how I do my bird.”

“Banged up in my cell I know I’m free.”

The Mrs Bride refrain is also an example of Rule One, ‘Content dictates form.’ The subject is meditation in prison. The musical setting can enact the meditative focus on the breath, the breathing in and breathing out, in real inhalation and exhalation time. So the line is simple, but the musical performance expands it into an experience, and the addition of, “That’s how I do my bird,” expands it again into a whole life strategy. Breath dictates the form of the song. “The lyric can be plain,” says Sondheim, “but soars when infused with music.” You breathe; it fills all time; it soars. ‘Less is more.’ Rule Two.

A poet speaks in her own voice, but song lyrics are best when dramatic, set in the middle of a relationship, and written in the voice of a character. In writing these lyrics for Nick I discovered that I liked dramatic situations with two or three characters. The best example of three characters is a song we wrote for Krystyna to sing, Mummy’s Bright Red Skirt:

Don’t you fret now little fellow

Mummy’s clubbing, having fun

She might be back tomorrow

And she’ll need her brave young son

You’ll be kind and let her sleep

Bring her tea when she swears

Give her cuddles, give her comfort

Do her broken-heart repairs


Take no notice when she rages

When she throws your toys about

You can take more than your daddy

When she blew your daddy out

You’ll help her next adventure

Help her zip her bright red skirt

You’ll fetch her silver snorting tube

She’ll giggle that you flirt

…and so on. There is a story here with three main characters (and a minor fourth, the absent father): the mother, the child, and the speaker, who must be a well-meaning friend, aunty or neighbour. The three-way relationship softens the painful subject of neglect, and contains it, because the characters are coping, and there is love between them. I’ll ask Nick to post the song for you.

Sondheim compares a lyric to a short story condensed down so that each line of the lyric has the weight of a paragraph. Less is more, make the most out of the least, otherwise the song diffuses.

He also says that lyrics demand perfect rhymes, and he is absolutely right about that. The sort of half-rhymes that look clever in a modern poem are no use at all in a song. The rhyme must be clear and must chime. Near-rhymes are never as good and weaken the effect. A poet can write for re-reading, for a reader who muses on each line, but a lyricist has to get the line to work on first hearing. Sondheim quotes Craig Carnelia: “True rhyming is a necessity in the theater, as a guide for the ear to know what it has just heard.”

I also like to keep to a strict rhythm, that perfectly matches the song line, but I know that many songs have more flexibility than that. A singer can stretch a single syllable into a line, or crowd excess words into a bar of music. Songs can have fluid line-lengths. But that is something a pop star can get away with that would not work in a song for a musical, which must hit its points crisply and match the dance. The effect is weakened if the structure is not perfectly made.

And, of course, songs must be singable. Nick has taught me that the final vowel of a line must be an open sound, and that rhymes are much better as masculine (single) open syllables than feminine (double) ones, especially ones ending in consonant clusters. Art is much better to sing than artists or artisanFeel is much better to sing than feelings.

George & co 063



Filming with Aaron

Clara lives in a Palace!

Clara lives in a Palace!

A brilliant sixteen-year old boy called Aaron Wheeler has filmed five of our songs (and an instrumental). There is a remarkable variety in the filming genres. He experimented with animation for The Beautiful Suchness of Things, and it is delightful, with witty segues and a light charm. He filmed Mrs Bride as a dramatised live performance in role (Nick as a life-sentence prisoner). He made an acted film for What Can It Be? centred on the beautiful Clara Miranne, daughter of my good friend Francoise, as the romantic lead. And he made two straightforward live performance films and one with a fancy split-screen split-costume flourish (the instrumental, Staunton Park). All done in two days of filming and no doubt many late evenings of post-production. Well done Aaron – may your career in film be spectacular.

Clara selfie with her sisters.

Clara selfie with her sisters.

The locations are all in Southsea. Clara’s seafront walk in What Can It Be? is along from Southsea Pier to Southsea Castle and towards Clarence Pier and the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour. There are shots of the Rock Gardens too (and my balcony). The prison scene of Mrs Bride is filmed at the Round Tower in Old Portsmouth, where the ‘hot walls’ meet the Round Tower.

mrs bride

The lyrics are all uploaded as subtitles available on the CC button. And Aaron has put them all on YouTube. We shall be making them public in the next few days – enjoy them then, and remember the name Aaron Wheeler.

Bull taming, shark taming: an argument for our absurd honours system

There are supercharged, bullish high achievers in the gene pool, many of them ruthless and hubristic. The political question is: how do we stop these big beasts becoming tyrannical monsters.

Under capitalism the sharks make money. They also buy political influence, or, where there is no functioning democracy, grab power. Under socialism they join the Party and run it for themselves and their cronies, as we have seen in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, North Korea, Cuba, various newly independent African countries, etc. They become tyrants with a monopoly of power, money, propaganda and the law. There is no defence against them. Since we are not going to eradicate over-confident and brilliant go-getters (and would not want to), the question becomes, how do we integrate them and limit their excesses?

By accident of history, the British have stumbled upon the answer: let them make money; tickle their tummies and whisper about generosity and public-spiritedness whilst dangling in front of their eyes, but at a distance, peerages. “You can be recruited into the lovely ceremonial aristocracy… for services to charity.”

Arguments for honouring school dinner-ladies and long serving lollipop men are fine, but much too sensible. They miss the point. The function of these honours is to keep the sharks from seizing real power in our country, to tempt them towards public works. And very cunning it is.

And the snow comes through

Snow drifts down through
bare twigs, bare twigs –
Oh! My blooms! My berries!

Are my sons impressed by my writings?
They don’t read them. That’s not what they want from daddy.
Do my friends like my new poems?
They don’t read them. They made up their minds about me years ago.
Is my dead father impressed by my book? It was written to impress him.

Sexy I was in blossom
but stripped by the sou’sou’wester
I am snowed now

Does my artistic taste impress visitors?
If it reflects theirs.
Is my generosity appreciated?
As likely to be resented.
Have lovers been charmed by my learnèd discourses?
You’re kidding.

I am a winter root –
foliage, flowers, fruit
were empty

‘Lack’ – or ‘Luminous Essence’?

Buddhist intellectuals David Loy and Ken Jones theorise that human beings have a fundamental “lack”, a hole in the middle, and that their frenetic materialism, ambition, fetishism, their obsessions, their neuroses, their greed and so on are all attempts to fill the hole, to compensate for what is missing. This “lack” is a form of dukkha, the Buddha’s word for suffering, an anxiety for certainty, permanence and meaning (and the lack is due to impermanence and no-self, anicca and anatta). It accounts for all the wild and futile busy-ness  of people and is their driving force.

I am unpersuaded. I do not feel, and have never felt, as far as I know, this sense of fundamental lack in myself, and I certainly don’t feel a fundamental lack in the world of nature. I don’t see a lot of evidence for it. Many of the people who are pursuing materialism and ambition are highly content with their achievements and quite unaware that anything is missing. There are some lacks, yes: it is not delusional to pursue a living wage if one lacks money; we all have difficuIties in relationships leading to unsatisfactoriness, but that is relative to happier times, not a fundamental vacuum. I prefer another kind of explanation which blames

  • being distracted
  • being side-tracked
  • being confused
  • being drawn into activity

Master Lu, the great Daoist, is my guide. He says that five kinds of false consciousness obstruct the mind:

  • sudden wandering thoughts “drawing forth an outburst like wild animals galloping in all directions”
  • worrying about the future, wearying the spirit
  • getting attached to the beauty of sounds and forms and averse to the ugliness of sounds and forms until “the luminous essence of mind is covered by shadows and you become feeble-minded, unable to attain clarity”
  • people get upset and confused about the past
  • people think that they are intelligent and knowledgeable and “go back and forth in a fog, stagnant, without expanding… it actually destroys essential life.”

This makes more sense to me. There is not a fundamental lack or hole in the centre which we fear and flee from and try to deny with frantic activity. There is a “luminous essence of mind” which gets obscured, covered by shadows, distracted, sidetracked, wearied. Energy is wasted in worries and attachments and life loses its vitality. The mind gets confused and shrinks.

“Luminous essence” is the default state, not lack.


Langstone Harbour


On 7th. November 1991 my father died. I walked by the shores of Langstone Harbour.


winter wind –

two geese turn

a broad descending circle

and end

facing it

knowing how to touch down


At the wake my sons looked after me sweetly, talked of family memories and had me laughing. I returned to Langstone Harbour and watched the birds, and watched yachts on their moorings as fishing boats motored by.

I lift, judder

spin and settle

in your wake

water in the bay

no trace

of the splashy wing beats


 low tide mudflats –

I breathe out


dense cloud

the colour of ashes

the sky is my father

One night, fascinated by the waves slopping inside a wreck with the life-force of the ocean:

between the ribs

of the broken boat

rises the moonlit tide

In the New Year:


bright cold morning –

for breakfast let’s open

the last of his marmalade!

On the anniversary of his death I stood on the ferry pontoon at Eastney Point, tasting the windblown spray:

grief, and breathing

the salty fragrance

of the deep tide drift


I revisited the Heath by the family home, where we scattered his remains:

under my foot

at every step

my father’s ashes

I inherited a dusty oil portrait of my father reading a book, painted in the forties, with a rip in the corner, and I commissioned a friend of mine who is a conservator to repair it, clean it and frame it.


his portrait restored –

my father

younger than me




Man Into Air

In this Haibun the relationship of the poetry to the prose is what I call parallel: the poems do not intensify or illustrate the prose; they come from a parallel world and complement the prose:


ablaze with light

a ferry throbbing

into the black night

Here is a man – as light as a sparrow. The skin round his mouth is hard as a beak. I balance the nipple of the nylon drinking cup between his lips feeling his arm like an anglepoise against my side. His gasping widens the splay of my fingers on his ribs. He won’t bother with today’s local election results floating on the radiowaves like ghosts through the prison walls and he won’t ever again taste a drink or confront with his withering intelligence an obstinately literal Prison Officer. He concentrates on something inward – nothing as capricious as thought, but a landscape, perhaps, an arid boundless place where the pain helps focus his attention on watching the distance beat by beat.

in blue space

a cloud


This is the Winchester Prison Hospital Wing, a rattling dungeon of Bedlam shrieks, dog-ends and sputum-tissue, neglected by a cheery Trusty, and a smarmy nurse. I go to find the SMO. I say that he’s nominated me next-of-kin, can she tell me the prognosis – and realise with astonishment that she hates everybody, even me. She refuses him morphine, sneers, “He’s devious, he’s not dying.” I stagger out of her office, the words she spat ringing in my ears. “I’ll give him painkillers when I’m good and ready.” Fergy deals with it better than I do. He’s had four decades to learn. I am deeply ashamed that I cannot care for him, that I have to leave him there.

tugged half under

mooring buoy

in the ebb tide

At the newsagent’s I puzzle over what a man is: How to be a Sex God is one cover story, followed by Shooting Machine-Guns with the Rednecks! and The Berk Who Lost Two Million! The cool names are Brett Easton Ellis and Irvine Welsh, and the photo feature is Autoerotica, (pin ups of cars, I think).

His father was a man – a hard-drinking wife-beating friend-brawler, who thrashed Fergy with a belt-buckle. He cooked Fergy’s pet rabbit and forced it down the child’s soft mouth. But you can’t refuse your father; his alcohol and violence rushed up Fergy’s capillaries, entryists, pickling his heart, and erupted on Christmas Day as the drunken boy of twenty-one killed his girl bride.

moon and sea all night long force six

Fergy has never had a sniff of a BMW; he scorns the men whose cells are ripe with girly pix, men “in thrall to bimboism,” (that’s his phrasing, and he calls it “self-inflicted bondage, the injustice which they have imposed upon themselves,” in his gravelly mining-town Geordie). Money does not cascade through his hands in jackpot imagery: he earns four pounds sixty two pence each week. But he is a stone in the shoe of a Governor, indomitable with murderous convicts, and bracing to my bland goodwill. Over forty years of incarceration he has found the irreducible core of a man: mind, and will. There is no likeminded thinker to appreciate this. He tells me, “No-one will ever know I lived.” His speech is cast in Victorian prose from the prison library, poured through the pursed vowels and rotten lungs of County Durham, an eloquence finely wrought and strange: “I am a caricature devoid of humour…”


through a patch of brilliance

the tiny boat

Fergy is in Heaven. He is not conscious that for his last hours he has been released from his Life Sentence into a hospice and lies in a bed of lovely linen in a brightly painted room, flowered and sunned through rose curtains, and he is touched with motherly care, perhaps for the first time, by a great exponent of the Hippocratic oath whose kindness opens the sluice on my heart’s pity as none of the callous neglect ever did. It is goodness that makes us cry, not suffering. Fergy is Christian and I murmur in his ear about angels and light. His body now is stiff as saltcod, drying into the warm air.

I thank the doctor. That pathetic bundle of clothes! Away from there, breathing deeply where a fine mist is coming in off the sea.

on a rusty buoy

the fog bell feels

each melancholy wave




The Ruined Church



“…for everything that lives is holy” William Blake

Tenacious flowers of golden weed grow from the cracks. No roof, no door, no pews, no treasure – does it still have a bellyful of love?

entering by the arch

a Cabbage White searches

for what it needs

Ruined church

high above

swifts feast

in endless blue

from an oubliette

in the abandoned ruin

crawls a ladybird

pecking together

a chaffinch couple

graze on the ancient stones


The church walls are blocks of yellow rock, still bearing the scrapes of the rough stone-cutting tools used to square them off. There is a bees’ nest in a hole, hectic with hovering traffic.


Bee City Airport

helijet entrance arch

in the broken mortar

buzz buzz buzz

the congregation ignore

blackbird’s sermon


The blackbird watches me with a bright black pupil rimmed with yellow. The gecko I study is also bright-eyed. A smart beetle, like my neighbour, comes from the car-wash with polished metallic bodywork. From the lean-to outside the church there’s a strangely insistent rhythm.

in the thatch

squeezing notes in unison

a choir of sparrows

in the heat of the sun

a dry font

christens everything

I’m squatting

on the altar

awed by ants


I feel as old as the need for rain, here with the ancient urges of birds and bees. I just sit in the ruins, with my evolutionary company.

I am a bee

I am a lizard

I am a people