5 books to get your Buddhism through poetry

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According to Dictionary.com, Buddhism is “a religion […] arguing that life is full of suffering caused by desire and that the way to end this suffering is through enlightenment which stops the endless sequence of birth and death to which one is otherwise subjected. That’s a lot to assimilate. I like to think of Buddhism as a conscious way of life. It is a school of thought that focuses on work and recognizing inner peace. It allows us to get in touch with who we really are at our heart. It might also be a bit difficult to follow. The last time I wrote about Buddhism, I came up with books that could explain all of this in more detail. In addition, Buddhist writings lend themselves to poetry. They share a nice language and decorated verses. Check out these Buddhist-inspired works to explore your own Buddhism while putting your poetry on your feet.

A Full Load of Moonlight: Chinese Chan Buddhist Poems by Mary MY Fung (translator) and David Lunde (translator)

This translation book features poems by Chan monks and lay people. The poems in both sections date back to the early 600s AD. They span the centuries to the more recent 1800s (this doesn’t seem recent, but compared to triple-digit years, it’s closer to today). Chan Buddhism has a Chinese foundation; the introduction simply explains, “Chan is a state of mind and a way of life. If you generally skip introductions, do your best not to skip this one. This explains quite simply the background of Chan Buddhism, on which these 180 poems are based. Another interesting feature of this collection is that the original poems (in Chinese characters) appear above the translations. A lot of the poems have themes from the natural world, and this is because much of Buddhism reflects the natural world, which includes the world of the spirit.

Songs of Spiritual Experience: Tibetan Buddhist Poems of Insight and Awakening by Thupten Jinpa and Jas Elsner

This collection presents poems from the 11th century to the present day. These 52 poems are broken down into thematic sections, so you can find a theme that strikes you rather than following a timeline. You can choose from the fleetingness of life, loneliness, the search for a guru, emptiness, awakenings and mystical visions. There is also a section of poems which focuses on the life of the poets in a Buddhist and thoughtful way. To help understand the philosophies in the verses, there are several introductions, a glossary, and notes. Basically, this book can be used as a course in Tibetan Buddhism and poetry at the same time. Plus, the poems are pretty. It is always a plus.

The First Free Women: Poems of the First Buddhist Nuns by Matty Weingast and Bhikkhuni Anandabodhi (Foreword)

I find this collection fascinating – they are poems by the first Buddhist nuns, the first official practitioners of Buddhism. These poems, Versus of the Elder Nuns, or the Therigatha, portray the lives and emotions of these women with a Buddhist reflection. While some poems are unfinished, they all offer insight into the beginnings of a school of belief from incredibly unique perspectives. There is struggle, and there is love.

The World I Leave You: Asian American Poets on Faith & Spirit by Leah Silvieus (editor) and Lee Herrick (editor)

The poems in this collection do not deal only with Buddhism. Some are, while others venture into different religions and beliefs. These poets from the Asian diaspora present their own personal beliefs and experiences through verse. If your path to Buddhism is to explore a variety of wisdoms in a more contemporary setting, you might want to start here.

Call Me By My Real Names: The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk and his writings are widely known. Through poetry and prose he clearly and simply offers wisdom. Truly, no description I write here can quite explain how its clarity and simplicity offers more than any popular explanation of Buddhism. Read the poems, and you will see what I mean.

Poetry is a natural path in Buddhism. The texts speak to each other in a way that prose perhaps cannot. If you want to know more, you can read the books listed here. Much gratitude for reading.