Warren Lang


Living with Ease
Originally presented as a talk at Dharma Field Zen Center

I’d like to talk to you today about a poem by Ryokan, a late 18th/early 19th c. Japanese Buddhist poet/monk:

Maple leaf
Falling down
Showing front
Showing back

This brief poem is—even in translation—one of the most perfect poems I’ve ever read. It’s simple, clear. It presents no ideas or teachings. Yet it is profound and can teach us much about living our lives. For all its simplicity, it is also deeply moving. When first reading it, I was brought almost to tears.

My teacher, Steve Hagen, in his book Buddhism Plain and Simple, quotes this poem and uses it as an example of right action. He talks about how the leaf simply falls from the tree without show or fuss. I would like to pick up on Hagen’s comments and elaborate further on the poem and how it relates to our practice.

All we are presented with by Ryokan is the common autumn occurrence of a maple leaf falling to the ground. We have all witnessed this phenomenon countless times. Ryokan isolates for us the fall of one leaf and briefly examines its fall. This focus on a negligible phenomenon in itself is significant. We witness here a mind that is attentive, clear, aware of and appreciative of a moment that might otherwise not be attended to.

Not only does the speaker notice that the leaf is falling, but he also notices the manner in which it falls: “Showing front/Showing back.” The speaker is attentive enough to the leaf’s motion that he sees it turn and offer front and back to his vision. We understand from this description that the speaker is fully attentive to the leaf beyond just noticing that the leaf is falling and then turning his attention to something else. Most commonly, our minds jump from one object of consciousness to another. Even if we stay with one object, our minds get absorbed in thoughts or feelings about the object, losing track entirely of what’s actually happening.

So, the first teaching the poem grants us is the teaching of attention to our lives. There’s a story about a man coming to a great calligrapher and asking him to do a calligraphy for him, something profound. The calligrapher writes the character for “attention.” The man is not pleased, so the calligrapher writes again. Once more he draws the character for “attention.” The man demands he do another, something truly profound. The calligrapher again writes “attention.”

“Attention, attention, attention,” the man says angrily. “What does attention mean?”

“Attention,” the calligrapher says, “means attention.”

Just like the man who didn’t understand that attention was profound, we might not see the falling of one maple leaf as worthy of our notice. But what could be more important than being attentive to what is going on right in front of us? Rather than get caught up in our ideas of what is meaningful and what is not, we should simply be mindful and be awake to what is here, what is now. After all, we are all part of Indra’s net. Everything is intimately connected to everything else. A Zen poem expresses this insight this way:

How nice it is!
No speck of dust
That doesn’t contain
All the Buddhas
From every direction.

Zen Harvest, #368

The English poet William Blake had the same insight in these lines:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

–“Auguries of Innocence”

Maple leaf
Falling down
Showing front
Showing back

“Maple leaf/Falling down.” On the one hand these lines do nothing more than observe the action of the maple leaf. But the very fact that there is nothing more said about this action points out the ease and naturalness of what’s happening to the leaf. Notice that the poem doesn’t say something like, “Poor maple leaf falling down” or “Dying maple leaf falling down.” The poet makes no judgment about the maple leaf falling. We have to believe that the maple leaf itself is not agonizing over its fall from the tree. Why should we feel badly then? Of course, this also points out the clarity of the poet’s mind.

In our usual way of thinking, the fall of this leaf from the tree means the leaf’s death. The leaf has gone from its green heyday at the height of summer to its bright color in the autumn and, finally, to brittle brown to dissolve into the earth. This is how we think of our lives as well. We are born (green), live our brightly colored lives for a while, then grow brittle, old, and die. What this view fails to notice, however, is the truth of impermanence and the allied truth of no self or substance. There is no single, unchanging person that birth, life, and death are happening to. The “self” is nothing more than constant change.

My teacher used to ask of an imaginary photo of us as babies, “Is this you?” Answering “yes” made no sense since we certainly look entirely different. Answering “no” made no sense either since, if it isn’t “you,” then who is it? The problem, of course, is our confused assumption of a permanent self.

The same is true of the leaf. There isn’t one leaf, persisting through time, a unitary leaf that was once green and is now brown and brittle. The leaf is actually a series of transformations. Eventually, this fallen leaf transforms into soil, able to support new life, nourishing other trees and leaves. Nothing lost, nothing gained.

So, there is nothing to feel badly about seeing this leaf fall. We are not witnessing some “thing” that was alive now dying. We are witnessing just another in an endless series of transformations. Death is not an isolated event bringing to an end some substantial “self.” Death is our name for part of an ongoing process. Ikkyu, the 15th c. Zen teacher and poet once expressed it this way:

You poor sad thing thinking that death is real
all by itself (Crow with No Mouth, p. 26)

Another teaching the poem offers, concerns, as Steve Hagen notes in his book, right action. When its time comes, the maple leaf simply falls. It makes no fuss about what’s happening. There’s no extra drama. So often, we humans insert needless drama into our lives. Say you are on your way to an appointment and you get a flat tire. Our tendency is to bemoan our situation: “Oh, poor me. Why did I have to get this flat tire? Now I’ll be late for my appointment. I’ll probably lose my job. This kind of thing always happens to me. Why am I so unlucky?”

All we need to do is change the tire and go on our way. The drama just serves to make us and those around us feel worse. If we are awake to what is happening, if we are mindful, we will clearly see the appropriate action and take it without adding anything extra, in the same way that the maple leaf just falls.

The final two lines of the poem also offer us teaching. Just like the first two lines, these lines are simplicity itself and what they offer might even seem too insignificant to mention:

Showing front
Showing back

These lines show us nothing dramatic. We have no imagery of, say, being lit by the sun or flashing a brilliant red or pursuing a spectacular curving, twisting, turning course downward. No. The leaf simply shows front and back.

First, the fact that the maple leaf shows front and back calls our attention to the natural way it falls. The leaf shows us front and back because it is subject to the motion of the air around it. We realize that the fall of the leaf is not an isolated, independent action. The leaf and the air are one phenomena. They are interdependent or, as Thich Nhat Hanh would say, they “interare.” Of course the motion of the air is created by other factors, such as the heat of the sun, the trees and so on. So, looking deeply at the leaf’s fall, we see the beautiful interbeing of all.

So, as it falls, the leaf meanders, drifting on air currents that turn it this way and that. We have a sense of ease, a lack of hurry as well as a lack of resistance. The leaf is not rushing to get anywhere, nor does it attempt to slow or stop its fall. It simply falls naturally. The speaker also seems unhurried. He just attends to what’s in front of him: the falling leaf. The poem does not go on to talk about the leaf reaching the ground. Nor does it begin with the leaf separating from the tree. This moment is all that the speaker and the leaf have: The past is gone, the future has not yet come. Why not enjoy the present? The Zen teacher Reb Anderson once said, “Once we realize that there is no alternative to the present moment, we are on the path to Buddhahood.”

I’m reminded too of a Zen story: A man is being chased by a tiger. He comes to a cliff. To avoid being caught by the tiger he grabs a vine and swings himself over the cliff. Hanging there, he sees below another tiger. He then sees that the vine he is clutching is being gnawed at by two mice. Noticing a ripe strawberry within his reach, he picks it and puts it in his mouth. How sweet it tasted.

The man in the story is like the leaf. Though his death seems imminent, he takes time to enjoy the present moment. The person observing the leaf is also like the man in the story, as we all are: We don’t know when our deaths will come; we have the choice of fretting over our deaths or appreciating the beautiful moments of our lives. The speaker takes time to enjoy the dance of the falling leaf.

That the leaf shows both front and back to the viewer points to being open. The leaf hides nothing. We sense a kind of freedom in the leaf’s action. If we have nothing to hide, we can be honest and forthright with others and with ourselves.

If we consider the ethical component of the eight-fold path—right speech, action, and livelihood—we realize that it calls for a kind of openness. Right speech tells us not to lie or spread gossip. Right action tells us not to harm or steal. Right livelihood tells us not to make our living in a way that creates suffering for others. If we are honest and non-harming in the way we run our lives, we will have nothing to hide, we will not need to be evasive. Like the leaf, we can “show front and back” without fear.

Consider, too, right mindfulness. Mindfulness calls for openness and ease. When we are mindful of our experience, we just see it for what it is without manipulating it to suit our desires or judging it. We can relieve our lives of a great deal of anxiety by just being open to experience. Like the speaker of the poem, we can view front and back, all that is present, without fear.

That the leaf shows front and back suggests wholeness as well. The viewer in the poem is attentive enough to see the whole leaf, front and back. He doesn’t single out one part over the other. He takes in the experience as a whole, without discrimination.

Ease, openness: both qualities of an awakened mind. A story about the Zen teacher Hakuin illustrates these qualities. A young woman, pregnant out of wedlock, is pressured by her parents to tell them who the father of the child is. She names Hakuin, who is known for his pure life. The parents angrily confront Hakuin whose only reply is, “Is that so?” When the child is born, the parents bring it to Hakuin to care for. Hakuin has lost his reputation, but he still takes loving care of the child. After about a year, the girl breaks down and confesses that the actual father is a young man who works in the fish market. The parents come to Hakuin, apologize profusely, and take the child back. Hakuin, in handing back the child, says only, “Is that so?”

Though he is falsely accused, loses his reputation, and is burdened with care of the child, Hakuin shows ease and openness. He has nothing to hide, so has no anxiety. He is open to the situation and merely cares for the child when that is what is called for and returns it when that is what is called for.

As Katagiri Roshi said (before Nike), “If you have something difficult to do, just do it.” Ease of action doesn’t mean we don’t have to make an effort or that whatever we do will be simple and “easy.” Rather it suggests the ease that comes when what we are doing grows out of the present moment, is based on what is actually happening, and is not based on our attachment to particular outcomes, as the story about Hakuin illustrates. Though we may not be capable of acting as purely as Hakuin did, my guess is that most if not all of us have experienced such moments when everything seems to “flow,” and our actions come easily to us. It’s what people experience who jump into dangerous waters to save someone who is drowning. When commended for their heroism, they often say something like they were just doing what was needed. If someone stopped to weigh the benefits and debits of the rescue, the person would drown before they acted.

I think that is why the poem was so moving to me: It released me momentarily from the tension of trying to get things “right,” get things to work according to my desires. Just as the leaf lets go and falls to the ground without resistance, all we need do is let go and allow life to be what it is.

Maple leaf
Falling down
Showing front
Showing back

Warren Lang taught English and Eastern Philosophy for over thirty years until his retirement. His poems have appeared in a number of  journals and anthologies. He has published two collections of his poems, Floating Moon, Starry Lake and Nothing of the Sort. Warren has studied and practiced Buddhism in the Zen tradition for over twenty years.