Category Archives: Wanderings

A couple of new poems

Been writing a bunch, happy to say, and these two popped up one day after the other. Hope you enjoy.


The Taste


Suddenly, and for no reason I can imagine,

I smell the sweet sweet flavour of wild cherry

cough drops I loved when I was a boy.

Does it mean I’m dying, to have

such an unusual dreamlike smell

take me over, traveling as it has

from so long ago to where I casually

walked by beside the pantry door?

Well, of course I’m dying. But,

to have it announced

by this taste of being young,

to be given the gift of knowing I just might

be able to lick my lips all the way to the grave!

That is nothing anyone can hope for,

and yet it has been given. Let us pray.


July 20, 2018


The Field


I have decided to come here,

perhaps it is a privilege of age,

to come here to walk around this field

every day at dawn for the rest of the time

I am alive. The breeze at that hour

is soft, or tends to be if there is any

breeze at all. It seems to lift out

of the light that has just lifted itself

up and out from beneath the covers

of the still dark bed, innocent of what

came before, or what is yet to arrive.

I need that renewal, having burned

hot or cold through the fuel I was given

into my eighth decade, and now

have been asked to please burn

for two decades more. I did not demur.

The transparency all things are

does not reveal the end

of even the smallest plan. So I will

wander as I have always loved to do,

and I will circle this field as a rising breeze

in the morning daylight, with my

black dog at my side, or just before.


July 21/22 2018


My new book—The Complete Cold Mountain: Poems of the Legendary Hermit Hanshan

I hope you’ll click the link and take a look at this new book. Kaz and I had such joy translating all of Hanshan’s extant poems, and Shambhala Publications did a gorgeous job, especially with the painting Kaz made for the cover.

News & Reviews

“A deep, inspiring, inclusive study of the mysterious poet Hanshan. This book includes all his poems with a beautiful introduction by Levitt and a thorough historical analysis by Tanahashi. The reader can feel the joy, care, and reverence both translators experienced and share in creating this book about the wild hermit poet. Just read a few of these ancient poems and you’ll want to take off for the mountains and open your arms to all of life, including the pain and suffering. Read more and you will find your own true heart right here in the present. This book should be read by everyone.” —Natalie Goldberg, author of The Great Spring and Writing Down the Bones

“This comprehensive work of original scholarship and incisively translated verses expands our knowledge of an iconic poet. Here is the Hanshan of social fabric and family as well as of monastery and mountain; the poet of parable, rebuke, and opinion as well as of dharma and icy stream. A sharp-tongued observer of society’s failures describes inequality’s effects on the spirit; a rapt solitary shares cliff-edge mind with tigers, free-drifting boats, and clouds. Kaz Tanahashi’s and Peter Levitt’s The Complete Cold Mountain joins the shelf of indispensable translations, confirming and extending Hanshan’s abiding relevance, presence, history, and range.” —Jane Hirshfield, author of The Beauty and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World

“Hanshan may be legendary or he may have been three people, but these poems, wherever they came from, are more real than real. They are living Tao and Chan artifacts, well over one thousand years old, brought to life and framed in the most amazing ways with the deepest appreciation for and direct transmission of their down-to-earth, embodied, non-dual, poetic elegance and existential poignancy by Kaz Tanahashi and Peter Levitt. This work—the poems themselves coupled with the authors’ probing commentaries about their puzzling origins, structure, and essence—is a jewel, with the wondrous property that you can live inside it and let it live inside you for a long, long time.” —Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living and Meditation Is Not What You Think

The Complete Cold Mountain is an extraordinary collection of the complete works of Hanshan; brilliantly translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt, it lifts the spirit in the great mountains and beyond.” —Joan Halifax, abbot of Upaya Zen Center and author of Standing at the Edge


July 31, 2015

A Wind


A wind came up out of the dark

that undid everything, there was nothing

left untouched, no end to its undoing.

And then it changed, it became

a wind that made nothing happen,

for a time longer than time itself,

nothing happened. There was

nothing the wind could touch

and nothing the wind could not

touch that happened, and those

things that had happened

and were already undone

were joined by those things

that did not happen, and together

they let go of happening and not happening,

of having happened and no longer happening,

and breathed a sigh. It was a sigh

that was a sign of something great,

something maybe even good,

or even greater than good,

so that years after nothing in the nothing

that was born of the nothing a people

were born who made a god of the good

and the greater than good, and they sighed.

They knew they came from nothing and so

their future seemed secure. It would be

as it always had been, they told themselves,

and each other, and their children’s

children’s children. And it was;

a world of the most competent relief,

created by an undoing wind.






Stone in Stone


Someone’s sitting on the ground.

Head bent, not touristing the harsh

landscape of rubble and stone,

he finds it curious how one hand

encloses the other, how the cause of scars

is not remembered, much less forgotten,

how his life must have been held in some

fashion by these hands without his knowing

what part they played, if any, what use

they provided, if any, or anything else

about them. “And these are only my hands,”

he says out loud. “The rest of me is complete

mystery.” The sun on his neck does not warm,

it imprisons like the flat edge of a steel blade

pressing obedience into his spine. No matter.

No birds wheel above, no lizards flit close

and bow below. Beneath a beating sun,

he sits at peace like a netsuke baking

on the shelf of earth, tucked into the shadow

his body makes, slowly being turned to stone.


JULY 29, 2015

Thinking of Lorca, of duende, as I often do, and about my love of speaking, reading and translating Spanish, somehow my love of my love, la poesía, glanced at me from the other room, and then came walking through the door. In the poem, the phrase qué lástima!, which I say with a grateful smile, means What a pity!

con amor


La Poesía
Rumi said it best,
there are hundreds of ways
to kneel and kiss the ground,
but if poetry’s your disease
then poetry’s the cure—
qué lástima! the treasure of
a hopeless situation—
like all first love,
it never ends.

Some Recent Poems

Here are a few poems from recent writing, one from today:

In Autumn

Sometimes seeing what is not there,
other times not seeing what is,
our legs become tangled,
our hands can’t stop wringing
against themselves. Still,
we live mid-stagger
with pure hearts,
let no one’s ignorance
fool you. People do not
become buddhas. Buddhas
do not become human life.
Unborn and undying
like a torn leaf
in an autumn shower,
when was wholeness
ever not whole?


One first law

It is true, true even when photographing
a still life, the slant of sun
on the side of a building in Tangiers:
If you do not approach things
gently, they withdraw,
pull into themselves,
pull away. A shadow darkening
into itself, a fingerprint on the back
of a memorial photograph
dissolving into the air.
There is no inanimate nature,
not as long as you yourself are alive.


The Circle

She said, “You go all around the subject,”
and I said, “I didn’t know it was a subject.”

–Robert Creeley

To walk in a circle once,
that is, to walk around
in a circle one time,
it is a circle. No doubt.
To walk the circle again
it is still a circle, but
the one who is walking
has changed by walking
it a second time, and
if the one who is walking
has changed, the circle
has changed as well,
since the circle that once
described the walker
has now been described
by the one walking it
a second time. It is
no longer just a circle,
innocent, an empty
moon, a mouth
open in awe
or yawning. No.
Its perfect silence
has been forgotten.
Now it is the place
where someone walks,
walks twice, walks
off their obsession,
with an upturned collar,
a bent head, the sound
of scuffling shoes.
And now here it comes
again, a third time,
to drive all doubt away.
Now the circle is no longer
outside the walker, it is
a feature of the walker’s
mind, an attribute that can
not separate from the walker,
even if it knew to try.
True, if observed from above,
the walker and the circle
might seem two objects,
one active, the other passive,
or incidental, hardly an object
at all, not the one thing
they have become
as a result of the walker’s
effort, for that is what it is,
the walker walks with a limp.

But for the walker the circle
is no longer a circle. It is
a maze without exit,
a mind groove
with the walker no different
from a record needle
playing again and again
the same song, the same
scratches, the same
sad melody of no escape.
The circle can no sooner
escape its having been pressed
into service than the walker
can escape the repetitive
shoe scuff on the ground.
Now the snow begins to fall,
now the leaves turn green,
now they are red or yellow,
and again there are no leaves
at all. The circle has become
immersed, pressed
into the earth
where the walker first
inscribed it with his mind,
and also it has been lifted
into the air, encircling
everything within itself,
like the hat that holds
the thoughts of the walker
in place. Exactly.
Never think a circle
is only round, or that
a walker only walks.
At a certain time,
only walking
circles. Circles
only walk.



                  for Michael Sieverts

the angle of sight is precise
but inadvertent, a stray visual
notation of the moment
composed by the fact of a man
across the courtyard, standing
in his corner apartment kitchen
preparing a meal, cut off at the waist
by the window frame painted
Mediterranean blue, who equally cuts
or seems to based on the downward
cast of head and repeated gesture
of shoulder and arm (the hand
cannot be seen) something
for his noon repast. It is a scene
repeated every day; the man
seems always to be cutting something
with the care of a tailor who always mends.

There is a quiet
that can be observed, or
at least imagined since the scene
reveals what appears a thoughtful
attention as the man bends to the task
in hand. Pristine as it is, the angle
of sight cannot accurately expose
his mind. And this is the truth of it,
our human situation or otherwise.
Both what can be seen and what
cannot is only imagined. Those who
speak only in whole terms forget the frame
of partial seeing, partial hearing tasting
touching knowing; forget our insensible
need to repair what was never torn,
and how it fills things in with the narration
of one who cuts or one who mends,
to make what always has been
the world, something whole.

On the Word “Warrior” and what has become its common use

Preface: A student recently gave a public talk re climate change, and ended by vowing to be a “Buddhist compassionate warrior…..on behalf of all children and young people in the world.”

It was a beautiful talk, filled with insight and heart, given by a wonderful, committed person who offers great service to our world on many fronts. She may well be one of the most socially and politically active people I know.

In my reply to her talk, I included my response to the use of the word “warrior,” about which I have thought, and which I have opposed, for many years, given its increasing approval and self-application by many good people who sincerely work for and want the very opposite of war.

– Eihei Peter Levitt

“As to the “warrior” language you mention, it is clear what you mean when you say this word, and the spirit in which you mean it. This is often or even always the case when the word ‘warrior’ is used by good people in the eco or spiritual context.

So, what’s my concern and why have I continued to disagree with its usage for decades?

Please allow me to do my best to say it this way:

In our meal chant we chant

manjusri bodhisattva, great wisdom
samantabadhra bodhisattva, great activity
avalokitesvara bodhisattva, great compassion
all bodhisattva mahasattvas
wisdom beyond wisdom
maha prajna paramita

When people say “warrior,” and identify themselves through that word in the eco or spiritual context, I believe they mean what we chant in our meal service, with all of the courage [heart] it takes to be wise, compassionate and active intact. But, for me, the difference is that there is no taint of war and all of the ignorance and destruction that is associated with war, when we chant these models of what qualities and human attributes are needed to get things done in the world, given the challenges we created and that we now face.

If more than the fearlessness of great wisdom, great compassion and great activity are needed, with the underlying support of the beginningless and endless sangha of bodhisattva mahasattvas that exist throughout space and time, and all of the wisdom/prajna that exists as well, then I wonder what it could be. Does war, or do warriors, and what makes people willing to kill those who they believe are ‘others’, have something to offer that these bodhisattvas–who are none other than ourselves–do not?

I know that there is an argument that says the word “warrior” is now being redefined, recycled, as it were, when people in favour of peace or environmental or personal health (think yoga, meditation, diet here) use it, but why would we need to use a word that is drenched in the blood of innocent people and their natural environment (think of what napalm did, what the atomic cloud did, to the environment) to express life affirming human attributes, qualities, states of being, actions?

And what does it say about our ability to come up with new visions, new actions and solutions, new paradigms, that are creative and truly representative of our vision for a world that nourishes and supports life in all of its dimensions, when we choose (remember, it is a choice when we say what we say) to depend upon a word that is associated with devastation, destruction, and the ignorance that is at the root of such effects?

It does not inspire confidence in me to think we cannot do better than to recycle the language of the dualistic, divisive consciousness and paradigms of a history I find shameful, criminal and against everything that people truly want for themselves, for all generations to follow, and for the miraculous life of all citizens in what we still call and somewhat objectify as ‘the natural world.’

American poet William Carlos Williams said that we cannot die “unless death has first possessed the imagination.” I admit this may be arguable from a certain standpoint, but I love the emphasis his statement places on the unified expression of body and mind ie when the mind, in every part, both seen and unseen, says it is time to die, we can die.

Let me say, then, what I most believe: we cannot and will not have peace, or sustainability, or pervasive, meaningful change in the direction of a life that is completely in favour of providing the nourishment that life itself truly needs, unless peace, sustainability, and life-giving nourishment fully “possess the imagination,” and every means through which this imagination is expressed. I say this in the spirit of a story I mentioned in my dharma talk this last sesshin, when our ancestor Yunyan said to Dongshan, who was about to depart, “You are now in charge of this great matter; you must be most thoroughgoing.”

We intuit and experience the world in many ways, but, by and large, what we call ‘thought’ takes place in language, and so the language we use is an essential conveyor of our thinking. In mystical Judaism it is said that when a word is used, it releases the inner qualities of that word–what that word was intended to express from its very seed or origin–into the world. Perhaps the most famous example in western culture appears in Genesis where we are told that the creator said, “Let there be light,” and instantaneously, “there was light.” The word and its inner meaning or expression were one. This, we are told, is how light was brought into the world. From a Buddhist perspective, let’s just say that the causes and conditions that make light possible were present, which is how and why it came to be.

Words come with the associative qualities that both personal experience and culture provide, and, like all things, whether they are seen or unseen, they come with their roots attached. Given the power of words to create a world, to which I’ve just referred in the story above, it matters a great deal which words we use, and how we use them. After all, it is we who are now in charge of this great matter, and so we, too, must be “most thoroughgoing.”

That said, the word war has as a Latin root, gewin, which means “struggle, strife,” and as the Old High German root, werran, and the German verwirren, which means “to confuse, or perplex,” which suggests that, originally, the sense of the word that has landed as war, or warrior, in English, is “confusion, or to bring into confusion.”

Given all I’ve written thus far, I don’t believe much of a further comment is needed about this etymology, other than to say that if offered the chance to study with, follow, or be a warrior by any description, I will defer to the advice of Melville’s character, Bartleby the Scrivner, and say, “I prefer not to.”

How about if I stop here? I’ve used plenty, too many, words, I’m sure, but I am grateful for the opportunity to say them. Please know that I honour the extraordinary work you have been doing for a lifetime, and am profoundly grateful for your continued and active commitment to creating a world based on the values we share, and so it is in the spirit of supporting that work that I’ve written as I have.”

True Expression Retreat Coming Up

Dear Friends

In the summer of 2013, I began to offer a one week summer retreat here on Salt Spring that combined yoga (led by incredible, experienced and inspired instructors), zen meditation and practice (which I introduced and led), and afternoons of writing, painting, movement/dance, etc. The first year was such a overwhelming success with participants that we did it again last summer. Again, people loved the retreat. (You can read about it at the site by clicking on the Testimonials.)

That said, I’m writing to invite you to take a look at the site, which you will see by pasting this link into your search browser (what DO they call that thing?)

and see if this is something you’d like to attend. If you are not able to, if you would consider sending this along to friends or groups whose members might like to know about it, that would be wonderful. Thank you.

We are now 1/3 full, so we encourage signing up sooner than later. In order to ensure a great experience for everyone, we limit participation to under 30 people.

PS – the physical location and the food they prepare are phenomenal. All this and heaven, too? Yes.

thanks so much

Interview on Zen Practice and Writing

Oh, it’s been so long since I wrote something here, I know. Life, she flies.

But I just received this link from some wonderful people in Great Britain and I thought to post it here for you to take a look at. It’s not very long at all, but I enjoyed doing the interview very much.

Here’s the link:

And, since apparently I’m from the very very slow school, it just occurred to me to repost this link since it relates to the one above.

thanks for your patience.


New Posts on Web Blog

Dear Friends

I’ve added new content to Zen, For Writers, and Wanderings – complete with snazzy visuals in two of the three – and, in one, a pretty great hat. I hope you enjoy reading – and, if you like, please let me know via the comments what yr thinking, too.

thanks so much,


Hello and Welcome

Hello and welcome to what I hope will be a bit of a meeting place – albeit a somewhat disembodied one. For many years now I’ve wanted to have something called What I’m Thinking About Now as a way of reaching across to people, and having people reach back.

Originally, I thought it might be nice to have a newspaper column with those words up on the marquee, so to speak, but the ambition gene seems to have skipped the hospital room where I was born and, at most, I may have mentioned this to one or two people, neither the owner of a newspaper. Oh, well.

Fortunately, and quite recently, a few friends liked this reaching across idea and put these pages together so that all such activities might have an actual home. Thank you – it’s very kind.

Let me end this first posting, then, with a poem I’ve grown pretty fond of. It’s by David Budbill, and I think he really got this right:

Bugs in a Bowl
Han Shan, that great and crazy, wonder-filled Chinese poet of a thousand years ago, said:

We’re just like bugs in a bowl. All day going around never leaving their bowl.

I say, That’s right! Every day climbing up
the steep sides, sliding back.

Over and over again. Around and around.
Up and back down.

Sit in the bottom of the bowl, head in your hands,
cry, moan, feel sorry for yourself.

Or. Look around. See your fellow bugs.
Walk around.

Say, Hey, how you doin’?
Say, Nice Bowl!