David Hinton

  • The Desert Knows | An Excerpt from Desert



    Stories define
    us, it’s
    true. And they

    matter, though
    they always
    leave so much
    out. I

    like it
    that way, keep telling
    them to

    desert, and desert

    keeps filling in
    whatever it
    is we’re missing.

    For months now
    death has felt
    frail and far

    away. Breath
    surprises me. The usual
    morning ridgeline
    surprises me, sun-

    lit wasp
    wing, lichen-
    stained bark jade-

    green. Breath
    pulses, pulses. So
    far away

    death. How
    will I ever
    find my way back
    home there?

    The desert never
    mentions arrival. Solar

    heat, sky, dust-
    light, a few parched
    colors: they

    rinse so far
    through me
    there’s nowhere

    else to go. I
    set out.

    Snow goes on
    falling, flurried
    all day
    through it-
    self. Once

    things get simple
    enough, there's
    no understanding or
    even recognizing

    them, like this
    flurried snow nothing
    more than

    flurried snow
    falling, falling
    through all
    our knowing. Or my
    face in a mirror

    gazing out, gazing
    out at
    itself utterly. Who knows

    how far
    I’ve come. But to keep
    moving, sometimes
    you need
    things simple.

    If we could not
    speak, not
    share the bright
    clarity of whatever


    with us, who
    could bear
    it? The day is all
    yellow desert

    here, blue
    sky. Less and less

    happens. How
    is it
    there’s so much
    more to say?

    Autumn-worn desert
    grass in late
    sun, its
    scratches of

    light horizoned
    against blue

    sky: how
    could this routine
    sight feed me

    so perfectly? Feed me,
    feed me, and keep
    hunger wide-

    open? Death
    lives in us

    like this: one more
    way desert
    its distances.

    Light thinks
    through things in its
    own way, ignites

    every detail of
    their every

    surface, and the eye
    opens those
    bright surfaces
    all the way

    inside me: mesquite
    bloom, cottonwood leaf-

    shimmer, sky. They
    say beauty is
    only skin deep, mere
    surface, but light

    knows how deep
    surfaces go.

    The desert knows
    how it is, the empty

    desert. I
    bow to rain.

    I wake
    every morning the same
    person. Same life-

    history, same
    mind, same eyes

    looking. Some-
    times, when the boredom
    seems almost
    endless, I

    walk out among
    mountains the same

    mountains, sky

    sky, and I understand
    them perfectly.

    Related Books

    David HintonDavid Hinton’s many translations of classical Chinese poetry have earned wide acclaim for creating compelling contemporary poems that convey the texture and density of the originals. Hinton has received many national awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, both major awards for poetry translation, and most recently, a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Learn more. 

  • Visitation-Land Dog Nature | An Excerpt from No-Gate Gateway

    A Dog Too Has Buddha-Nature

    No-Gate Gateway

    A monk asked Master Visitation-Land: “A dog too has Buddha-nature, no?”

    “Absence,” Land replied.

    No-Gate’s Comment

    To penetrate the depths of Ch’an, you must pass through the gateway of our ancestral patriarchs. And to fathom the mysteries of enlightenment, you must cut off the mind-road completely. If you don’t pass through the ancestral gateway, if you don’t cut off the mind-road, you live a ghost’s life, clinging to weeds and trees.

    What is this gateway of our ancestral patriarchs? It’s the simplest of things, a single word: Absence. Absence is the sole gateway of our empty-gate household. And so, it’s called the “no-gate gateway” into our Ch’an household.

    Pass all the way through it, and you meet Master Visitation-Land eye to eye! Visitation-Land, and the whole lineage of ancestral patriarchs too! You wander hand in hand with them, eyebrows tangled with theirs, looking with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears. How is that not great good fortune and wild joy? Don’t you, too, long to pass through this gateway?

    To penetrate the depths of this single word, Absence, summon all three-hundred-sixty bones and joints, all eighty-four thousand sacred apertures of your intelligence, summon your whole being into a single mass of doubt. Devote yourself day and night. Absence: don’t think it’s emptiness, and don’t think it’s Presence.

    You’ll feel like you’ve swallowed a red-hot iron ball: retching and retching at something that won’t vomit out. But let all the delusions of a lifetime go, all the understanding and insight; and slowly, little by little, nurture the simplicity of occurrence appearing of itself.

    Soon, inner and outer are a single tissue. A single tissue, and you’re like a mute in the midst of dream: all that understanding for yourself alone. Then suddenly, the whole thing breaks wide open, and all heaven and earth shudder in astonishment.

    It’s as if you’ve snatched General Gateway’s vast sword away, as if you carry it wherever you go. If you meet Buddha, you kill Buddha. If you meet ancestral patriarchs, you kill ancestral patriarchs.

    Out there walking the cliff-edge between life and death, you’re perfectly self-possessed, vast and wide open in such wild freedom. Through all four transformations in the six forms of existence, you wander the playfulness of samadhi’s three-shadowed earth.

    Can you do it: devote a life, delve with all your lifelong ch’i-strength into this single word, Absence? Don’t give up, and it will soon seem so easy: a mere spark setting the whole dharma-candle afire!


    A dog, Buddha-nature—the whole
    kit-and-caboodle revealed in a flash.

    Think about Presence and Absence,
    and you’re long lost without a clue.

    chinese landscape painting

    This has been excerpted from No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-Men Kuan.

    Related Books

    David HintonDavid Hinton, through his many translations of classical Chinese poetry, has earned wide acclaim for creating compelling contemporary poems that convey the actual texture and density of the originals. See more about him here.

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