Poems from an American Concentration Camp

Nyogen Senzaki Formal Portrait

I have arranged these poems found in the collection “Like a Dream, Like a Fantasy” in chronological order in the hopes of bringing out the narrative of Senzaki’s imprisonment at Heart Mountain in Wyoming.

Parting May 7, 1942

Thus have I heard:
The army ordered
All Japanese faces to be evacuated
From the city of Los Angeles.
This homeless monk has nothing but a Japanese face.
He stayed here thirteen springs
Meditating with all faces
From all parts of the world,
And studied the teaching of Buddha with them.
Wherever he goes, he may form other groups
Inviting friends of all faces,
Beckoning them with the empty hands of Zen.

December 6, 1942

A swarm of demons infests the whole of humanity.
It resembles the scenery of Gaya where Buddha fought his last
battle to attain Realization.
We, Zen students in this internment, meditate today
To commemorate the Enlightened One.
We sit firmly in this Zendo while the cold wind of the plateau
Pierces to our bones.
All demons within us freeze to death.
No more demons exist in the snowstorm
Under the Mountain of Compassion.

Heart Mountain January 1, 1943

Morning haze gives an illusion of California.
The east wind promises the coming of spring.
Within the snow-covered plateau of internment
Evacuees can go no place else.
They can admire only the gorgeous sunrise
Beyond the barbed wire fence,
Above the hills and mountains.

February 14, 1943

“Those who live without unreasonable desires
Are walking on the road of Nirvana.”
So Buddha said on his deathbed.
Evacuees who follow him, learning contentment,
Should attain peace of mind
Even in this frozen desert of internment.
See a break of clouds in the East!
The winter sun rises calmly,
Illuminating the light of wisdom.

April 13, 1943

Sons and daughters of the Sun are interned
In a desert plateau, an outskirt of Heart Mountain,
Which they rendered the Mountain of Compassion or Loving-Kindness.
They made paper flowers to celebrate Vesek, the birthday of Buddha.
“Above the heavens, beneath the earth, I alone am the World Honored one,” said the baby Buddha,
Declaring the spirit of independence and self-respect of each sentient being of the world.
Hey! You! Stupid sagebrush and timid cactus!
Why don’t you stretch out your green buds to answer the call of spring?

October 3, 1943

Autumn came naturally to the exiled life.
We commemorate again Buddhadharma, our patriarch.
The four ways of conduct, as he taught us to practice them,
Were carried by us during the past 12 months.
The seeds of Zen were planted deep
And covered well with earth.
Who knows and who cares what will happen tomorrow on this tricky plateau?
Before long, cold clouds may cover us, and snowstorms may visit us
With no effect on our equanimity.

November 7, 1943

In this part of the plateau we have no woods,
No trees around us.
If the snowstorm comes to the village of honeycomb,
One may fail to tell either east or west, south or north.
Our imagination, thus, goes back to the Gobi Desert of ancient times,
Where many Chinese monks perished on their way to India.
Thanks to America!
The lamp of Dharma burns in the exiled life.
Today we commemorate Soyen Shaku, the pioneer Zen teacher in the land of liberty.
We offer incense to his portrait, with no wild flowers,
But the fragrance of the faith.

December 12, 1943

The frozen clouds of the winter
Hung stubbornly around the Himalayan Mountain.
The dawn, however, came to Gaya,
And the effulgent light illuminated the surroundings.
It is not strange that a mediocrity became the Buddha.
Lucifer and Vesper are merely two names for Venus.

New Year’s Day January 1, 1944

There is nothing more auspicious
Than the rising sun
On New Year’s Day
In the exiled life.
Within a hundred miles of this naked desert,
Not a thing comes to sight.
Ten thousand Japanese are here
As American guests.
What are we enjoying in the day?
No one knows but themselves.
A spring breeze of laughter swings out from each cell.

February 13, 1944

“In the spring garden of discipline,
Perseverance blooms its first flower.”
So the Buddha said in his last teaching.
Hundred thousand brothers and sisters!
You have pined long enough.
The emancipation is not far from you.

April 9, 1944

An evacuee artist carved the statue of baby Buddha.
Each of us pours the perfumed warm water
Over the head of the newly born Buddha.
The cold spell may come to an end after this.
A few grasses try to raise their heads in the tardy spring,
While the mountain peaks put on and off
Their veils of white cloud.

December 10, 1944

Mountains and rivers do not conflict.
Grasses and trees live harmoniously.
Nature itself manifests loving-kindness.
Eighty-four thousand delusions
Cover the eyes of man.
He dreams the whole world
In a fighting mood.
He sees not the morning star
In the same way as Buddha did.
Unless he enters into deep Zazen
And emancipates himself
From his own conflicts,
He cannot comprehend
The beautiful cooperation of this Universe.

Spring Message January 7, 1945

Man makes enclosures by himself
When he thinks himself
Separated from other beings.
Bars as such should be taken off.
The sooner the better.
One hesitates and loses time in vain.
nothing disturbs unselfish man
who harmonizes with heaven and earth.
He goes freely like a floating cloud
Or running rivulet–
Without fighting.

February 18 1945

On his deathbed
Buddha taught his disciples
To practice forbearance.
Man should act like the willow branches,
Which bend gently against the wind.
Three times we have commemorated
Buddha’s Nirvana Day in this plateau.
We did not learn much during the past three years.
We are ready, however,
To face the world with equanimity,
Taking smilingly the snowstorm of abuse
As well as the sunshine of honeyed words.
Praise be to the Buddha, the Enlightened One.

April 8, 1945

Land of Liberty!
People of Independence!
The Constitution is beautiful.
It blooms like the spring flower.
It is the scripture by itself.
No foreign book can surpass it.
Like the baby Buddha,
Each of the people
Should point to heaven and earth, and say,
“America is the country of righteousness.”

Closing The Meditation Hall August 15, 1945

Fellow students:
Under Heart Mountain
We formed a Sangha for three years
And learned to practice
The Wisdom of Avalokitesvara.
The gate of the barbed wire fence opens.
You are now free
To contact other students,
Who join you to save all sentient beings
From ignorance and suffering.

October 29,1945

For forty years I have not seen
My teacher, Soyen Shaku, in person.
I have carried his Zen in my empty fist,
Wandering ever since in this strange land.
Being a mere returnee from the evacuation
I could establish no Zendo
Where his followers should commemorate
The twenty-sixth anniversary of his death.
The cold rain purifies everything on the earth
In the great city of Los Angeles, today.
I open my fist and spread the fingers
At the street corner in the evening rush hour.

December 4, 1945

This world is the palace of enlightenment,
In his own place each person is a hero
Striving for what he would attain.
You also may have ideals,
Even forty-eight of them,
Only to be dispersed like early stars.
See! The new moon rules the heaven!
If you do not realize truth this moment,
It is nobody’s fault but your own.

Alone on New Year’s Day January 1, 1946

Like a snail I carry
My humble Zendo with me.
It is not as small as it looks,
For the boundless sky joins it
When I open a window.
If one has no idea of limitation
He should enjoy real freedom.
A nameless monk may not have
The New Year’s callers to visit him,
But the morning sun hangs above the slums.
It will be honorable enough
To receive the golden light from the East.

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