The Zen of Jane Hirshfield

When we live in the liminal state, the place of listening, of not-knowing, then everything draws near to us, becomes kin. Noelle Oxenhandler on the words and wordlessness of the renowned American poet Jane Hirshfield.

Noelle Oxenhandler
28 September 2023
Jane Hirshfield sitting in sunroom on a bench
Photo via @_erik.castro_

My life,
you were a door
I was given to walk through

When you open Jane Hirshfield’s recently released book The Asking: New and Selected Poems, those are the first lines you encounter. And when I walked through Hirshfield’s door on a recent visit, I was struck by the way that her house seems both to celebrate the richness of the inner life and to open itself to the world beyond. The house is a hundred-year-old cottage, perched high on a hill in a small town north of San Francisco. With its glass jars full of spices and teas, its shelves full of books, its worn, patterned rugs, bentwood armchairs, and bright-blue window seat, it feels cozy and fully inhabited. Yet through its large, multipaned windows, the outside—a garden teeming with flowers, vegetable beds, and fruit trees—seems flamboyantly present. And from the back of the house, you can see Mount Tamalpais rising in the near distance.

Although Hirshfield and I first met decades ago, we hadn’t seen each other in years, and even as I was absorbing the atmosphere of her home, I could feel that we were both adjusting to the mixture of sameness and difference we found in each other’s faces. Her eyes were as intensely blue-green as I remembered them, her hair still a long, rippling stream—and she did not look anything like the haggard crone Ono no Komachi, the ninth-century Japanese woman whose praises she sang in her first prose book, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry.

Komachi was legendary for the power of her poetry, the depth of her spiritual insight, and her great physical beauty. But as a very old woman, frail and half-mad, she wandered along narrow mountain trails. As Hirshfield wrote, “It is this figure—the aged and disarrayed woman who left the capital’s life of the center and came to dwell at the periphery in a number of different ways—who carries within her story a wisdom still essential to the writing life.”

For Hirshfield that wisdom is an appreciation for the liminal, those threshold states of being that arise when we step outside the trappings of our conventional roles and activities and open ourselves to the possibility of radical transformation. Most people enter this threshold condition for the discrete interval of a ritual, a rite of passage. Others—among them, mystics, monastics, and poets—attempt to reside there. Komachi was one who chose to dwell on the edge, to make her home in the in-between.

Already before knocking on Hirshfield’s door, I had decided that this in-between place was where I wanted to begin our conversation. Nine Gates came out in 1997, around the time Hirshfield and I had first met, and I was curious as to whether Komachi was still, for her, an important figure. She nodded emphatically as soon as I asked and told me that she’d discovered Komachi’s poems just as she herself arrived at the threshold of young adulthood. This discovery profoundly shaped her understanding of both Buddhism and the kind of life she was—and still is—drawn to. For one thing, Komachi was a layperson, never adopting robes or formal titles. For another, she wrote with no gulf between the realms of dharma and eros, between her thirst for awakening and her awareness of the body’s longings. The intense delights and piercing sorrows of earthly existence and human entanglements were not hindrances for Komachi—they were inseparable from the path itself.

You can see the interweaving of these elements throughout Hirshfield’s poetry. Her poems are laced with references to intimate human relationship, and they’re rooted in both daily life and the natural world. Not long after I arrived at her house, she told me, “I’ve lived here forty years. Anywhere you look, you’ll see something that’s found its way into a poem.” And indeed, I could: there were the leaves of the fig tree, the old wooden gate, the mountain beyond…. Of the old and new poems included in The Asking, almost all are anchored in tangible particulars that Hirshfield has seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled. This is true even as they’re pervaded also by a kind of transparency, an awareness of how quickly form can pass back into formlessness, and by the desire to know more intimately the meaning of such intangibles as hope, grief, luck, fate, love.

Unlike Komachi, Hirshfield did step outside the lay world for some time. For eight years in her twenties, she practiced in the Soto Zen sangha founded by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi: three years at Tassajara, the monastery deep in the Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur, and the rest at City Center in San Francisco and Green Gulch Farm in Marin County. Throughout this period of rigorous formal practice, which included her lay ordination in 1979, she found she had no desire for a more official role or rank.

Ono no Komachi by Chobunsai Eishi, Mid-1790s, courtesy of LACMA

“I’ve never wanted to be in charge of anything, and I wasn’t training to become a teacher,” she told me. “I just wanted to sit zazen, to follow the schedule, to plumb the question that had drawn me to practice in the first place: What does it mean to lead a human life?

It’s the broadest, most central question a human being could ask, and it’s one of the great mysteries of the way-seeking mind that such a question might lead someone onto the apparently peripheral perch of monastic life. Yet even in remote Tassajara, accessible only by its notoriously difficult fourteen miles of mountain dirt road, there was something in the long periods of silence and the bare-bones rhythm of each day—with its repetition of sitting, chanting, bowing, working, sitting—that Hirshfield experienced as an ever-expanding and deepening connection to realms beyond her own boundaries.

“There’s nowhere more peripheral than a zendo,” she said. “You’re sitting in the semidarkness, facing a wall. The practice of Soto Zen is shikantaza, just sitting. And it’s wordless—no koans, no verbal noting. You’re present, attending with your whole body and mind. And gradually you become permeable. You feel no distinction between what’s inside and outside the skin, and that unboundaried awareness reaches out in all directions, to all beings.”

Hearing her describe the wordlessness of meditation, I asked Hirshfield whether she’d ever experienced any conflict between the realms of practice and writing, and I was a bit surprised at how swiftly she answered, “No.” Then she went on to say, “It’s all about intention. I knew I wouldn’t be in a monastery forever, and I didn’t want to waste my time. Where you put your intention makes a difference. You don’t go to the refrigerator to pee. And I didn’t go to Tassajara to write. When I sit down to meditate, it has to be taboo to think about poems.”

Going on to describe what she sees as the essential difference between writing and meditating, she told me, “Both involve an intense listening. But they are different forms of listening. It’s as though you’re a deep-dish telescope pointed in different directions. In poetry, you move from listening into a collaboration with arriving language—its rhythms, images, and associations. I’ll often hear the music of a poem before I find the words. In meditation, you move from that listening into life. Your life, felt as inseparable from the world’s life, is the expression of your practice.”

When I asked her if she could explain more precisely how this unfolds, she said, “If someone cuts me off driving, I don’t feel angry. Somewhere along the line, I became someone who just thinks ‘Maybe they’re on the way to a dying parent.’ I can’t know. But my first response is to assume there must be some good reason.”

Photo by B. A. Van Sise

Later, as I myself was driving home, I thought about Hirshfield’s phrase: “Somewhere along the line I became….” To me, it seemed testimony to the power of a long practice to bring about significant change in subtle and almost imperceptible ways—the way ego “gradually wears out like a pair of shoes,” as Chögyam Trungpa used to say. Of course, it’s equally true that a long practice makes us susceptible to certain powerfully intense experiences, but Hirshfield prefers to stay quiet about those. “The happiest moments of my life, I have not been present for!” she said, and we both laughed.

When, gradually, Hirshfield let go of her monk’s robes and fully reentered a layperson’s life, she didn’t want to be seen as a Buddhist poet. “I am a human poet,” she said, in a tone that clearly resists any narrow labeling. And when you read through her collected poems, you find very few explicit references to Buddhism. Yet the permeability she experienced so intensely in the monastery pervades the poems, as does the question about what it means to lead a human life, which had led her to practice in the first place. Delving into that fundamental question in meditation, she’d found the full range of human emotions.

“There are emotions we all experience as almost unbearable: anger, shame, embarrassment. The important thing is not to push them away,” she said. “If you barricade yourself against what’s painful, you also split yourself off from joy. And so you hold still, you embody, you observe the emotions rising and falling, and you receive their useful information and instruction. But you also try to not let them reify and amplify the small self’s story.”

This process may be simple to describe, but it is not easy to practice—whether on or off the cushion. Again and again in Hirshfield’s poems, it’s possible to see a certain edge or threshold where the difficult event, the hard rock of suffering that has fallen into the vessel of a person’s life, must be somehow transformed, dissolved, metabolized:

A Cedary Fragrance

Even now,
decades after,
I wash my face with cold water—

not for discipline,
nor memory,
nor the icy, awakening slap,
but to practice
to make the unwanted wanted.

In some ways, you might say that this has been a life’s work for Hirshfield—both in practice and in writing—to absorb and transform the difficult, resisting the impulse to ignore, prettify, or simply escape from it altogether. Certain poems, she feels, served her as life rafts. One of them, “Each Moment a White Bull Steps Shining into the World,” begins with the words:

If the gods bring to you
a strange and frightening creature,
accept the gift
as if it were one you had chosen.

The poem itself came to her as a kind of gift during a dark time. “It helped me get through,” she says, stressing the word through—and suggesting that a poem can offer its own threshold, a passage to a new way of seeing and being. We talked about the irony that while poetry, in our current culture, is considered the most marginal of literary genres, at critical moments—whether celebratory or catastrophic, personal or communal—people turn to poetry for illumination. As Hirshfield’s own poems have reached an ever-widening audience, she’s found it both surprising and gratifying to realize that, by bearing witness to her own experience, she can help others savor the joys and move through the sorrows of their own lives. She told me that every day she asks herself, “What is my responsibility? What can I bring?” And increasingly, there’s an even more basic question arising, one that is reflected in the very title of her new book, The Asking. This question, simply and starkly, is How do we go on?

For Hirshfield, the decision to go on, to stay present to suffering in a way that permits transformation—and to write poems that can themselves become vessels of transformation—has been just that: a decision. While at Tassajara, she read over the poems she’d written in college. She was shocked to discover that “almost every poem ended with an ellipsis, a trailing off, a disappearing…as if I hadn’t wanted to be alive. Ever since, I’ve been trying to correct that error.” When I asked how, she answered without pause: “By falling in love with the world.”

Over the years, the vow to stay open to both the world within and the world without has led Hirshfield to yet another kind of permeability: the merging of disciplines. “I’m increasingly drawn to knowing the world in multiple ways,” she told me.

While remaining faithful to her vocation as poet, in recent years she’s cultivated an ever more explicit appreciation for modes of scientific inquiry. For the first March for Science, on Earth Day in 2017, she started what’s become an ongoing project and traveling installation, “Poets for Science.” Where the novelist and scientist C. P. Snow lamented a “two culture divide” between science and the humanities, Hirshfield looks instead for powerful affinities among diverse disciplines of discovery. As she sees it, both poets and scientists work at the threshold, drawn as if by a magnet to what lies beyond the limits of the already known and said, toward the ever-expanding perimeter of knowledge. This means that there must also be a willingness to fail.

“Nothing new comes if we remain in a fixed position,” she told me, and this is true whether we are writing a poem, searching for solutions to climate change—or sitting in a meditation hall asking What does it mean to be human?

Over the years, this question that first led her to practice has extended its scope. She’s long been fascinated by pronouns—exploring how the writer’s “I” is present in a poem or discovering multiple meanings in the word “you.” She has been pondering all her life what’s become a current flashpoint: what we humans mean when we say “we.” For herself, she’s clear: “I’m committed to an ever more complete identification with the widest possible we.”

When she told me this, I was looking out through the big window behind her into the wildly colorful tangle of her garden, and I became aware of a sensation that felt both strange and familiar. I was remembering the way my childhood best friend and I used to push each other to the edge with certain dizzying questions like, “Would you give up everything you own if someone could make you fly?” It struck me that this is another way of making one’s home outside the realm of convention: by resisting the powerful momentum to take things for granted, by staying close to the state of wonder that comes so naturally when we are children.

In the next moment, having declared her allegiance to “the widest possible we,” Hirshfield paused, then reined herself in—a bit. “Let’s say that I’m willing to stop my we at the perimeter of the atmosphere of the planet.”

Hirshfield had just returned from Washington, D.C., where she was invited to participate in a three-day Nobel Prize Summit, a gathering of Nobel Prize laureates, scientists, scholars, innovative thinkers from a range of disciplines, industry leaders, journalists, and a few representatives of the arts. (When I first stepped into her house, she had delightedly showed me her “Nobel Prize” medal—chocolate, wrapped in foil.) The main theme of the summit was how to respond to the ever-increasing flood of misinformation that threatens to dominate public discourse. On the summit’s website, Hirshfield was described as “one of American poetry’s central spokespersons for the biosphere,” and in her presentation she spoke on behalf of all those silent elements of the universe—the rivers, the mountains, the trees, the creatures—that can’t speak for themselves. “None of us ends at our own skin,” she said. “This is a truth of both poetry and science.”

When I asked whether she felt like an ambassador from the realm of poetry to science and other fields of inquiry, she answered, “More a pollinator. A bee carrying pollen from flower to flower. Someone shares a story with me in Damascus, and then I take that story to Shanghai, to Ramallah….” She went on to say, “It’s strange. I do so much traveling, so much public speaking, but by nature, I’m profoundly introverted. I was a quiet, solitary, unhappy child. I began writing young, but I hid my poetry under my mattress. It was never meant to be read by others. And then, I began adult life as a Zen student, with enormous amounts of silence. But the world has a way of making us fill in our gaps. I have the temperament of a hermit, I chose a life on the periphery, and now poetry sends me all over the world.”

In some ways, you might say this is the great paradox of Jane Hirshfield’s life: in her poetry, as in her practice, she has discovered again and again that when we take the risk of living in the liminal state, the place of listening, of not-knowing, then everything draws near to us, becomes kin, as though we were all inhabiting the same continuously expanding center. Even as things, animate and inanimate, retain their vibrant specificity, the edges disappear. The barriers come down within the inner world of human emotion, and our sense of self becomes ever more permeable to the world without.

My life,
you were a door
I was given to walk through

Who is the “I” of this poem? It is all of us, called to the thresholds of our own lives, invited to go on through whatever sorrows and difficulties we may encounter, and to make our home in the happiness that can come to us only when—realizing how far we extend beyond our own skins—we walk, again and again, through what in Zen is known as “the gateless gate.”

Noelle Oxenhandler

Noelle Oxenhandler began Buddhist practice in 1970. Her essays have appeared in many national and literary journals, and she recently retired from teaching creative nonfiction at Sonoma State University in California.