Echoes of Eternity

Enlightenment in Buddhist poetry
and the lyrics of Robert Hunter

by Chris Alexander

Why do we suffer and what is the end of suffering? What is enlightenment and what is the path to enlightenment? In asking these questions, we begin the search for the deepest truths of existence. The Buddhist poets of India, China, and Japan asked these same questions. Reading their words we find not just beautiful poetry, but an expression of realization which can help us to realize ourselves.

In a similar way, the lyrics of Robert Hunter, reaching our ears through the music of the Grateful Dead, can aid us in our quest for truth. Hunter is not a Buddhist and does not use terminology specific to Buddhism in his lyrics. Yet there are many close parallels between his words and the words of the Buddhist poets. The questions of the poet-monks are Hunter's questions, and they are our questions too. Times and places change, but the questions remain.

When we ask these questions and begin searching for true happiness, we must first understand our current situation. In "Aim at the Heart," Robert Hunter writes of the ultimate unsatisfactoriness of the world:

Everything you cherish
Throws you over in the end
Thorns will grab your ankles
From the gardens that you tend

(Hunter, p.3)

Every meeting ends in a parting, and even the most perfectly-tended life has its thorny side. Yet the path to happiness is not to do nothing or just give up, because you're "Damned if you do/double damned if you don't try" (Ibid). In Hunter's "The Wheel" we see a similar dilemma:

The wheel is turning
and you can't slow down
You can't let go
and you can't hold on
You can't go back
and you can't stand still
If the thunder don't get you
then the lightning will

(Hunter, p.244)

Hunter introduces the idea of a huge, ever-turning wheel. We are trapped by this wheel, unable to stop its motion or to escape its tremendous power. Whichever path we choose, the wheel overpowers us in the end. It would seem that there is no satisfactory solution to this dilemma.

This wheel could be likened to the Buddhist concept of the "wheel of samsara." Constantly we suffer, and not realizing this, we act in ways that cause further suffering for ourselves and others. This leads to rebirth and the cycle continues; the wheel continues to turn. When one attempts to break the cycle, a dilemma arises: to try and stop the wheel by force is futile and results in further suffering. Yet to take no action changes nothing, and the wheel turns as before. How, then, does one end suffering?

The Buddhist poets do not answer that question directly. But perhaps the answer lies hidden in the words of these sages, waiting for us to discover it. Buddhist poetry could be seen as upaya, or skillful means, the purpose of which is to point the way to the end of suffering. Poetry is often viewed as a form of entertainment or of self-expression, but the Buddhist verse here communicates an experience of realization which is beyond the self, beyond the personal. This is poetry with a purpose, and that purpose is to help us to wake up. Reflecting on the realization of others, we begin to experience our own luminous nature. We might then come to a new understanding of suffering and of existence itself, just as these poets did.

The lyrics of Robert Hunter, while not explicitly Buddhist, connect closely with many Buddhist ideas. Hunter's poetic imagery is similar in many ways to that of Buddhist poets. And the questions Hunter asks, as well as the issues he explores, are often similar as well. Like the poetry of the Buddhists, Hunter's work could be seen as a skillful means; transmitted to a large audience through the music of the Grateful Dead, Hunter's verse helps us find and follow the path to truth.

What does this path look like and where might we find it? Hunter (p. 185) writes of an ambiguous and difficult path which one must walk alone.

And there's a road
no simple highway
between the dawn
and the dark of night
If you go
no one may follow
That path is for
your steps alone

This is "no simple highway" - it is not a fast, easy, or well-marked path. Though a human might follow this path, to walk "between the dawn/and the dark of night" is to tread a path which leads beyond the usual human knowledge and understanding. And though Hunter writes of a single road, he also makes it clear that we each have our own path. No one can follow the path of another.

In "Old Man Advancing," the Zen Buddhist poet Muso Soseki points at first to a path beyond the known, even beyond the possible, a path "Beyond the point where the rivers/and the mountains vanish" (p. 73). If such a path could even be said to exist, how could it ever be found? Like Hunter's words about the path, Soseki's verse carries us beyond the ordinary. To understand these words, we must follow them as they lead us away from the familiar world and into a new one. Yet even though this path seems so foreign, Soseki proceeds to explain that the fruit of this path is not in another place or time:

the treasure lies
just under one's feet


First Soseki leads us away from the world we know, but in the end we circle back to the same ground on which we originally stood. Something is different upon our return, though, because now we see that nothing was lacking to begin with. The treasure we sought was here all along.

In the writings of Soseki and another Zen Buddhist poet and monk, Dogen, water imagery is woven into descriptions of the path to realization and the experience of enlightenment. In "Gem Creek," Soseki writes of an mysterious fountain, its water, and the riches contained within:

The mysterious valley fountain
    is originally bright and clear
        it was not made by humans
The banks on both sides
    and the stream between them
        all shine with one light
Without ruffling the surface
    look carefully
        into the depths
You'll see the uncountable
    legendary jewels
        of the Kunlun Mountains

(Soseki, p.78)

At first it might seem that because it is so otherworldly and not created by humans, this fountain is beyond human perception. But this is not the case, because Soseki writes that one might not only view this fountain and its water, but also find "uncountable legendary jewels" in its depths.

Hunter, too, writes of a fountain "that was not made/by the hands of men" (Hunter, p. 185). In the same lyric, he writes of some sort of magical water:

Ripple in still water
when there is no pebble tossed
nor wind to blow

As with Soseki's fountain and water, in Hunter's imagery there is an intriguing balance of the real and the unreal. Water is a common substance and we might assume we understand it completely, but these words might lead us to question our understanding.

Dogen writes of the powerful and seemingly impossible characteristics of water:

Water is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither deluded nor enlightened…Do not doubt that these are the characteristics water manifests. You should reflect on the moment when you see the water of the ten directions as the water of the ten directions. (Tanahashi, p. 101)

Dogen implies that to view water in the usual way is to see something other than what is actually present. To fully encounter Dogen's water, we must move beyond our normal perceptions and definitions. How is it possible that water is not wet and not dry? How is it possible, as Hunter writes, to "wade in the water/and never get wet" (p. 61)?

In order to resolve these questions, we must tread Soseki's path which leads beyond the rivers and mountains. Enlightenment is within each of us, yet it is beyond all that we know and are. At the point where we understand this fully, the path, the self, and water interpenetrate. Dogen writes:

Walking beyond and walking within are both done on water. All mountains walk with their toes on all waters and splash there. (Tanahashi, p. 101)

Bringing the path and the water together like this, we might see the path as a stream. In the Dhammapada, a collection of verses attributed to the Buddha, we find this verse:

The person who reaches the sacred, the inexpressible,
Who has permeated his mind with it,
Who is in control of his senses,
Is one bound upstream.

(Maitreya, p. 72)

The stream here could be viewed as the path to realization, and one who heeds the Buddha's advice is on that path. The Buddhist traveler walks upstream against the flow of desires and attachments, and eventually, through diligent effort, attains realization.

What is it that happens when we fully comprehend the words of the Buddha and the Buddhist poets? What occurs when we reach the end of the path and realize truth? At the end of the path, there is nothing left to achieve, nothing left to seek. It is at this point that realization occurs. In "End of the Road," Hunter writes:

The radio was playing music like I never heard,
I didn't have a thing to say, no, not another word
The wheels of the sky-blue car flew down the golden track
The rearview mirror showed nothing that would ever call me back

This is the end of the road
No further passion to unload
Nothing left to do except explode
Here at the end of the road

(Hunter, p.73)

When one is free from passion and free from attachment to all the objects and sensations of this world, the great death of enlightenment occurs. Dogen, in his "Death Poem" (Tanahashi, p. 219), relates his own experience of an explosion at the end of the road:

Fifty-four years lighting up the sky.
A quivering leap smashes a billion worlds.
Entire body looks for nothing.
Living, I plunge into Yellow Springs.

The end is reached and nothing is left but to die into self-realization. Whether this death is literal or metaphorical, the realization is tremendously powerful and nothing is as it was before.

The experience of realization can be a shattering of the world:

At the clack of a stone on a bamboo
    Hsiang-Yen shattered
     the uncountable worlds

(Soseki 25)

The "shattering" metaphor can be extended: the world is compared to a mirror, and when one attains realization, the mirror is shattered. Soseki writes in "Beyond Light":

The clear mirror
    and its stand
        have been broken
There is no dust
    in the eyes
        of the blind donkey
    dark everywhere
        the appearance of subtle Zen

(Soseki 138)

The mirror of conventional breaks, delusion has falls away, and the all-pervading darkness of realization is all that remains. Hunter, in his lyric to the song "Dark Star", uses also uses the mirror metaphor along with the descent of darkness to describe a shattering of reality.

Dark star crashes
pouring its light
into ashes

Reason tatters
the forces tear loose
from the axis

Searchlight casting
for faults in the
clouds of delusion

Shall we go,
you and I
While we can?
the transitive nightfall
of diamonds

Mirror shatters
in formless reflections
of matter

(Hunter, p. 54)

First a star, a powerful source of light and energy, collapses. Following this, reason is torn apart, and the ever-spinning wheel of mundane existence is thrown into a new rotation, or perhaps it is destroyed entirely. As in "Beyond Light", a deep darkness descends as reality dissolves. Finally, the mirror through which we view our world is shattered, leaving only the darkness or complete extinction which is enlightenment.

While these lines can be read as poetry, their true power only becomes evident when they are heard in their proper context as lyrics set to music. When the Grateful Dead performed "Dark Star," the invitation above ("Shall we go, you and I, While we can?") became an invitation from the band to the audience. The band challenged their audience to journey with them to a place where "reason tatters" and the "faults in the clouds of delusion" are revealed. In this way, these lyrics could be seen as a skillful means; rather than just entertaining those who hear them, they bring their audience to a new realization of truth.

Dogen (Tanahashi, p. 218) writes of an instantaneous and profound realization and urges us to experience it as well:

An explosive shout cracks the great empty sky.
Immediately clear self-understanding.
Swallow up buddhas and ancestors of the past.
Without following others, realize
complete penetration

There is a shattering explosion, similar to Hsiang-yen's "shattering" of "the uncountable worlds" (Soseki 25). The shout seems to be that of a person experiencing realization: "Ah! I understand!" This experience actualizes a universal understanding, but it is personal in nature. One cannot "realize complete penetration" by emulating the actions of others. As Hunter (p. 185) writes, "That path is for/your steps alone". The implication is, though, that if one faithfully follows one's own path, one can reach the end of that path, transform the universe, and at last see clearly.

The disappearance of light common to both "Dark Star" and "Beyond Light" is an oft-used metaphor for the experience of realization. Sometimes it is the literal extinguishing of a lamp or candle which leads to Nirvana. The Theravadin Buddhist nun Patcara writes simply and clearly of this experience:

Then I took a lamp
and went into my cell,
checked the bed,
and sat down on it.
I took a needle
and pushed the wick down.

When the lamp went out
my mind was freed.


The power of this verse, in contrast to much of the poetry cited here, is not in its drama; it is the penetrating simplicity and intimacy of the poem that is striking. There is a similar intimacy and directness in this poem by the Chinese Ch'an poet Han-shan Te-ch'ing:

After late spring rain the falling petals swirl
weightlessly celestial scent covers my patched robe
a simple vacant mind has no place to go
resting on the peak I watch the clouds return

(Pine and O'Connor, p. 127)

Here Te-ch'ing expresses the contentment and true freedom of one who has reached the end of the path. After finishing this great journey, where is there to go and what is there to do?

The ground of realization is an infinite space in which all things are effortlessly complete. Dogen writes:

Realization, neither general nor particular,
is effort without desire.
Clear water all the way to the bottom;
a fish swims like a fish.
Vast sky transparent throughout;
a bird flies like a bird.

(Tanahashi, p.219)

How could one improve on this, and who would there be to do it? A fish swims through clear water, manifesting its realization without effort. A fish need not make a special effort to swim like a fish. In the same way, a human lives in this world, manifesting his or her realization without effort. Realizing the truth, no effort is necessary. The clear water of the fish or the vast transparent sky of the bird is not different from the immense field of mind.

Te-ch'ing writes of the limitless expanse of realization:

Deep among ten thousand peaks I sit alone cross-legged
a solitary thought fills my empty mind
my body is the moon that lights the winter sky
in rivers and in lakes are only its reflections

(Pine and O'Connor, p. 129)

Upon experiencing enlightenment, mind and body are the entire universe, with no separation. In "Eyes of the World", Hunter (p. 75) tells us that mind and body are much bigger than we think:

Wake up to find out
that you are the eyes of the world
but the heart has its beaches
its homeland and thoughts
of its own
Wake now, discover that
you are the song that
the morning brings
but the heart has its seasons
it evenings
and songs of its own

The experience of enlightenment is one of awakening to the infinite space of the eternal. Dogen, Te-ch'ing, and Hunter invite us to discover that each of us is that vast space. These verses haunt, tantalize, and penetrate us with the truth. The truth is not what we think it is, and we are not what we think we are.

Upon awakening, we might be surprised to discover that the world is just a dream, and each of us is the world's dreamer. Te-ch'ing (Pine and O'Connor, p. 123) writes:

A hard cold rain a forest of wind
late at night the lotus drips
who knows the dream that entrances the world
is simply the luminous prajna mind

We are so entranced by our own dream that we forget we're dreaming. Not realizing the creative power of our own mind, we convince ourselves that all this is real. In "Box of Rain" (p. 26), Hunter echoes Te-ch'ing, writing of the world's captivating variety and of its dream-like existence:

Look out of any window
any morning, any evening, any day
Maybe the sun is shining
birds are winging or
rain is falling from a heavy sky-
What do you want me to do,
to do for you to see you through?
This is all a dream we dreamed
one afternoon long ago

The enlightenment experience is an awakening from the dream of samsara into the expansive truth of mind. Awakening, we are free.

However, Dogen tells us that even this understanding is not complete. In conceiving of the path as outside of ourselves and searching for realization in some other place and time, we miss the very jewel we seek. Dogen writes:

When you first seek dharma, you imagine you are far away from its environs. But dharma is already correctly transmitted; you are immediately your original self.

(Tanahashi, p. 70)

Dreaming of enlightenment, we never reach it. Waking up, we discover it is here already. This is just what Soseki explained in "Old Man Advancing": the path is a dream of ours; the truth was never missing. Waking up, we realize the self and the world both at once, both as one.

Buddhist poetry exists not just to provide enjoyment. There is a deeper purpose in these words, and that is to point the reader towards enlightenment. In describing the path to and the experience of enlightenment, Patacara, Soseki, Dogen, Te-ch'ing, and other Buddhist poets help others experience their own self-realization. Poetry about the experience of realization can be what Huston Smith calls a "spiritual technology": the poem becomes a vehicle used by the poet to transmit his or her realization to the reader.

The Buddhist poets urge us to conceive of the inconceivable and to do the impossible. Through the skillful means of poetic verse, they challenge us to go beyond what we believe to be true and beyond what we think we are. In Robert Hunter's lyrics, we see these impossible challenges and questions resurfacing hundreds of years later and thousands of miles distant, by way of a surprising and unlikely vehicle: the songs of the Grateful Dead.


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The Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics: aWeb Site.
Available from (accessed 6 December 1998.)

Hunter, Robert.
A Box of Rain.
New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

Maitreya, Balangoda Ananda, trans.
Words of the Buddha.
Chap. 4 in Entering the Stream: An Introduction to the Buddha and
His Teachings.
Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1993.

Merwin, W.S. and Soiku Shigematsu, trans.
Sun at midnight: poems and sermons by Muso Soseki.
San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989.

Murcott, Susan.
The first Buddhist women: translations and commentaries on the Therigatha.
Berkeley, Calif.: Parallax Press, 1991.

Pine, Red and Mike O'Connor, ed.
The Clouds Should Know Me By Now: Buddhist Poet Monks of China.
Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1998.

Skaggs, Steven.
"'Dark Star' as an Example of Transcendental Aesthetics".
Available from
(accessed 8 December 1998.)

Tanahashi, Kazuaki, ed.
Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen.
San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985.

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