Hokusai says

Hokusai says look carefully. He says pay attention…

Roger Start Keyes, art historian, Hokusai scholar, and co-founder of York Zen, wrote his poem “Hokusai Says,” featured on our York Zen Welcome Page, in Venice in 1990. It appeared suddenly as he was making notes for the “Young Hokusai” paper he was to give at a symposium on Hokusai the following day.

He says keep looking, stay curious. He says there is no end to seeing…

Roger describes how he was writing in one of his daily journal books when he experienced a sudden “raising of tone” and found himself writing out a continuous text until the impetus finally died away. On reading the piece through he felt it had the rhythms of a poem, organized it into lines, and made a few minor corrections. He took the title “Hokusai says” from the first line that had appeared.

He says everything is alive…

Hokusai self portrait

Back in California, Roger showed it to artist friends. One was Connie Smith Siegel, who shared it with W.S. Merwin’s daughter, Susan. Susan wrote it out in beautiful calligraphy and drew a border around it with motifs taken from a Hokusai woodcut.
Connie also showed it to Joanna Macy, scholar of Buddhism, systems thinking, and deep ecology. Joanna started reading it in her workshops and, when later asked about its influence, wrote that “she enjoyed reading it aloud and feeling the impact it consistently had…for the masterly way the words convey a state of grateful and rapt attention that brings one more fully alive to the everyday mystery of life.”

Everything has its own life…

Its influence spread. It was reproduced in the Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center newsletter (1996) and in a number of books, including Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (2011). It also started appearing online in blogs and YouTube videos.

Roger Keyes

Roger Keyes

He says live with the world inside you…

Realizing that none of the online recordings of the poem was by Roger, his friend and curator of The Laurence Sterne Trust, Patrick Wildgust, generously intervened. In 2015 he arranged for a recording to be made of Roger reading “Hokusai says” by sound engineer Jez Wells at York University. You can listen to this recording on our York Zen Welcome Page (and online).

Contentment is life living through you. Joy is life living through you. Satisfaction and strength is life living through you. Look, feel, let life take you by the hand. Let life live through you.

Who knows where “Hokusai says” will next appear?

The Blackbird and Sven


Watching you work, completely focused, single-minded, bringing all you are to make this one thing alive, creating meaning, beauty and function in one whole piece; generated through instinct, and coming into being as we watch, though still invisible to the wider world. Meticulous, patient, bit-by-bit becoming until there it is, in the light: complete, unique and perfect. (And so it is with each of us: one by one each thing has it, one by one each thing is complete.)

As Sven’s fingers move over the keyboard building this website with colour, fonts and photographs, an about-to-become-a-mother blackbird inspects the corner of a shelf against the white-washed wall of our city yard. She hops and settles, repeats. Is this the right place to build a nest? She moves aside some clematis vine to make a space behind it, flies off, and returns with her mate. He looks too and they agree, and so she weaves a bowl of feather, leaf and twig. When Sven and the blackbird each have finished building, he the website, she the nest, you don’t see either of them anymore, but each is present in their creation.

Thank you, Sven Mahr, for building the website for York Zen Group and taking the brilliant photos. You have completely realized our vision, laying out the warm welcome we want to give to all who already enjoy Zen meditation and all who might like to begin. Sven Mahr is based in Leipzig and can be contacted via his website here.