Forest of Brushes


Statue of Kumārajīva at the Kazil caves, a Buddhist cave complex in the Tarim Basin.


Forest of Brushes

A white horse wanders the shadows of a forest,

wanders like a ghost, like the edge of a thought,

like the edge of translation.

To ride this horse was the child’s dream,

this horse of white ink made with the white soot

of an unburned forest.


Kumārajīva loaded his white horse with sutras

and headed east into another language,

a forest of sutras casting a horse-sized shadow

over the endless sands of the Taklamakan.

And when at last, the two reached Dunhuang,

the horse, whose name was Tianliu, grew sick and died.

They built a stupa to house his remains,

honored the horse as a Buddha.

But long after Tianliu died, one sutra remained warm,

continued to radiate the heat of Tianliu’s body.

Kumārajīva held it to his cheeks,

and marveled how when he unrolled the scroll,

it smelled like his horse’s honeyed breath.

The nectar is not in the words themselves

but in the pool of meaning from which they grew.

Kumārajīva translated not word for word,

but meaning by meaning,

and his words flowered like no others.

That body-warm, honey-breathed text

was the Lotus Sutra.

The deer-drawn carriages waiting outside

a burning house.

The endless cloud shedding rain upon all things

nourishing all roots big and small.

The ancient sage who took all the earth’s particles

and ground them into ink. . . .

White ink made with the white soot

of an unburned forest.

Horse-white ink to hold the horse-white

galloping clouds.

Lotus-white words opening on paper

as white as the white horse

that carried their translator

east over sand and into time.

Cloud-white feathers bound as a brush

writing the dream name of another child

written with ink as white as rainlight

across the white sky of her name:

Enlightened Cloud Script


—Ian Boyden, August 28, 2016

Constellations of Humanity

Each luminous dot on this map represents one reader of this poem. As the number of readers increases, the stars begin to cluster and form an increasingly detailed constellation. My intent is to show how brightly a poem glows across our world. I welcome your light.

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