Poetry Sunday: Shoveling Snow With Buddha

I love the poems of Billy Collins. They are deceptively simple and usually speak of very ordinary things, but they are full of sly humor and they have lessons to teach us even without our being aware that we are being taught. Such a poem is "Shoveling Snow With Buddha."

We see the poet engaging in an ordinary activity with a most extraordinary person. The poet acknowledges that the extraordinary person is out of place and time in that "sitting is more his speed" and he is normally in "warm or slightly humid" surroundings, but here he is in the cold shoveling snow. 

Moreover, the poet talks a lot while they are shoveling and he explains to the Enlightened One why being in Nature, shoveling snow and enjoying the sunlight and winter geese overhead is better than a sermon in a church. The Buddha does not reply but only keeps shoveling. He remains inside his "generous pocket of silence."

Buddha remains silent until the end when he asks to go inside and play cards. The lesson that he teaches the poet by his silence is that it is the work that matters, not the words. By their works shall you know them.  

Shoveling Snow With Buddha

by Billy Collins 

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.


  1. Yesterday was all about getting the work done. I just went from task to task until done. Aaah, said Judy, when Happy Hour arrived!

  2. I so like the images...I think this one applies to me as well:
    "Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
    for what he does, or does not do..."

    1. I love that bit. Sitting is often my speed as well. I'm not sure I do it as well or as mindfully as Buddha, though.


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