contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Chinese poetry

IMAGINING MYSTERY

‘Imagining mystery’ is the title given by Ursula K. Le Guin for Chapter 25 in A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, her English rendition of the Tao Te Ching.

“There is something

that contains everything

Before heaven and earth

it is.

Oh, it is still, unbodied,

all on its own, unchanging.

“all-pervading,

ever moving.

So it can act as the mother

of all things.

Not knowing its real name,

we only call it the Way.

“If it must be named,

Let its name be Great.

Greatness means going on,

going on means going far,

and going far means turning back.

“So they say, ‘the Way is great,

heaven is great, earth is great;

four greatnesses in the world,

and humanity is one of them’.

“People follow earth,

earth follows heaven,

heaven follows the Way,

the Way follows what is.”

Ursula Le Guin comments: “I’d like to call the ‘something’ of the first line a lump – an unshaped, undifferentiated lump, chaos, before the Word, before Form, before Change. Inside it is time, space, everything; in the womb of the Way. The last words of the chapter, tzu jan, I render as ‘what is’. I was tempted to say, ‘The Way follows itself’, because the Way is the way things are; but that would reduce the significance of the words. They remind us to see the way not as a sovreignty or a dominion, all creative, all yang. The Way itself is a follower. Though it is before everything, it follows what is.”

She also owns to a piece of creative editing. “in all the texts, the fourth verse reads: So they say, ‘the Way is great/heaven is great;/earth is great;/and the king is great./Four greatnesses in the world/and the king is one of them’.” Yet in the next verse, which is the same series in reverse order, instead of ‘the king’, it is ‘the people’ or ‘humanity’. I think a Confucian copyist slipped the king in. The king garbles the sense of the poem and goes against the spirit of the book. I dethroned him.”

I share Ursula Le Guin’s lens, and editorial calls like this are the reason I am drawn to her version more than any other. The text as a whole speaks to our experience of moving between non-duality, dualities, and the multiplicity of the 10,000 the things. For me, the work Ursula Le Guin has done, in reframing traditional understandings of A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, makes her a teacher in her own right.

She calls the first chapter of her version Taoing, emphasising process and flow, and the need to stay open to uncertainties and ambiguities. The text both acknowledges that words over-define experience (thus limiting and distorting it) and understands the need to use them (otherwise why write it?) When taoing, we hold such points of tension. For they are the key to imagining mystery.

“The way you can go

isn’t the real way,

The name you can say

isn’t the real name.

Heaven and earth

begin in the unnamed:

name’s the mother

of the ten thousand things.

So the unwanting soul

sees what’s hidden,

and the ever-wanting soul

sees only what it wants.

Two things, one origin,

but different in name,

whose identity is mystery,

Mystery of all mysteries!

The door to the hidden.”

Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way Boston & London: Shambhala A new English version by Rrsula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

THE TAO OF URSULA K LE GUIN

“The Tao Te Ching is partly in prose, partly in verse; but as we define poetry now, not by rhyme and meter but as a patterned intensity of language, the whole thing is poetry. I wanted to catch that poetry, its terse, strange beauty. Most translations have caught meanings in their net, but prosily, letting the beauty slip through. And in poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth. We have that on good authority.

“Scholarly translations of the Tao Te Ching as a manual for rulers use a vocabulary that emphasises the uniqueness of the Taoist ‘sage’, his masculinity, his authority. This language is perpetuated, and degraded, in most modern versions. I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul. I would like that reader to see why people have loved the book for twenty-five hundred years.

“It is the most lovable of all the great religious texts, funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing. Of all the deep springs, this is the purest water. To me, it is also the deepest spring.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, introducing her own English version of the Tao Te Ching*

*Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Power and the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (A new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

POEM: HERMITAGE HOSPITALITY

At dusk I came down from the mountain,

The mountain moon as my companion,

And looked behind at tracks I’d taken

That were blue, blue beyond the skyline;

You took my arm, lead me to your hut

Where small children drew hawthorn curtains

To green bamboos and a hidden path

With vines to brush the travellers’ clothes;

And I rejoiced at a place to rest

And good wine, too, to pour out with you:

Ballads we sang, the wind in the pines,

Till our songs done, Milky Way had paled;

And I was drunk and you were merry,

We had gaily forgotten the world!

Li Po and Tu Fu Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973 (Poems selected and translated with an introduction and notes by Arthur Cooper)

 The poem above was written by Li Po (701-762) and its full title is ‘Coming down from Chung-Nan Mountain by Hu-Szu’s Hermitage, he gave me rest for the night and set out the wine’. The editor says: “this is typical of Li Po’s occasional poems, a ‘bread-and-butter letter’ to a friend who had entertained him. The ‘hermitage’ is not to be taken too seriously and need mean no more than a country cottage. In a world of intriguing courtiers, everyone was pleased to be called a retired hermit; though the word used for ‘hermit’ here is in fact also a high Taoist Degree of Initiation. (‘The world’ at the end of the poem, though a fair translation of the word used, translates something that can itself mean ‘intrigue’.)

POEM: THE SADNESS OF THE GORGES

Above the gorges, one thread of sky;

Cascades in the gorges twine a thousand cords.

High up, the slant of splintered sunlight, moonlight;

Beneath, curbs to the wild heave of the waves,

The shock of a gleam, and then another,

In depths of shadow frozen for centuries;

The rays between the gorges do not halt at noon;

Where the straits are perilous, more hungry spittle.

Trees lock their roots in rotted coffins

And the twisted skeletons hang tilted upright;

Branches weep as the frost perches

Mournful cadences, remote and clear.

A spurned exile’s shriveled guts

Scald and seethe in the water and fire he walks through.

A lifetime’s like a fine-spun thread,

The road goes up by the rope at the edge.

When he pours his libation of tears to the ghosts in the stream

The ghosts gather, a shimmer on the waves.

Meng Chiao (751 – 814) in Poems of the Late T’ang Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965 (Translated with an Introduction by A. C. Graham)

POEM: SILENT ILLUMINATION

 

Silently and serenely, one forgets all words,

Clearly and vividly, it appears before you.

When one realizes it, time has no limits.

When experienced, your surroundings come to life.

Singularly illuminating this bright awareness,

Full of wonder is the pure illumination.

The moon’s appearance, a river of stars,

Snow-clad pines, clouds hovering on mountain peaks.

In darkness, they glow with brightness.

In shadows, they shine with a splendid light.

Like the dreaming of a crane flying in empty space,

Like the clear, still water of an autumn pool,

Endless eons dissolve into nothingness,

Each indistinguishable from the other.

 

Chan Master Sheng-Yen The Poetry of Enlightenment: poems by ancient Chan Masters New York: Dharma Drum Publications, 1987

This is the first section of a longer piece by Hongzhi (in this text transliterated as Hung Chi), who lived in China from 1097-1157. He developed a version of what we now call mindfulness meditation called Silent Illumination.

 

POEM: STAYING OVERNIGHT AT WILLOW BANK INN

When are my travels ever going to end?

My old body has come to this inn again.

The roadside pines and junipers are ten years older,

Once short, but now tall and stately.

The place where I stopped last night is far away;

And tomorrow, tonight will be last night.

In just an instant the present has become the past –

I’d have to be a saint not to drink wine.

From Yang Wan-li Heaven my Blanket: Earth my Pillow: Poems from Sung Dynasty China New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1975 (Translated and introduced by Jonathan Chaves

POEM: THE BOATMAN’S FLUTE

Today there is no wind on the Yangtze;

the water is calm and green

with no waves or ripples.

All around the boat

light floats in the air

over a thousand acres of smooth, lustrous jade.

One of the boatmen wants to break the silence.

High on wine, he picks up his flute

and plays into the mist.

The clear music rises to the sky –

an ape in the mountains

screaming at the moon;

a creek rushing through a gully.

Someone accompanies on the sheepskin drum,

his head held steady as a peak,

his fingers beating like rain drops.

A fish breaks the crystal surface of the water

And leaps ten feet into the air.

From Yang Wan-li Heaven my Blanket: Earth my Pillow: Poems from Sung Dynasty China New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1975 (Translated and introduced by Jonathan Chaves)

Yang Wan-li (1127-1206) was a scholar-bureaucrat and poet of Sung Dynasty China, a period of history during which some of the most treasured masterpieces of Chinese art and literature were created. Yet this culture was vulnerable. Northern China was occupied by Jurchen nomads, and the Southern Sung’s base in Hangchow is described in Chaves’ introduction as “a refuge of elegant solitude  from which they gazed longingly toward the north … in this quiet setting they were able to enjoy the beauties of bird, rock and stream”. The Boatman’s Flute chooses a natural setting, a scene on a great river, to capture a musical moment.

Yang Wan-li’s work is also presented at: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2015/05/14/reflection-on-chinese-poetry/

 

 

 

 

 

POEM: VISITING A HERMIT AND NOT FINDING HIM

 

Where the dogs bark

By roaring waters,

Whose spray darkens

The petals’ colours,

Deep in the woods

Deer at times are seen;

 

The valley noon:

One can hear no bell.

But wild bamboos

Cut across bright clouds,

Flying cascades

Hang from jasper peaks;

 

No one here knows

Which way you have gone:

Two, now three pines

I have lent against.

 

Li Po (701-62)

 

‘Visiting a Hermit and Not Finding Him’ is a common theme in Chinese poetry. The full title for the particular poem above is: ‘On Visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai T’ien Mountains and Not Finding Him’. Li Po is regarded as one of China’s greatest poets and wrote it between the ages of 17 and 19.

According to translator Arthur Cooper, such a poem is more than a ‘nature poem’ but “relates in its thought to the ‘spirit journeys’ of which Li Po himself was particularly fond and which are to be found in early Chinese poetry”.  In such poems the wise hermit ‘teaches without telling’, by letting the poet wait and not even meet him. Awakening to the landscape (external or internal) carries more spiritual meaning than speculation about the whereabouts of the hermit.

Another approach to the same theme is offered in a famous poem by Chia Tao (777-841):

 

Under a pine,

I asked his pupil

Who said, “Master’s

Gone gathering balm

 

Only somewhere

About the mountain:

The cloud’s so thick

That I don’t know where.

 

Li Po and Tu Fu Poems Selected and translated with an introduction and notes by Arthur Cooper. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973

 

POEM: A WITHERED TREE

Not a twig or leaf on the old tree,

Wind and frost harm it no more.

A man could pas through a hole in its belly,

Ants crawl searching under its peeling bark.

Its only lodger, the toadstool which dies in a morning,

The birds no longer visit in the twilight.

But its wood can still spark tinder.

It does not care yet to be only the void at its heart.

 

By Han Yü (768-824)

From: Poems of the Late T’ang translated from the Chinese with an introduction by A.C. Graham Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965

Han Yü was primarily an essayist and polemicist, and initiated an ultimately successful Confucian revival at a time of Buddhist cultural dominance. When writing verse, he adopted devices traditionally confined to prose and to fu (prose poems) and sought to attend to the social and human content of poetry.

POEM: THE BREATH OF NATURE

When great Nature sighs, we hear the winds

Which, noiseless in themselves,

Awaken voices from other beings,

Blowing on them.

From every opening

Loud voices sound. Have you not heard

This rush of tones?

There stands the overhanging wood

On the steep mountain:

Oak trees with holes and cracks

Like snouts maws and ears,

Like beam-sockets, like goblets,

Grooves in the wood, hollows full of water.

You hear mooing and roaring, whistling,

Shouts of command, grumblings,

Deep drones, sad flutes.

One call awakens another in dialogue.

Gentle winds sing timidly,

Strong ones blast on without restraint.

Then the wind dies down. The openings

Empty out their last sound.

Have you not observed how all then trembles and subsides?

Yu replied: I understand:

The music of earth sings through a thousand holes.

The music of man is made on flutes and instruments.

What makes the music of heaven?

Master Ki said:

Something is blowing on a thousand different holes.

Some power stands behind all this and makes the sounds die down.

What is this power?

From:  Thomas Merton The Way of Chuang Tzu Boston & London: Shambhala, 2004

Chuang Tzu, one of the great figures of early Taoism, lived around 300 BCE. The frontispiece of this edition says: “He used parables and anecdotes, allegory and paradox, to illustrate that real happiness and freedom are found only in understanding Tao or Way of nature, and dwelling in its unity. The respected Trappist monk Thomas Merton spent several years reading and reflecting on four different translations of the Chinese classic that bears Chuang Tzu’s name. The result is this collection of poetic renderings of the great sage’s work.

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