contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: 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.

REFLECTION ON CHINESE POETRY

In his poem Written on a Cold Evening Yang Wan-li* writes:

The poet must work with brush and paper,

but this is not what makes the poem.

A man doesn’t go in search of a poem –

The poem comes in search of him.

I realise, that when I read or present classical Chinese poems, I am not just working with translations from another language, but with translations from a completely different approach to the art of writing itself. So here I’ve added a piece about Chinese calligraphy, taken from an article by Dawn Delbanco, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University which is available on: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chcl/hd_chcl.htm

Calligraphy, or the art of writing, was the visual art form prized above all others in traditional China, revered as a fine art long before painting. What makes the written language distinctive is its visual form. Unlike written words formed from alphabets, Chinese characters convey more than phonetic sound or semantic meaning. Written words play multiple roles: not only does a character denote specific meanings, but its very form manifests the energy of the human body and the vitality of nature itself. Writings on calligraphy use nature metaphors to describe the sense of wonder, the elemental power, conveyed by written words:

“[When viewing calligraphy,] I have seen the wonder of a drop of dew glistening from a dangling needle, a shower of rock hailing down in a raging thunder, a flock of geese gliding [in the sky], frantic beasts stampeding in terror, a phoenix dancing, a startled snake slithering away in fright.” (Sun Guoting, 7th century)

How can a simple character convey all this? The seeming simplicity of the tools is belied by the complexity of effects. A multiplicity of effect is produced in part by varying the consistency and amount of ink carried by the brush. Black ink is formed into solid sticks or cakes that are ground in water on a stone surface to produce a liquid. Calligraphers can control the thickness of the ink by varying both the amount of water and the solid ink that is ground. Once they start writing, by loading the brush sometimes with more ink, sometimes with less, by allowing the ink to almost run out before dipping the brush in the ink again, they create characters that resemble a shower of rock here, the wonder of a drop of dew there.

Unlike a rigid instrument such as a stylus or a ballpoint pen, a flexible hair brush allows not only for variations in the width of strokes, but, depending on whether one uses the tip or side of the brush, one can create either two-dimensional or three-dimensional effects. Depending on the speed with which one wields the brush and the amount of pressure exerted on the writing surface, one can create a great variety of effects. The brush becomes an extension of the writer’s arm, indeed, their entire body. The physical gestures produced by the wielding of the brush reveal much more than physical motion; they reveal much of the writers themselves – their impulsiveness, restraint, elegance, rebelliousness.

I would add that this kind of writing enacts the dance between ‘emptiness and form’ referred to in the Buddhist Heart Sutra (a favourite text in China) and the earlier references to that same dance in the Tao Te Ching, where it says, less abstractly:

Thirty spokes meet in the hub

Where the wheel isn’t, is where it’s useful.

Hollowed out, clay makes a pot

Where the pot’s not is where it’s useful.

Cut doors and windows to make a room.

Where the room isn’t, there’s room for you.

So the profit in what is, is in the use of what isn’t. **

In Chinese calligraphy and painting the empty spaces can be as significant as the filled ones. The two cannot be separated and this is an enduring lesson both of Chinese arts and spirituality (in their Taoist and Buddhist influenced versions). For me it’s a key lesson of the contemplative journey in any culture.

*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)

** From Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: a Book about the Way and the Power of the Way Shambhala: Boston & London, 1998 (new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin)

 

WHAT IS POETRY?

Yang Wan-li’s poem ‘What is Poetry?’ asks the question from the Buddhist and Taoist influenced perspective of Sung Dynasty China (the poet lived in our 12th. century – a little younger than Geoffrey of Monmouth, a little older than Gerald of Wales). It is also timeless.

Now, what is poetry?

If you say it is a matter of words,

I will say a good poet gets rid of words.

If you say it is simply a matter of meaning,

I will say a good poet gets rid of meaning,

“But”, you ask, “without words and without meaning

Where is the poetry?”

To this I reply: “Get rid of words and get rid of meaning,

And there is still poetry.”

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: BOATING THROUGH A GORGE

Here turtles fish and turn back,

and even the crabs are worried,

But for some reason poets risk their lives

to run these rapids and swirl past these rocks.

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: SUDDEN FOG

Setting out at dawn, I gaze at the distant mountains;

I can count the peaks in the clear air.

But the budding hope in my heart

arouses the jealousy of the Mountain Spirit.

Swiftly he exhibits his divine powers

in a startling display of transformation.

He fills the air with cotton clouds

then tears them into sheds of silken mist.

They enfold the earth from everywhere

and hide the sky from view.

The sun, like a plate of rose quartz,

hangs at a height beyond calculation –

it shines down through the haze, red beams penetrating the white fog.

In the fog are human forms

coming and going in great confusion.

Each of them is holding some implement

but I cannot see clearly what they are.

Next, as if this weren’t strange enough,

there appear even stranger sights:

a roadway lined with pearl-studded banners;

mountains covered with trees of jasper.

A golden bridge arching across the sky;

a jade pagoda surging up from the earth.

But while I stare in astonishment

everything is suddenly swept away.

Amazed, I rub my eyes,

and finding myself standing on the same old mountain road.

Who can say if this was fantasy or reality,

whether I was dreaming of awake?

Once I travelled to Mountain Omei in my imagination

And laughed at Buddha for deceiving the ignorant.

Laugh at deception and be deceived –

Then Buddha will have the last laugh.

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)

According to our reckoning Yang Wan-li lived from 1127-1206. Mount Omei in the western province of Szechwan was a holy place for Buddhist devotees, particularly associated with the bodhisattva P’u-hsien, or Samantabhadra, to give his Sanskrit name.

Of this poem the translator says: “Yang may have been influenced by Ch’an Buddhism” (i.e. a purist, philosophical kind, parent of Japanese Zen) “in his discussion of poetry and his perception of the world, but ‘Sudden Fog’ refers to a different kind of Buddhism, a popular, devotional religion in which the devotee can hope to experience visions of his favourite Buddha or bodhisattva. Certain mountains in China were associated with these apparitions, and Buddhists would make pilgrimages to them seeking visions or mystical experiences.

POEM: PASSING SHAOLIN HERMITAGE

PASSING SHAOLIN HERMITAGE – TO FRIENDS IN THE CAPITAL

I reined in my horse below a pine ridge

and hiked to the lookout on top

the trail appeared impassable as I started out

but once I arrived I wished it were longer

from the summit I heard a chorus of winds

in the woods I bathed in a secluded stream

the sound of a bell roused me on the Way

the evening chime cleared the clouds and mist

though my visit was brief

I finally saw what caused my troubles

but when I thought about building a hut

I knew it would have to wait for old age.

 

From In Such Hard Times: the Poetry of Wei Ying-Wu translated by Red Pine, Port Townsend: WA, USA: Copper Canyon Press, 2009

Wei Ying-wu was a poet of the later 8th century CE, as we count time. It was a period when the later-remembered-as-glorious T’ang dynasty had begun to unravel. Translator Red Pine says that “Wei lived his life wondering what went wrong”, giving a melancholy tinge to many of his poems. He was distantly related to the Imperial family, a scholar in both the Buddhist and Confucian traditions who spent many years as a state official without much enjoying it.

This poem was written in 771. (In Britain, that’s 22 years before the Viking sack of the Christian monastery at Lindisfarne.) Shaolin Temple was built in the fifth century for a monk from India in a high mountain basin at the foot of Sungshan’s Shaoshih Peak. The trail from the temple to the top went right by the cave where Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan (Japanese Zen) Buddhism spent nine years in meditation.

The chime to which Wei refers was used in Chan monasteries to mark the end of a meditation period. The use of the term ‘the Way’ (Tao) wasn’t confined to Taoists – ‘Tao’ was also used by Confucians, and by Buddhists as a translation of Sanskrit ‘Dharma’. The last two lines of the poem show a tension between Wei’s Buddhist and Confucian trainings – whether to let go of worldly attachments, or whether to stay in his post and “wait for old age” before building his hut.

OVERNIGHT STAY WITH K’O-KUNG

For me, this poem by Chia Tao is a contrasting twin to Poems Just Dotted Down in my last blog. On the one hand it is more self-conscious and struggling, and on the other more poignant and touching with the human face revealed. I like to read them together.

For ten li

I’ve been searching for the hidden temple

Up branches

Of the cold stream.

Monks sit Ch’an,

One with the snowy night;

Wild geese, approaching Ts’ao-t’ang,

Fly within hearing.

With lamp flames dying,

Our words are subdued;

The rest of our lives

Should be clouds and high peaks.

Up to now,

I’ve been sick a lot,

And the Enlightened Prince

Does not know my name.

From When I find you again, it will be in mountains: selected poems of Chia Tao (2000) Somerville, MA, USA: Wisdom Publications

Chia Tao (779 – 843) an erstwhile Ch’an monk, became a poet during China’s Tang Dynasty. Ch’an was the Chinese predecessor of Japanese Zen.

English translation by Mike O’ Connor.

POEM JUST JOTTED DOWN

In the middle of the night,

I suddenly rise;

Draw water

From the deep well.

White dew

Covers the woods;

Morning stars

Dot the clear sky.

From When I find you again, it will be in mountains: selected poems of Chia Tao (2000) Somerville, MA, USA: Wisdom Publications

Chia Tao (779 – 843) an erstwhile Ch’an monk, became a poet during China’s Tang Dynasty. Ch’an was the Chinese predecessor of Japanese Zen.

English translation by Mike O’Connor.

Barddas

Gwir Yn Erbyn Y Byd

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