contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Yang Wan-li

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/

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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