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The Journey to the West

Though we journey to the West We pray to the East More or less that's the way Each day begins and ends It’s a tale everyone ...

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Three Gems from Han Shan

Every so often I return to read and translate a few poems by Han Shan - the recluse of Cold Mountain.  Frankly this serves as a bit of a shortcut for me; it provides a vicarious way for me to partake of the fruits of meditative seclusion without leaving the comforts of home.  Perhaps this is exactly as it should be - Han Shan the poet serves as a stand-in for Han Shan the mountain.  And just as Han Shan the mountain inspired a hermit's original poetry, so the poetry of the hermit can still inspire us today.

Here are translations of three Songs from Cold Mountain.

It’s funny how
Cold Mountain path
Proceeds along
Without a trace of
Horses and carts

As the streams
Run together
It’s hard to remember
Each twist and turn
That brought you here
And the layers of peaks
That loom in the distance

The dew weeps
Upon a thousand
Blades of grass
And the wind moans
With the pines as one

 At the moment when 
The path seems to disappear
Shape turns to ask shadow
From whence it has come  





* * * * *

The sages ignore me
I ignore fools as well
Being neither foolish nor wise
But refraining from all
Such mutual name-calling

I sing to the bright moon at nightfall
And dance with the white clouds at daybreak
I strive to hold my hands in an open mudra
Sitting upright with all the uncountable
Hairs on my head



*  *  *  *  *

My heart shines
Like the harvest moon
A deep pool of clear light
Nothing else has such clarity
For teaching me what to say


Photo by Lawrence Hudetz

Apologies to those of you who are purists when it comes to mixing east and west but the beautiful photo above is not of Cold Mountain in China but of a very chilly looking Mt. Hood in Oregon.  However, it is the same moon that shined down on Han Shan, at least as far as I'm aware.   

Friday, November 17, 2017

About Those Voices in Your Head

The voices in your head
They're not exactly your own
But more an amalgam
Or a multiplicity
And when the old Emperor speaks
Even he's welcomed to the fold
But you must admit
That which sounds most personal
Is now beyond your control
In large part borrowed
And or collectively owned
You're all over the map in fact
On this westward journey
Still looking for a spiritual home

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Song of Sudden Awakening (by Hsiang Yen)

At one stroke
Knowledge is forgotten

The need for dogma and struggle
Forever falls away

The inner spirit is lifted
To the ancient path

Far above the grip
Of worldly despair

The trackless expanse
Extends everywhere

Sights and sounds dissipate
In the presence of simple majesty

Those who reach this
Way in truth

All say it stands above
Everything else

*  *  *  *  




Drawing by Marcelo Zissu

Hsiang Yen was a master in one of the Five Houses of Chan, an accomplished scholar renowned for his knowledge of the sutras.  The story of his awakening is one of the classic accounts of sudden enlightenment, which has become a staple in the Chan and Zen traditions.  Hsiang struggled for many years with his sutra and meditation practice,  and found himself stymied by the koan from his master to explain his primordial face.  Unable to come up with a satisfactory response, Hsiang took the radical step of burning all his explanatory notes on the sutras and went off wandering.  One day out working in the fields, he heard the sound of a tile hitting the dirt and it was only then that he attained a sudden awakening.

For all of us afflicted with monkey mind, these enlightenment stories carry a powerful promise.   We may turn our backs on the sutras and burn all our notes and yet someday discover our own poem of awakening.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Ode to Suchness

In every cast mold
A perfect Buddha resides
Just as in every poem
A little bit of suchness
Seeps in and makes the
Images spring to life

Who lets the dogs out
You also might say
The me that can’t be
Fully accounted for
But lights up the sky
Anyway at least
Like fireflies
In the night

*  *  *  *  *

Originally I thought I would call this poem an Ode to the Tathagatagarbha - but truly that is a little bit too much of a mouthful, even for me. So instead I've decided to call it an Ode to Suchnesss, another name for the same thing, that being the primordial Buddha nature that resides within all sentient beings, such as it is, a very sweet concept to me.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Water Song (by Su Dong Po)

Approaching the middle of November, here is a poem for the holiday season, which is almost upon us.  This is a song for the celebration of the mid-autumn festival by the great Chinese poet Su Dong Po; it was composed while he was joyfully carousing to the break of dawn, thinking of Zi You, his younger brother

O bright moon
What time do you have?
I raise my wine to ask
Of the blue heavens
Unsure what year it is
In the celestial realm

I long to ride the winds
Back to your lonely jade palace
It’s chilly up there for sure

Rising to dance
Everything looks
Perfectly clear
Down here in the
Mortal realm

A spinning
Colorful pavilion
The silk banners
Suspended from the doorway
Shining and sleepless
There’s no point
Feeling regret
No matter how long
Since you’ve departed
The hour of fullness
Comes round again

Human joy and sorrow
Each in its turn
The moon has
Its phases too
Overcast or clear
Waxing or crescent
It’s been that way forever
Hard to grasp the wholeness
If only we can have enough time
Whether far distant or together
In this graceful moonlight





*  *  *  *  *

The Tang Spirit of autumn lives on.  You can see it on display in New York City on the corner of 7th Avenue and 27th Street where my friend Steve Zhang inscribed his toast to Zhuang Zhou on the façade of the FIT building (where Steve is on the faculty).    

Reborn as a butterfly
Zhuang fluttered
A thousand miles
In the bright moonlight
By the Big River
Let’s raise our glasses


In this poetic fragment Steve has included allusions to some of the most important images in Chinese poetry – the dream of Zhuang Zhou, as well as famous lyrics by Li Shang Yin and Su Dong Po.  In any case, as you can see, we have our own compact circle of modern day Tang poetry, and more than a millennium after the fall of the last Tang emperor, we’re still hoisting our glasses in the spirit of autumn’s brilliant moonlight.