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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 ...

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Seeking Self Knowledge (by Jiao Ran)

One of the joys of Chinese culture is the vast opportunity it presents for continued learning and discovery -- 浩浩, as a Tang poet would say.  There's really no limit given the enormity of China's literary heritage.  Another day another great new voice is waiting to be discovered.

Yesterday I started reading and translating a cache of poems by a Tang Buddhist monk named Jiao Ran.  Wikipedia lists his dates as 730-799 which places him in what is considered the Middle Tang period.  More of a committed monastic than either Wang Wei or Bai Juyi (who only turned to asceticism in their later years, after extensive careers in government service), Jiao Ran's poetry strikes me as even more deeply infused with the Chan spirit, and also a bit more difficult to penetrate.

Here is my translation of one of his wonderful poems about self-discovery.

Seeking Self-Knowledge

As if you could summon forth
Some memory from the cave  
Or courtyard of youth

You climb up to find yourself
In idleness surrounded
Your body shrouded in mist

White clouds without limit
Encircle the mountain
No matter how hard you try
To buy it outright

Not knowing the mountain’s worth
Nor if it will ever come forth
For any man




*  *  *  *


At the risk of spoiling some of the magic of this poem, I want to briefly comment on the puzzling association, very much evident in the last two stanzas, between money and self-discovery.  What is it that brother Jiao Ran is trying to tell us when he cautions us about the difficulty of buying access to the mountain within?  How I wish I could join him on the mountaintop and ask him for a few further words of explanation.

I'll be publishing translations of a few more of Jiao Ran's poems in the next issue of the Tang Spirit Newsletter.  Click here to sign up for your free copy if you're not already a subscriber.   

Thursday, December 28, 2017

In Memory of Lucille

Not for a great poet but for a neighbor no less dear
The Creek froze last night as life let loose its grip
And the mercury dropped in the mouth of the dying year
Not that man or beast could walk upon the thin ice sheet
Which had heaved up along the margins of the shoreline
Less than an inch thick, fresh and opaque enough
To track the chill waters coursing underneath
But the cars gathered in my neighbor’s driveway
Announced her crossing had just begun
As her breath must have guttered in her sleep
And now her spirit is bourn in a stilled passage 
Over the frozen waters of Weesuck Creek

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

For Love of Singing Poems (by Bai Juyi)

Here's another poem about poetry from Bai Juyi. As with many other Tang poets, Bai Juyi served for many years as a government minister, and his early poems address a broad range of personal and social themes.  But in his later years, after retiring form government service, he was drawn increasingly towards spiritual practice and his poems became far more explicit in identifying the inspiration for his poetry as being deeply connected to the Buddhist faith.

Reciting prose and poems
Through thousands of quatrains
My heart journeyed long 
Until it found refuge
In the Buddhist faith
Now resting on a hempen bed
Idly reading to myself
I ponder upon a prior lifetime
Being both a poet and monk



Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Solution Through Poetry

A clean sheet of paper
Every day made whole
Not for the love of fame
But only so old words may be
Continuously transformed
There’s no harm thus done
In pleasing one’s nature
Keeping watch over the countryside
Or unconsciously remounting
The city’s walls
Merely to undertake
These imagined journeys
Upon rivers and lakes   
Chanting in rhythm on
Our passage through life

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

新篇日日成      不是声名
时时改     无妨性情
但令长守郡     不

只拟江湖上     吟哦一生

How often do we question why it is we write our poems?  Here is an answer from the great Tang poet Bai Juyi, all the more remarkable in its clarity because it was written more than 1300 years ago. This poem is a beautiful testament to the Dao of Poetry - providing a solution to our constant questioning that enables us to feel restored in the power of our songs.