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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 ...

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

An Inscription on Buddha's Shadow (by Hui Yuan) - part 2

This is a continuation of a poem I began translating yesterday by the monk Hui Yuan in 4th century China.  It was composed originally as an inscription for a painting of the Buddha's shadow that Hui had commissioned to hang in a meditation cave near by his monastery.  (You can read the first part of my translation as well as a bit more background about the painting and the poem here.) 

These verses strike me as a powerful endorsement for abstract art of all kinds - an explanation of how certain spiritual matters only become clear to us through an internal process rather than through explicit depiction or expression.  The fact that the poem was written in the 4th century about a painting of Buddha's shadow should not obscure us from appreciating its more general significance in terms of contemporary abstract art.

Boundless and untended is the cosmos
So profligate in its promptings and rewards
But speaking of emptiness or trying to contain it in words
Or finessing it too finely with a brush to pass it on
Makes it seems overly concrete and diminished

Yet diluted and infused by water
The natural beauty of emptiness
Can be rendered far more clearly
By a brush with only the lightest touch
Of its fine white strands that thus
Bring nothingness gloriously to life
Dim and murky as the night but
What resides within remains clear and bright
To feel thus deeply infused by inner accord

To be fixed in sincerity
So it reverberates outwardly
An echo that lingers
And reaches to the highest peaks
To comprehend what crosses over
In the dim and dark bestowal of gifts
Consoled by possessing your own balance
And finding merit not simply
By following what came before




Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Inscription on Buddha's Shadow (by Hui Yuan) - part 1

A little over 1600 years ago, the Buddhist monk Hui Yuan commissioned an artist to paint the image of Buddha's shadow on a silk scroll.  This may very well be the first recorded instance of abstract art.  Hui was inspired to have an artist undertake this work after hearing reports of a cave in northern Indian where Buddha's shadow could supposedly be seen flickering against the wall.  This poem is the first part of an inscription that Hui Yuan wrote when the painting of Buddha's shadow was hung on the wall of a cave on Mt. Lu, where he had established his own monastic community.

Vast is the great one’s image
In essence nameless and obscure
The Buddha’s body transformed into
A shadow cast upon the wall 

While sunlight glimmers on layered cliffs
And shines on the empty pavilion
In the dim cave nothing is concealed
But shrouded in gloom it’s made clearer still

Graceful as a cicada’s transformation
The disciples sit rapt and alert
Each responds differently in repose
As the shadowy image almost disappears




Almost as beautiful as the poem, Hui Yuan also wrote a short commentary or explanation of why he commissioned the painting of a shadow.  Here is his explanation (as translated by Eugene Wang of Harvard University):

Even though I was enlightened by the generous teaching and immersed myself in the Buddhist sutras, every now and then I have always pictured in my mind the Buddha’s miraculous deeds to solidify my conviction. From the encounter with the itinerant monk from the Western Region, I learned about the Buddha Shadow [Image]. However, my informer was vague on this. Later, a meditation master from Kaśmīra, a vinaya monk of the south state, confirmed what I heard on the basis of his own visit to the site. I pressed them more on the matter and found that many miracles had been verified. The divine Way is unfathomable except through its lodging in images. The insight results from prolonged contemplation instead of a momentary impulse. I have thus come to believe firmly in the truthfulness of what I have been told and share the same conviction.34 I have therefore convened a group of like-minded [people], and together we shall broadcast the Buddha’s true flavor. In a worthy effort to spread the joy of inclusionary wholesome practice, we have thus made the picture.  

Sunday, May 27, 2018

On Dong Yang Creek - The Answer in a Moment's Passing

This is an exquisite little poem by Xie Ling Yun, a Chinese poet of the 4th century.  On the one hand, it's a simple folk song that tells the story of an encounter, or non-encounter, between a man and a woman along the banks of the Dong Yang River.  The first verse is sung by the man and the second verse is sung by the woman, which makes it easy to imagine this duet being performed by the 4th century equivalent of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.  But the poem also invites another layer of meaning. Xie Ling Yun was a lifelong practicing Buddhist and the two verses together present a vivid image of life's ephemeral passage on the banks of Dong Yang Creek. 

How lovely on the riverbank
Whose wife do you suppose that is
So karma flows on as she
Washes silken clothes
The bright moon
In the midst of the clouds
Playing hide and seek
Just out of reach

How lovely on the passing barge
Whose husband do you suppose that is
So karma flows on as
He goes downriver
Take note of this feeling
As if it were real
The moon passes
Amidst the clouds waning