Li Po: Poet Transcendent

Li Po Chanting a Poem, by Liang K’ai (1140 – 1210)

Yesterday I discussed the ideal of the Taoist sage, who to me is a romantic figure. One of those guys I am very fond of is Li Po (Li Bai) (although he was more a poet than a sage perhaps). He lived in the 8th century, which was the Tang Dynasty, the “golden age” of Chinese poetry, and he was one of its greatest poets.

I will not go into details about Li Po’s life, you can read about it here at Wikipedia. As for his poetry, suffice to say that its essential quality is that old wu-wei: the natural and spontaneous way of “not-doing.”

“Poet Transcendent” (Shih-hsien) was one of Li Po’s nicknames. Another was Ching-lien Chu-shih or “Householder of the Azure Lotus.”

Around 744, Li Po formally became a Taoist, and although he maintained a home in Shandong, he spent much of the next ten years wandering around writing poetry. I ask you, is there anything more romantic, more fanciful than that? It’s what I’d love to do, just roam around, with few possessions, composing poems, checking out mountains, watching the sky . . . but then I’d have no cable and I’d miss out on my favorite TV shows like Dexter and Boardwalk Empire, no Turner Classic Movies, so  . . . maybe not.

Anyway, here are four poems from that period in Li Po’s life I translated* myself:

Viewing Heaven’s-Gate Mountain

The River Chu cuts through Heaven’s-Gate Mountain in the middle.
The green water flows east, swirling when it reaches here.
The blue mountain faces both banks.
A lonely sail is silhouetted by the sun.


Sent to Tu Fu below Shaqiu City
(Tu Fu was a fellow poet)

I’ve finally come here, but why?
High above lies Shaqiu City.
Ancient trees stand at the edge of the city
And the setting sun joins the autumn softness.
Drinking Lu wine does not get me drunk.
Even with Qi’s songs my feelings are empty.
Thinking of you, my thoughts are like the River Wen’s waters,
Strong and deep as they journey south.

Listening to Jun, the Buddhist Monk, Play the Ch’in
(The ch’in is a plucked zither consisting of a narrow box strung with seven silk strings.)

The monk from Shu, lugging his ch’in in a green silk bag
As he walks westward down lofty Omei Peak:
When he plays, I become one with his waving hand.
Listening, it’s as if ten thousand pines were singing,
And flowing water were washing clean my wandering heart.
I enter into the echo of white bells
And when dusk comes, I forget about the blue mountains
And do not take seriously the dark autumn clouds gathering.

Jade Stairs Complaint

White dew on the jade stairs
Invades her gauze stockings.
Yet lowering the crystal curtain
She lifts her gaze to the autumn moon.




[The key to appreciating this last poem is to understand that because the woman in question is a lady of the court, she makes no complaint when her feet get wet going up the staircase. Chinese poetry is very subtle.]


* Back in the day, before I had a computer, I had to find the radical in the Chinese character, then identify the character, and finally look it up in the Chinese dictionary. Took me forever. Now with computers it’s much easier and faster.


Buddhism and Taoism

Tao: The “radical” on the left means “go” or “advance,” indicating movement.

Taoism is a philosophy based on tao (“dao”), or the Way, an ancient Chinese concept expressed in two principle works, Tao te ching (“Book of the Way and Virtue”), attributed to Lao Tzu (fl. 6th century BCE), considered the founder of Taoism, and Chuang Tzu, the words of Master Chuang Tzu.

Taoism and Buddhism have a long history of co-existence and intermingling. Many of the early Buddhists in China were also Taoists, and Taoism exerted a profound and positive influence on Buddhism.

But things got off to a rocky start when Buddhism was first introduced to China. The Taoists resented these newcomers, the Buddhists, coming along with their strange Indian ideas. So, they said, “Well, you know the Buddha is just an emanation of Lao Tzu.” Of course, the Buddhists didn’t feel like they could let the Taoists get away with this, so they got together and decided to push the Buddha’s birth-date back 500 years so that he couldn’t be the emanation of anyone. That’s how the date of 3000 BCE was established. Today, everyone knows better, except the Nichiren and Pure Land schools who are kind of wedded to this notion, since their Buddhisms are based on the Latter Day of The Law, the degenerate age, which in turn is based on this 3000 BCE date.

What is tao? As I wrote above it means the Way, but a precise definition is hard to come by, for as the Tao te ching says,

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

The word tao can also be translated as “path” or “road.” Tao is mysterious, unfathomable, a path to ultimate reality, the force of ultimate reality itself, an abstract concept. Wing-tsit Chan gave as good an explanation as any:

It is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course. When this Tao is possessed by individual things it becomes its character or virtue (te) . . . As the way of life, it denotes simplicity, spontaneity, tranquility, weakness, and most important of all, non-action (wu-wei). But the latter is not meant literally ‘inactivity’ but rather ‘taking no action that is contrary to Nature’ – in other words, letting Nature take its own course.” [1. Wing-tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 1963, 136]

While the idea of a primordial force that is the creator or origin of all things is not entirely consistent with Buddhist thinking, it is not altogether inconsistent either.

Chuang Tzu said that the mind of the sage is the mirror of heaven and earth in which all things are reflected.

In Buddhism, the ideal is that of a buddha or the bodhisattva, while in Taoism it is the sage. “The life of the sage is a transcendent one,” writes Fung Yu-lan. “But to transcend the world does not mean to be divorced from the world, and therefore the Chinese sage is not the kind of sage who is so sublime that he is not concerned about the business of world.” [2. Fung Yu-lan, The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1947, 4]

The sage man is “the great man,” the wise man; part philosopher, part King, part ordinary person. The sage does not outwardly strive for anything, not for enlightenment, not to liberate other beings, yet simply by living in the natural rhythm of life, the sage helps all people dispel their confusions. In some respects, sageliness is comparable to Buddha Nature in that all people have the qualities of a sage within, just waiting to be nurtured.

Emptiness, tranquility, mellowness, quietude, and taking no action are the root of all things . . . One who is in accord with the world is in harmony with all beings. To be in harmony with all beings means happiness and to be in harmony with nature means the happiness of nature.”

Chuang Tzu, The Way of Heaven

Once the Taoists began to accept the presence of Buddhism in China, it attracted their interest. They were particularly intrigued by the doctrine of emptiness (sunyata). From exposure to Buddhist culture, Taoism gradually transformed itself from a sort of freewheeling philosophy into a religion, and it was Buddhism that inspired them to make statues of their important figures. During the 5th century, a movement emerged that attempted to forge a real synthesis between not only Buddhism and Taoism, but also Confucianism. This movement was known as Jen-t’ien-chiao or “Man-Heaven Teachings.”

A Buddhist named T’an-ching (not to be confused with the “Platform Sutra”) in an apocryphal sutra titled T’i-wei Po-li Ching (“The Sutra of Trapusa and Bhallika”) sought to meld the five precepts of Buddhism (panca-sila) with the theory of the five elements of Taoism and the five virtues in Confucianism. The claim for this text is that it supposedly represents a teaching the Buddha gave on the seventh day after his enlightenment to a band of merchants led by Trapusa (T’i-wei) and Bhallika (Po-li). This fabricated sutra had an influence on the Chinese p’an-chiao or sutra classification system in which the periods of the Buddha’s teachings were divided according to content and chronological order. The T’i-wei Po-li Ching was used by a lay convert, Liu Ch’iu (438-495), to separate the Buddha’s teachings into the “sudden” and “gradual” categories.

From the first paragraph of the T’i-wei Po-li Ching, translated by Whalen W. Lai, we get a glimpse at how easily and seamlessly the Chinese were able to blend the doctrines of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism into an organic whole:

When the tathagata attained the Tao under the bodhi tree, for seven days no one knew that he had so attained the highest mystical state (samyak-sambodhi) except for two gentry devotees T’i-wei and Po-li. These two were versed in yin-yang and knew thoroughly the art of tortoise shell divination, the I-ching [Book of Change], and fortune telling. They alone knew that the Buddha had attained enlightenment. Together with the god of the tree, T’i-wei [and Po-li] offered food to the Buddha and so did the four heavenly kings. The Buddha, after eating the food, preached to T’i-wei [and Po-li] the law of rebirth in the various paths of existence.”

There is much more that could be said on this subject, and naturally, the surface can only be scratched in a single blog post. For further reading, particularly with regard to Jen-t’ien-chiao and the T’i-wei Po-li Ching, I recommend Buddhist and Taoist Practice in Medieval Chinese Society, edited by David W. Chappell (University of Hawaii Press, 1987) and Kenneth Ch’en’s Buddhism in China A Historical Survey (Princeton University Press, 1973). There are also many good translations of both the Tao te ching and Chuang Tzu to choose from.



The Tao of St. Augustine

I don’t remember how, but some years ago a musty 1962 paperback edition of The Confessions of St. Augustine came into my possession. While I am not particularly interested in Christian thought, from time to time, I do like to see what these folks have been up to, and I began to read the first chapter. It was quite an experience. Seldom have I encountered writing that displayed such power over language, and despite that much of the phrasing is archaic, and notwithstanding my minimal interest, I found the masterful manner in which Augustine expressed his faith and described his God nearly mesmerizing:

Confessions, Pedro de Ribadeneyra, 1654

What art Thou then, my God? what, but the Lord God? For who is Lord but the Lord? or who is God save our God? Most highest, most good, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful, yet most just; most hidden, yet most present; most beautiful, yet most strong, stable, yet incomprehensible; unchangeable, yet all-changing; never new, never old; all-renewing, and bringing age upon the proud, and they know it not; ever working, ever at rest; still gathering, yet nothing lacking; supporting, filling, and overspreading; creating, nourishing, and maturing; seeking, yet having all things. Thou lovest, without passion; art jealous, without anxiety; repentest, yet grieves not; art angry, yet serene; changest Thy works, Thy purpose unchanged; receivest again what Thou findest, yet didst never lose; never in need, yet rejoicing in gains; never covetous, yet exacting usury. Thou receivest over and above, that Thou mayest owe; and who hath aught that is not Thine? Thou payest debts, owing nothing; remittest debts, losing nothing. And what had I now said, my God, my life, my holy joy? or what saith any man when he speaks of Thee? Yet woe to him that speaketh not, since mute are even the most eloquent.” [1. Edward B. Pusey, trans., The Confessions of St. Augustine, Washington Square Press, Inc., 1962, Book I]

St. Augustine’s poetic prose is compelling, and after the first chapter, I had to read further. In this autobiographical work, St. Augustine tells the story of his humble beginnings on an Algerian farm, his time spent indulging in hedonism, astrology, and thievery, and his eventual embrace of Christianity. Confessions is a searing meditation on spiritual struggle, as Augustine passionately probes his own soul, recounting in unflinching detail his inner turmoil, the battle between doubt and belief:

Thus soul-sick was I, and tormented, accusing myself much more severely than my wont, rolling and turning me in my chain, till that were wholly broken, whereby I now was but just, but still was, held. And Thou, O Lord, pressedst upon me in my inward parts by a severe mercy, redoubling the lashes of fear and shame, lest I should again give way, and not bursting that same slight remaining tie, it should recover strength, and bind me the faster. For I said with myself, “Be it done now, be it done now.” [2. Pusey, Book VIII]

The earliest portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th century fresco, Lateran, Rome.

I bring St. Augustine up today because he was born on November 13th in 354 CE.

There are lines in Confessions that remind me of Lao Tzu. When I read “still gathering, yet nothing lacking; supporting, filling, and overspreading; creating, nourishing, and maturing” from above, I thought of “The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease, creating, yet not working, yet not taking credit.” from Chapter Two of the Tao te ching. [3. Lao Tsu, Gia-Fu Feng, Tao te ching, Vintage Books, 1997]

I find more substantive parallels with Nagarjuna, perhaps Buddhism’s greatest philosopher. In his own way, Augustine argues in favor of a reality of interdependent existence, and, as Christopher Etter, in A Study of Qualitative Non-Pluralism, notes, “Like Nagarjuna, Augustine declares that when placing distinctive definitions on concepts we limit the understanding of the concept . . . However, unlike Nagarjuna, Augustine does not feel it is useless to use terminology, and makes qualitative distinctions on every aspect of his theological model.” [4. Christopher Etter, A Study of Qualitative Non-Pluralism, iUniverse, 2006]

There are also similarities with Shantideva, the Buddhist poet and philosopher from the 8th century:

I completely offer my entire self to the Jinas and their Children. O Supreme Beings, accept me! I reverently devote myself to your service. Being free from fear of mundane existence due to your protection, I shall serve sentient beings; I shall completely transcend my earlier vices, and henceforth I shall sin no more.”

Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life [5. Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace, A guide to the bodhisattva way of life (Bodhicaryavatara) by Santideva, Snow Lion Publications, 1997]

Hear, Lord, my prayer; let not my soul faint under Thy discipline, nor let me faint in confessing unto Thee all Thy mercies, whereby Thou hast drawn me out of all my most evil ways, that Thou mightest become a delight to me above all the allurements which I once pursued; that I may most entirely love Thee, and clasp Thy hand with all my affections, and Thou mayest yet rescue me from every temptation, even unto the end.”

St. Augustine, Confessions [6. Pusey, Book I]

Augustine would probably have been pessimistic about Buddhism or Taoism, if he knew about them. In City of God, he rejects the “blasphemous notion of cyclical returns” merely on the basis that once having endured “this life with all its great calamities,” he finds it impossible to believe that “this is to happen again and again, as it has happened before, endlessly,” [7. Henry Bettenson, trans., St Augustine, City of God, Penguin Classics, 1984] which seems a rather weak argument to me. That is not to say that there is any great compelling argument for the notion of a cycle of birth and death.

At the beginning of Confessions, Augustine says, “Thou madest us for Thyself,” and here is the crux of my disagreement with the Christian notion of faith in God (aside from the fact that there is no evidence to support his or her existence), for even if I did believe in a Supreme Being, I could never accept that he would create us purely for his own satisfaction, or that our only purpose in being is to love him. It is quite ridiculous for anyone to think for a moment that we can even begin to fathom a mind so vast that it could create the universe. But if we must try to conceive this mind, it is logical to assume that it would be utterly devoid of any ego, as well as the other attributes, such as anger and jealousy, that we assign. I imagine (and that’s all I or anyone else can do) that such a being would be completely adverse to the idea of worshiping him. I think God would say, “Don’t love me, love each other. Love this earth, take care of this beautiful place I have given you.” And frankly, the Christian world has spent so much time adulating God and taking care about their faith, that they’ve done a pretty poor job of taking care of each other or this planet. But then, the rest of us haven’t done much better.

In any case, St. Augustine is a writer and thinker that people should know, and appreciate, whether they share his faith or not.



The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows

Many Buddhists are familiar with the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows. Some people seem to have the impression this is an almost exclusively Zen thing, but most of the Japanese traditions recite the Vows, as well as Korean and Chinese schools. In fact, the Vows are thought to have originated with the Chinese master Chih-i during the sixth century. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but apparently there was some form of Bodhisattva Vows in place during Chih-i’s time, although perhaps not as we know them today. It is recorded that a prince of the Ch’en dynasty, Yang Kuang, received from Chih-i the “Bodhisattva Vows” for lay practitioners along with a Buddhist name, Tsung-ch’ih P’u-sa (“Bodhisattva of Absolute Control”) in 591. [1. Denis C. Twitchett, The Cambridge History of China: Volume 3, Sui and T’ang China, 589-906 AD, Part One, Cambridge University Press, 1979]

The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows (Shi gu sei gan) are as follows:

Shu jo mu hen sei gan do
Bon no mu jin sei gan dan
Ho mon mu ryo sei gan gaku
Butsu do mu jo sei gan jo

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to end them all.
The Dharma Gates are infinite; I vow to enter them all.
The Buddha Way is unexcelled; I vow to attain it completely.

The last one is actually a vow to attain “complete, perfect enlightenment (Skt. anuttara samyak sambodhi). It is said that if a bodhisattva does not accomplish the first vow of saving all sentient beings, he or she can never complete the fourth vow of enlightenment. But, how is that possible? How can one save all living beings? In Taking the Path of Zen, the American Zen Buddhist Robert Aitken wrote, “Nobody fulfills these ‘Great Vows for All,’ but we vow to fulfill them as best we can. They are our path.” In other words, it’s doesn’t matter if we are unable to fulfill the Vows, what is important is that we capture the spirit behind them.

We should also keep in mind that from the standpoint of the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness, a bodhisattva does not cling to the idea that there are beings at all, nor that there is anything such as “complete, perfect enlightenment.”

Subhuti, someone who gives rise to the supreme, perfect thought of awakening [annuttara-samyak-sambodhicitta] will resolve thusly: ‘I shall liberate all sentient beings,’ and then having liberated all sentient beings, he understands that in truth, not a single being has been liberated. Why is this? Subhuti, if a bodhisattva has the view of a self, a person, of sentient beings, a soul, then that is not a bodhisattva. And why not? Subhuti, there is no independently existing thing such as the supreme, prefect thought of awakening. Subhuti, what do you think? When the Buddha was with Dipankara Buddha, he had attained supreme, perfect enlightenment [annuttara-samyak-sambodhi]? No.”

– The Buddha in the Diamond Sutra

While there are not as many English variations of the Vows as there are sentient beings, there are quite a few. Perhaps the most interesting one is by Thich Nhat Hanh:

However innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.
However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.
However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to explore them deeply.
However incomparable the mystery of interbeing, I vow to surrender to it freely.

The hidden teaching within Mahayana Buddhism that it is more important to practice the Way of the Bodhisattva than it is to become a Buddha. The Way of the Bodhisattva is the Way of the Buddha. However, people often miss this point and think that enlightenment is the ultimate goal. There is no goal, there is only the path, and it is a path of compassion, and everything in Buddhism leads up to this one simple truth.

In a work attributed to Nagarjuna, The Transcendental Bodhicitta Treatise, it reads:

The essential nature of all Bodhisattvas is a great loving heart, and all living beings constitute the object of their love . . . They are like the beautiful lotus-flower, which rises up from the swamp, its blossoms unsullied by the mud. Their great hearts of compassion, which constitute the essence of their being, never leave suffering creatures behind in their journey. Their spiritual knowledge is in the emptiness of all things, but their work of salvation is never outside the world of suffering.”



Chuang Tzu Goes Fishing

The election is finally over, Barack Obama is headed back to the White House, and the country is headed toward the fiscal cliff. But the good news is that the election is finally over. It’s worth repeating.

I heard something the other night I thought was amusing. Apparently, in 2008, after Barack Obama won his first bid for the presidency, The Onion, which describes itself as “America’s Finest News Source” (it’s really a news satire outfit) ran a headline that read: Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.

Rather prophetic, actually. Obama inherited the biggest mess the country had seen in decades, and the last four years have proved that being President of the United States is often a thankless job.

Which brings to mind a story about Chuang Tzu, the Chinese philosopher.

Chuang Tzu, according to legend, was a minor official for a small town in China during the late 4th century BCE. While he had official duties to perform, like most of the celebrated sages in Chinese lore, he had a rather carefree disposition. He was a follower of the philosophy of the Tao, which teaches the principle of wu-wei, “not-doing,”

As D Howard Smith wrote in The Wisdom of the Taoists, Chuang Tzu “believed that wisdom lay in seeking for it in the inmost of one’s own mind, in a quietude beyond conceptual thought or reasoning . . . This is, perhaps, what he means by “non-activity” or “not-doing” (wu-wei), a spontaneous action without thought of result. Because virtue, happiness and the good life are not to be found by conscious striving . . .”

Because Chuang Tzu’s job entailed only a few duties, he was able to spend much of his time as he pleased. One day, he decided to take the afternoon off and go fishing in the river P’u. He was enjoying himself, minding his own business, when two messengers from the King of Ch’u found him. The messengers prostrated properly, presented Chuang Tzu with gifts, and then delivered the King’s message: “I would like you to come to Ch’u and accept the honorable position of State Administrator.”

Chuang Tzu frowned, bobbed his fishing pole, and said, “It is told that the State of Ch’u has a sacred tortoise that has been dead for over three thousand years. The king supposedly has it wrapped in silk and in a box and placed in a position of honor on his ancestral altar. Now, let me ask, if you were this tortoise, would you prefer to be dead and kept in a box, or would you rather be alive and dragging your tail in the mud?”

One of the messengers replied, “I would rather be alive dragging my tail in the mud.”

Chuang Tzu said, “So would I. Now go away and leave me alone.”

Even though the job of State Administrator was honorable and prestigious, Chuang Tzu preferred the natural life where he was free to follow his own inclinations. But not all people can be free of the world, some must assume the responsibilities of leadership. That’s why Chuang Tzu once said,

One who practices wu-wei does not actualize fame, nor does he see himself as the storehouse of all plans, nor as the owner of all wisdom. Wu-wei makes him fit for the burden of any office and the range of his action has no limit. Therefore, hold fast to all you have received, but do not think that you have gotten anything. Be empty, that is all.”