New Year’s Observance by Su Shi

Su Shi (1037-1101) of the Song Dynasty was well-known for his political essays, travel writings, calligraphy, and poetry. During his life, he became somewhat of a celebrity, famous for his mastery of Chinese literary forms, and then infamous for his criticism of the government. Today, it is as a poet that he is most renown. About 2700 of his poems have been preserved.

He was also called Dongpo (“Eastern Slope”), the name he took from the farm where he resided after being banished for “great irreverence” (da bujing), meaning he was seditious. There, he practiced Buddhist meditation, studied dharma and adopted many Buddhist views, most notably, an abhorrence for taking life. However, it is difficult to pin him down as any particular type of Buddhist. As Ronald C. Egan, in Word, image, and deed in the life of Su Shi, notes

In Northern Song times, ‘Buddhism’ was terribly diffuse, and faith and practice among laymen were not necessarily bound to a particular school or lineage. Su Shi called himself a “lay Buddhist” (jushi), but he left no single identification of his location on the bewildering plain of Song-dynasty Buddhism.”

He did inspire a Buddhist parable, which goes like this:

Once Su Shi was visiting a Buddhist monk, who was also a friend. He asked the monk how he regarded him (Su Shi). The monk responded by saying, “You are a Buddha to me.”

Naturally, Su Shi was pleased to hear this. The monk then asked Su Shi how he regarded him (the monk). And Su Shi said, “To me, you are dung.”

The monk smiled and this made Su Shi even happier as he felt that he was superior to the monk. In fact, Su Shi was so delighted with this conversation that several days later he told the story to another friend, only this friend didn’t find the story so pleasing.

“The monk regards you as a Buddha because he regards all living things as a Buddha,” he said. “He has the eyes of a Buddha and the heart of a Buddha, but because you see all things as dung, you regard the monk as dung. So, you have eyes of dung and a heart of dung!”

Okay, maybe not the greatest parable in the world, so let’s move on to some poetry. Here is something that fits the season. This is my own translation/interpretation of Su Shi’s poem:

New Year’s Observance

The end of the year is fast approaching,
Like a snake going into a hole
Already half of its long scales have disappeared,
And who can stop it from going and leaving not a trace behind?
If we should wish to hold its tail,
Even with diligent effort, it would be to no avail.
Children try to stay awake,
And together, we observe the night with noisy cheer.
Afterward, the chickens do not cry at the dawn,
The drums are restrained and beat no further.  
We sit for a long while by the lamp as the ashes die down,
Then rise to see the plough slanting to the north.
Can it be that next year will be my dark year?
I worry and fear that I waste time.
Therefore, I strive to experience each day and evening to the utmost
While I can boast of a little time still left.


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