Summer in the Mountains

From Chuang Tzu:

mountains-b1bWandering on the sunny side of Yin Mountain, T’ien Ken came to the banks of the Liao River and met a Man with No Name.  He asked this man, “Could you tell me how to govern the world?”

The Man with No Name said, “Get away from me, peasant! What kind of stupid question is that! I’m busy doing nothing.  You have a lot of nerve coming along with this talk of governing the world and disturbing my mind.”

But T’ien Ken asked his question a second time.

The Man with No Name replied,

“Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, and follow along with things the way they are.  Rest only in inaction.  Relax your body, expel your intelligence, release both body and mind, and all things will return to their root.  Then the world will be governed.”

By “inaction” the nameless man is referring to wu-wei, which means not to struggle with things, to find a more natural way, to let your spirit flow like a gentle summer breeze.

Li Po, the Chinese poet from the 8th century, like Chuang Tze before him, liked to portray himself as lazy.  More than likely it was partly true, but I suspect the representation was also used as a metaphor, as in this poem, “Summer Day in the Mountains”:

Too lazy to wave a white feather fan,
sitting stripped to the waist in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a overhanging rock;
the wind through the pine-trees brushes my bare head.

Happy Summer, y’all.  Have fun, and remember to take it easy.

– – – – – – – – – –

Chuang Tzu and Li Po adapted from translations by Burton Watson, Arthur Waley and D. Howard Smith


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.


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.


Poems of the “Banished Immortal”

My own translation of some poems by Li Po, or Li Bai (701 – 762), one of China’s greatest poets.

David Hinton in The Selected Poems of Li Po writes, “He is called the ‘Banished Immortal,’ an exiled spirit moving through this world with an unearthly ease and freedom from attachment. But at the same time, he belongs to the earth in the most profound way . . .”

This is one of his best known poems:

Green Mountain Conversation

If you ask me why I live in these emerald mountains,
with a tranquil mind, I will only smile.
Deep in mystery, peach blossoms move with the flowing stream.
Here is another universe, far beyond the world of people.

The ch-in in this next poem is a stringed instrument like a zither with seven strings.

Poets would chant their poems to the accompaniment of the  ch’in.

Li Po was often inspired by music, and a jug of wine.

Listening to Jun, the Buddhist Monk, Play the Ch’in

The monk from Shu, hugging his green silk, walking 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.
My wandering heart is washed clean by his flowing music.
I hear the echo of a temple’s white bells.
When dusk comes, I forget about the blue mountains
and do not take seriously the dark autumn clouds gathering.

The following poem is based on the story of a young wife whose husband left her alone while he lived with his mistress in another town. In Chinese mythology, crows are associated with the sun.

Crows Crying at Twilight

Yellow clouds, and crows near the tower
fly away and then return to sit on the branches and cry caw caw!
The Qin river girl weaves a brocade at a loom; her green yarn is like mist.
When through the window she hears the crying,
she stops her work, disheartened, recalling a faraway person.
She will spend the night in a lonely room, with her tears falling like rain.