Sunday, August 01, 2010

Lu Mountain's true face

Mount Lu

Lu Mountain (Lu-shan or Hermitage Mountain), at the juncture of the Long River and Lake P'o-yang in China, must be a contender for the most inspirational landscape in literature.  It became established as an important religious centre with the arrival of Hui-yung (332-414), for whom the West-Forest Monastery was rebuilt in 377, and Hui Yüan (334-416) who taught Pure Land Buddhism at the East-Forest Monastery.  The poet T'ao Yüan-ming (365-427), founder of the fields-and-gardens tradition (see my earlier post here) knew Hui Yüan and lived on a farm near the mountain.  Hsieh Ling-yün (385-433), whose mountains-and-rivers poetry I discussed here earlier, was influenced by the teachings of Hui Yüan and wrote about Lu-shan, with its 'jumbled canyons', 'thronging peaks' and 'dragon pools.'

Three hundred years later the T’ang Dynasty poet Meng Hao-jan (689-740) had his own mountain home further west in Hsiang-yang and made Deer-Gate Mountain there famous through his poetry.  But on one of the many journeys he made as an official he wrote about Incense Burner Peak, the most spectacular in the Lu Mountain range, and the distant sound of the bell from East-Forest monastery.  Li Po (701-62) stayed at the monastery and wrote of the silence and emptiness that could be found there away from the city. Climbing towards Incense-Burner Peak, he gazed at the waterfall, three thousand feet high, and wrote a celebrated poem which I have discussed here previously.

Po Chü-i (772-848) composed poems about the mountain and a famous prose account of the thatch hut he built in 817 facing Incense-Burner’s north slope. From this place he could experience 'the blossoms of Brocade Valley' in spring, 'in summer the clouds of Stone Gate Ravine, in autumn the moon over Tiger Creek, in winter the snows on Incense Burner Peak' (trans. Burton Watson). I particularly like his description of the way water was channeled around the hut, with a small waterfall that in twilight and dawn had 'the color of white silk' and at night made 'a sound like jade pendants or a lute or harp'  A bamboo trough led water from a spring in the cliff, across the hall into channels that fell from the eaves to wet the paving, giving 'a steady stream of strung pearls, a gentle mist like rain or dew, dripping down and soaking things or blowing far off in the wind.'

By the Sung Dynasty, the mountain was almost overburdened with poetic tradition.  In An Anthology of Chinese Literature Stephen Owen writes that Su Tung p’o (Su Shi, 1037-1101) resolved to visit the mountain as 'an "innocent traveler", wanting to experience the mountains without writing poems (as a modern tourist might resolve to travel without taking photographs).'  But he was unable to restrain himself and ended up composing several, writing his own reputation into the landscape with perhaps the best known of all the mountain's poems, a quatrain 'Inscribed on the Wall of West Forest Monastery', stating the impossibility of ever knowing Lu Mountain's true face.

1 comment:

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