Sunday, March 08, 2015

Clouds break over the land, spring light stirs

From a 1996 interview for the Paris Review on the Art of Poetry:
Since we are talking about Chinese poetry I wanted to ask you about the Han Shan translations, Cold Mountain Poems. It is curious because Chinese poetry is so canonical, and Han Shan is not in the canon. I think at the time there were people who thought that you made him up. I wondered how you discovered him?
Gary Snyder:
Well, he is only noncanonical for Europeans and Americans. The Chinese and the Japanese are very fond of Han Shan, and he is widely known in the Far East as an eccentric and as possibly the only Buddhist poet that serious Far Eastern litterateurs would take seriously. They don't like the rest of Buddhist poetry—and for good reason, for the most part.'

Given this (mostly) negative assessment of Buddhist poetry it would be interesting to know what Gary Snyder makes of a recently published anthology, Clouds Thick, Whereabouts Unknown:Poems by Zen Monks of China.  In his introduction Charles Egan says that 'poetry from the monasteries comprises a distinct tradition of rich imagery and profound reflection, spiced liberally with wit and humor.'  His book covers the writings of Chan (Zen) Buddhist priests but also stretches to former monks who were more central to the literary tradition: Jiaoran, Guanxiu, Jia Dao (I'll be using pinyin versions of names here).  A reviewer in the Journal of the American Oriental Society worries that their inclusion makes it hard to see a distinction between 'Chan poetry' and literati poems more generally. He notes that the title of the book is an unusual rendering of the final line of Jia Dao's 'Looking for a Recluse and Not Finding Him', turning one of many poems on this theme in Chinese literature into something that sounds more distinctively Buddhist, a kind of koan.  But even without such literati poems the anthology would interest me for the way it shows the mountain-dwelling monks expressing their religion through landscape.     

Li Cheng, A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks, c. 960
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rather than describe the book as a whole, I will try to convey the atmosphere of its poetry by quoting couplets from seven poems that all have the same title, 'Living in the Mountains'.*    
'Mist rises, separating summit colors;
Rain falls, muting sounds of spring'

'I love pines, and leave the branches
  that hinder other men's way'                                  

'incense from a jade censer
     curls and roils;
water in a stone brook
     burbles and splashes'

'lazily watching white clouds
     rise on jasper peaks;
quietly hearing clear chimes
     fall in murmuring water'

'willow catkins are all flown,
   green shadows merge'

'Clouds break over the land, spring light stirs;
A faint scent of plum blossom, whence does it come?' 

'thinking back on the past,
it seems like madness now.'
Mi Youren, Cloudy mountains, 1130
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, for my own benefit but perhaps of interest to others, here are some notes drawn from Charles Egan's endnotes, forming a brief guide to nature imagery in the anthology.  Some have Chan associations, most would apply more generally to Chinese poetry.
  • Bamboo, pines and plum trees, the 'three friends of winter' were metaphors for 'one who maintains moral principles even in adversity'.
  • Butterflies - a symbol of unreality and uncertainty, from the famous story of Zhuangzi who dreamt he was a butterfly and then, on waking, wondered if he was not really a butterfly dreaming of being Zhuangzi.
  • Chrysanthemums - blooming on into the autumn they became an image of longevity.
  • Cicadas - in Chinese poetry their sound could be optimistic (a symbol of rebirth through the transformation from larva to insect) or mournful, as a sign of autumn.
  • Clouds - might denote the freedom of wandering monks or in other contexts the way that ignorance obscures the true path.  Their shadows symbolised emptiness.
  • Cuckoos - their cry was a sign of separation.
  • Dead trees - no longer subject to change, they symbolised detachment from the world
  • Grass hut - the home of a recluse.
  • Monkeys and gibbons - they conveyed either 'the insatiable curiosity of the uncultivated mind wholly immersed in the world of causation', or the original buddha mind, 'spontaneous and free of time and space'.
  • Peaches - represented immortality; I wrote about the story of the Peach Blossom Spring in an earlier post.
  • Reeds - specifically associated with Chan Buddhism; the First Patriarch Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtze on a reed.
  • Reflections - the illusory nature of reality. In a recent post I mentioned the association in Chinese literature between mirrored pools and the mind.
  • Rivers and streams - crossing them represented the process of enlightenment.
  • Sunflowers - they always face the sun, rather than the wind, just as a Chan practitioner 'should remain focused on the buddha nature'.
  • Vines and lichens - associated with the hermit life.  Descriptions involving the creeping fig (ficus pumila) and bearded lichen (usnea longissima) referred back to the opening lines of 'The Mountain Spirit', one of the 'Nine Songs of Chu'.
  • Waterfalls - traditionally they symbolised dynamism, purity or proximity to the source, but they could also be a rushing torrent of worries preventing enlightenment.
  • White egrets, cranes or stalks - the enlightened mind (the origin of this association is the Daoist immortal Wangzi Qiao who flew on the back of a crane).  The white-on-white of egrets standing in snow was an example of a kind of metaphor showing how different phenomena all ultimately derive from the same Source.
  • White lotus flowers - buddha nature

*  The seven poets:
  • Changda (d. 874), who had 'a purity akin to that of a white heron', wrote eight poems on this theme and lived on Mount Lu
  • Guanxiu (832-912), a famous poet, calligrapher and painter, spent some time in a temple on Mount Shishuang
  • Danxia Zichun (1064-1117), 'of a lofty disposition and stern appearance', was the abbot at various mountain temples
  • Changling Shouzhou (1065-1123), also abbot of several temples and also said to have been stern and severe: 'he gained the nickname Iron Face'
  • Botang Nanya (fl. 12th century), another abbot at different monasteries, he said of this poem: 'True clarity is reflected therein'
  • Hanshan Deqing (1546-1623), a famous Buddhist priest who meditated by a stream on Mount Wutai until he could no longer hear the sounds of spring torrents
  • Yongjue Yuanxian (1578-1657), another eminent priest who was abbot at Mount Gu and later directed charitable relief work during the Manchu invasion.

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