Shiwu Mulls Things Over, Wang Wei Goes on a Hike

After yesterday’s holiday excesses, some Classical Chinese poetry seems like just what the doctor ordered. Granted, these verses may not cure your hangover, but a dose of Chan (Zen) sensibility is about as good a counterpoint to the unfolding insanity of Black Friday as anything else I can think of. First, here’s an untitled poem by Shiwu (石屋), a Yuan-dynasty poet and hermit.

Somebody asks me when I first came to live here –
I sit in meditation until the answer comes:
the peachtree my hands planted outside my door
has come to blossom some twenty springs.

Here’s another one, by Wang Wei (王維), hands down my favorite poet in the canon. It’s an example of the classic eight-line, five-character-per-line lushi  (律詩) form and is, I think, the most beautiful piece to appear in the seminal Three Hundred Tang Poems (唐詩三百首) collection. The title, “Passing Xiangji Temple” (過香積寺) refers to a Pure Land sanctuary some fifteen miles from old Chang’an, and the motif of passing-by, of peripheral encounter, suggestively recurs and builds throughout the piece. In fact, it’s unclear from the very first line if Wang Wei actually physically gets to the temple – whether he ‘knew’ or ever got to ‘know’ it remains one of those undecidable things that makes Classical Chinese such evergreen fun to render into English.

I did not know Xiangji Temple.
I moved beneath many li of low clouds
old trees and deer runs
from deep in the mountain, somewhere, the sound of a bell
the muffled call of a swallow from beyond the rocks
the sun’s cold white on the blue pines.
In the evening, at the bend of a mountain stream,
I sit in meditation and tame the poison dragons of mind.

In addition to my own halting versions, you can find these poems and many more like them in various places; I recommend this volume and this one, both put into English by Bill Porter (“Red Pine”), who in addition to being a superlative translator is also just a lovely person and great poet in his own right.

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