Clouds Should Know Me By Now
Buddhist Poet Monks of China
By the same author
The voices of 14 eminent Chinese poet monks whose works span 12 centuries (AD 700-1900) are here presented both in the original Chinese and English translation. The collection includes 136 poems and is divided into 6 sections with translators' introductions to each poet and his work.
It includes the works of Chia Tao, Ch`i-Chi, Chih Yuan, Han Shan Te-ching, Shih-shu, and Ching-An.
"So take a walk with these cranky, melancholy, lonely, msichievous poet-ancestors. Their songs are stout as a pilgrim`s stave or a pair of good shoes and were meant to be taken on the great journey."Andrew Schelling.
"These Zen monks, writing between the T`ang Dynasty and the early 20th century, and until now virtually unknown in the West, are among the exemplars of one of the world`s richest and most influential literary traditions. The poems, translated by some of the most knowledgeable and talented scholars anywhere, are luminous and elegant in their simplicity, resonating with the wisdom of sages. This is an indispensible book." Sam Hamill.
Read an extract of this title
GNARLED PINES, wind-blown clouds, jutting mountain pinnacles, exiled scholars, horses, trailing willows. Moonlight on meandering rivers, fishermen, white cranes and mandarin ducks, the eerie screech of a gibbon, tiny white plum blossoms on twisted branches, a battered wooden boat moored in the distance. For more than a thousand years the poets in this book wandered a landscape that is vast and at the same time intimate, mysterious, and deeply familiar: the same mountain peaks, the same villages, the same river gorges. What makes this landscape feel so much like home? The old poets of China had a way of quickly getting down to elemental things. Using a vocabulary of tangible, ordinary objects, they composed unsentimental poems that seem the precise size of a modest human life-the reflective sadness, the fleeting calm pleasures.
This book is a collection of poetry written by Ch'an Buddhist poet monks, men of enviable literary talent who lived out their years during turbulent times in accord with old Buddha's precepts. Their work spans 1100 years, from the middle T'ang dynasty to the beginning of the twentieth century. One or two have had a taste of renown in the West, on the basis of a couple of poems, but the rest have gone unheralded. Several were established Buddhist teachers of their own day, the influence of their subtle minds reaching deep, but they had little reputation as poets. Recognition of their literary efforts comes late. Only Chia Tao, the earliest of the poets translated here, did not devote his adult life to Buddhist monasticism. He slipped off the monk's "robe of patches" in his early thirties to pursue a life of poetry, which he supported with marginal government employment and years of inadequate pay. One lingers over the detail: at the time of his death, his only worldly possessions were a five-string zither and an ailing donkey. Chia Tao stuck by his decision to make poetry a life is path, but a hint of regret sometimes lifts from his verse.
As Buddhists, these men traveled a great deal. When reading their poems you observe how deliberately they led, as Thoreau would have put it, hyper-ethereal lives-"under the open sky?' It is no accident, then, that a prevalent theme in the poetry is the farewell poem for a comrade, typically situated at daybreak after a night of wine or tea, vivid talk, or silent companionship. These poets spent their days living in and journeying between the numerous Buddhist sites of pre-modern China-village temples, remote points of pilgrimage, monasteries tucked deep within forests, the mountain yogins hut in a secluded mossy gulch. The politics of those eleven centuries were shifty and uncertain as well. Scholars, poets, civil servants, Buddhist abbots, and even monks of no reputation were driven from region to region, into exile through windblown mountain passes, or when the regime shifted, recalled up a thundering river gorge to serve in some official capacity.
Mountains, forests, and rivers make up the well-known landscapes of Chinese painting. In the poetry a clipped, selective vocabulary, surprisingly ambiguous in the Chinese originals, merely suggests "what's out there:' It is up to the reader to fill in the details -tumbling watercourses, looming peaks, twisted mountain strata, lowland pools, deer and wild gibbons, wind-stunted trees. Always alongside the poet, nonhuman creatures move easily in the world of his poem. Deer and wild cranes follow their own tracks, hut their travels seem to meaningfully crisscross the poet's. At times untamed creatures become, with only a touch of irony profound teachers for the wandering-cloud poets. And by an interesting karmic twist, these various citizens of Chinese verse have in recent decades sensitized American readers to distinct features of our own continent: watersheds, seasonal cycles, animal habits, plant successions, and the like.
Not surprisingly three of the six translators of the present collection have made their homes in the Pacific Northwest, where the natural world-dark clutching forests, shy owls, concealing mists, abrupt icy pinnacles lit by a fugitive ray of sun-so resembles the setting of a Chinese poem. Across the centuries you can hear Chia Tao asking, "Where is the master? Gathering herbs, off on the mountain, hidden by clouds?'
Beyond a presentation of poems about the natural world, this collection offers possible examples of what in Chinese has been called "rock-and-bark poetry?' In 1703 one of the poets translated here assumed this term for a nom de plume, and craftily hid his identity behind it. It is uncertain how widely the phrase circulated, but shih-shu, were colloquially written, mildly irreverent poems, not simply skeptical of city-folk hustle or merely celebratory of reclusive hours spent in savage wilderness settings. Rather than being brushed on silk or paper, shili-shu were written on scraps of bamboo, scratched into bark, on rocks, or pecked into cliff faces. The notorious practitioner of this genre, and maybe the originator of shih-shu, is the poet Han-shari (possibly seventh century), who is known to American readers as Cold Mountain. Translations by R.H. Blyth, Gary Snyder, Red Pine, and Burton Watson have made Han-shan well known in recent decades.
According to Lu-ch'iu Yin, a minor T'ang government official and Buddhist enthusiast, Han-shan's gatha, or Buddhist verse, were left littered about the forbidding cliff from which he took his name. The Han-shan promontory lies along the T'ien-t'ai range in Chekiang. a strikingly wild country in southern China. Contemporary photographs show cornfields beneath the rock wall, but in Han-shan's day it was heavily forested land, and local woodcutters or monks occasionally saw the poet disappear into a cave, which in some unsettling accounts would close up behind him.
Unable to coax Han-shan into establishing closer ties to the world of civilized people (Han-shan just giggled, threw things, and ran into the woods) the well-intended Lu-ch'iu Yin sent a troop of men into the mountains to collect what of the scattered poems they could find-about three hundred in total. The legend of ragged Han-shan and his equally eccentric comrade Shih-te became a reference for countless later poets, who saw in their cryptic behavior-as much as in their poetry-a deep Buddhist realization. In the 1990s, California poet Lew Welch, much taken with Chinese scholar poems and the habits of Ch'an hermits, is said to have left the sole copy of one of his poems tacked to a barroom wall in Sausalito.
The karma runs deep. In the late 1980s a group of American poets gathered one spring at Green Gulch Farm's Zen Center, twenty minutes north of Sausalito, to talk about poetry and Buddhist meditation. It marked the first time such an event had been convened east of the Bering Strait. Open to the public, the gathering hosted the usual cast of characters: blue-jeans bodhisattvas, long-haired yogins, quick-witted yoginis, nautch girls, coyote men, patch-robe monastics, and unemployed scholars. The gathering caught the echo of earlier events, "Ch'an guests and poetry masters," that by the eighth century had become regular practice in China.
That 'weekend, in a pond in back of the drafty Green Gulch zendo, a frog sangha held its own convocation-like the gibbons and wild cranes of Chinese verse? Many good remarks were made during the conferences, but one in particular has stuck with rue. The poet-priest Norman Fischer, in a very unsensational fashion, said, "Meditation is when you sit down and do nothing. Poetry is when you sit down and do something? 'With these sage words, he neatly wiped out centuries of debate-in India, China, and Japan- over whether poetry is a legitimate pursuit for the earnest Buddhist in search of realization.
Yes, meditation and poetry, It is hard to imagine with what sobriety the early Buddhists in India enjoined monks and nuns against literary pursuits. It is equally striking that as late as 817 c.e. the renowned Po Chu-i could write:
Since earnestly studying the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness,
I've learned to still all the common states of mind.
Only the devil of poetry I have yet to conquer- let me come on a bit of scenery and I start my idle droning.
(translation by Burton Watson)
Without doubt, these two distinctly human undertakings, making songs and watching the mind, go inestimably far back into prehistory. Would our contemporary North American consumer culture offer a bemused smile to the notion of a conflict between them? Aspirants watch out! Remember Chia Tao's zither and old sick donkey! There seems so little time these days, and hopelessly little reward, for practicing either. Yet a not-so-secret, and surprisingly durable, counterculture keeps the two alive, evidently unable to do without either. Often the two get pursued hand in hand, or, as Norman Fischer noted, in nearly the same posture. Luckily as North Americans, we don't have to cut back too much growth in order to keep the hall of practice clear. Behind us stand heartening documents from Asia, compiled over the course of several thousand years, to show what others have done.
Chia Tao and translated by Mike O'Connor
O'Connor, Mike and Johnson, Steven
Burger, Edward and produced by Chad Pankewitz