Cooling Off

by Wang Wei

English version by Willis Barnstone
Original Language Chinese

Clear waters drift through the immensity of a tall forest.
In front of me a huge river mouth
receives the long wind.
Deep ripples hold white sand
and white fish swimming as in a void.
I sprawl on a big rock,
billows nourishing my humble body.
I gargle with water and wash my feet.
A fisherman pauses out on the surf.
So many fish long for bait. I look
only to the east with its lotus leaves.

-- from To Touch the Sky: Poems of Mystical, Spiritual & Metaphysical Light, Translated by Willis Barnstone

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

One way to understand this poem is to read the "clear waters" as the mind when it is still and pure. The mind becomes free from the silt of projections, it becomes clear, empty, the "void" in which the fish swim.

The sand and the fish are white, hinting at the golden-white radiance often perceived in meditative ecstasy.

He "gargles" with water, suggesting the sense of drinking or swallowing a pure substance -- the celestial drink. And he washes his feet, the foundation of awareness, in the purity of this "water."

"So many fish long for bait." The fish, here, are the remnants of darting thoughts. They long for "bait," to be fed with constant attention, the busyness of the discursive mind. But the "fisherman," the meditator, simply pauses, watching them without feeding them.

Wang Wei looks to the east, the direction of the rising sun and spiritual illumination, where the "lotus leaves" of the awakened consciousness open.



Recommended Books: Wang Wei

The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library) To Touch the Sky: Poems of Mystical, Spiritual & Metaphysical Light Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry Three Chinese Poets: Translations of Poems by Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911





Cooling Off