Mar 30 2008
Not surprisingly, the poetry of the Taoist tradition is steeped in Taoism’s core values: a close observation and deep honoring of the rhythms of the natural world; a delight in simplicity, play and paradox; and a child-like wonder which has discovered the human form to be the meeting-place of Heaven and Earth.
The poems offered by Taoist practitioners ~ hermits, yogis, priests, farmers, wandering rascals ~ tend to be short rather than long. They often begin with an image from the natural world, encountered “nakedly” and relayed to us ~ the reader ~ in a way that preserves the freshness and spontaneity of that ordinary magical moment. There is ease and simplicity, which allows for great subtlety, and a kind of intimacy difficult to describe.
In The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters, Tony Barnstone and Chang Ping have given us an English translation of three classic Chinese works on the art of poetry: Lu Ji’s The Art of Writing, Sikung Tu’s The Twenty-four Styles of Poetry, and Poet’s Jade Splinters, edited by Wei Qingzhi. The latter ~ Poet’s Jade Splinters ~ is a Song dynasty collection of writing aphorisms, and represents a genre known as shi hua or “poetry talk.”
|The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters
by Tony Barnstone / Chang Ping
Included in this collection (p. 61) is the following exploration of “some lines by Tao Yuanming”:
Some Lines by Tao Yuanming
Gathering chrysanthemum by the east fence
My lazy eyes meet South Mountain
Su Dongpo says that those who don’t comprehend poetry want to change these lines by Tao Yuanming, turning the word “meet” into “watch.” This is trading jade for garbage. Bai Juyi tried to emulate Tao’s lines like so:
Occasionally I pour a cup of wine,
Sitting and watching Southeast Mountain.
I think this is a very poor imitation. *
– from Notes from Fu’s Study
To this, Barnstone & Chou Ping add the following annotation:
* Tao Yuanming’s famous lines are cherished for the way they suggest the joining of the poet with nature through the lack of active looking: the poet encounters the mountain naturally as he looks up, as if running into a friend. Bai Juyi, on the other hand, is actively watching his mountain; this suggests a distance from nature.
Within Tao Yuanming’s lines ~ as within the nested series of comments ~ we find a kind of intimacy born of a “joining with” ones “object” ~ a dissolution of the dualistic subject/object mode of perceiving. This same idea is expressed by Japanese haiku Master Matsuo Basho (translated by Stephen Mitchell):
When I first read this beautiful passage, it brought to mind these verses (chapter 3: 4-5) from the Hindu sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (translation/commentary by Swami Savitripriya):
“These three practices — Concentration, Meditation and Samadhi — when practiced together in sequence, one after the other — are called the practice of Becoming the Object. This threefold practice enables you to enter into the underlying subtle field of matter which composes the object you are observing in order to enter into non-dual oneness with it, because the only way to truly know an object is to become the object. This is the aim of this psychology.
As you master this threefold practice, and become united in non-dual oneness with the sum total of the Divine Consciousness and Love which has become the form of the world, a new Enlightened Intelligence and Wisdom — which can only be attained through a direct personal experience of Transcendental Truth — will illumine your mind, and destroy the darkness of ignorance.”
And echoes of this same idea are heard here in Soto Zen Master Dogen’s Genjokoan (translated by Stephen Mitchell):
Again and again within Taoist poetry we find expressed the kind of “true intimacy” pointed to by Dogen, Patanjali and Basho: an intimacy which “knows its object” by “becoming the object,” by dissolving or at least softening egoic-self long enough to enter fully into the world of that Being (a tree, a flower, a mountain shrouded in mist) whose essence is to become a poem. For these poets, the act of writing is not unlike a kind of love-making, whose offspring are gems of mystical realization: poems like sage-kings, clothed in such humble garments (a yogi’s cotton dhoti, the petals of a chrysanthemum) that the less attentive might overlook completely their hidden greatness …
The birds have vanished into the sky,
and now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me
~ Li Po (translated by Sam Hamill)
Elizabeth is a practitioner of the Taoist arts of acupuncture, tuina, qigong and poetry. Her first collection of poems ~ And Now The Story Lives Inside You (WovenWord Press) ~ was published in 2005.