Mar 30 2008

Meeting The Mountain: Taoist Poetry & True Intimacy

Published by at 10:07 am under Books,Other Voices,Poetry

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):

Matsuo Basho, Matsuo Basho poetry, Buddhist poetry

“Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must let go of your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and don’t learn. Your poetry arises by itself when you and the object have become one, when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden light glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling isn’t natural — if you and the object are separate — then your poetry isn’t true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.”

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.”

Dogen, Dogen poetry, Buddhist poetry And echoes of this same idea are heard here in Soto Zen Master Dogen’s Genjokoan (translated by Stephen Mitchell):

“To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To be enlightened by all things is to drop off the mind-body of oneself and others. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues forever.”

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 …

Li Po, Li Po poetry, Taoist poetry The birds have vanished into the sky,
and now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me
until only the mountain remains.

~ 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.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Meeting The Mountain: Taoist Poetry & True Intimacy”

  1. Silvine Farnellon 31 Mar 2008 at 3:20 am

    Art and Intimacy, by Ellen Dissanayake, explores the origins of poetry from the point of view of an evolutionary psychologist who sees the roots of connectedness as deeper in our ancestral past than most scientists realize.

    If you loved this entry (and I did), you might love this book.

    Also, if you haven't seen the video of the neuroanatomist who woke up during a stroke, the sight of her dancing her new knowledge of our oneness with the energy that is the world is priceless–

    TED | Talks | Jill Bolte Taylor: My stroke of insight (video)

  2. Ivan M. Grangeron 31 Mar 2008 at 3:29 am


    I just finished watching the video — a fascinating talk! I particularly liked her combination of personal experience and scientific perspective. Personally, I'd rather discover that "la la land" through meditation than through the method she used, though. 😉

    – Ivan

  3. Janon 31 Mar 2008 at 9:07 am

    Ivan and Silvine, I've just finished reading Jill Bolte Taylor's book–"My Stroke of Insight." It illuminates her talk even more. I put quotes on my blog if you want to look:

    Sorry that I'm not so computer literate as to be able to make a hyperlink.

  4. the art of waron 10 Jan 2010 at 9:25 pm

    the art of war…

    …He wrote that . . ….

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