Mar 18 2013
The birds have vanished into the sky
by Li Po
English version by Sam Hamill
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.
— from Endless River: Li Po and Tu Fu: A Friendship in Poetry, Translated by Sam Hamill
/ Photo by FelineShadowDancer /
We can read a lot into this poem, or very little.
One way to read Li Po’s poem is that the birds are like chattering thoughts. They represent the movement within the mind. But thoughts can soar so high, reach such elevated levels, that they vanish in the sky of mind.
The clouds might be understood as obstructions of awareness, limiting the perception of the untainted vast sky-mind. And, with the birds, clouds too “drain away” in deep stillness.
(Yet, even when clouds are thick and heavy, even when birds flit about in their busyness, the sky itself, original mind, contains it all and remains pure and untainted beyond the obstructions.)
The mountain is that which is eternal, fixed, both rooted in the earth and touching the heavens. Watching this “mountain” of eternal presence long enough, in deep stillness you find that you are nowhere to be seen. You are surprised to discover that everything you reflexively called “me” was never really there in the first place, and “only the mountain remains.” The “mountain” is finally recognized as your true Self, your only self, eternal. Effortlessly, you bridge heaven and earth by your very nature. And only That remains.
You can ignore all of that, and just step into the landscape.
Li Po (also transliterated as Li Pai or Li Bai) was raised in Szechwan in western China. He traveled widely throughout China in his life.
In his 40s, he was appointed to a high academy position by the emperor in recognition of his work, but he was later exiled for political reasons. He then worked in the service of a southern prince who rose up in rebellion. When that prince lost his struggle, Li Po was exiled a second time, but eventually pardoned.
Li Po’s poetry is particularly known for its elegance. It suggests a certain serene poise in relationship to the world and the quiet mind observing it.