Feb 28 2018

Yuan Mei – Climbing the Mountain

Published by at 9:52 am under Poetry

Climbing the Mountain
by Yuan Mei

English version by J. P. Seaton

I burned incense, swept the earth, and waited
                  for a poem to come…

Then I laughed, and climbed the mountain,
                  leaning on my staff.

How I’d love to be a master
                  of the blue sky’s art:

see how many sprigs of snow-white cloud
                  he’s brushed in so far today.

— from I Don’t Bow to Buddhas: Selected Poems of Yuan Mei, Translated by J. P. Seaton


/ Image by serenity-temptations /

I burned incense, swept the earth, and waited
                  for a poem to come…

I think any artist can relate to this opening line. We have our rituals, half prayerful, half desperate, seeking to draw forth that intangible spark of inspiration.

And what is it we seek really? One more poem, one more compelling scene for our novel in progress, a new variation on a classic melody, just the right angle for our subject in charcoal? While important, those are details, not the art itself, not that intangible something we are really fishing for in the quiet tense moments before creation.

What we’re really seeking is a feeling, a sense of budding life and purpose behind the technique of our creation. It is not craft we seek, but the unnamed animating spirit that will bless our craft, bring it to life, and awaken something in everyone touched by this new creation.

But art itself can be a trap. At its best, it is a magical act, a shamanic endeavor that transforms and heals society, bringing forth new possibilities within the human spirit. But art can also be a bellows for the ego, a way to reinforce one’s self-importance and place in the world. Too often art starts to point back to the artist’s own face.

Then I laughed, and climbed the mountain,
                  leaning on my staff.

In such moments, perhaps it is best to step back from the busy work of one more creation and remember to widen our scope in order to restore perspective. Any human act of creation, no matter how filled with life and magic, can never match the artistry writ large in the world all around us.

How I’d love to be a master
                  of the blue sky’s art:

If we only recognize that spark when captured by a human hand, we have lost a vital connection to the greater reality.

We must regularly return to the pool of wonder itself, found most naturally where the human being is incidental. We must remember to recognize the real art everywhere present, unsigned, just the artist’s hidden smile.

That is where the real communication is happening. Where you and I are not the authors, but stand instead as quiet witnesses, that is where the most profound transformation occurs. That is the real magical encounter.

see how many sprigs of snow-white cloud
                  he’s brushed in so far today.

Restored, we then return to our own actions and creations as a modest reflection of the great artist’s work. Our work in the world becomes a form of participation rather than self-aggrandizement.


Recommended Books: Yuan Mei

The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library) A Drifting Boat: Chinese Zen Poetry I Don’t Bow to Buddhas: Selected Poems of Yuan Mei Yuan Mei: Eighteenth Century Chinese Poet Censored by Confucius: Ghost Stories of Yuan Mei


Yuan Mei, Yuan Mei poetry, Buddhist poetry Yuan Mei

China (1716 – 1798) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan
Taoist

Yuan Mei was born in Hangchow, Chekiang during the Qing dynasty. As a boy, he was a talented student who earned his basic degree at the age of eleven. He received the highest academic degree at 23 and then went on to advanced studies. But Yuan Mei failed in his studies of the Manchu language, which limited his future government career.

Like many of the great Chinese poets, Yuan Mei exhibited many talents, working as a government official, teacher, writer, and painter.

He eventually left public office and retired with his family to a private estate named “The Garden of Contentment.” In addition to teaching, he made a generous living writing funerary inscriptions. Among other things, he also collected local ghost stories and published them. And he was an advocate of women’s education.

He traveled quite a bit and soon gained the reputation as the pre-eminent poet of his time. His poetry is deeply engaged with Chan (Zen) and Taoist themes of presence, meditation, and the natural world. As biographer Arthur Whaley notes, Yuan Mei’s poetry “even at its lightest always had an undertone of deep feeling and at its saddest may at any moment light a sudden spark of fun.”

More poetry by Yuan Mei

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Yuan Mei – Climbing the Mountain”

  1. Annaon 28 Feb 2018 at 2:37 pm

    We all are masters of
    the blue art’s sky:

    we created new

    snow-white clouds,
    new white Sun,
    even New Earth…

    Aren’t we? 🙂

    Do you see them,
    Do you feel them?

    Look carefully at the sky!
    There are some very unusual,
    not ordinary, steam clouds…

    “The pool of wonder”, as you said…

    I was smiling reading your comment:

    “We must regularly return to the pool of wonder itself, found most naturally where the human being is incidental. We must remember to recognize the real art everywhere present, unsigned, just the artist’s hidden smile.”

    …and remembered a famous Chinese philosopher Chuang Chou saying:

    “Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.”

    (As translated by Lin Yutang)

    So, who we really are?:)

  2. Carol Burnson 01 Mar 2018 at 5:11 am

    Thank You Ivan,

    Beautiful poem and beautiful expanded commentary. Blessings, Carol

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