by Li Bai

English version by Arthur Waley
Original Language Chinese

I sat drinking and did not notice the dusk,
Till falling petals filled the folds of my dress.
Drunken I rose and walked to the moonlit stream;
The birds were gone, and men also few.

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

These few lines by the Chinese poet Li Po say a great deal. On one level, he has given us a drowsy moment of tipsy solitude at dusk. But if that's all you read in these words, you will miss much of the poem.

This poem evokes several key metaphors that occur again and again in sacred poetry.

The ecstatic state is often accompanied by a sense of drinking a heavenly, sweet liquid. This is the wine of the Sufis, the ambrosia of the Greeks, the amrita of the Hindus. Taoists and Buddhist masters also talk of this.

Drinking this subtle liquid warms the heart until it opens fully in a giddy joy that can hardly be described. Sometimes the flow of ecstacy through the body can be so strong that the mystic trembles or falls unconscious. The state is often mistaken by casual onlookers as actual drunkenness.

When Li Po says he "sat drinking and did not notice the dusk," he is telling us he was so entranced with the bliss he was experiencing that he hardly noticed the mind's gradual disappearance.

In that drunken dusk, "falling petals filled the folds of my dress." Flower blossoms are especially used in Buddhist writings to represent the natural opening of awareness, the awakening of Buddha-mind. To say that those petals "filled the folds of my dress," is to recognize that living awareness as present in every part of oneself, in every hidden corner of the body and empty space of the mind.

In his ecstatic drunkenness, Li Po "walked to the moonlit stream." Moon, especially in the Far East, represents individual enlightenment. The "moonlit stream" is pure awareness as it flows within the individual.

To say the "birds were gone, and men also few" is to say that everything is silent. The mind is free from chatter and projections, free from even the illusion of its own existence. In this sacred space, his blissful oneness was undisturbed.

Recommended Books: Li Bai

The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library) Endless River: Li Po and Tu Fu: A Friendship in Poetry Li Pai: 200 Selected Poems A Feast of Lanterns
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