The Clouds Should Know Me by Now - Introduction

Buddhist Poet Monks of China


224 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861711437

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ISBN 9780861719532

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by Andrew Schelling

Gnarled pines, wind-blown clouds, jutting mountain pinnacles, exiled scholars, horses, trailing willows. Moonlight on meandering rivers, fishermen, white cranes and mandarin ducks, the eerie screech of a gibbon, tiny white plum blossoms on twisted branches, a battered wooden boat moored in the distance. For more than a thousand years the poets in this book wandered a landscape that is vast and at the same time intimate, mysterious, and deeply familiar: the same mountain peaks, the same villages, the same river gorges. What makes this landscape feel so much like home? The old poets of China had a way of quickly getting down to elemental things. Using a vocabulary of tangible, ordinary objects, they composed unsentimental poems that seem the precise size of a modest human life—the reflective sadness, the fleeting calm pleasures.

This book is a collection of poetry written by Ch’an Buddhist poet monks (shih-seng), men of enviable literary talent who lived out their years during turbulent times in accord with old Buddha’s precepts. Their work spans 1100 years, from the middle T’ang dynasty to the beginning of the twentieth century. One or two have had a taste of renown in the West, on the basis of a couple of poems, but the rest have gone unheralded. Several were established Buddhist teachers of their own day, the influence of their subtle minds reaching deep, but they had little reputation as poets. Recognition of their literary efforts comes late. Only Chia Tao, the earliest of the poets translated here, did not devote his adult life to Buddhist monasticism. He slipped off the monk’s “robe of patches” in his early thirties to pursue a life of poetry, which he supported with marginal government employment and years of inadequate pay. One lingers over the detail: at the time of his death, his only worldly possessions were a five-string zither and an ailing donkey. Chia Tao stuck by his decision to make poetry a life’s path, but a hint of regret sometimes lifts from his verse.

As Buddhists, these men traveled a great deal. When reading their poems you observe how deliberately they led, as Thoreau would have put it, hyper-ethereal lives—“under the open sky.” It is no accident, then, that a prevalent theme in the poetry is the farewell poem for a comrade, typically situated at daybreak after a night of wine or tea, vivid talk, or silent companionship. These poets spent their days living in and journeying between the numerous Buddhist sites of pre-modern China—village temples, remote points of pilgrimage, monasteries tucked deep within forests, the mountain yogin’s hut in a secluded mossy gulch. The politics of those eleven centuries were shifty and uncertain as well. Scholars, poets, civil servants, Buddhist abbots, and even monks of no reputation were driven from region to region, into exile through windblown mountain passes, or when the regime shifted, summoned up a thundering river gorge to serve in some official capacity.

Mountains, forests, and rivers make up the well-known landscapes of Chinese painting. In the poetry a clipped, selective vocabulary, surprisingly ambiguous in the Chinese originals, merely suggests “what’s out there.” It is up to the reader to fill in the details—tumbling watercourses, looming peaks, twisted mountain strata, lowland pools, deer and wild gibbons, wind-stunted trees. Always alongside the poet, nonhuman creatures move easily in the world of his poem. Deer and wild cranes follow their own tracks, but their travels seem to meaningfully crisscross the poet’s. At times untamed creatures become, with only a touch of irony, profound teachers for the wandering-cloud poets. And by an interesting karmic twist, these various citizens of Chinese verse have in recent decades sensitized American readers to distinct features of our own continent: watersheds, seasonal cycles, animal habits, plant successions, and the like.

Not surprisingly, three of the six translators of the present collection have made their homes in the Pacific Northwest, where the natural world—dark clutching forests, shy owls, concealing mists, abrupt icy pinnacles lit by a fugitive ray of sun—so resembles the setting of a Chinese poem. Across the centuries you can hear Chia Tao asking, “Where is the master? Gathering herbs, off on the mountain, hidden by clouds.”

Beyond a presentation of poems about the natural world, this collection offers possible examples of what in Chinese has been called shih-shu, “rock-and-bark poetry.” In 1703 one of the poets translated here assumed this term for a nom de plume, and craftily hid his identity behind it. It is uncertain how widely the phrase circulated, but shih-shu were colloquially written, mildly irreverent poems, not simply skeptical of city-folk hustle or merely celebratory of reclusive hours spent in savage wilderness settings. Rather than being brushed on silk or paper, shih-shu were written on scraps of bamboo, scratched into bark, on rocks, or pecked into cliff faces. The notorious practitioner of this genre, and maybe the originator of shih-shu, is the poet Han-shan (possibly seventh century), who is known to American readers as Cold Mountain. Translations by R.H. Blyth, Gary Snyder, Red Pine, and Burton Watson have made Han-shan well known in recent decades.

According to Lu-ch’iu Yin, a minor T’ang government official and Buddhist enthusiast, Han-shan’s gatha, or Buddhist verse, were left littered about the forbidding cliff from which he took his name. The Han-shan promontory lies along the T’ien-t’ai range in Chekiang, a strikingly wild country in southern China. Contemporary photographs show cornfields beneath the rock wall, but in Han-shan’s day it was heavily forested land, and local woodcutters or monks occasionally saw the poet disappear into a cave, which in some unsettling accounts would close up behind him.

Unable to coax Han-shan into establishing closer ties to the world of civilized people (Han-shan just giggled, threw things, and ran into the woods) the well-intended Lu-ch’iu Yin sent a troop of men into the mountains to collect what of the scattered poems they could find—about three hundred in total. The legend of ragged Han-shan and his equally eccentric comrade Shih-te became a reference for countless later poets, who saw in their cryptic behavior—as much as in their poetry—a deep Buddhist realization. In the 1960s, California poet Lew Welch, much taken with Chinese scholar poems and the habits of Ch’an hermits, is said to have left the sole copy of one of his poems tacked to a barroom wall in Sausalito.

The karma runs deep. In the late 1980s a group of American poets gathered one spring at Green Gulch Farm’s Zen Center, twenty minutes north of Sausalito, to talk about poetry and Buddhist meditation. It marked the first time such an event had been convened east of the Bering Strait. Open to the public, the gathering hosted the usual cast of characters: blue-jeans bodhisattvas, longhaired yogins, quick-witted yoginis, nautch girls, coyote men, patch-robe monastics, and unemployed scholars. The gathering caught the echo of earlier events,“Ch’an guests and poetry masters,” that by the eighth century had become regular practice in China.

That weekend, in a pond in back of the drafty Green Gulch zendo, a frog sangha held its own convocation—like the gibbons and wild cranes of Chinese verse? Many good remarks were made during the conferences, but one in particular has stuck with me. The poet-priest Norman Fischer, in a very unsensational fashion, said, “Meditation is when you sit down and do nothing. Poetry is when you sit down and do something.” With these sage words, he neatly wiped out centuries of debate—in India, China, and Japan— over whether poetry is a legitimate pursuit for the earnest Buddhist in search of realization.

Yes, meditation and poetry. It is hard to imagine with what sobriety the early Buddhists in India enjoined monks and nuns against literary pursuits. It is equally striking that as late as 817 C.E. the renowned Po Chu-i could write:

Since earnestly studying the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness,
I’ve learned to still all the common states of mind.
Only the devil of poetry I have yet to conquer—
let me come on a bit of scenery and I start my idle droning.

(translation by Burton Watson)

Without doubt, these two distinctly human undertakings, making songs and watching the mind, go inestimably far back into prehistory. Would our contemporary North American consumer culture offer a bemused smile to the notion of a conflict between them? Aspirants watch out! Remember Chia Tao’s zither and old sick donkey! There seems so little time these days, and hopelessly little reward, for practicing either. Yet a not-so-secret, and surprisingly durable, counterculture keeps the two alive, evidently unable to do without either. Often the two get pursued hand in hand, or, as Norman Fischer noted, in nearly the same posture. Luckily, as North Americans, we don’t have to cut back too much growth in order to keep the hall of practice clear. Behind us stand heartening documents from Asia, compiled over the course of several thousand years, to show what others have done.

Over the last few centuries, the poetry movements from Europe, England, and America—such as Romanticism, Symbolism, Pre-Raphaelitism, Futurism, Vorticism, Dada, Surrealism, Mythopoetics, Fluxus, and Language Poetry—have made powerful breaks with the past. Poets need to confront our disordered human realm, its conflicts and anguish, and the work has been heroically done. Yet there’s relief when the poems of old China, steeped in Buddhist or Taoist thought, come forward to point another path through the modern world. Influenced by Buddhist and Taoist views of nature, Chinese poetry (shih) has helped invigorate an American poetry that’s willing to wander away from bustling human settlements. Yet the social impasses and agonies, the stuff of being all-too-human, don’t disappear; they simply move for a moment into the moonlight when the Ch’an masters speak. And a landscape suffused with Buddhist emptiness comes forth.

Poems of friendship, family life, travel; poems with a breath of pine wind. They strike a tone that’s seasoned, deeply and resolutely secular. Honesty, hard luck, good humor, close friends, a taste for simple things, tea, wine, moonlight. From the point of view of Buddhist doctrine, these poems are “invisible.” Philosophical meaning lies hidden in the landscape, behind the trees, out in the mist. Dogma or preachiness would make the poem impudent.

Wang Wei (701–761), a Buddhist practitioner and a careful student of landscapes, established a further quality of much Ch’an poetry: the exclusion of anything grand, sensational, strenuous, or heroic. This is a very particular yogic restraint for the poem, and the discipline leaves us with men (and a few women) that sound like they could be talking to us directly. Certainly they know disorder, war, cruelty, and injustice—their grief is evident. But it’s as though they attempt to rectify all that with a poetry that places little solitary humans in cloud-covered mountains.

Americans of many backgrounds, who not long ago admired and cultivated a lean, resolute character, were hungry for access to these traditions—the bitter tea of Ch’an Buddhism, a poetry with the taste of gnarled wood. After all, how many among us first learned poetry skills by rewriting some old Chinese poem? How many among us got a first taste of Zen by copying a detail out of the life of some Chinese hermit met in a book? Or saw an inkbrush scroll in which a thin stream drops from cloud-piercing pinnacles—then noticed a tiny pavilion, one quiet scholar gazing into the void—all done in a few confidant strokes?

It was only in 1915 that Chinese poetry first reached Western readers of poetry. Working from handwritten notebooks of maverick art historian Ernest Fenollosa, Ezra Pound put together a group of seventeen Chinese poems and called it Cathay. Although the title of the book recalls an era of British gunships and trade companies—“Cathay and the Way Thither”—the collection of poems, mostly translations from T’ang poet Li Po’s work, points forward to a future that would know Asia, not as an overseas continent to be plundered for spice and fiber, but as a homeland to writers of a poetry that reads like a product of our own time. Pound published his book in London, midway through World War I. Many of his close comrades were holding the trenches in France—Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Wyndham Lewis, Richard Aldington, and Ernest Hemingway—and some would be dead, others wounded, before the war was over. It is no surprise, then, that his attention went to poems about war’s human cost: boyish conscripts holding outposts against a formidable enemy, lonely girls who should have had lovers, honest scholars brushed into exile. His book still stands as one of the best. But there was more to Chinese poetry.

Much of it came into translation after the Second World War. Scholars and soldiers who saw action in the Pacific theater brought back with them a bit of Asian culture. Kyoto in the mid-fifties developed a lively expatriate group of poets, translators, Zen students, and scholars. Young writers in the States, spurred to the modern flavor of shih, were able to book cheap passage to Asia by boat, or they journeyed there figuratively by staying home, drinking tea, and getting Chinese ideograms under their belts. One of the influential publications of the time was Gary Snyder’s translation of twenty-four Han-shan poems (1958), which thousands of Americans read. That same year Jack Kerouac’s book The Dharma Bums gave Han-shan and Zen Buddhism the flavor of cultural revolution. “I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution, thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with their rucksacks, going up the mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad…Zen lunatics who go about writing poems.” Ch’an Buddhist poets seemed right up to date.

What was so modern about these old poets? Kenneth Rexroth wrote of Tu Fu (712–770):“Tu Fu comes from a saner, older, more secular culture than Homer, and it is not a new discovery with him that the gods, the abstractions and forces of nature, are frivolous, lewd, vicious, quarrelsome, and cruel, and only men’s steadfastness, love, magnanimity, calmness, and compassion redeem the nightbound world.” He also said, “Tu Fu is not religious at all. But for me his response to the human situation is the only kind of religion likely to outlast this century. ‘Reverence for life,’ it has been called.”

Reverence for life (Sanskrit ahimsa: non-injury, no wanton killing) was a cornerstone of Buddhist practice in India long before a few first sutra literatures took the rugged northeast road into China, influencing Chia Tao and his poetry cohorts. Maybe we’re in a position now to see that this is what’s so compelling in 1500 years of Ch’an poetry. The best poems push no doctrine or dogma, there’s no jingo, no proselytizing. The Buddhism is carefully hidden away in tight five- and seven-syllable lines. (This metric pattern, according to Yunte Huang,“is intimately related to the translations from the Sanskrit Buddhist texts. It was the encounter with an alphabetical language—Sanskrit—that made the Chinese realize for the first time that a Chinese character was pronounced by a combination of vowel and consonant.”)There it lurks—archaic and instantly modern—a reverence for life: one’s own, one’s companions, one’s fellow earth-dwelling creatures.

Ezra Pound compiled a book of Li Po’s verse while young men across Europe were fighting in trenches. It seems he conceived Cathay as an anti-war book, not as propaganda, but as the effort a poet might make in order to shift the way people see things. Why is it that behind the stolid, often melancholy tone of so much Chinese verse—a tone long ago admiringly called “bland, like the taste of withered wood”—modern ears detect an acute comradeship with all forms of life? Nearly as far back as Chinese literature goes arises the term the ten thousand things, Taoist shorthand for the planet’s numberless creatures. “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them,” goes the chant in the zendo. This camaraderie, or instant sense of warm-heartedness, is what makes such a contribution to Buddhist literature, to ecology ethics, and to postmodern poetry.

Chia Tao—
The solitary bird
loves the wood;
your heart also
not of the world.

On my pillow bit by bit waking,
suddenly I hear a single cicada cry—
at that moment I know I have not died.

Pao T’an—
Frosty wind
Raises deep night,
Missing only
A gibbon’s howl.

Han-shan Te-ch’ing—
Who can be a wild deer among
deserted mountains
satisfied with tall grass and pines

my heart is free as the white clouds
body light as a crimson leaf
apes and birds pull me forward

Ching An—
White clouds too know the flavor
of this mountain life

Dogen Zenji, the thirteenth-century Japanese philosopher versed in Ch’an practice, picked up the spirit in his own cranky, mischievous way—

That the self advances and confirms the ten thousand things is called delusion;
That the ten thousand things advance and confirm the self is called enlightenment.

There is good testimony that long familiarity with meditation— months, years, decades—contributes to a person’s clear-headedness, focus, and good humor. Beyond such personal benefits, it’s also possible you become a better citizen. A heightened sense of empathy seems to emerge—one that even crosses the boundaries between nature’s “kingdoms,” human, animal, insect, or plant. Tibetan Buddhists vow to liberate all beings, down to “the last blade of grass.”

Perhaps there was a time when poetry didn’t pay much attention to these things. But if the ecologists are right, we currently dwell in an epoch the future will know as “the great dying.” Edward O. Wilson and other scientists give compelling evidence that we little humans are bringing about the fastest wave of species extinction known in the four-billion-year history of our blue-green planet. Maybe one of the consciousness-shifting tools we humans can use if we hope to turn this around is the poetry left by departed Chinese masters. I expect it will be the poems of invisible Buddhist insight, wrapped in mist or moonlight, and not the poems of an expressly dogmatic or doctrinal character, that will give us the best bearing.

So take a walk with the Ch’an buddha-ancestors, these cranky, melancholy, lonely, mischievous poet-ancestors. Their songs are stout as a pilgrim’s stave or a pair of good shoes and were meant to be taken on the great journey. Even Han-shan Te-ch’ing—who ruined his legs from prolonged zazen and needed someone to carry him to his teapot, his writing table, his gate, or his window—even he wrote poetry that flies with the cranes, crisscrosses slopes with the deer, drifts with the white clouds. If it all seems ordinary to you, well, it should. Whoever said poetry or Buddhism was anything unusual?

March 1998
Boulder, Colorado


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© The Clouds Should Know Me By Now (Wisdom Publications, 1990)

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