The Clouds Should Know Me by Now - Selections

Buddhist Poet Monks of China


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Chia Tao (779 –843)
Translations by Mike O’Connor


Chia Tao was a buddhist poet of the Middle T’ang dynasty. Born into an impoverished family near today’s Beijing, he became a Ch’an (Zen) monk early in his youth, with the religious name Wupen. While scant biographical detail of his monastic days exists, his official biography does note that upon arriving at the Eastern Capital, Lo-yang, Chia Tao wrote a poem protesting a curfew forbidding monks to go out after noon. The poem caught the sympathetic eye of the eminent Confucian poet Han Yu (768–824) and led to the latter becoming Chia Tao’s poetry mentor.

A more famous account—a literary anecdote—describes the meeting of the poets this way: Chia Tao, while riding a donkey on the way to the marketplace, was deeply absorbed in trying to choose between two words, push (t’ui) and knock (ch’iao) in the line “Under the moon, a monk [knocks at, or pushes] the gate.” Reciting the line over and over, Chia Tao became oblivious of his surroundings and collided with a sedan chair carrying Han Yu. Han Yu, waving off apologies from Chia Tao, became interested in his poetic impasse, and immediately opted for the word “knock.” The compound “push-knock (t’ui-ch’iao)” thereafter became the traditional term to describe, not only Chia Tao’s assiduousness of craft, but any poet’s exacting labor to find the mot juste, or to make careful stylistic distinctions.

What is known factually is that Chia Tao, at about age thirty-one, abandoned monasticism to devote himself to a secular life of poetry, supported by subsistence civil service. He was encouraged in this by a circle of prominent poets, including Han Yu, Meng Chiao (751–814) and Chang Chi (ca. 776–ca. 829).The group was based in the political and literary capital Ch’ang-an, modern Xi’an, the largest city in the world at the time and Chia Tao’s principal home until his “banishment” late in life to provincial posts—an apparent victim of slander.

Although he left the Buddhist order, his heart never really left the world of “ mountains and clouds”—the secluded communities of religious adepts who were dedicated to some form of the Way (Tao), and whose practices collectively brought forth one of the great religious ages. Though his poems reveal that he chided himself for not being more deeply realized, it may be that his sense of limitation in this regard only enhanced his admiration of those who were.

As a poet with a monk’s background, he was welcome at temples and hermitages alike. He was, in fact, given the literary name Lang-hsien ,Wandering Immortal, and his poems record his sojourns among not only the religious elements—clerics, poet monks, and hermits—but among the lay community of literati as well.

If Chia Tao’s search for Buddhist enlightenment was an unfulfilled one, so too was his search for a significant civil-service position. In fact, it is not clear that he ever passed the examination and received his chin-shih degree. In his mature years, his deepest quest was for poetic mastery and, related to this, in finding chih-yin, people who understood and appreciated his poetry—a time-honored quest in Chinese literary history.

Chia Tao writes a quietistic poem that features nothing more dramatic than a parting, a viewing of landscape, thoughts of a distant friend, or a stay overnight. Atmosphere, or mood, in many instances, is what the poem is most about. His lyrical work at its purest has the beauty of inhospitable, or remote, mountains; yet when speaking to themes of friendship, Chia Tao’s human empathy is the measure of the peaks. The edge of sorrow running through his poems was honed in part by his chronic poverty, but it rarely gives way to bitterness or self-pity.

Though the poet does not overtly preach the Dharma, his life and training as a monk naturally influenced his artistic temperament: the poems are spare, technically hard-won (t’ui-ch’iao), and morally serious. In his early discursive poems, probably influenced by Han Yu, Confucian values surface as well.

As with the poet monks, Chia Tao’s poems are filled with the imagery of remote temples and stone chimes, looming peaks and wind-twisted pines. But with Chia Tao, as with Wang Wei (701–761) before him, Buddhism is largely internalized; its expression is aesthetic, not philosophical.

Some of Chia Tao’s contemporaries and literary descendants found his poems inclined to pessimism, and the poet Su Tung-p’o (1037–1101) wrote critically that Chia Tao’s work was “lean” and Meng Chiao’s “cold.” Meng Chiao, upon first encountering the tall, imposing figure of the younger Chia Tao, even called him “a lean monk lying in ice”—and this from an old poet who himself was a poverty-saddled recluse!

Chia Tao’s extant poems number four hundred and four. Of these, the “Farewell Poem” is most widely represented, accounting for nearly one hundred. As scholars have pointed out, this poetic subcategory resonated deeply with Chinese of the T’ang era, owing to the huge distances of China, the rudimentary transportation, and the strong ties of friendship and family. For Chia Tao, a poem on the theme of farewell was, at least ritualistically, a gift to the traveler, as well as a means for the poet to ease his own sadness of separation.

His favored poetic form was the lu-shih, or the regulated form of the eight-line verse. In this form each line contains either five or seven characters, obeys rules for rhyme, and has verbal and tonal parallelisms. Tu Fu’s (712–770) achievement in this form was a standard for poets such as Chia Tao, who came on the scene after the High T’ang period. Chia Tao refined the form and took certain liberties with it, thereby gaining many disciples in the Late T’ang and beyond.

The poet died in humble circumstances. His only known possessions were an ailing donkey and a five-string zither. He was survived by his wife, but no children. Still, ChiaTao never anticipated worldly rewards. He attained a high degree of poetic excellence that has earned his poetry grateful readers down to the present.And in the course of his arduous life, he had the consolation of enjoying the friendship of the leading scholars, poets, and sages of his time. As Chia Tao put it, writing on the occasion of a visit from his friend Yung T’ao:

Not having to be alone
is happiness;
we do not talk
of failure or success.

Winter Night Farewell

At first light, you ride
swiftly over the village bridge;

Plum blossoms fall
on the stream and unmelted snow.

With the days short and the weather cold,
it’s sad to see a guest depart;

The Ch’u Mountains are boundless,
and the road, remote.

Memento on the Departure of a Friend from Yeh,
Last Day of the Second Moon

In flowering willows,
we rein in our horses;
at parting, we are free
to drink all the wine we desire.

But the winds of spring
sweep slowly north;
clouds and wild geese
do not fly south.

dawns the first—
already the third
month of the year!

Touch whip to lean horse and go
into the colors of dusk;
mist is rising
on far peaks.

Morning Travel

Rising early
to begin the journey;
not a sound
from the chickens next door.

Beneath the lamp,
I part from the innkeeper;
on the road, my skinny horse
moves through the dark.

Slipping on stones
newly frosted,
threading through woods,
we scare up birds roosting.

After a bell tolls
far in the mountains,
the colors of daybreak
gradually clear.

Poetic Minds Complete the Greater Elegance: The Nine Monks and Chih Yuan, Poet Monks of Early Sung China
(Late tenth century)
Translations by Paul Hansen


In the early decades of the Sung dynasty, nine Buddhist monks from widely separate areas in China, attracted by their mutual interest in poetry, sent poems back and forth, visited one another for small poetry gatherings, played music together, and probably traveled in one another’s company. Some of them were acquainted with notable officials and hermits of the times, for we find mention of K’ou Chun and poems addressed to Ting Wei, Ch’ung Fang, Lin Pu, and Wei Yeh. Beyond those interested in the poetry of monks, only one of the circle, Hui Ch’ung, achieved recognition for his small landscape paintings.

Very early in the eleventh century a selection of their poems was made, called Poems of the Nine Monks, although the poet monks themselves may never have used that collective name. The Poems of the Nine Monks, a small volume of 135 poems, was already hard to find a few decades after the monks vanished from the scene around 1010. It experienced a precarious existence for several hundred years until it was reprinted in 1787 and reprinted again in the great collections of this century.

Beyond their very general areas of origin, what we know about the monks themselves is only what their poems tell us. Though aspects of the Late T’ang style, in which they crafted their work, were already being discarded for something new in poetry, the poems of these monks remain crisp and well crafted. Indeed their diction, in the tradition of hermit poets, is appropriately “rugged,” i.e., the word order is challenging, unusual, and potentially ambiguous. However, I feel it is their ultimate literary attainment that in their accomplished poetry these monks offer intense and nondogmatic insights into moments of Buddhist life from the perspective of those traditionally central to it.

We do know something more about Chih Yuan. A native of Hangzhou, he was born in 976 and became an apprentice-monk at the age of seven, when he “left home” (a Buddhist term meaning to leave the secular life and enter the order of monks and nuns) at the Lung-hsing Monastery in that city. In his youth he made notable progress in his study and application of the teachings of the T’ien-t’ai School of Chinese Buddhism. Later he was abbot of Mao-nao Monastery on Ku-shan Island in West Lake, just outside the city. There, he and the cultivated Taoist hermit Lin Pu became friends and probably exchanged poems, though none of the latter’s poems to Chih Yuan remain today.

Chih Yuan was well read in traditional Chinese philosophy and literature as well as the scriptures of Buddhism, and many poems in his collection arose from his extra-canonical studies. Other than Buddhist practice, study, and writing poetry, he actively pursued his duties as abbot of Mao-nao Monastery and made a number of improvements there. In 1022, after gathering his disciples together and composing a final Buddhist verse for them, the noted abbot passed away. Like the work of his colleagues the Nine Monks, Chih Yuan’s collection of poems experienced vicissitudes and has not been independently preserved; the remainder, though, a collection of eleven chuan, is in the Japanese Continuation of the Tripitika, and, like that of the Nine Monks, has been reprinted in the Complete Sung Poetry.

The ability of these monks in poetry led to their being called poetry monks, a term some might employ in a disparaging sense. Yet from earliest times spontaneous verses have always been a part of the Buddhist tradition. The stanza concluding the Diamond Sutra offers a superb example:

As stars, a fault of vision, as a lamp,
A mock show, dew drops, or a bubble,

A dream, a lightning flash, or cloud
So should one view what is conditioned

In a tradition of spiritual poetry and at a great distance of time and culture it is frequently these immediate revelations of language that bring the experiences of earlier Buddhists, august and humble, to us most vividly today: the other-worldly truths of the Diamond Sutra, or a monk washing his clothes.As the Monk Wei Feng points out in defense of the art for Buddhists:

Minds complete
The Greater Elegance. The intent
Of the patriarchs employs every method.

I would like to take the pleasurable opportunity to thank all those who helped me with this project.The late Professor Hellmut Wilhelm, who first pointed out the work of the Nine Monks to me; Professor Maureen Robertson, Bill Porter, and Michael O’Connor, who have seen parts of the present work at various stages; Sam and Sally Green, who published an earlier selection of my translations from the Nine Monks; Paul Hunter, whose shared insights made significant improvements on the final draft; and my wife Jennifer Clarke, for her constant help and warm support in these curious efforts.

Broken Tablets

A slice
Of precious stone
The pressing cold has split.
In the fallen script
I see broken bugs.

At a distance
On the hill’s grass edge, or half-revealed
In an icy stream, deeds writ down, how
Could the people exist? Years
Melted away, their affairs
Already empty.

I only hear
Cypress on the wrecked
Mound mourn together,
As the grieving wind Rises.

Hsi Chou


to Huai Ku

You’ve hid out
Around T’iao-yin, where Chinese
And Ch’iang cook-smoke

Gets deeper, the border
Day shortens, wind stronger,
The dawn piping long. Wooded terrain
Splits around a single rampart,
The river current rises
On a distant steppe.

Far off
I know the traveler
Who visited our grove
Chants hard-wrought poems,
Forgot with Zen
At night.

Hsi Chou


Farewell to Wei Feng,
Going to Far-South Mountain

Inside the Pass
The freeze, arriving early,
Half-withers South Mountain’s
Myriad trees.

In long space,
Human prospects are extreme.
Alone, as snow drifts up, you watch
The distance.The work of Quiet Breathing
Precludes fellow hermits. Chanting idle
Rhymes, you neglect to carry

Moon pressing tight,
Remembrance rises
In the night.

Hsi Chou


Early Spring
at the Capital,
Sent to the Honorable Kuan

A wanderer’s mind
Constantly recalls seclusion.
Early this morning I got
Your invitation.

Our date
To watch the Moon
Has problems. A quiet visit
To discuss the mountains is far off.
On a distant road scant sunlight
Grows. By midnight
The final snow
Will fall.

Sitting, I see
The willows by Blue Gate,
Soft-softly sprout again
New sprigs.

Hsi Chou


Autumn Path

Fir, bamboo,
And pure shade merge.
As I stroll, the mind
Has inclinations.

A chill
Springs up just
When rain has passed.
As stillness stretches out, monks
Suddenly return. Bug tracks wind
Into obscure holes. Moss
Traces connect broken
Eave corners.

My thoughts
Turn to a place
Of deep reclusion,
Down from the summit
Ridge after ridge.

Pao Hsien


on the Wall
at Master Wei Feng’s

The grassy path
Leads to a deep cloister.
Arriving in Autumn
Eases my heart
Even more.

In town
No one I’ve known long.
Outside the gate, another mountain.
Exploring the silence gives poetic
Thought birth. Fasting
Confers a sick look.

On freezing nights
You arrange to meet me often:
Silent talk beyond
Human space.

Pao Hsien


How to cite this document:
© The Clouds Should Know Me By Now (Wisdom Publications, 1990)

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