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 of Buddhist China 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 poets of China, many of them Ch’an practitioners, 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.
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-aethereal 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. Over the several millennia of recorded Chinese history, political and military events have been 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, recalled up a thundering river gorge to serve in some official capacity, often memorializing the journeys in poems.
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, non-human creatures move easily in the world of his poem. Deer and wild cranes m
Immortals’ Mountain with Pavilions, Wen Jian (1501-1583), hanging scroll, ink and light colors on paper. Courtesy of University of California at Berkeley Art Museum, California.
ay 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. 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 have taken up residence in our own thoughts, artwork, and poems.
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