Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Stop Chasing After So Many Things": Ryokan And Wang Wei

When I am in need of a sense of perspective, I often turn to the poetry of Ryokan (1758-1831) or Wang Wei (c. 701-761).  Ryokan was a Zen monk who lived much of his life in a hut in the wooded hills near the coast of the Sea of Japan.  (Present-day Niigata Prefecture.)  He is one of the most beloved of Japanese poets, valued for his humility, his simplicity, and his integrity.

My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe;
When the moon comes out I read Buddhist poems.
I have nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.

John Stevens (translator), One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan (1977). 

        John Nash, "Cornfield at Wiston-by-Nayland, Suffolk" (c. 1932)

Wang Wei was one of the four great poets of the Chinese T'ang Dynasty.  (The others are Po Chu-i, Li Po, and Tu Fu.)  He was also an artist and a musician.  Like most of the T'ang poets, he served as a government official.  He was a devout Buddhist, and this is reflected in his poetry.  This may explain the affinities between his poetry and that of Ryokan.

     In Answer to Vice-Magistrate Zhang

Late in my life I only care for quiet.
A million pressing tasks, I let them go.
I look at myself; I have no long range plans.
To go back to the forest is all I know.
Pine breeze:  I ease my belt.  Hill moon:  I strum
My lute.  You ask -- but I can say no more
About success or failure than the song
The fisherman sings, which comes to the deep shore.

Vikram Seth (translator), Three Chinese Poets (1992).

               John Nash, "Cop (Kop) Hill, Princes Risborough" (1919)


Fred said...

My favorite Chinese poet is Han Shan or Cold Mountain. His real identity is unknown. Some textual evidence in the poems suggest the eighth century.

Since I came to Cold Mountain
how many thousand years have passed
accepting my fate I fled to the woods
to dwell and gaze in freedom
no one visits the cliffs
forever hidden by clouds
soft grass serves as a mattress
my quilt is the dark blue sky
a boulder makes a fine pillow
Heaven and Earth can crumble and change

The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
trans. Red Pine
Copper Canyon Press

ImageNations said...

Beautiful selections and I am glad that I passed by today. I am thinking of a lot of things: job security, future, searching for a new job etc... and they are driving me crazy... and I am ill too.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: thanks for visiting again, and for the poem by Han Shan. I haven't read the translations by Red Pine, but I'll have to track a copy down. I have read the translations by Burton Watson and Gary Snyder, and I agree with you that Han Shan's poetry is wonderful. I should have mentioned him in the post. He is helpful in bringing perspective to things as well.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Fredua-Agyeman: thank you very much for visiting again, and for the kind words. I hope that things go well for you, and that you are feeling better. Poetry can provide solace at times -- "a momentary stay against confusion," in Robert Frost's famous phrase.

Thank you for stopping by. I wish you the best.

Mary F. C. Pratt said...


Stephen Pentz said...

Mary F. C. Pratt: as always, thank you for dropping by.