PASSING SHAOLIN HERMITAGE – TO FRIENDS IN THE CAPITAL
I reined in my horse below a pine ridge
and hiked to the lookout on top
the trail appeared impassable as I started out
but once I arrived I wished it were longer
from the summit I heard a chorus of winds
in the woods I bathed in a secluded stream
the sound of a bell roused me on the Way
the evening chime cleared the clouds and mist
though my visit was brief
I finally saw what caused my troubles
but when I thought about building a hut
I knew it would have to wait for old age.
From In Such Hard Times: the Poetry of Wei Ying-Wu translated by Red Pine, Port Townsend: WA, USA: Copper Canyon Press, 2009
Wei Ying-wu was a poet of the later 8th century CE, as we count time. It was a period when the later-remembered-as-glorious T’ang dynasty had begun to unravel. Translator Red Pine says that “Wei lived his life wondering what went wrong”, giving a melancholy tinge to many of his poems. He was distantly related to the Imperial family, a scholar in both the Buddhist and Confucian traditions who spent many years as a state official without much enjoying it.
This poem was written in 771. (In Britain, that’s 22 years before the Viking sack of the Christian monastery at Lindisfarne.) Shaolin Temple was built in the fifth century for a monk from India in a high mountain basin at the foot of Sungshan’s Shaoshih Peak. The trail from the temple to the top went right by the cave where Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan (Japanese Zen) Buddhism spent nine years in meditation.
The chime to which Wei refers was used in Chan monasteries to mark the end of a meditation period. The use of the term ‘the Way’ (Tao) wasn’t confined to Taoists – ‘Tao’ was also used by Confucians, and by Buddhists as a translation of Sanskrit ‘Dharma’. The last two lines of the poem show a tension between Wei’s Buddhist and Confucian trainings – whether to let go of worldly attachments, or whether to stay in his post and “wait for old age” before building his hut.