POEM: SUDDEN FOG

by contemplativeinquiry

Setting out at dawn, I gaze at the distant mountains;

I can count the peaks in the clear air.

But the budding hope in my heart

arouses the jealousy of the Mountain Spirit.

Swiftly he exhibits his divine powers

in a startling display of transformation.

He fills the air with cotton clouds

then tears them into sheds of silken mist.

They enfold the earth from everywhere

and hide the sky from view.

The sun, like a plate of rose quartz,

hangs at a height beyond calculation –

it shines down through the haze, red beams penetrating the white fog.

In the fog are human forms

coming and going in great confusion.

Each of them is holding some implement

but I cannot see clearly what they are.

Next, as if this weren’t strange enough,

there appear even stranger sights:

a roadway lined with pearl-studded banners;

mountains covered with trees of jasper.

A golden bridge arching across the sky;

a jade pagoda surging up from the earth.

But while I stare in astonishment

everything is suddenly swept away.

Amazed, I rub my eyes,

and finding myself standing on the same old mountain road.

Who can say if this was fantasy or reality,

whether I was dreaming of awake?

Once I travelled to Mountain Omei in my imagination

And laughed at Buddha for deceiving the ignorant.

Laugh at deception and be deceived –

Then Buddha will have the last laugh.

From Yang Wan-li Heaven my Blanket: Earth my Pillow: Poems from Sung Dynasty China New York & Tokyo: Weatherall, 1975 (Translated and introduced by Jonathan Chaves)

According to our reckoning Yang Wan-li lived from 1127-1206. Mount Omei in the western province of Szechwan was a holy place for Buddhist devotees, particularly associated with the bodhisattva P’u-hsien, or Samantabhadra, to give his Sanskrit name.

Of this poem the translator says: “Yang may have been influenced by Ch’an Buddhism” (i.e. a purist, philosophical kind, parent of Japanese Zen) “in his discussion of poetry and his perception of the world, but ‘Sudden Fog’ refers to a different kind of Buddhism, a popular, devotional religion in which the devotee can hope to experience visions of his favourite Buddha or bodhisattva. Certain mountains in China were associated with these apparitions, and Buddhists would make pilgrimages to them seeking visions or mystical experiences.