Taoist cosmology and Chinese poetry

[green_message] Although radically different from the Judeo-Christian worldview that has dominated Western culture, this Taoist cosmology represents a world-view that is remarkably familiar to us in the modern Western world Inc doubt part of the reason the poetry feels so contemporary): it is secular, and yet profoundly spiritual; it is thoroughly empirical and basically ac-cords with modern scientific understanding; it is deeply ecological, weaving the human into the “natural world” in the most profound way (indeed, the distinction between human and nature is entirely foreign to it); and it is radically feminist—a primal cosmology oriented around earth’s mysterious generative force and probably deriving from Paleolithic spiritual practices centered on a Great Mother who continuously gives birth to all things in an unending cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

By the time the mature written tradition began around 400 C.E,, Buddhism had migrated from India to China and was well established. Ch’an, the distinctively Chinese form of Buddhism, was emerging in part as a result of mistranslation of Buddhist texts using Taoist terminology and concepts. Chan was essentially a reformulation of the spiritual ecology of early Taoist thought, focusing within that philosophical framework on meditation, which was practiced by virtually all of China’s intellectuals. Such meditation allows us to watch the process of tzu-jan in the form of thought arising from the emptiness and disappearing back into it. In such meditative practice, we see that we are fundamentally separate from the mental processes with which we normally identify, that we are most essentially the very emptiness that watches thought appear and disappear.

Going deeper into meditative practice, once the restless train of thought falls silent, one simply dwells in that undifferentiated emptiness, that generative realm of absence. Self and its constructions of the world dissolve away, and what remains of us is empty consciousness itself, known in Ch’an terminology as “empty mind” or “no-mind.” As absence, empty mind attends to the ten thousand things with mirror-like clarity, and so the act of perception itself becomes a spiritual act: empty mind mirroring the world, leaving its ten thousand things utterly simple, utterly themselves, and utterly suflicient.This spiritual practice is a constant presence in classical Chinese, in its fundamentally pictographic nature. It is also the very fabric of Chinese poetry manifest in its texture of imagistic clarity. In a Chinese poem, the simplest word or image resonates with the whole cosmology of tzujan.

The deep structure of the Taoist/ Ch’an cosmology is shared not only by the poetic language but by consciousness as well. Consciousness, too,
participates as an organic part of the dynamic processes of the cosmos, for thoughts appear and disappear in exactly the same way as presence’s ten thousand things.And the generative emptiness from which thoughts arise is nothing other than absence, the primal source.

Consciousness, cosmos, and language form a unity, and in the remarkably creative act of reading a Chinese poem we participate in this unity, filling in absence with presence, empty mind there at the boundaries of its true, wordless form:

David Hinton
Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)


The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.