So ha-ha-ho-ha-ha

John Blofeld [tooltip content= “The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, Red Pine, (Copper Canyon Press 2000)”] [source][/tooltip]

The Tao of the mountain poet

…for the Tao is most easily found when laughter comes spontaneously and one is comfortably realized. Strain, tension, solemnity will blind you to its lovely radiance.

As to the nature of the Tao sought by Cold Mountain and his fellows, probably each mountain man had his individual concept. The numberless shades of meaning of this word fall into two broad categories. In one sense, the Tao is the originator, container, substance, and goal of the universe- thus nothing lies apart from it. Shapeless, invisible, intangible, it is the creator, substance, and being of a myriad transient forms, of which you and I are two, Mount Kanchenjunga forms a third, the garden dung-heap a fourth, the moon a fifth, and so on. The Tao seeks no praise, no worship. The Tao is. In another sense, the Tao is the path one follows in order to be transfused by the inimitable perfection which realization of the goal bestows. Moreover, since there are many kinds of sentient beings at various levels of understanding, the Tao comprises different paths, some long, some short. All lead eventually to the goal.

What goal? Blissful consciousness of perfect identity with the sublime Tao. From this consciousness flows such harmony between reality (the Tao) and its transient manifestation (say, you or me) that henceforth one can act with pure spontaneity in dealing with all life’s exigencies, like a tree bending towards the sunlight. Fear and anxiety vanish; for, in an ultimate sense, nothing can ever go wrong. Light and dark, up and down, health and sickness, life and death are all part of the interplay of transient phenomena whereby the Tao manifests the Tao. Your birth added nothing to it. My death will take nothing from it. Nor, in fact, are birth and death valid concepts, except in a wholly relative sense; for, since every atom of my body, mind, personality, etc., is the Tao, nothing came into being at my birth, nothing will cease to be when I die. So ha-ha-ho-ha-ha! Having realized what I really am, I can face all that may come with laughing equanimity, never sure that a change for the so-called worse (including death, ha-ha-ha) will not turn out to be a change for the so-called better. If it does not turn out that way, that’s fine too, for a realized Taoist is too wise to take opposites such as better or worse at all seriously. I am soon to become an emperor-ha-ha-ha-ha! I am destined to be a lousy beggar – ha-ha-ha-ha! It’s all a game. Any part will suit me fine. You are going to give me a thirty-two course (plus side dishes) Chinese banquet? Thanks, I’ll enjoy that. We have only a bowl or two of inferior-quality boiled rice for dinner? That will go down very nicely. We have nothing on which to dine? Splendid, we shall have more time to sit outside and enjoy the moonlight, with music provided by the wind in the pines.

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.