Once More, on the Empty Mountain

J.P. Seaton

[green_message] Before reading this you may want to read about the Chinese written character here >>> Here we turn to something that I hope is not, in Monty Python’s immortal words, “completely different.”

Wang Wei’s “Deer Park,” written in rows and from left to right, reads:

You’ll immediately notice that you already know several of the characters in the poem, and if you look closely you’ll see that you can also recognize pictographic elements within several others (which must therefore be either ideographs or phonetic-signific compounds). A word-for-word translation goes as follows (a colon denotes the meaning of a given character, and a slash marks the caesura):

Empty: Mountain: / Not: See: Human
But (only): Hear / Human: Language (spoken word): Sound (Echo)
Return: Sun or shadow: / Enter: Deep: Grove
Again: Shine on or reflect on or from: / ch’ing: Moss or lichen:
    On or up

To get a Working prose version of the poem, we have to begin with the understanding that it is a convention of most forms of Chinese lyric poetry that the poem is written by the poet in his own voice, not in a persona, and that for reasons of economy and humility, the first-person pronoun is most often left out. Thus, the first line is not “The empty mountain doesn’t see anyone,” but rather “I, on empty mountain, don’t see humans” or “Empty mountain: (I) don’t see humans.” The construction is paratactical rather than grammatical: that is to say, the mountain, as a topic, is simply juxtaposed to not seeing humans; no grammatical connective is present, and the subject of the sentence is, by convention, left out. With line one properly read, line two is straightforward and easy to under-

Empty mountain: I don’t see humans,
but I hear human language echo.

The ambiguity of the beginning of line three (“Returnz Sun or shadow”) is actually productive only of a truism: when light returns, shadows do too. There may be here an allusion to T’ao Ch’ien or to a locus classicus, one or another of Chuang Tzu’s several playings with form and shadow, but for our purpose, we can let that question lie. The rest of the line certainly seems very straightforward: the subject (light or shadow) enters deep into the grove. It seems worth noting that the central characters in the lines of the central couplet—“human” ( ch) in line two and “enter” (ch) in line three—are mirror images of each other, particularly when you consider the role of reflection and echo in the poem and of reflected images in Buddhist poetry in general. Failing to find a way to reflect this flourish in the translation, I can only offer the following to bring us to the end of the third line:

Empty mountain: I don’t see humans,
but I hear human language echo.
Returning sun enters, deep, the grove