Once More, on the Empty Mountain

[green_message] Zen teaches by pointing. Broad and flat on top and sharply pointed in the last line, Wang Wei’s “Deer Park” is the point of an arrow. Vague, even unknowable, the mountain of permanence is an abstraction. There is no humanity in the flat top of the triangular form of the poem. When the poem narrows, you can hear human speech there, if only as an echo of itself, recognizable as language, but saying nothing. When enlightenment finds the deep grove, it comes as the sun strikes the simplest concrete thing: a single spot of life.

However many times and in however many different versions you’ve seen this poem before, I hope what I’ve done will give you some indication of the audacity of its translators. That the best of them have largely succeeded in the impossible is attested to by the popularity of the piece in  English, and by the thoughtful readings that it has been given by those who have only read it in English.

Furthermore, the poet has a few other tricks up his sleeve. The word for “echo,” at the end of line two, consists of two elements: underneath, a musical tone (anciently, “a man singing,” (ch);) and on top, “countryside” (ch), a word with extremely positive connotations in Chinese. The character is a phonetic-signific, with the countryside element providing the pronunciation. Yet when we read the character as if it were an ideograph, we gain a connotative level of meaning. The echo of language is not heard well enough to carry even the illusion of meaning, but for Wang Wei it was a positive element. With a little humility, humans may hear their own tongues on the level of birdsong: as simple notes in the complex music of the outdoors.

The first character in the last line, the adverb for a repetition, is also the name of hexagram number twenty-four in the Confucian classic the I Ching. The fact that the characters are independent of sound means that they can maintain their meanings even as change takes place in the spoken language. Wang Wei lived a thousand years or more after the text of the I Ching had taken form, but though he certainly used the character we now pronounce “fu” to mean “again,” he was also unquestionably very familiar with the I Ching interpretation. The meaning of hexagram twenty—four is a central one in Taoism and in traditional Chinese culture as a whole, where it is part of the term fu gu, often wrongly translated by Western historians and interpreters of Chinese culture as “going back to the ways of the Ancients.” Actually, it means something like “starting over,” “from the beginning,” or simply “beginning again.” Zen mind: beginner’s mind? [/green_message]

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.