Once More, on the Empty Mountain

[green_message] The ?nal line of the poem appears straightforward too, at ?rst. The subject derives, clearly, from the preceding line. The returning sun again shines on, or re?ects back from, the moss or lichen, which is c/fing. Ch’ing is a color term with multiple denotations. It can be any color in the blue-green range of the spectrum, and in poetry it is usually used in the description of mountain scenery and is associated with colors ranging from bright blues and greens to their most muted tones, including black and the “color” of clear water in motion. In other contexts, it may also refer to the brilliant green of spring foliage: a metaphor for youth—the ch’ing nien (green years). Thus, though we might look to the color term to help us  decide whether the penultimate character in the last line denotes moss or lichen, we actually get no help. The outline of the picture is clear: the poet (and by now his reader) is in a deep grove when a shaft of sunlight reenters the grove (at dawn or, following the usual Buddhist interpretation, at‘ dusk). In either case, when the sun appears brie?y below the line of the canopy of the grove, it casts slanting rays around and between the trunks of trees onto the moss or lichen, which is the only thing that will grow in the deep shade. Maybe only those who have seen late light on a tuft of moss know how vibrantly alive a green can be: sunlit gray lichen or reindeer moss is more sun than green.

And does the sun shine “in and on,” or “on and up from”? Logically, it has to shine in before it shines on, and then, of course, it reflects up from, into your eyes, and thence where? Notice that we hear the voice in line two only as an echo. (I wonder if that’s actually possible?) The poem, beginning in the perhaps tranquilizingly vague permanence of the mountain, has come, riding its shaft of light, to rest on a little patch of lichen or moss. But it hasn’t gone straight there, nor has it stopped when it’s arrived.