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 ?at 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 ?nds 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-signi?c, 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 ?rst 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]