Drinking Wine (#5)--Tao Yuanming
I’ve built my house where others dwell
And yet there is no clamor of carriages and horses
You ask me how this is possible-- (And so I say):
When the heart is far, one is transported
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern fence
And serenely I gaze at the southern mountains
At dusk, the mountain air is good
Flocks of flying birds are returning home
In this, there is a great truth
But wanting to explain it, I forget the words (牡丹訳）
A poem to cross a desert with?
He said, the poem is only interesting because the poet had passed the examination system (科挙) and had lived the life of a scholar--but only then, after achieving a high level of accomplishment and cultivation in the world had left it to live in seclusion. That is, it would not have been as interesting if the poet had been born and never left that hut--for this poem is infused with the journey that came before it. It reminded me of something the Japanese monk Yoshida Kenko had written-- that the goal of Zen is to swim out into deep waters with the only real purpose to be finding oneself back up in the shallows again. Back in the shallows but with new vision.
Scattering blossoms, fallen leaves 飛花落葉-- life is change but this idea of gaining new vision is something universally embraced in many cultures as part of the hero's journey, I think. Everything being a matter of the heart → 心持次第.
When I was a young "lady" (I use the term loosely) in Berkeley, I don't even know why-- but I scribbled a poem by Osip Mandelstam on a purple piece of handmade Nepali paper and thought, "this is a poem to cross a desert with."
Depriving me of sea, of a space to run and a space to fly,
And giving my footsteps the brace of a forced land,
What have you gained? The calculation dazzles
But you cannot seize the movements of my lips, their silent sound.
--Osip Mandelstam 1935
I have carred it with me ever since. Whenever I look at it now, I cannot help but wonder what in the world drew me to it when I was still so young and free-spirited...but in fact this poem, and others by the Mandelstams have sustained me in recent years.-- as a testament to the great strength that our inner lives have to sustain us...
In the days before email (!!) my handwriting was so pretty! But times have changed and last night, I scrawled on the back of the aged purple Nepali paper the famous line from Tao Yuanming's poem: 採菊東籬下-- Plucking chrysanthemums by the eastern fence. It is a popular subject for the seals of gentlemen retiring as the phrase alone, I think, sums up perfectly the serenity achieved by a life of cultivation and at the end of the hero's journey. Coming home.
I am re-reading Wei Djao's book about Li Qingzhao, A Blossom like No Other. One of China's greatest poets, I am a huge fan of Lady Li--and not surprisingly, Lady Li took her sobriquet (号:易安) from another line by Tao Yuanming → 倚南窗以寄傲， 审容膝之易安 (Leaning on the southern window, I surrender my pride to nature and in this room scarely big enough to contain my knees, I am easily contented). The line, which is very famous, was taken from an essay by Tao Yuanming (also known as, Tao Qian 陶潛) called "Homecoming" (歸去來兮辭). The essay, written in 404 CE is about the poet's leaving officialdom to "return home" and devote the rest of his life to self-cultivation and the simple life. The essay inspired countless philosophers and poets in China and Japan to turn inward and to never forget that "less is more." Lady Li and her husband Zhao Mingcheng named their own country home, The Return Home Hall 歸來堂 to signify their commitment to living a simple life in harmony with nature.
She also signed her works thus: 易安 "easily contented" and "the inhabitant who is easily contented" 易安居士.
I can really see why some women would want a tattoo. I guess for me, scribbling things on slips of paper that I carry around in my otherwise empty wallet serve the same function. I think the next twenty years, my poem to cross a desert with will be these lines about the simple life by good ol' Tao Yuanming.