Wang: The birds fly away
into infinite space:
Over the whole mountain
returns the splendour of autumn.
Ascending and descending
unbounded bewilderment and lamentation.
P’ei: The sun sets,
The wind rises among the pines.
there is a little dew upon the grass.
The reflection of the clouds
falls into the tracks of my shoes,
The blue of the mountains
touches my clothes.
Vital contemplations course through the simple words of Hua-Tzu Hill, spoken as poetic dialogue between the two friends, Wang and P’ei. To taste the kindness in these words is to enjoy fresh tea in the company of immortals. Wang Wei was a poet, painter and statesman of T’ang dynasty China, and P’ei Ti was his friend, a younger man, also a poet and student of the classics. A sparse discourse in poems and letters survives them, revealing a subtle appreciation of nature as well as an investigation of reality that is somehow both intense and effortless.
Wang’s opening is modest and profound. Not wasting time with small talk, he gestures directly to the heart of things: “The birds fly away into infinite space.” When we look with honest eyes, each perception, each thought, each moment, each life, vanishes without a trace. Peering deeply within, looking intently without—all that we perceive is already gone. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote, “Good, bad, happy, sad—all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.” It is, perhaps, so lonely. Infinite space gives us nothing to hang onto, nowhere to find our home.
Nevertheless, we see and feel. This empty world is beautiful, full of energy and color, like the overwhelming “splendour of autumn.” And yet, touching this co-emergent truth, empty and luminous, does not simply bring us ease and joy. We have been nurturing our story of self for so long, grasping after the slippery narrative of ordinary life’s loves and hates, losses and gains. Finding ourselves here, at the sword edge of wisdom, we feel like a gutted fish. We walk up and down the hill of daily life. We wake up and get dressed, we go to work, we eat, we go to sleep, yet there is no center, no fringe—only ghastly nothingness that devours everything. In this life to be ignorant is to suffer, to awaken is to be alone. Beautiful yet terrifying, flowing from an empty heart—unbounded bewilderment and lamentation. How trusting of Wang to share these feelings.
Now P’ei walks a perilous path. His gentle friend is not challenging him. Yet only a genuine master, or a true human being, could answer Wang’s words. Like Vimalakirti, Wang has already invoked the very nature of wisdom-emptiness and wisdom-luminosity. He can’t be pushed or pulled, yet we must go further. How to climb higher from the top of a 100-foot pole? P’ei brings him lovingly back down to earth. Leaving behind even the scent of philosophy, he expresses now: the sun setting, the wind among the pines, this walk home, the dew upon the grass. We can search the earth for sublime teachings, but we only come home in the ordinary magic of now. In this very illusion, in this very life, in this very moment, there is an undeniable goodness. This goodness is just so—beyond words. It disrupts concepts, flowing into the space of true perception. It is ephemeral as the reflection of the clouds, yet right here, in our footprints. When we touch that goodness, or allow ourselves to be touched, we feel our totality and inseparability, like the gentle caress of the blue mountains.
Poem translation by C.J. Chen and Michael Bullock
Painting: “Night Mountain,” acrylic on silk. 2006 by Yeachin Tsai. ©Yeachin Tsai.