Poem By A Chinese Sage

In my little hut

within the mountains

my life is quiet and simple.

 

The sound of the passing stream

softens the day

and by night it lulls

and soothes me to sleep.

 

Beside the stream

the rocks squat like buddhas,

like stony frogs

and, tall in the mist,

the stern pines stand guard,

dark sentinels.

 

Above my hut

rises The Great Peak.

Like an island

it floats in a sea of mist,

pressing the heavens.

 

One day I must go there.

But not yet.

My time has not come.

 

I write this poem

in the 60th year of my life,

sitting beneath the bulk

of that great buddha mountain.

 

I write with bamboo brush

on scroll,

using ink I grind myself

mixed with water from the clear stream.

 

I no longer seek to achieve or impress

in the world of men

and my needs now are few:

 

A little rice and greens and bean curd,

tea by day and rice wine by night

to lift and soothe my spirits.

 

Old tales and verse to read

and my gosan to play on,

plucking its notes to blend

with the music of wind and water.

 

Sitting quietly

I study the ways of insects

and see how light plays

upon leaves and grasses.

 

Sometimes I hear a dark wind

that blows from the north

and I shiver with fear.

 

But the great buddha mountain

is there to reassure me.

When it is time

I shall take the trail to the high peak

and lay myself down

and there release my spirit

to the floating clouds.

 

Let the high rains then

wash the world’s dust from my flesh

and may crows and vultures

pick clean my bones

for by then I will have done

with this tattered cloak of a body

 

and my spirit may fly free

at last

with the dragons of air.    

Note   This poem is in a sense a pastiche. It mimics many poems in translation from the Chinese and the Japanese. It references the Oriental tradition of the Scholar Poet or the Zen Sage. It was sometimes the case that men who had lived active lives in the public world would go into retreat as they approached old age, to live a simple life devoted to meditation, poetry and preparation for death. In the case of Zen Poets this might be an elective state much earlier in their lives, a deliberate opting out of the whirl of the world in order to achieve buddhist enlightenment and to evolve a way of living in a more integrated way with nature and the cosmos. You can find out more about these traditions by looking up some of the following Chinese and Japanese poets, all who have their own particular style of the kind of life and practice I outline above : Han-Shan (sometimes known as Kan-Zan), Ryokan, Basho, Issa (though those last two were more about travelling as a pilgrimage through life than about remaining in a hermitage hut). Many western poets since the early 20th century have been influenced by these poets, their writing and their ways. Arthur Waley was one of the first to popularise Chinese poems in translation. Ezra Pound wrote a small collection called Cathay (seek out his poem 'The River Merchant's Wife', a piece of extreme poignancy, beautiful in its witheld simplicity). And you'll find late 20th century American poets drawn to the Eastern poetic and contemplative traditions : Kenneth Rexroth, Philip Walen, Gary Snyder and others.

 

For me, of course, this poem works as a kind of metaphor for my own inner life. While I do not wish or attempt to 'ape the sage' this evocation of a contemplative poet reaching the last part of his life creates for me a kind of poetic image of the way I feel about myself and my life in my present situation. It serves as a kind of mask or persona for my psyche, my sense of inner self.